Monday, March 31, 2008

Little Heroes: Stephanie Soileau

Not so long ago, Stephanie Soileau, AB’98, was beginning to wonder if she should give up on a career in writing.

Soileau, whose path led her from Cajun roots in southern Louisiana to the University of Chicago, and later to the prestigious Iowa Creative Writer’s Workshop, was teaching classes at multiple colleges in Chicago and trying to write a novel in the crannies of her spare time. It was a losing battle. Eventually Soileau decided to apply to graduate schools in English and considered going back to school for a teaching certificate. The story she wanted to tell—of Louisiana fishing communities watching their way of life vanish along with the ground under their feet—would have to wait.

Then one day last March came a surprise as out of the blue as the cows raining down from the sky in her 2005 story “The Boucherie.”

“I was grading a stack of composition papers— like 50 composition papers—at Truman College in my office,” Soileau recalls. “I got an e-mail and read it five times before I really started to believe.” She had been selected from more than 1,400 applicants as one of ten Wallace Stegner Fellows chosen each year. The fellowship provides two years’ residence at the Stanford Creative Writing Program and an annual living stipend.

Suddenly the novel came off hold. The fishermen she had interviewed the summer before in the southern coastal areas hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, the stories she had unearthed about a mythic 1893 storm, the people who survived the flood in a boat moored to a treetop, eating oranges floating on the water—all of it came out of waiting.

By the end of her two years, Soileau hopes to have enough of her novel done to attract a publisher. Like most of her fiction, it will be set in the South. Although she considers herself a southern writer, and in 2005 “The Boucherie” anchored the Best of the South collection of short stories, her ambition is to transcend regional literature.

“Any time you write about the south and some particular ethnic group, the story is almost certainly going to be overwhelmed by a sense of place, and it becomes about the place rather than a universal story,” she explains. “I think what I’d like to do based on my experience is write a story that uses the sort of archetypes that I saw in my Cajun heritage, the sorts of characters I saw, but to make them seem more universal.”

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