The writing on the wall
How do you win an international award for a debut novel? Here's alumna Jessica Thummel's success story.
Jessica Thummel’s journey to become an internationally published novelist included an important chapter at MSU Denver.
Thummel won the prestigious 2016 Dundee International Book Prize for her debut novel, “The Cure for Lonely,” which tells the coming-of-age story of Sam, a transgender man who moves to San Francisco amid the 1980s AIDS epidemic. The prize annually recognizes talented first-time novelists and provides them with a critical pathway to the publishing industry.
As a winner, the Denver-based novelist was awarded a publishing contract with Freight Books and 5,000 British pounds. She also received an invitation to the Dundee Literary Festival in Dundee, Scotland, and a week of dedicated writing time.
“It was a book I wanted to read and one I had a hard time finding,” Thummel says of her novel. “That’s not to say there weren’t wonderful books with trans characters in the world 10 years ago when I started writing this novel, but I couldn’t find them, and I also couldn’t stop thinking about Sam.”
Thummel received her bachelor’s degree in English from MSU Denver in 2007 along with a minor in Spanish, plus a teaching licensure in secondary education. The 34-year-old says several MSU Denver English professors contributed to her education immensely, including Elsie Haley, Ph.D., whose “high expectations for work ethic and analysis set the tone” for the rest of her academic career. Thummel also earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Thummel adds that “Rebecca Gorman O’Neill is one of the most influential professors I’ve ever had” through three writing courses and a senior capstone.
“Her approach to teaching and discussion of form and other elements of strong writing really shaped how I look at storytelling,” Thummel says. “I still hear bits of wisdom she’d give when I work, my favorite of which was from her screenwriting class. It was basically, ‘start as late in the scene as you can, and leave just as quickly.’”
For her part, Gorman O’Neill says seeing Thummel triumph is a powerful reward for the MSU Denver English Department.
“When the larger literary community acknowledges what we already know – the talent of our students – it instills in us a great deal of pride, knowing that we had a little part in her great success,” Gorman O’Neill says.
Winning the prize was a dramatic shift for Thummel, who went from three published short stories to appearances on BBC television and radio in a short span.
This summer, Thummel continued working on revisions to her new novel, which is set in Denver. She also traveled to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where she hobnobbed with acclaimed authors like Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead and Roxane Gay. Of course, she also read and discussed “The Cure for Lonely.”
“I don’t think someone should ever read a book unless they’re interested in it or it’s required for a class,” Thummel says. “That said, I hope people will find something to be curious about – the voice or the story or where it’s set – and I hope, in Sam, they can find something of themselves.”