Stepping inside Stephanie Powell Watts’s office, one has little trouble deciphering not only her profession, but her passion. Floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with books and a stack of thumbed-through paperbacks rests handily next to her computer.
Watts, assistant professor of English, eagerly rattles off the names of her favorite authors – John Updike, Edward Jones, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Gayle Jones – and beams when describing their gift as writers. She likes Jones for her strong narrative voice and intimacy with the characters. Morrison’s Song of Solomon, she says, is “one of those books you would’ve given anything to write.”
But what these things fail to divulge is that she is a truly accomplished author in her own right. In the last year a wave of awards and recognition have rolled in for Watts in what she humbly describes as “crazy.”
Drawing on her North Carolina roots, Watts covers themes of family, religion, and the South for her short stories and nonfiction essays. She says “there’s something really fascinating about the place and the tight-rope walking you have to do. There are lots of assumptions people make, even in the classroom, about southerners and southern experiences.”
Drawing on her North Carolina roots, Watts covers themes of family, religion, and the South for her short stories and nonfiction essays.
That ability to deftly tight-rope walk landed Watts the honor of “Best Emerging Writer” at the Southern Women Writers Conference last year for her short story “Family Museum of Ancient Postcards.” “Short stories are underrated and not widely read,” says Watts. “But the tightness and precision is a real gift. Short stories give you the enormity of a person’s life in a few pages. It’s a true American art form.”
Another short story, “Unassigned Territory” received a flurry of interest from notable publications. It was selected for publication in the Oxford American’s Winter Reading Issue in 2006. The story, which follows two Jehovah’s Witnesses through North Carolina in search of converts, was also named a 2007 Distinguished Story in Best American Short Stories, edited by Stephen King, and was included in New Stories from the South: Best of 2007, selected by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Jones.
The accolades continued when “Unassigned Territory” went on to receive the prestigious 2007 Pushcart Prize, one of the most honored literary projects in America. With this, Watts, still early in her career, joined an elite group of American fiction writers and fellow Pushcart Prize winners such as Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien and John Irving.
Watts recently completed her biggest composition to date – a novel – which she is looking to publish. “It’s bigger than I really realized,” said Watts on completing the novel Possessing Hours. “Writing a short story and writing a novel are similar movements, but it’s not like adding water to make it bigger.”