Listen to a podcast of Stephanie Powell Watts, assistant professor of English, reading an excerpt from her Pushcart Prize-winning short story "Unassigned Territory."
Stepping inside Stephanie Powell Watts’ office on the second floor of Drown Hall, 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 next to her computer. Even a freshly opened Amazon.com box on her table is telling.
As assistant professor of English
, Watts 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 the stacks of books, the list of favorite authors and her apparent love of good fiction fail to divulge is that she is a truly accomplished author in her own right. Since September a wave of awards and recognition have rolled in for Watts in what she humbly describes as “crazy.”
Watts draws on themes of family, religion, and the South for her short stories and nonfiction essays. Drawing on her North Carolina roots, Watts says “there is really a culture that is not like anywhere else. 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.”
“A true American art form”
That ability to deftly tight-rope walk landed Watts the honor of “Best Emerging Writer” at the Southern Women Writers Conference
in September for her short story “Family Museum of Ancient Postcards.”
Judge Mindy Wilson, managing editor of The Georgia Review
, said “It didn’t take long in my reading of Stephanie Powell Watts’s short story to feel that I was in sure hands, that I would be able to sit back with this one and enjoy it for the long haul.”
“Short stories are underrated and not widely read,” says Watts of her craft. “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.”
According to Wilson, that precision is apparent in Watts’ work. She says Watts “… creates an authentic voice that establishes the narrator as both an intimate of and an outsider to the events she witnesses and the community of which she is a part.”
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.
“Winning the Pushcart Prize is an enormous national honor that places Stephanie among an elite group of American writers of fiction—including fellow Pushcart Prize winners Raymond Carver, Tim O'Brien and John Irving—at a very early stage in her career,” says colleague Elizabeth Dolan, associate professor of English.
Watts, who has been at Lehigh for four years, 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.”