Novelist visits Lyon College as Heasley Prize winner

Write a monster, not a grape.

This is the advice Tony Earley gives his creative writing students at Vanderbilt University, which he passed on to students at Lyon College during a public interview session April 22.

“Imagine how gross it would feel to step on a grape barefooted,” Earley said. “That’s why I tell my students to write a monster story, not one that’s squishy like a grape.”

Earley is the 2014 recipient of the Leila Lenore Heasley Prize created by Dr. Martha Heasley Cox, an alumna of Lyon College and Professor Emerita of San Jose State University, to honor the memory of her sister, who was also an alumna. The award was endowed to recognize the best living writers in the country and also to bring those writers to Batesville. The award is given to a "distinguished representative of American and international letters." Committee members select winners from a list of nominated contemporary authors. Previous winners are Rosellen Brown, Donald Harington, Fred Chappell, William Least-Heat Moon, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, Jill McCorkle, Sena Jeter Naslund, Lee Smith, Tim Gautreaux, Bret Lott, Kent Haruf, Lewis Nordan, Richard Bausch, Ron Rash, Jayne Anne Phillips, William Gay, and Geoffrey Douglas. 

Earley, who grew up in rural North Carolina, said he knew from the time he was 7 years old that he wanted to be a writer. He studied English at Warren Wilson College and earned his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Alabama. Earley said he built a strong foundation to begin publishing his writing during his four years as a reporter.

“I was writing narratives every single day,” Earley said, which helped him master his craft.

Among Earley’s publications are two novels and two collections of short stories. Earley’s short stories landed him on Granta’s list of the “20 Best Young American Novelists” and he has been included in the Best American Short Stories anthology.

Earley encouraged students that wanted to be writers to allow ample time to really learn how to write well.

“Young writers are often impatient. Good writers get published. Publication is not some secret society that you have to have the code to. Publishers are actively looking for something to publish. Learn to write. It’s not unusual to take 10 years learning the craft. Don’t get discouraged. It takes time,” he said.