The summer before she finished her first novel, Deb Olin Unferth cut it into tiny pieces, attached each piece to a note card, shuffled the note cards around and filed them in boxes on a table made of crates. Despite the table's collapse and subsequent rearrangement of the entire manuscript, “Vacation” was published to high acclaim by McSweeney's in 2008 and recently named the winner of the 2009 Virginia Commonwealth University's Cabell First Novelist Award.
“I just had one image in my mind and that was of someone leaving,” says Unferth, a professor of creative writing at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. “And from that I wanted the idea of leaving to be very thematic. The concept of leaving, when you don't really want to leave, or of leaving when you aren't really sure that that's the best thing to do.”
A lyrical web of vignettes, letters, emails and confessions told from multiple points of view, “Vacation” threads the themes of loss, travel, escape, revenge, abandonment, disillusionment, fathers, daughters and betrayal through the United States and Central America. Unferth's language is as surprising as her plot, which crescendos in an O. Henry ending.
The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award pays tribute to the best debut novel published during the year, and is named for James Branch Cabell, a 20th-century Richmond novelist. S
A reading and panel discussion for the 2009 VCU Cabell First Novelist award ceremony will be held Nov. 6 at 6:30 p.m. in the Richmond salons of the VCU student commons. This event is free. Visit www.firstnovelist.vcu.edu for information.