Leigh Ann Ruggiero won her spot as a finalist in The Great Novel Contest 2019 for her fantastic manuscript, Unfollowers.
Unfollowers follows Barb Matheson, who doesn’t fit in: not on the Standing Rock Reservation where her mother was born; not on the Ethiopian mission where she grew up; not at the Midwestern college where she studies literature; and not at the church in Bethel, Pennsylvania, where her husband preaches. While celebrating her fifth anniversary, she stumbles upon Declan, her first love, the one who whispered his dark secret into her ear so many years ago. And now he’s invited her and her husband to visit Ethiopia as missionaries.
Unfollowers is a tale of religious angst, unrequited love, and the upheaval of racial and economic privilege.
Leigh Ann studied under Maud Casey at the University of Maryland where earned an MFA in fiction. She obtained her BA in English from Wheaton College, which is “best known as the school from which Billy Graham graduated and Wes Craven dropped out.”
Now she teaches college courses herself as a professor of literature and writing at a school “smack in the middle of Montana.” Most days, she can be found musing on story structure, music theory, and a variety of fandoms of which she is “alternately proud and embarrassed to be a member.” Whenever she’s not buckling down on grading “which is awful” or writing “which is wonderful,” she often watches theater with her partner.
To Leigh Ann, her partner “is by far the most important cheerleader, not to mention person, in my life.” Several important phrases and terms made it into Unfollowers “only at [my partner’s] suggestion.” Leigh Ann’s parents, friends, and colleagues also support her, sometimes in person and other times through online group chats.
As a writing professor, she has some substantial advice to give for anyone who is struggling to finish a writing project. “You have to give yourself time,” she says. “Time is the difference between half-baked writing and writing from which the toothpick comes out clean.”
Leigh Ann grew up reading adventure books, especially the works of Lloyd Alexander. Now she finds inspiration in Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Foer, Chelsey Johnson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Rainbow Rowell. She also loves the poetry of Tommy Pico and graphic novels by Craig Thompson.
For anyone interested in studying the craft of writing, she recommends several books. For short stories, read the Complete Stories collection of Flannery O’Connor and Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories. For novels, look at the works of Thomas Hardy, especially his underrated book Woodlanders. Regardless of format, Leigh Ann believes everyone should read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is an “exquisitely human” book.
Leigh Ann discovered The Great Novel Contest 2019 through Submittable, a useful website for writers that collates publishing opportunities and organizes them by deadline. After growing up near the Ohio border in Pennsylvania, Leigh Ann had a sense of nostalgia as she looked into the contest.
Leigh Ann believes that ideal publishing involves an honest collaboration between the writer and publisher, and she is happy to see that The Great Novel Contest is “interested in promoting writers, rather than just pitting them against each other.” Leigh Ann won’t give up until she finds the right home for Unfollowers, whether it passes through the hands of an agent or goes straight to a publisher.
Be on the lookout for Unfollowers and more stories by Leigh Ann in the future.
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