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Fairmont State alumna’s debut book makes PEN America Literary Awards Longlist

When Bonnie Proudfoot, a New York native, arrived in West Virginia in the 1980s, she was instantly drawn to the profound sense of resilience that characterized the Appalachian way of life.

“There’s a real sense of tradition and history here,” Proudfoot, a Fairmont State University alumna, said. “It’s a very special region and the people are so self-reliant. I was just enthralled by that.”

Proudfoot immediately embraced her new home among West Virginia’s hills and from that point forward, her experiences served as a springboard for what would become her debut book, “Goshen Road: A Novel,” which was published by Ohio University Press’s trade imprint, Swallow Press, in January of 2020.

A year later, the book, which details the lives of two sisters growing up and navigating adulthood in rural West Virginia through a series of fictional short stories, is a contender for PEN America’s prestigious Hemingway Award. Each year, the PEN America Literary Awards seek to honor voices in literature across genres while allocating monetary prizes to category winners.

“I’m so grateful that the award committee is taking notice of the small presses that are producing regional work,” said Proudfoot. “It’s pretty remarkable and has exceeded my wildest expectations.”

“Goshen Road: A Novel,” which also received recognition from the Women’s National Book Association last summer by landing on its 2020 Great Group Reads list, is the product of a lifetime of work; Proudfoot said it was during her time as a student at Fairmont State that she began to put her ideas for the novel on the page.

“The thought of writing about what it’s like to live in rural West Virginia really came into my head while I was at Fairmont State,” said Proudfoot. “Fairmont State was and is a fantastic institution. It really helped me find myself and find my voice as a writer, as well as a subject that was important to me to write about.”

Proudfoot continued to work on the novel off and on as she graduated from Fairmont State and went on to earn master’s degrees in English and creative writing from West Virginia University and Hollins University, respectively. When she eventually took a position as a full-time professor at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, Proudfoot said she traded making progress on her book for teaching and mentoring students.

“I got busy and said, ‘I’ll get back to this when I’m sure what direction I want it to go,’” said Proudfoot.

That time came about five years ago when Proudfoot felt inspired to revisit and revise her musings with the intention of achieving publication.

“I thought to myself, ‘I have this body of work, let me see what I think of it and if it’s worth following up on,” said Proudfoot. “I wasn’t sure how to end it and there were parts that were unresolved, so I had to make some revisions. It needed a lot of attention, so I spent another year and a half working on it. From start to finish, it was in the making for about 25 years.”

Proudfoot said it was especially important to her to portray the book’s characters and their Appalachian upbringing in a realistic light.

“I wanted to do them justice. Even though they are fictional characters, they deserved to be taken seriously,” said Proudfoot. “I didn’t want to reduce them to stereotypes or take the easy way out; rather, I tried to show that, yes, they had problems in life but that they faced them with integrity.”

For Proudfoot, who is now an online English instructor at WVU, the publication of her novel and the subsequent recognition from PEN America not only affirms her personal success as an author, but it also gives the book a useful platform.

“It contributes to the conversation about the obstacles in the region and the special kind of knowledge it takes to grow up in Appalachia,” said Proudfoot.

“Goshen Road: A Novel,” is among 10 publications in the running for the Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. The PEN Literary Award winners will be announced in February.

“Falcon graduates make their marks in different fields and in different ways,” said Mirta M. Martin, Fairmont State University President. “We are so very proud of Bonnie Proudfoot and are excited that her novel is a contender for this prestigious award. Her journey, and the journey of her novel, are testaments to her talent and determination.”

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