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John Englehardt wins the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for ‘Bloomland’

John Englehardt's debut novel tells the aftermath story of a shooting at a fictional southern university.
john englehardt and the book cover for bloomland

John Englehardt has won the 2020 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, which honors an outstanding debut novel published during the preceding calendar year. His winning book, “Bloomland,” published by Dzanc Books, deftly tells the aftermath story of a shooting at a fictional southern university, following three characters and the larger community over two decades, and is told in a provocative, implicating second-person style point of view.

Englehardt will receive the award during a public virtual event Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. that will involve a moderated discussion and Q&A. Details of the event and additional materials will be made available at the First Novelist Award event page.

Englehardt was one of three finalists for the prize, now in its 19th year. The other finalists were Kiley Reid for “Such a Fun Age” and Ocean Vuong for “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.”

According to the publisher’s official synopsis of “Bloomland”:

“Bloomland” opens during finals week at a fictional southern university, when a student walks into the library with his roommate’s semi-automatic rifle and opens fire.

In this richly textured debut, John Englehardt explores how the origin and aftermath of the shooting impacts the lives of three characters: a disillusioned student, a grieving professor, and a young man whose valuation of fear and disconnection funnels him into the role of the aggressor. As the community wrestles with the fallout, “Bloomland” interrogates social and cultural dysfunction in a nation where mass violence has become all too familiar.

Profound and deeply nuanced, “Bloomland” is a dazzling debut that walks in step with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and the novels of Denis Johnson, Rachel Kushner and Tom McAllister.

Winner of the 2018 Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction and named an Indie Next Pick by the American Booksellers Association, “Bloomland” has received critical acclaim and been called a “Best of 2019” book by Kirkus Reviews and Electric Literature, among other places.

World Literature Today called the novel “a grim depiction of gun culture in the Bible Belt from a poignant and humanist perspective.” Kirkus Reviews praised the novel as a “brilliant and insanely brave debut […] a culturally diagnostic achievement.” And The Washington Post praised the novel’s “existential command of the second-person perspective.”

Englehardt is a writer and educator from the Pacific Northwest. He holds an M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas, and currently teaches writing classes at Hugo House. His work has recently appeared in The Southern Review, Entropy and Vol.1 Brooklyn. He lives in Seattle with his wife and dog.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award celebrates the VCU M.F.A. in Creative Writing program’s yearlong novel workshop, the first in the nation and one of the few still in existence. The winning author receives a $5,000 prize. Travel expenses and lodging are also provided for the author and two additional panelists, most often the agent and editor of the winning book, who will attend an evening of events that focus on the creation, publication and promotion of the winning novel.

Sponsors include the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, VCU Libraries, the VCU Department of English, Barnes & Noble @ VCU and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

Over 165 novels were submitted for this year’s prize. A universitywide panel of readers in addition to Richmond community members reduced the submissions to a top 20 longlist. From there, the longlist was considered by the M.F.A. in Creative Writing students, who further narrowed the submissions from a top 10 shortlist to three finalists. The final round of judging included the M.F.A. students, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Committee and the previous year’s winner.

Previous winners of the award include Ling Ma for “Severance,” Hernán Diaz for “In the Distance,” Jade Change for “The Wangs vs. the World,” and Angela Flournoy for “The Turner House.” View a full list of winners.

The 2021 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is soon to announce a “call for submissions” for debut novels published in 2020, with a final submission deadline of Dec. 30. For more information, visit the First Novelist Award website.

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