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Marist professor takes gold for novel at publisher's awards

By Marygrace Navarra
On September 6, 2012

  • Vaughn33Teresa

English professor Tommy Zurhellen of Marist College was recently awarded a gold medal for his novel "Nazareth, North Dakota" at the 16th annual Independent Publisher awards in New York City. At the event held on June 4, Zurhellen was awarded the gold in the Best Regional Fiction category. This year's print book entries alone were a stunning 4,813, while the regional entries totaled 1,072.

Having begun in 1996, the "IPPY" awards are meant to honor independent authors and publishers around the world. The IPPYs is the first awards program intended exclusively for independent authors and publishers. Over 2,800 IPPYs have been awarded since its launch.

"I'm so excited about Nazareth, North Dakota winning a gold medal at the IPPYs this summer!" Zurhellen said. "The actual medal is a lot heavier than I thought. The ceremony was incredible: imagine a couple hundred writers and editors from academic and small presses from around the world, all rubbing elbows. There were a good number of pretty established authors there, like Rex Pickett, who wrote the novel 'Sideways,' which was turned into that great film a few years ago. It was a festive atmosphere, for sure."

The awards were held at Providence NYC in midtown Manhattan, a place Zurhellen describes as having a lot of history itself.

"So in all I was in a dream-like state for most of the night," he said.

Zurhellen's novel is the first book of a trilogy, which describes the story of the Messiah, who is reborn in the Badlands of North Dakota beginning in the 1980s. He describes the book as an allegory but not a play-by-play retelling; he presents new-and-improved New Testament figures, like Mary Magdalene's North Dakota newcomer, Daylene Hooker.

Zurhellen, who is teaching in Florence this semester, has been teaching creative writing at Marist since 2004. Before this, he was an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama. He has been developing and publishing his writing long before his recent award.

"Ever since grade school I've always felt the need to write stories down - to craft them on paper," Zurhellen said. "It was only after I left the Navy and used the GI Bill to attend a graduate writing program, however, that I found out how much work writing can be. Work I love!"

Zurhellen earned a MFA at Alabama in 2002 and has been publishing stories and essays ever since.

"When you're a writer, sometimes you feel like you just can't stop," he said. "Which is an addiction, I guess, but probably safer than other habits."

Zurhellen has some advice for young writers:

"Get connected," Zurhellen said. "A lot of times we think of writing as a solitary act, sitting alone in front of the Mac for weeks on end, but I've found writing is easier and more meaningful when you plug into a writing community. A writer makes their craft part of their life, and that includes travel, work, Facebook, you name it. So, aspiring writers should give themselves the freedom to find connections to their writing in a lot of ways."

His sequel, "Apostle Islands," will be out this month.

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