VCU Cabell First Novelist Award honors Angela Flournoy for “The Turner House”

“The Turner House” is a National Book Award Finalist.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award honored author Angela Flournoy for her book “The Turner House,” on Nov. 17.

Now in its 15th year, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award recognizes an author for significant literary achievement from a pool of more than a hundred who have debuted their first book in the preceding year.

“When we started (the First Novelist Award) we had this idea that our students would benefit from meeting published writers but also learn how it works with agents and editors,” said program founder and VCU English professor Tom De Haven.

Last week, Flournoy was recognized at a panel discussion that explored her writing and publishing processes alongside her agent Ellen Levine and editor Jenna Johnson.

“We received close to 150 submissions,” said committee coordinator and MFA student Cade Varnado. “We receive many well written and imaginative works of fiction each year. It’s rare to chance upon a novel that is unpredictable. Enter ‘Turner House.’”

“The Turner House” is set in the city of Detroit, on the now-fictional Yammy St. The story depicts the difficult decisions Viola and Francis Turner and their 13 children face when a house that has been in their family for generations no longer feels livable.

“I really just wanted to write a story about a family with a particular history,” Flournoy said. “Realistically depicting the beliefs of the characters in the book.”  

According to Flournoy, she started writing the book during an experimental exercise while enrolled at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Before that point, she said she’d been writing short stories in first person narrative voice, mostly about her own life.

“They weren’t very good,” Flourney said. “It’s hard to see yourself.”


Levine, her agent, stopped by the workshop to look at the talent, and said she was immediately impressed with the first two chapters of Flourney’s book.

So right away I knew there was something special here,” Levine said. “So much energy in the book. I got caught up right away.”

After the workshop concluded, Flourney said she moved to Washington D.C. where she was teaching at community colleges and waiting tables. She said she wrote when she could, sometimes in notebooks on planes, trains and between shifts.

“I came from a loud talkative family,” Flourney said. “I’ve been delighted in generational changes in speech patterns and colloquialisms. Anytime the characters are having a conversation I’m having fun.”

Flourney, who is not a Detroit native, said she threw herself into researching the city by virtually treking through the streets with Google Street View, driving rental cars through the city and pouring over urban planning histories.

She said she stumbled upon Yammy St., which no longer exists, but had in the early 20th century been one of the first stopping points for black families moving North.

Oh yeah, I can make this up,” Flourney said. “So I started researching what kind of businesses might’ve been there.”

Johnson, Flourney’s editor, said there are many ways to get books to readers, but the first step is to identify what kind of reader the book will appeal to and then make sure they find out about it.

“One of the reasons you’re so excited to read a first-time novelist is you love to be the first person to talk about a book, and imagine the future together,” Johnson said. “You’re at the ground level to build something together.”

Recipients of The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award are awarded a $5,000 prize, and they and their guest speakers are compensated for travel expenses and their stay in Richmond for the event.

Click here to view previous winners or submit a novel.


Jesse Adcock. Photo by Julie TrippJesse Adcock

Jesse is a junior print journalism major and Arabic and Middle Eastern culture minor. He has walked in the valley with no water and bitten the heads off of snakes.

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