GREAT FALLS — Great Falls College MSU English Department head Leigh Ann Ruggiero recently complete her first novel, titled Unfollowers, and earned the prestigious Juniper Award for it.
The book tells the story of a young girl who moves to a new country and the struggles she faces as an outsider in a new culture and environment. The novel started out as just a paragraph for a quick daily writing exercise for Leigh Ann, that grew into her first published book.
“I had decided I was going to write a first paragraph of a story, of a book, every single day for a month and so this started as one of those paragraphs, in like 2009, so it’s been a long time,” said Ruggiero. “Of course that paragraph is nowhere in the current draft, but yeah, it’s been a long process and I think, for me, the process of writing it was a lot of my process of growing up and becoming an adult.”
Some of the scenes and subject matter from the novel popped up in Ruggiero’s writing right after she completed her graduate degree in fine arts from the University of Maryland in 2007. “I’ve been working on it for well over a decade,” she said. “I feel like I went the long way around since it was the first literary fiction novel I set out to finish. Now, I would tend to outline a manuscript before sitting down to write it, but this one was all by feel, which is why it took more than 10 years to figure out.”
Ruggiero explained the novel is about a young American girl who grows up in the mission field of rural Ethiopia and has to return to the States when she turns 18. “She doesn’t feel at home in America, so it’s about her trying to find her way home, back to Ethiopia,” she said. “Of course, along the way, she starts to struggle with what evangelicalism is, what her faith is, whether or not God exists.”
In 2019, Leigh Ann was shortlisted as a finalist for the Great Novel Contest by the Ohio Writers Association. That led to her submitting her work to the Juniper Literary Prize in Fiction, by the University of Massachusetts Press.
Every year for the Juniper Literary Prize Series, the University of Massachusetts selects two winners in poetry, two in fiction, and one in creative non-fiction. The awardees each receive a $1,000 prize and a publication contract with the University of Massachusetts Press.
Leigh Ann says the day she found out she had won the literary award for her novel, she had finally completed a dream she’s had her whole life.
“Yeah, it definitely took me some time to be like, ‘Wow, this is real,’ and then, yeah, the first thought I really had was, 'Oh, I’ve really wanted this since I was 10.’ You know, being published is something, and of course, it’s not going to happen for a year, but being published is something that I have actually really wanted since I was 10 and it was very surreal to have that moment and to just be like, ‘Wow, this is a thing, this is like a milestone’,” said Ruggiero.
Leigh Ann’s novel, Unfollowers, will be published and released for sale in spring 2022.