English Professor wins grant to write novel

Assistant Professor of English Nathan Oates, Ph.D., was awarded a grant by the Elizabeth George foundation last month to help fund his upcoming novel, tentatively titled The Free Country.

Oates, who teaches creative writing and was instrumental in establishing Seton Hall’s Master in English, writes novels which explore the American identity of United States citizens while abroad. The Free Country tells the story of an American aid worker in a fictional, post-civil war country in Central America. Oates says his fictional country is based on the Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The novel will follow the experiences of an aid worker in a rural, mountain town working to establish a women’s community center, Oates said. As a Canadian company begins constructing a mine nearby, political tensions arise and violence between the civil war factions of country begins to reemerge. The American aid worker is torn. She feels connected to the people of the mountain town whom she serves, yet feels disconnected and distant from them due to the political pressures and privileges conferred by her American identity in a developing country.

The grant, according to Oates, will allow him to spend his upcoming summer researching post-civil war and revolution life in Guatemala.

The Elizabeth George Foundation provides grants to emerging playwrights, short story writers, poets and unpublished novelists, enabling them to live and work for a period of time as a writer,  according to the foundation’s website. The foundation was established by bestselling mystery novelist Elizabeth George who, after achieving success as a novelist, was determined to give back to writer’s world and help aspiring, unpublished writers have the opportunity to achieve success.

Oates encourages students who aspire to be novelists to not become discouraged by the novel writing process.

“The transition from short stories to the novel was harder than I anticipated,” he said. “The challenge is in building the narrative structure so that it maintains interest both in the immediate scene, and over the longer haul. Short stories are great because they have bursts of action that resolve themselves. Novels can’t be strings of short stories; the need a larger architectural structure that include a series of mysterious incidents that build toward a single, major incident.”

Aspiring novelists should investigate the structure of the novel, Oates said. “While the short story can teach an aspiring novelist many useful elements of prose fiction – from the importance of the sentence, to how to write convincing dialogue – the novel is a different form altogether. One needs to investigate the structure of the novel, by reading as many novels as one can, in order to be successful.”

In order to write The Free Country, Oates read every novel on Americans abroad he could find, as well as any novel by Latin American novelists whose works have been translated into English.

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