When Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, MFA ’09, moved to Louisiana in 2003 to work with a firm that defended accused criminals on Death Row, she thought that was what she wanted to do for a living. She soon found out she was wrong.
Growing up in a family of lawyers, she attended Harvard Law School. She was strongly opposed to the death penalty, and was considering a career defending those on Death Row. But after researching a case in defense of a pedophile, she found herself in a moral quandary.
Marzano-Lesnevich was sexually abused as child, and as she put it, this defendant was “…the worst of the worst. It was the ultimate test of my commitment [against the death penalty].”
“I knew she had ‘it’ right off the bat. After she wrote about her time in Louisiana, I told her, ‘This is great material, you should pursue this.”
Fast–forward to the present: Marzano-Lesnevich is one of six emerging women writers singled out for their excellence by the Rona Jaffe Foundation. She will receive a Rona Jaffe Award for $25,000 at a private ceremony on Thursday, September 23, in New York City. She is working on a book that will be titled Any One of Us. It is a personal narrative that combines memoir with an inquiry into a murder and the murderer’s past.
After leaving behind Louisiana—and her dream of practicing law—she thought about changing her career path. “I considered becoming an academic writer and writing about the death penalty, but secretly I always wanted to be a fiction writer.”
Marzano-Lesnevich took a few fiction classes at Harvard before graduating with her JD in 2003. She was then forced to take a year off while she had jaw surgery, and in that time, she did some soul searching. The following year, she applied to Emerson’s MFA program in Creative Writing.
Her path changed yet again when she took a few nonfiction workshops.
“I knew she had ‘it’ right off the bat,” says Writing, Literature and Publishing Associate Professor Douglas Whynott, who was her thesis advisor. “After she wrote about her time in Louisiana, I told her, ‘This is great material, you should pursue this.’”
She took a semester off and moved back to Louisiana. “I told myself that it was to conduct research, but when I got there, I realized it was to figure out if I wanted to go through with it emotionally.”
“It was definitely hard at times,” she admits. “In the middle of the project, I started writing humor pieces; I needed to laugh.” One of those pieces, “I'm OK, You're Country,” about her newfound love of country music, was published in the Weekly Dig.
Now in her fourth year engaging with the material, she says, “it’s just the story I’m telling.”
When she received the news that she had been selected for the Rona Jaffe Award, she was surprised. “The Foundation left me a voicemail and the person sounded kind of sad, so when I called back I was preparing myself to be rejected. When they told me I was one of the winners, I was shocked. I actually started shaking.”
“I am incredibly proud of her…” says Whynott, “…for her dedication and persistence. Part of the reward of teaching is meeting people like Alexandria who are exceptional, talented, smart, and dedicated.”
“The faculty at Emerson are so responsive and inspiring,” says Marzano-Lenevich. “The program teaches the business side of things as well, which has been so helpful.”
The award money will make it possible for her to finish the book. “I have a cubicle space in the Writer’s Room in Boston and I’m going to treat it like my full-time job; I’m going to write the book.”
Whynott’s advice to Marzano-Lesnevich: “Enjoy the ride.”
The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards are given to writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Since the program began in 1995, the Foundation has awarded more than $1 million to women writers.