By Erin Clossey
Ciera Burch, MFA ’20 and Madeline Sneed, MFA ’20 met during their first semester in the Creative Writing graduate program, becoming friends in Professor Steve Yarbrough’s class.
Two-and-a-half years later, Burch and Sneed are once again sharing a new experience – this time as novelists with book deals with major publishers.
Less than a year out of Emerson, Burch sold her debut young adult novel, The Inevitability of Home, to Farrar, Straus and Giroux in a six-figure preempt, and Sneed sold her first novel, The Light of West Texas, to Graydon House, an imprint of HarperCollins.
“I was expecting at least three months to hear back from editors. That’s what I read on the Internet,” said Sneed, who submitted her manuscript to publishers the first week of February 2021. “When [my agent] called me in February, I was like, what? I know that I worked for this, but I didn’t expect it to happen this quickly.”
Burch said she’s always been drawn to write for young audiences.
“That’s when you get the most interested in reading and you can read so many things,” Burch said. “When you’re a teen — everything about their lives is so much more complicated.”
As a teen, Burch was a fan of YA fantasy authors Laini Taylor, Holly Black, and the Twilight series. But although the late-2000s/early-2010s was a “boom time” for YA fiction, there were notably few stories written from the point of view of a girl of color like her. Those who were writing those stories weren’t getting the same publicity and promotion as their white counterparts, she said.
The options and opportunities are better now, Burch said, driven by greater demand from audiences of color as well as publishers.
“I hope it’s not just a diversity trend because of recent events, but I think people are eager and excited to read themselves in these books,” Burch said. “But I also think people of color should be able to write about anything, and not just trauma, which seem to get the most traction.”
Burch’s novel is about a Black girl who meets her estranged dying grandmother over a hot summer in Maryland. She encounters a girl who wants to be more than friends, family secrets, and ancestral ghosts.
The spirit world is an element that flows throughout Black literature, from Toni Morrison to Jesmyn Ward. And Burch is currently at work on a middle-grade novel about spirits in a haunted house trying to connect with a little girl who crosses their path.
“[There’s a] very inherent connection to the ancestors … and I knew I wanted to capture that in this small, rural town in Maryland that used to be a free town,” Burch said, referring to San Domingo, a village outside Mardela Springs that was settled by free Black people prior to the Civil War, and the setting for her novel. Burch’s grandmother lived there, and Burch would visit her from New Jersey during sweltering summers like the one in the book.
The Inevitability of Home is Burch’s first novel, but Bostonians may be familiar with her short story, “Y’vonne,” which was selected as the Boston Book Festival’s “One City, One Story” selection in 2019. The story, also about the protagonist’s relationship with her grandmother, explores family dynamics across generations.
Both stories were written shortly after Burch’s grandmother died abruptly following a short battle with cancer, and both were written while she was a student at Emerson. The Inevitability of Home was Burch’s MFA thesis, and several faculty members had a hand in polishing it.
“Kim McLarin, she helped me so much with my first couple of chapters in my novel writing class,” Burch said. “And then Steve [Yarbrough, her thesis reader] and Jabari [Asim, her thesis advisor] were so helpful in … creating characters and setting.”
Sneed’s novel, The Light of West Texas, set in a fictional “Steinbeckian” town, explores the relationship between a father and daughter after the daughter comes out as a lesbian, and what it means to love someone when your culture and religious tradition are less than accepting of who they are.
She wrote the book, also her MFA thesis, as she was grappling with her own “big existential questions” and in the process of coming out to her own Texas family.
“I grew up in the Southern Baptist religion, so [the book] is loosely based on just the feeling of being ostracized by the church, but also being a spiritual person, how do I reconcile this, where do I land?” Sneed recalled.
Though some of her personal questions informed the novel, Sneed is quick to point out that the father in the book is not based on her own father – though her dad, a West Texas native, did help his Houstonian daughter get the nuances of her setting right.
“He was like, ‘You can’t call it an oil pump, it’s an oil derrick,’” she said.
And this being a story set in Texas, it needed a subplot centered on high school football.
“I am obsessed with football, unfortunately. I just can’t shake it because if where I grew up,” Sneed said.
A Baylor University graduate, Sneed said she knew she needed an MFA program if she was going to “tap into something bigger and more refined” in her writing. She said Emerson delivered everything she was looking for: mentorship, friendship, and academics.
“The literature classes at Emerson really blew my mind and expanded my thinking,” she said.
After working and reworking the manuscript with her thesis advisor, Associate Professor Mako Yoshikawa (“She was so helpful in this process and she’s seen so many drafts of this, it wouldn’t be where it is today without her help.”), Sneed defended her thesis in winter 2019 and started querying agents in March 2020, getting a “bajillion” rejections, but several encouraging notes for rewrites.
She landed an agent last fall, sent the manuscript to publishers in February and by the end of the month, she was a (soon-to-be) published novelist.
While she works on yet more revisions to The Light of West Texas, Sneed has been writing a couple of short stories, including one about a lesbian couple who have to play on a softball team together after they’ve broken up, and a new novel focused on female friendship.
“The Light of West Texas takes place across a year, this is across a lifetime, which is fun.”