Sisel Gelman Montero ’23 was among the more than 70 novelists and memoirists sitting in the Newark Public Library on Sunday, October 30, listening to sound of her own heart pounding in her chest and wondering if the guy next to her could hear it.
Montero, a Creative Writing major, was in New Jersey filming the pilot for America’s Next Great Author, a reality competition show “for writers by writers,” in the vein of The Great British Baking Show. She was one of more than 800 authors to have applied, and was now waiting to hear if she’d advance to the next stage.
Then America’s Next Great Author host and bestselling author Kwame Alexander called her name.
“As soon as Kwame said ‘from Mexico City…’ I began shaking because I. Had. Been. Chosen,” said Montero. “Out of 800-plus applicants, I was one of the 20 finalists that would pitch their novel. I was in the top 2.5 percent. I didn’t stop shaking until an hour afterwards.”
During the event, Montero connected with Kevin Milton ’18. The two didn’t realize at the time that they were both Emersonians.
Milton pitched his story, a memoir he’s been working on for six years, and ended up tying for runner-up during the competition.
“I feel like a winner,” said Milton, who submitted his application for the show one hour before the deadline. “I got to network with so many beautiful writers, got access to amazing, accomplished industry professionals, and most importantly reinforced the fact that my worth can only be dictated by me, nothing or no one else.”
Milton says he is still riding high from the event, which he called “magical.”
“My feedback from the judges was ‘Kevin, you’re a star. You are going places,'” said Milton. “So while I didn’t come in first, I definitely set myself up for a path that I am sure will reap ample rewards in due time.”
Montero describes her novel, Lovers Gone, as a “deconstructed Bildungsroman about immigration” that will appeal to fans of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Yoheved (Eve, for short) moves to a small town in Alaska to find her purpose, and also finds Finn, the perfect man for her – apart from the fact that he wants to settle down and she’s chasing her next adventure.
“Through this whirlwind romance, she must face the failures of her past relationships, in addition to the generational trauma of living with her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor and political refugee. She must learn to break the cycle of being uprooted and alien.”
You won’t get to see Montero or Milton pitch their books to the panel of judges (bestselling author Jason Reynolds, broadcast news reporter/host Angie Goff, and playwright/performer Marga Gomez). The pilot will be used to shop the show to networks; if it’s picked up, the producers will cast a new season.
But Montero described her experience on the pilot as a “rush of emotions” that was valuable in and of itself.
“The career I’ve chosen is typically a lonesome one – until one actively chooses to build community,” Montero said. “I love learning about their writing journey and seek guidance from their wisdom. I look forward to where all these wonderful people will be a year, or a decade, from now.”
Daryl Paranada contributed to this story. It has been updated to include Kevin Milton.