Great Falls College faculty member's debut novel earns Juniper Prize
Great Falls College English department head Leigh Ann Ruggiero works in the Weaver Library at the college. Her debut novel, "Unfollowers," won the Juniper Prize for Fiction and will be published in 2022.
GREAT FALLS, Mont. – When Great Falls College MSU English department head Leigh Ann Ruggiero learned her novel, "Unfollowers," had won the prestigious Juniper Prize in Fiction and publication by the University of Massachusetts Press, her partner, Brent McCafferty, had just gone for a walk.
"I was just like, 'Can I see Brent? Can I see Brent?" she said, remembering that overpowering feeling of wanting to share the news and looking outside in vain. "I guess I can't."
So, Ruggiero did the next best thing and called her parents back home in Pennsylvania.
"My mom screamed," Ruggiero said. "She screamed when I said it, and then she said, 'Now you have to repeat what you said because I screamed over it.' It was pretty cute."
"That first thought was, 'I've wanted this since I was 10,'" she said. "It was that moment where you realize this is literally a dream come true."
It's been a long time coming.
Some of the scenes and subject matter from the novel popped up in Ruggiero's writing right after she completed her master's of fine arts degree 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 has two summaries of the plot of "Unfollowers."
"I like to say it's about spiritual and cultural displacement, which is a really heady description, so I follow it up with a more accessible description," she said before giving a more basic summary of the plot. 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."
"Unfollowers," as the title suggests, is critical of the evangelical church, but Ruggiero sees the novel not as dismissive but as inquisitive. "I try to avoid any easy answers," she said.
About two years ago, Ruggiero finally felt comfortable sending out "Unfollowers," to contests and publishers.
In 2019, she was shortlisted as a finalist for the Great Novel Contest by the Ohio Writers' Association. As part of being named a finalist, Ruggiero was given a publication consultation that cemented in her mind that a university press was the right place for her work.
And that led her to submitting to the Juniper Prize.
When McCafferty returned home from the walk on Ruggiero's big day, McCafferty's response was immediate: "That's one of the good ones."
"And I'm like, "I know it's one of the good ones," she said. "'That's why it's so crazy.'"
Ruggiero and McCafferty moved to Great Falls in December, and she soon began working at Great Falls College as an adjunct instructor before becoming a full-time instructor in 2013.
McCafferty, who met Ruggiero when getting a master's in poetry at Maryland, is a writing tutor in Great Falls College's Academic Success Center.
"Brent is my ideal reader," she said. "I feel very lucky that I can say that with complete confidence."
McCafferty read numerous drafts of Ruggiero's work.
"Brent definitely sees things I don't see," she said. "I work very hard at what I do, but poetry is about word choice and rhythm."
She also credited current and former English faculty members at Great Falls College, including Jana Parsons, Mandy Knight Wright and Brie Menut, with support.
The Juniper Literary Prize Series takes its name from Fort Juniper, the house that the poet Robert Francis (1901–1987) built by hand in the woods in western Massachusetts, the contest's website said.
"Leigh Ann is a great writing instructor because she practices the craft herself," said Dr. Leanne Frost, executive director of instruction at the college. "We have very talented faculty, staff and students, and it's great to see Leigh Ann earn this award."
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