Date: Wed, Mar 30th, 2022

Great Falls College instructor Ruggiero's debut novel coming out

Leigh Ann Ruggiero's debut novel "Unfollowers" is coming out.

Leigh Ann Ruggiero was recently on the Great Falls College MSU campus sporting a sweatshirt with “MadHappy,” emblazoned on the front, and a grin that echoed the sentiment.

And for good reason.

The English department head at the college is about to fly back to Philadelphia for the launch of her debut novel, “Unfollowers,” on March 25.

She learned a year ago she had won the prestigious Juniper Prize in Fiction, which includes publication of her work, through the University of Massachusetts Press.

She said it has only really stopped being surreal in recent days as she plans events, such as the launch in Philly at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference March 23-26, and another event at Great Falls College on April 1.

“It has only started to feel real in the last week,” she said. “… I got my author copies, 10 copies, and I bought a bunch, like 60 with my author discount, for the event.”

The novel officially comes out on March 25, but some people already have received their copies.

“It’s not like it’s Harry Potter, and everything has to be under lock and key,” she said, with a laugh.

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 in an interview a year ago when she won the Juniper Prize. "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.

Gabriel Bump, author of “Everywhere You Don’t Belong” and judge for the Juniper Prize, wrote, “This beautiful novel sprawls across space and time, bounces between continents and decades. With a comforting hand, Ruggiero keeps us orientated and engaged. Energetic, stylistically brave, emotionally complex and gripping – ‘Unfollowers’ is a singular achievement.”

In the year since learning she won the prize and publication, she has been working with the press to prepare for publication.

 A highlight was working on the cover, a process that involved sending the publisher ideas that she liked and disliked as well as sending in sample pieces of art that she liked from Ethiopian artists since that is the main setting of the novel.

“It was really important to me to ethically represent diverse perspectives and to do that with respect,” she said, while also adding: “Everyone who has had a reaction is like, ‘Whoa, that cover.' It’s really nice. I am so glad they were able to work with an Ethiopian artist (Sara Tafere Barnes) to get that cover. It’s very pretty, and I love it.”

Ruggiero also was very pleased to receive her first professional review from the Library Journal.

The reviewer wrote, “Highly recommended for readers of stories that delve into deep waters of faith, values, and the different kinds of love.”

She said a positive review from the Library Journal is a big deal.

“Librarians read the Library Journal, and then they pick what they want to put on the shelf, so you really want a favorable Library Journal review, because that could translate to quite a few purchases,” she said.

The April 1 event at Great Falls College is in Heritage Hall from 5-7 p.m. Copies will be available to purchase at the event.

Copies also can be found at Cassiopeia Books in Great Falls and with online retailers.

To learn more about when Ruggiero learned she won the Juniper Prize, click here.

A KRTV interview with Ruggiero can be found here.

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Record Number: 778