Creative Writing Student ‘Lives for a Beautiful Sentence’

Emily Temple headshot

Emily Temple has published articles and short stories.

When Emily Temple was a young girl, she rewrote the Disney version of “Aladdin,” giving Princess Jasmine her freedom. In Temple’s story, Jasmine runs away with the tiger, saying goodbye to her father and Aladdin.

Temple kept writing as she grew up and went off to college. She recently was awarded the $10,000 Henfield Prize – given annually to a University of Virginia graduate student in the English department’s Creative Writing Program – for her short story, “My Past and Future Selves Wait Quietly on the Stairs.”

Her path to becoming a writer began with growing up “in a house full of books,” she said, and that setting nurtured her love of the written word. Her parents pursued their love of literature before both attended law school; her father studied with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder.

Aspects of girlhood and magical or surreal moments recur in her fiction, but if you Google her name, you will find a young adult fantasy, “Daniel Sage and the False Dragon,” that is not written by U.Va.’s Temple, even though the author’s name is the same. The name of a Japanese clothing line, “Emily Temple Cute,” might also pop up, and that’s not the graduate student either.

The writer of articles and reviews on Flavorwire, however, is the same person who won the Henfield Prize, with some of these columns syndicated by The Atlantic magazine. Temple moved to New York City in 2009 and became the literary editor of Flavorwire, a culture and media website, not long after graduating from Middlebury College. She still free-lances for other online publications, including NYLON and Refinery29.

Temple said despite having a good job, the idea of getting a creative writing degree lingered in the back of her mind. Plus, she was ready to leave the city. The sense of community in U.Va.’s program was just what she was looking for, she said, and she made the move to Charlottesville in  2013.

“I’ve had the support to take myself seriously as a writer,” said Temple, whose story, “Olive,” recently came out in The Fairy Tale Review. She also has fiction forthcoming in the Indiana Review and Sycamore Review.

Temple submitted a draft of a novel for her master’s thesis, about a group of teenage girls at a Buddhist meditation center.

English professor Jane Alison, who has taught Temple and was her thesis adviser this year, encouraged her to work on a novel and praised “the gorgeous texture of her language.”

“Her writing is, line by line, sensual, precise and surprising, and on a higher level, her stories sail brilliantly from the ordinary to the magic-sublime: a curious old woman in love with an orchid spies on young boys through a hole in her fence; a girl creates a clay doll of herself that assumes monstrous sexual properties; a host of teenage girls test each other’s powers and reach eerie ecstatic release through levitation at a mountaintop retreat,” Alison wrote. “Playing with both the magical-real and dark psycho-sexual tensions, Emily’s fiction is rooted in the rich loam of folktale, yet is unmistakably modern and tartly fresh.”

This kind of fiction is often called “fabulist,” Temple said. “It’s what comes out when I sit down. It has a surreal sentiment. You’re getting at something real without being limited to the rules of the phenomenal world.”

But more than crafting a plot, “I live for a beautiful sentence,” she said, adding that she likes to employ the juxtaposition of words and images to create a certain feeling, similar to the ways music can create feelings.

Temple will stay at U.Va. another year and teach a composition course in the English department with the theme, “Girl Warriors.” This summer, she’ll also work with English professor Andrew Stauffer’s “Book Traces” project, looking for interesting marginalia in old books on Alderman Library’s shelves.

The Henfield Prize will provide a financial cushion and give her time to revise her novel, she said.

Each year, a different, outside judge reads the U.Va. M.F.A. students’ submitted stories for the competition.

Mary Kay Zuravaleff, author of the novels “Man Alive!”, “The Bowl is Already Broken” and “The Frequency of Souls,” judged this year’s submissions. Co-founder of D.C. Women Writers, she has taught creative writing at Johns Hopkins, George Mason and American universities and serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

Zuravaleff also chose student Alex Slotnick’s story, “Sangfroid in San Francisco,” for honorable mention.

“As has become the standard in our Henfield competition, the quality and strength of the entire packet of entries that we sent to Mary Kay was exceptional,” director Christopher Tilghman wrote to the students in the program. “You make us proud.”

The Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation endowed U.Va.’s Creative Writing Program and similar programs at four other universities with prize funding in 2011.

Excerpt from Temple’s “My Past and Future Selves Wait Quietly on the Stairs”

I had walked by the house at least once every day since, trying to get up the courage to ring the bell.

Well, and now I had. I stepped through the door and was assaulted by a swirl of scents that pulled at the back of my throat like a swallowed lure. I reached out for something to steady myself. I could smell my mother’s cooking, always too much garlic. I could smell the perfume I had worn in high school, and the one I’d worn in college, and from somewhere towards the back of the house, the lingering taste-smell of the time when I hadn’t worn perfume, or deodorant, or washed my hair for months. I could smell the house I grew up in, and the room in which I’d lost my virginity, and the plasticky stench of my first pair of grown-up shoes. But among all these nostalgic aromas drifted new odors, smells I had never smelt, and these were almost as tantalizing. I was sure my mother had to be in here. She would tell me about the asbestos, and about the cancer, and about my husband.

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