U.Va. Grad Student's Focus on Science Fiction Author Leads to Book-Collecting Prize

April 12, 2012

A doctoral student's dogged efforts to find and preserve the works of an obscure science fiction writer helped him take the top prize in the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia's 49th Book Collecting Contest.

Andrew Ferguson, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in English in U.Va.'s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, took first place for his entry, "The Bibliographic Puzzle of R.A. Lafferty."

"He's a writer who has such a distinctive voice," Ferguson said of Lafferty. "People come to his work and they can't really square it with anything they've ever read before. You read a few of his stories and you begin to feel him rewriting your brain and opening new possibilities of what fiction, and science fiction especially, are capable of doing."

The book-collecting contest is held every other year. Contestants enter a list of their items and an essay about the collection, and judges evaluate the collections based not only on size, but also on how well they are curated, said Anne Ribble, executive secretary of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia.

"This isn't a contest for the person who says 'I have 1,474 unrelated books, and here's my list,'" Ribble said. "The judges are looking for a focused collection."

Ferguson's collection consists of about 200 items related to Lafferty and includes out-of-print novels, obscure magazines that featured his short stories, and even books Lafferty once owned.

Lafferty, who died in 2002 and was most active from the 1960s to the '80s, wrote about 36 novels and 250 short stories, as well as other works. However, much of his output is hard to come by, Ferguson said. Some pieces have never been published, while others appeared in obscure magazines or mimeographed editions. A few magazines containing his stories were published from a garage.

"At first I concentrated on getting every story I could in some form or another," Ferguson said. "Some of these are really poor-quality things. Lately I've been trying to concentrate on getting the first appearance of all of the stories, whether it was in a book or a collection."

Ferguson first discovered Lafferty's work after reading a blog post by best-selling author Neil Gaiman, also a Lafferty fan.

"I read a few things, and eventually it clicked that I would have to read everything that he'd ever written," Ferguson said. "Only later would I realize how complicated that would prove to be."

Ferguson began collecting Lafferty's writing while working as a bookseller himself. His interest in the author led him to a graduate program at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, where Lafferty's papers are kept. Ferguson's current doctoral work at U.Va. also deals with Lafferty, and he's been in contact with the Locus Foundation, which owns the rights to much of the author's work.

"We hope in the next couple of years to start reissuing his books," Ferguson said. "Hopefully they will be nice new editions of these books so people won't have to go hunting things down the way I've had to."

Ferguson also hopes to edit a collection of critical essays about Lafferty. "I think he's one of the major under-researched authors of the 20th century," he said.

For winning the contest, Ferguson won $300 and a $1,095 fellowship to Rare Book School. He also will advance to the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest, which has a first prize of $2,500.

Katia Fowler, a master's student in the English Department, won second place for "Collecting the Works of Jeanne G. Pennington: An American 'Authoress' at the Turn of the 20th Century."

Natasha L. Mikles, a doctoral candidate in the Religious Studies Department, won honorable mention for "The Printed Manifestations of the Tibetan Epic, Gesar of Ling."

Selections from the winning collections will be on display through April in the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture and Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

– by Rob Seal