Anna Caritj M.F.A ’16 never imagined that the manuscript she started years ago while earning her master’s degree at Hollins would sell, once finished, within just a couple of days. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Now, two weeks shy of the virtual launch of her debut novel Leda and the Swan, Caritj is still getting used to a new life as a published author.
“It all happened very fast,” said Caritj. “My agent started shopping the book around and within 48 hours we had an offer from Riverhead Books. It was a whirlwind, not at all what I was expecting.”
Leda and the Swan is a kind of mash-up: a collegiate coming-of-age tale mixed with classic suspense and, of course, some references to Greek mythology. The novel opens at a raucous, on-campus Halloween party and follows the titular character Leda who believes herself to be the last person to have seen her classmate Charlotte (dressed in a swan costume) before her disappearance on Halloween night. Waking up hung-over the following morning, Leda soon feels that she must solve the mystery of what happened to Charlotte as well as piece together the memories from the blacked-out night that she spent with her crush (and Charlotte’s ex), Ian Gray.
Even though she finished a first draft while earning her M.F.A. in creative writing at Hollins, and spent another two years polishing and editing the manuscript, the core idea of Leda and the Swan actually came to Caritj during her time as an undergraduate studying Spanish and English literature at the University of Virginia in her hometown of Charlottesville. Specifically, it was a massive mural by famed artist Lincoln Perry called “The Student’s Progress” that first gave Caritj inspiration to write about her own college experience. “[Perry] was working on the mural while I was a student, and I was always passing it on my way to choir rehearsals,” recalled Caritj. “It’s her whole life painted on the wall there, and the thing I liked about that mural is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the college experience. It touches on the complexity of it. We don’t just sort of track this woman’s academic progress. We also see her emotional development—we see her in wild and vulnerable moments. So I wanted to capture that in the same way that Perry did in his painting.”
Skip ahead to grad school and during her first year at Hollins’ Jackson Center for Creative Writing, Caritj started developing a rough version of the novel, then called Let Her Drop, taken from the last words of a W. B. Yeats poem also entitled “Leda and the Swan.” However, it wasn’t until her second-year tutorial with poet, essayist, and Hollins Professor of English Richard Dillard that Caritj got a better feel for the work-in-progress. “Richard’s such a great teacher,” said Caritj. “He’s able to get a sense for what kind of a novel you want to be writing as opposed to the kind of novel he wants to be reading, and that’s a very difficult thing to separate.”
Caritj’s time at Hollins (and Dillard’s sharp readerly eye) clearly paid off. Leda and the Swan was released on May 4 to high praise—TIME called the debut an “affecting narrative about consent, power and loneliness”—and Caritj is currently preparing for the book’s official virtual launch on May 27 with One More Page Books in Arlington. Over the summer, Caritj will participate in a spread of virtual events (a kind of online “book tour”). As if this weren’t enough to keep her busy, Caritj has already finished a rough draft for a completely different second project about a group of female friends reckoning with adolescence.
However, Caritj’s not letting all of the sudden success go to her head. “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” she said. “It’s important to be proud of your work and to stand behind what you’ve created. But, at the same time, if you’re not willing to dismantle your creation—to shake things up, to try something new, to push yourself into uncharted territory—you’ll never make any progress. Out of all the young writers I’ve known, the ones that make the most progress are the ones willing to take a sledgehammer to their work.”
Jeff Dingler is a graduate assistant in Hollins’ marketing and communications department. He is pursuing his M.F.A. in creative writing at the university.