Jon Pineda’s general rule of thumb as a novelist is to follow where the narrative takes him. He doesn’t want to know how the story ends when he begins a project.
“I want to be surprised,” said Pineda, an assistant professor of English and the director of the creative writing program at William & Mary.
That was certainly true of his work on “Let’s No One Get Hurt,” a novel that took Pineda on a wild turn during the writing process that eventually led to a more inspired work that resulted in great recognition for the author.
Pineda made a major decision to change the book’s point of view two years into the project. Rewriting the book from close third person to a first-person account in the voice of character Pearl was an undertaking of more than a year.
However, from Pineda’s standpoint, and from the reception the novel received from critics and peers, it was worth it.
Pineda recently won the 2019 Emyl Jenkins Sexton Literary Award for Fiction from the Library of Virginia, joining the rare company of writers to win a Library of Virginia Literary Award for fiction and poetry. His poetry collection “Little Anodynes” won the poetry award in 2016.
Pineda shares that double-award distinction with the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Wright, who received Library of Virginia Literary Awards for fiction and poetry in 1998 and 2003, respectively.
Catherine Kerrison, M.A. ’94, Ph.D. ’99 was also recognized by the Library of Virginia, winning the 2019 Literary Award for Nonfiction for her book, “Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America.”
“I absolutely appreciate the recognition,” Pineda said. “I’m floored that I would be connected in any way to the amazing accomplishments of Charles Wright. I love his work. His work has meant a great deal to me as a poet and as a writer, so I’m happy to be in the presence of that recognition for sure.”
When writing a novel, Pineda sets out to produce a rich narrative that leads to its own resolution at the end of his process.
That process doesn’t involve countless hours in front of a computer screen, however. Pineda writes while commuting to and from work, creating narrative via voice recordings that he later transfers to paper. An avid fisherman, Pineda also works through stories in his mind while wading into sometimes deep and choppy river waters.
Pineda prefers to hand write his books on legal pads before typing everything out, so you might see him sitting at a table on campus at the Aromas Daily Grind scribbling words onto paper.
“When I’m hand writing, I find that I’m not in a space where things look finished,” Pineda said. “When I’m hand writing, I understand I’m just drafting, and if I type, it looks like it’s a step closer to being finished, and I want to remove that. I want to live in the messiness of it. I really love just even having smears of ink on the things I’m writing. I like the tactile quality of it.”
Pineda derives many elements of his novels and poems from his own life. His mother and teenage daughter, Emma, inspired the Pearl character, who narrates “Let’s No One Get Hurt.” The name of the book was a phrase his mother often used when Pineda and his siblings were roughhousing.
“Let’s No One Get Hurt,” was described by the Library of Virginia Literary Award judges as a “lyrical and powerful coming-of-age novel exploring loss, abandonment and how we fashion new versions of self when forced to.”
Pearl’s story was so strong that it consumed Pineda’s writing.
“I found myself not wanting to give up on the story because when I stopped writing the story it was almost like I was giving up on her, and I didn’t want to do that, and at the same time she didn’t necessarily need me,” Pineda said.
“That’s what I really loved about writing the book is that I began in a space where I thought I was going to chronicle all the difficulty in her life and see how burdened she was, and yet I discovered this strength in her and I found that really admirable. I just kept writing her into these scenes, and she kept finishing the scenes.”
Of course, he has no idea where the next novel will lead. He is content letting it wind its way to its final outcome.
Moreover, there’s no way of knowing if this current novel sees the light of day in literary circles. Sometimes publication isn’t the end result, as was the case with three novels Pineda wrote that were never published.
But as he teaches all his students, failure in writing, which in turn often strengthens the skill of storytelling, is how authors become great.
It’s how authors reach the point Pineda has reached, an award winner in fiction and poetry.
“I used to save all my rejection letters, but I stopped because I had this massive box full,” Pineda said. “I was like, ‘Oh man, this does not look good.’ But it’s nice to go back and look at all that stuff. I remembered getting those individual rejections and feeling like I was punched in the gut and thinking, ‘Do I have what it takes? What does this mean? Is the world trying to tell me something?’
“The moment my first book came out, I actually forgot all about those rejection letters. I still go back and look through things here and there, and I still get rejected, but it’s almost like I’ve moved into a new phase of my understanding of myself as a writer. Not to say I’m impervious. I don’t mean that I have somehow risen above being affected by rejection. I can definitely still be affected by it. But I’m also not interested in publishing a book just for the sake of publishing it. I feel like I can write anything now, and that’s an exciting place to be.”