Seldom is a writer's first published work a novel, nor do they often win awards for works they have yet to publish.
English professor Margaret Lazarus Dean, however, has done both.
She published her first novel, "The Time It Takes to Fall," in 2007, and her second book, "Leaving Orbit," a nonfiction work due for release sometime next year, has already received the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.
Dean tapped into her writing skills later than many of her colleagues. While most of her peers started in high school, she didn't begin writing until her junior year at Wellesley College.
"I was just afraid to try it for a long time for some reason," Dean said. "I would never say, 'I want to be a writer.' That just seemed like — everyone says they want to be a writer, but so few people actually achieve it. And I think it kept me from actually trying to pursue that longer than it should have."
Majoring in anthropology as an undergraduate, Dean took a few years after college working at coffee shops and bookstores to "figure some stuff out and pay off some loans."
"As I was doing that, I kept working on my stories," Dean said. "And I think that's how I started gathering the courage to start applying to graduate programs in creative writing and to admit to people, like my parents, that I wanted to be a writer — to not be afraid that people would laugh at me or try to talk me out of it."
It was then she decided to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan for creative writing. There, she discovered an enthusiasm for teaching and enjoyed meeting and interacting with students as a teaching assistant her first year. After having her own freshman composition class her second year, Dean hoped to share a passion for writing with her students.
"I just thought that was really cool that that could be someone's job to just be interacting with students all day and helping people learn to care about reading and writing in a different way," Dean said. "I was teaching freshman composition and a lot of people grumble about it like it's the worst. I loved it. I love freshmen. They have this energy. Like, they're afraid to write, and I'm like, 'No, we're going to write. I'm going to make you learn to like writing.'"
Her second book, "Leaving Orbit," chronicles 50 years of American spaceflight. After writing her first novel, she became engaged in the details of NASA, as the novel dealt with a preteen's view of the Challenger explosion. Having met people at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, she felt like she "saw the end coming sooner than a lot of other people."
Steve Woodward, associate editor at Graywolf Press, is Dean's editor for "Leaving Orbit." He first met her at the University of Michigan and has since come to admire her as a writer and researcher, viewing her newest work as not only a history but also "the moving account of one woman's repeated return to Florida's space coast, and of the friendship she found there with a NASA employee."
"Margaret is an absolutely fearless writer," Woodward said. "Writers are defined in part by their choice of subjects, and her fascination with spaceflight sets her apart. She's a keen interrogator of what our pursuit and recent abandonment of manned spaceflight means about our culture at large. I feel as though I can see and hear the world she's describing.
"The sound of rocket boosters during launch will never leave you after you read 'Leaving Orbit.'"
Since beginning the book, she has been to Cape Canaveral 13 times in the past 18 months. Yet, although she believed someone somewhere needed to document the space program's full history, she was originally reluctant that it would be her.
"I kind of went into it kicking and screaming," Dean said. "I'm not a journalist. I'm not really qualified, I felt, to cover the story or try to tell the whole story of American space flight for 50 years. I was like, 'I can't do it; I'm not the one to do it.' But then I felt that this is a story that needs to be told. No one else is going to do it if I don't."
Having gone from an unsure writer to a published author, Dean stresses to her students the importance of abandoning inhibition.
"Now I tell my students to go try it," Dean said. "You're 21. You've got nothing to lose, and if you can't get anything published, then you can go to law school.
"You don't have to compromise because you know it will be hard to do it even if the odds aren't good."