Editor’s Note: This article was changed to remedy a mistake in the name of the childhood friend and love interest of the main character, which changed the implied gender of the character, erasing the fact that the protagonist of the work is a queer woman.
An award given out by Swarthmore College’s department of English literature allowed Alessandra Occhiolini ’17, an honors major in English Literature and an honors minor in Classical Studies, to do research in California over the summer for her novel
“[I’m] incredibly honored,” she said. “Honestly, the regard in which so many of my professors held my submission almost meant more to me than the operational value of the award itself. So many people expressed faith in me, and this faith gave me the courage to push further into risky material and continue chasing after not only this novel, but the act of writing fiction itself.”
The award, the Potter-Morrell Summer Stipend in Creative Writing, is an annual stipend awarded for poetry and/or fiction. It is a $2,500 award intended for writers to work on a writing piece over the summer. The stipend is meant for rising seniors at the college, who expect to return the following fall, to work on their creative writing piece. Requirements for the stipend include a manuscript of no more than ten pages, for both poetry and fiction, on the idea the applicant plans on writing during the summer, as well a proposal on what they hope to pursue and how they will use the money accordingly.
Back in February of 2016, Occhiolini submitted a manuscript of her currently unnamed work set in her home state of California during the 1960s – 1980s. Her story is a crossbreed between the Odyssey, geology, and one woman’s rise after her fall. That woman is Philippa “Phil” Warren who grew up with two obsessions, California’s geology and her friend Georgiana.
Over time, only one remained, but both brought with them challenges that she would need to face. One was her new lover Noah, who fills Georgiana’s absence, but leaves her after she is pregnant, only for her to lose the child and then choose to go on a quest to find those Noah had relationships with after her. The other, her job at the U.S. Geological Services, where she desperately tries to prove what eventually became known as the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake will hit California.
With the stipend she was awarded, Occhiolini had the ability to travel to California and visit various sites and environments that allowed her to gain a better understanding of the atmosphere in California between the 60s and 80s.
“The road trips I took around California were amazing,” she said. “I finally got to stay at the famous Madonna Inn!”
These attractions included, but not limited to; San Francisco, Monterey, Hearst’s’ Castle, Highway 1, Marin, and Chateau Marmont. She was also able to observe the geography of California, a key aspect of her novel, as well as come into contact with material about the decay of California after the Loma Prieta Earthquake.
“My travels and research substantially altered the course of the novel, as I try to build off the existing culture and norms of the places and moments I explore,” she said. “So I found many wonderful places that will inform the action of the book going forward, took a lot of pictures, and found a family-run Italian restaurant in San Luis Obisbo that made burrata on location.”
Along with writing, Occhiolini is an active member in theater and the theater department, appearing in productions of “Medea,” “Twelfth Night,” and “Titus Adronicus,” as well as writing her own play “The Lady and the Libertine,” and serving on the boards of the Drama Board and Yellow Stockings to fund and create student-run theater. She is also the president of the Beekeepers on Campus, which is part of the Swarthmore Good Food Project.
When asked about her final thoughts on the stipend she was given and the impact it has on writers, Occhiolini said, “[The Potter-Morrell Summer Stipend] gives the winner the idea of how the grant process works in the future, and writers the idea of how to work and the economic standpoint of a writer in the real world.”
“I hope to not only finish this novel but continue to write,” she said. “Which will mean that many grant applications lie ahead for me, and much headaches about how to support my work, but also a life of imagination, wonder, and transformation.”