June 14, 2012
Just five years after graduating from Knox College, author BJ Hollars '07 has won a prestigious Society of Midland Authors Award. In a touching coincidence not lost on Hollars, the award came 55 years after his friend and mentor -- the renowned author Ray Bradbury -- won the same award. The award ceremony in May came just weeks before Bradbury's death on June 5.
Hollars won the award for non-fiction for "Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America." Bradbury won the prize in 1957 in the fiction category for his novel "Dandelion Wine."
"What's most exciting to me is I get to join people like Ray Bradbury who inspired me to begin with," Hollars said after the award was announced.
Open to authors who live in, or have ties to, a 12-state Midwestern region, the award honors outstanding works of adult fiction and nonfiction, biography, poetry, and children's fiction and nonfiction.
"Thirteen Loops" recounts the story of three innocent victims, all of whom suffered violent deaths through no fault of their own: Vaudine Maddox in 1933 in Tuscaloosa, whose death was followed by a series of lynchings; Sergeant Gene Ballard, a policeman killed in a bank robbery in 1979 in Birmingham, and Michael Donald, lynched in 1981 in Mobile after Ballard's alleged killer was acquitted.
A multifaceted writer, Hollars won awards at Knox in essay writing, fiction and journalism. In addition to "Thirteen Loops," he has published a collection of essays and has two more books -- a volume of poetry and another work of non-fiction -- planned for release later this year.
Hollars was still in elementary school when he first read Bradbury. In yet another coincidence, "Dandelion Wine," the book for which Bradbury won a Society of Midland Authors Award in 1957, would become one of of Hollars' favorites.
"When I read it, as a seventh-grader, I saw an author who was not afraid to put his heart on his sleeve, even though some critics said it was too sentimental."
In high school, Hollars entered a writing contest with an essay about Bradbury -- which won first place. The contest organizers sent Hollars' essay to Bradbury, who agreed to meet the young author.
In an on-line article, "Live Forever," published on the website The Rumpus on June 7, two days after Bradbury died, Hollars recalled his journey to Bradbury's home in Los Angeles. "Ray and I spent a few hours together that morning, the grand storyteller regaling me with his life's tales, while also taking an interest in my own... Ray and I kept in touch over the years, dozens of letters exchanged back and forth."
A 2003 graduate of the Canterbury School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Hollars graduated from Knox in 2007, earning a bachelor's degree in English literature and educational studies, magna cum laude. At Knox he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, wrote for The Knox Student newspaper and received numerous academic honors, include the Outstanding Senior Award and selection as Senior Class Speaker at the 2007 Commencement. He completed his MFA at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.
Earlier this spring, Hollars gave a reading at Knox and served as outside examiner for an Honors Project by a graduating senior.
"The professors in the writing program at Knox, especially Monica Berlin and Nick Regiacorte, have high expectations of students as writers -- they really pushed us to the next level," said Hollars, who now teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. "I saw the sacrifices my professors made. I'm even more aware of that, now that I'm a professor, and I try to pay that forward, every day with my own students."
Hollars has two books forthcoming -- "Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Tuscaloosa," planned for publication in 2013 from the University of Alabama Press, and a collection of short stories, "Sightings," from Indiana University Press.