Dawnie Walton head shot.
Dawnie Walton’s work explores identity, place and the influence of pop culture. (Contributed photo)

Dawnie Walton wins the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for ‘The Final Revival of Opal & Nev’

Walton will receive the award during a public event at VCU on Nov. 10. The event will involve a reading, a moderated discussion and a Q&A.

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Dawnie Walton has won the 2022 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, which honors an outstanding debut novel published during the preceding calendar year. Her winning book, “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev,” published by Simon & Schuster, follows the story of an interracial rock duo’s sudden 1970s rise to stardom, the band’s headline-making breakup and the secrets that, decades later, threaten to mar a potential future as they consider reuniting for one last time.

Walton will receive the award during a public event at VCU on Nov. 10. The event will involve a reading, a moderated discussion and a Q&A. Details and additional materials will be made available at firstnovelist.vcu.edu/event.

Walton was one of three finalists for the prize, now in its 21st year. The other finalists were Kirstin Valdez Quade for “The Five Wounds” and Daniel Loedel for “Hades, Argentina.”

According to the publisher’s official synopsis of “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev”:

Book cover image of \"The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.\"
The New York Times Book Review said that "The Final Revival of Opal & Nev" was "a packed time capsule that doubles as a stick of dynamite.” (Simon & Schuster)

Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, “Afro-punk” before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job — despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

In early ‘70s New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially Black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.

“The Final Revival of Opal & Nev” won the 2022 Aspen Words Literary Prize, was long listed for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction and named one of the best books of 2021 by The Washington Post, NPR, Esquire and former President Barack Obama, among others. The audiobook version of the novel won the 2022 Audie Award for Fiction.

The New York Times Book Review says the book “feels truer and more mesmerizing than some true stories. It’s a packed time capsule that doubles as a stick of dynamite.” And Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it “one of the most immersive novels I’ve ever read … largely because of Walton’s skill at letting so many people talk in so many different ways. Voices are marshalled from across America, and then across the Atlantic, and blended seamlessly into a tale about Black culture, Black women and American capitalism. This is a thrilling work of polyphony — a first novel that reads like the work of an old hand.”

Walton’s work explores identity, place and the influence of pop culture. Formerly an editor at Essence and Entertainment Weekly, she has received fellowships from MacDowell and Tin House, and holds an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, she lives in the Brooklyn borough of New York City with her husband.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award celebrates the VCU M.F.A. in Creative Writing program’s yearlong novel workshop, the first in the nation and one of the few still in existence. The winning author receives a $5,000 prize and participates in an event, traditionally in person, with two additional panelists, most often the agent and editor of the winning book. The event, open to all, focuses on the creation, publication and promotion of the author’s first novel.

The award is presented on behalf of VCU’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing program. Sponsors include: the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, VCU Libraries, the VCU Department of English, Barnes & Noble @ VCU and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

Nearly 200 novels were submitted for this year’s prize. A universitywide panel of readers in addition to members of the Richmond community reduced the submissions to a top 20 long list. From there, the long list was considered by the M.F.A. in Creative Writing students, who further narrowed the submissions from a top 10 short list to three finalists. The final round of judging included the M.F.A. students, the VCU Cabell First Novelist Committee and the winner of the previous year’s award.

Previous winners have included: Raven Leilani for “Luster,” John Englehardt for “Bloomland,” Ling Ma for “Severance,” Hernán Diaz for “In the Distance,” Jade Chang for “The Wangs vs. the World” and Angela Flournoy for “The Turner House.” A full list of winners can be found at firstnovelist.vcu.edu/winners.

 The 2023 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is soon to announce a “call for submissions” for debut novels published in 2022, with a final submission deadline of Dec. 30. For more information, visit firstnovelist.vcu.edu.