Only a few minutes with Converse College MFA graduate Sonja Coppenbarger will make you wonder whether you’ve stepped back a few centuries. She’s a bassoonist – raise your hands if you’ve ever met one of those – and she’s just had her first novel published. Yes, she really is a Renaissance person.
While working as a mother of two and freelancing for a symphony orchestra, Coppenbarger, 45, entered Converse College’s low-residency Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, where she completed a book-length manuscript, Starter House, and snagged one of the country’s top literary agents. And on Dec. 31, that debut novel was released by one of the worlds leading publishing houses, HarperCollins.
“I liked what I’d seen of the people teaching at Converse,” says Coppenbarger, who lives just outside of Greenville, SC with her husband, Brent, a music professor, and children Ethan, 13, and Rebecca, 11. The principal bassoonist with the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra and Greater Anderson Musical Arts Consortium, who teaches at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, hailed Converse’s program for giving her the opportunity to meet Jenny Bent, a major Manhattan book agent. During Bent’s visit to the Converse MFA program, the two hit it off, and Bent quickly sold the ghost-story novel to HarperCollins. The house, which dates back to 1817, publishes the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Crichton and Wally Lamb, among others.
“A promising start by a new author”
Starter House tells the story of a young couple who move into their first home in fictional Greeneburg, SC. They’re expecting a child, but not expecting the nightmare from a resident ghost – “apparently 9 years old, nobody knows,” the author says – who’s racked up quite a body count.
All that sounds pretty jarring coming from the Converse graduate, who also has a master’s in music from the New England Conservatory. “I entered the program because I wanted to take writing seriously,” says the London-born Coppenbarger, who wrote her first book when she was 7.
“She’s a very creative and talented person,” Bent says. “It was terrific to have the chance to meet her. And I loved the program. The students were confident and talented, and the faculty is terrific.”
“Good, scary fun, packed with emotional nuance”
– Kirkus Reviews
The book has already generated praise from reviewers, with comments ranging from “ stylish debut novel” from Publishers Weekly, to “a promising start by a new author” from Booklist, and “Good, scary fun, packed with emotional nuance” from Kirkus Reviews. Now Converse’s MFA program celebrates its freshly minted novelist, whose first book hit shelves just two years after Coppenbarger earned her degree. She actually wrote two novels during her two years in the program, and she’s at work on a third.
“It is exciting to see Sonja find success for her writing so quickly,” said program director Rick Mulkey. “She was one of the hardest working and most dedicated writing students I’ve had the pleasure to work with in our MFA program. With this accomplishment, Sonja joins a growing list of MFA alumni publishing with noted presses and journals including Simon & Schuster, the New York Times, Colorado Review, and Sewanee Review; and who have won such prizes as the South Carolina Poetry Initiative Book contest and the AWP Intro Prize.”
” stylish debut novel”
– Publishers Weekly
Converse MFA students are mentored by a faculty accomplished writers from across the nation, several of whom have published noted books in recent months. Faculty member Robert Olmstead’s novel, The Coldest Night, was on The Huffington Post’s “Best of 2012” list, among several others. Critically-acclaimed new poetry collections were written by Albert Goldbarth, Denise Duhamel and Richard Tillinghast. Susan Tekulve’s novel, In the Garden of Stone, received the South Carolina First Novel Prize. Dan Wakefield published a nonfiction book on the letters of Kurt Vonnegut, and Marlin Barton a new novel, The Cross Garden.