Cambridge resident Tony Rogers’s novel, The Execution of Richard Sturgis, As Told by His Son, Colin, won the first annual Dorothy and Wedel Nilsen Prize for a first novel. The story follows a rowdy, complex family man who befriends two devious men, and with them, is arrested for the rape and murder of a young man. While the other two men are released, Richard is sent to trial and convicted. His son Colin, deeply scarred by the effects of the trial and going through his teen years known as the son of a murderer, can’t bring himself to believe in his father’s guilt, continuing what he knows may be a lifelong search to find out the truth about the murder and about his father.
Wedel Nilsen established the Nilsen award with the Southeast Missouri State University Press as a tribute to his late wife, Dorothy and as a way to aid aspiring, professional authors. The annual award is open to U.S. residents who have completed a manuscript in English but not yet published a full-length fiction novel or novella. Since the novel is actually set in Missouri, Rogers said he is thrilled the Southeast Missouri State University Press will publish it in the spring of 2013. The Cambridge Chronicle sat down with Rogers to talk about his own life and his newest work.
You’ve practiced law on Wall Street, played jazz guitar professionally, and directed a veterans’ hospital – how do these experiences influence your writing?
Hugely. I can’t imagine writing fiction without a lot of experience in how people live and work. I have also driven a cab, worked in settlement houses in Boston’s South End and the Near North Side of Chicago, and played in a rock band on an ocean liner to Europe. Only rarely have I directly drawn on those experiences in my fiction, but collectively they have informed everything I write.
Your novel tackles some serious themes – how do you define those themes, and why choose such weighty ones?
The novel has two main themes: a son facing the usual traumas of the teenage years, complicated by the fact that his father is on death row; and questions of guilt, both emotional and criminal. I have to duck the second part of your question by saying that, for the most part, a writer doesn’t choose his themes; they choose him.
The summer between first and second year law school I worked on a 700-acre farm in mid-Missouri. I had long been fascinated by America’s heartland and wanted to see it for myself. The day after exams ended, I drove west until I came to landscape I liked, and stopped to ask for a job. I struck out at the first farm but was offered a job at the second. Working the land made me feel like part of the land, and the experience stuck with me. I’m sure that’s where the novel came from, although I have to quickly add that the people and plot are strictly fictional. No doubt my longstanding concern about the death penalty also contributed to the novel.
I’m too close to my work to answer that objectively. To me, everything I write is different, but there are probably themes that are obvious to everyone else. The one theme I see is one of style: my writing tends to be succinct. Where possible, I use simple words and compact sentences. Music constantly informs the rhythm of what I write (which gets back to your first question).
Yes, I’ve written novels before, three of which were represented by agents but didn’t get published. I find novels harder to write, not because they’re long but because my tendency to be succinct sometimes gets in the way of the exposition that’s necessary in a longer work.How did you overcome your succinct style to develop this novel?