KINGSTON, R.I., Feb. 1, 2018—Two things to know about the writer Theo Greenblatt:
First, she’s a woman. An editor flubbed up her gender once, identifying her as a man in a short bio. (She forgave him.)
Second, she is persistent. Her short story, “Solitaire,” was rejected 22 times before winning first place recently in a short story contest in “The London Magazine,” so prestigious it’s known as “The New Yorker” of England.
The prize—$700 and publication in the magazine—will be bestowed at a celebration in the House of Commons in mid-March. The 58-year-old 2010 URI graduate will be there, accompanied by her daughter.
“We already booked flights,” says Greenblatt. “It’s a big deal and, really, a shocker.”
But not a surprise to Greenblatt’s mentor and URI professor, Mary Cappello, who says Greenblatt is a rising star in the literary world and has “steadily, determinedly and doggedly stayed the course” to see her work published in highly-respected journals such as “The Harvard Review” and “Pembroke Magazine.” Greenblatt’s memoir, which she wrote for her URI dissertation, has yet to find a home, but Cappello is confident this “grand slam” award will bring attention to her work and “open that next door.”
Greenblatt’s journey to writing was anything but predictable.
Raised in Cambridge, Mass., she graduated from high school early and completed an associate’s degree in merchandising, then spent several years as a pink-haired punk rocker, hanging out in seedy nightclubs and writing for “Subway News,” an independent arts publication started by a friend.
“I didn’t really have a lot of confidence in my writing,” she says. “I thought that great writers were born not made, so why bother trying?”
Finally, weary of the music scene, Greenblatt headed to Israel to work on a kibbutz. She ended up staying four years after marrying an Israeli man and starting a family. In 1987, they moved to Newport so Greenblatt could work at her parents’ Bowen’s Wharf shop, Irish Imports, Ltd.
The marriage didn’t work out, and Greenblatt soon found herself raising three kids, then ages 2, 5 and 7, as a single mother. Intent on starting a new career, she enrolled at Roger Williams University to study English literature. Homework and books dominated family life.
“I’d be sitting on a park bench reading ‘The Odyssey’ while my kids played,” she says. “Our house back then was a place of study. We’d all do our homework together.”
Her writing was mostly scholarly. It wasn’t until she enrolled at URI for her master’s degree that her talent for fiction writing emerged. A creative writing class with the late URI professor Daniel Pearlman gave her the confidence to tap her talent.
“I realized I could write fiction,” she says, “that it was more about craft than genius, and that I had that in me.”
She got a job as an English instructor at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport—a position she still holds today—while pursuing her doctorate in English and creative nonfiction, also at URI. Her first publication, in 2011, was a short story about a young man reflecting on the son he’s never met. She’s had upwards of 20 stories and short memoirs published since then.
But those successes did not come without rejection.
“Sometimes, a piece gets accepted right away,” she says. “But more often, the rejections come fast and furious with no positive feedback.”
The prize from “The London Magazine”—England’s oldest literary periodical and publisher of some of the best writing in the country—was unexpected. “I was just stunned,” says Greenblatt. “I stared at the email for a few minutes wondering, ‘Is this real?’ Then I ran to my colleague’s office next door and jumped up and down.”
“Solitaire” is about the unexpected connection between two vulnerable people—an eccentric woman who plays Solitaire on her front porch and a 13-year girl who runs off with an older man she meets on the internet and returns to her neighborhood lonely and excluded. A blind cat brings them together.
“The girl is in need of quiet presence, which is the one thing the narrator is able to furnish,” says Greenblatt. “The structure of the card game, the reliability of it, and that vague chance for winning, are all metaphorically significant. For me, most short stories will have hints and elements from my own life. For ‘Solitaire,’ the solitary game is a practice I was attached to at one point in my life, and I had a beloved blind cat whose charm I borrowed from. The initial inspiration for the story, though, came from a local news report about a young girl who was abducted in similar fashion. I thought a lot about what a girl that age is needy for, that leads her down such a path.”
In all her work, Greenblatt says she tends to explore vulnerability and the abuse of power, developing characters who have both likable and unlikable qualities.
“I leave room for readers to find a character slightly creepy or funny when they didn’t expect them to be,” she says. “But above all, readers should find something to identify with, and maybe that something will surprise them when they realize it. Maybe it will make them a little uncomfortable, but it will keep them reading.”
When she picks up her award next month she plans to visit with her pen pal from Wales, with whom she’s been corresponding for 50 years. “I’m so thrilled for you, but not surprised,” the friend wrote when Greenblatt told her about the prize. “Even at 8, you were far more eloquent than me.”