Toya Wolfe broke onto the Chicago literary scene in 2022 with the release of her debut novel, Last Summer on State Street. The book takes place during the summer of 1999 and follows 12-year-old Felicia “Fe Fe” Stevens and her group of friends, who are living in the Robert Taylor Homes at the time when the buildings were being demolished. Wolfe drew from her own experience growing up in the public-housing project to write her book.
Since then, she has earned numerous awards and nominations, including the Zora Neale Hurston-Bessie Head Fiction Award and the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award in Traditional Fiction, and most recently, she was a finalist for the 2023 PEN America Open Book Award and the recipient of the 2023 Chicago Book Award.
This year, Wolfe is serving as the fiction judge for the Hal Prize, the Peninsula Pulse’s annual creative-writing and photography contest. She and I chatted about the success of her debut novel; upcoming projects, which include a new book and TV scripts; meeting David Sedaris; and more.
The following is an excerpt from a Door County Pulse Podcast that has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to the full podcast here>>
Grace Johnson (GJ): Toya was a finalist for the 2023 PEN America Open Book Award, and just recently in May, you received the Chicago Book Award. How has all of that been going for you?
Toya Wolfe (TW): Just when you feel like everything is done, the dust is settling and you can take it all in, I won this huge prize. I am still in shock, actually. I have all of these projects piling up, and it is the perfect time to not do anything else but write, which writers don’t usually do.
GJ: What has this last year been like for you in terms of the reception of your book?
TW: The last year has been fast and furious. I have been all over, talking to lots of people whom I hadn’t met before and may not ever see again. I love this part of writing a book, where you get to meet the people who are excited about your book.
I think we are coming to the end of that season, and I am looking forward to sitting down and reading through my book again to ask myself, “What is a Toya Wolfe book? What about my writing is something that will be identifiable to me and to other readers? What kind of Black woman writer will I be?” The answer is in Last Summer on State Street, and I have to go find it.
GJ: Have you ever submitted to a writing contest? What was that experience like for you?
TW: The very first time I submitted was what would become Last Summer on State Street, which was a short story about a character in the book. It won second place. One of the judges walked up to me and said, “This story blew me away.”
They [judges] give you this encouragement and affirmation to keep you going. I think that is the best part of contests. Even if you don’t win at all, it’s great that you are in the game. Every rejection I have received, I cherish. It reminds me that I am active and getting my stuff out.
GJ: What will you be looking for in the Hal Prize submissions?
TW: When I read stories or a manuscript, I am looking for proof that this person is giving it their all. I can tell if someone is using expertise from their lived experience, or passion seeping through their words. I am looking for writing that is coming from writers who have something unique to share with the world and have a command of the narrative.
Wolfe was a guest on the Door County Pulse Podcast in 2022, when she discussed her debut novel in more depth. Check it out here>>
Submissions in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and photography are open for the 2023 Hal Prize. Learn more and submit at thehalprize.com/submit.
Winning and honorable-mention submissions to the Hal Prize are published in 8142 Review. Copies of Vol. 1 and 2 – which feature the work of the 2021 and 2022 winners, respectively – are available for purchase at doorcountypulse.com/shop.