Four months after sending her short story to the Boston Book Festival, Emerson graduate student Ciera Burch received word that her submission “Yvonne” bested 45 other entries and earned the selection for the festival’s One City One Story series.
The 11th annual Boston Book Festival will take place Oct. 19 in Copley Square and Oct. 20 in Dudley Square in Roxbury. The One City One Story series, which selects a short story every year to be printed and distributed free of charge, enters its ninth iteration this year. As the One City One Story selected author, Burch will speak about her story in a large group discussion and hear from readers and fans around Boston.
Before submitting “Yvonne” to the BBF, Burch said she failed to receive the responses she hoped for when sending the story to other journals and publishers. Despite feeling discouraged, Burch sent “Yvonne” to the festival on a whim in January and heard the news while working a shift at Trident Booksellers and Cafe on Newbury Street in May.
“I re-read the email a million times and I was still surprised,” she said in an interview. “The rest of my shift, I was searching everything I could find about it, like past winners, and I was in even more disbelief. So I snuck away to go under these random stairs we have and I called my mom.”
Burch’s “Yvonne” originated in writing, literature and publishing professor Julia Glass’
s fiction workshop class in 2018 as a story based on a flashback. For the exercise, Burch chose to write about the first interaction between her two main characters, Celeste and Yvonne, which exists as a flashback towards the end of the final story. She then fully developed the 19 page story into “Yvonne” and submitted it to BBF in January 2019.
Glass said she was happy to see Burch revise and improve her story over time.
“The strongest students are those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the most revision,” she said in an interview. “It’s my philosophy that the ability to really dig in and revise the weaker parts of your story will determine how much you can improve and how far you will rise. It’s really a pleasure to see Ciera [Burch]’s story not only succeed, but get out to the whole city.”
“Yvonne” explores themes of family, hope, and loss through the interactions between Celeste and her aging grandmother, Yvonne. Burch said her grandmother Luvon, who died a few years ago, inspired the creation of her character Yvonne.
“I wanted to sort of capture her voice in a way because she was such a personality in life,” Burch said. “I kind of channeled her into Yvonne, the character, when I was writing.”
Burch described herself as a character-driven writer and recognized her characters’ strong personalities as one of the main reasons “Yvonne” stands out.
“I write a lot about mothers and children,” she said. “For this one, I wanted to explore the mother-daughter relationship, but without the actual mother being present and how the grandchild and grandmother relationship works.”
BBF will produced over 20,000 copies of “Yvonne” for readers to access for free at the festival. Burch said she is fortunate to have such a large circulation and is adjusting to the reality of her accomplishment.
“It’s such a huge thing, some actual books don’t even print 20,000 copies,” Burch said. “Having a radio interview about it, being in a newspaper, it’s all kind of surreal and strange.”
Norah Piehl, executive director of BBF, said “Yvonne” earned the selection because it perfectly encapsulates the idea behind One City One Story.
“This story just really hit that sweet spot that we’re looking for in a One City One Story story,” she said in a phone call. “It’s beautifully and skillfully written at a level that’s both engaging for people who already love short fiction, but accessible for people who don’t read literary fiction that often.”
Piehl said “Yvonne” impressed the committee and community of readers who voted for the top story and became an ideal selection for the event and discussion.
“It has a lot of different points of connection for potential readers,” Piehl said. “We want stories that have a lot of potential for discussion, and that was something that we heard from pretty much everybody who read the story—that they could imagine having a really rich and fruitful discussion about the story.”
A southern New Jersey native, Burch first discovered a fascination for writing in the fifth grade. She earned her bachelor’s degree from American University in Washington, D.C., in 2017 before applying to Emerson for graduate school. She said Emerson differs from past experiences because of the colleagues around her.
“The workshops, in general, have been really helpful to my writing,” Burch said. “Being around people who are actual writers, that has been helpful. Most of the people I was with before have been literature students, they’re not exactly writers.”
Burch will finish her third year as a graduate student this semester and plans to focus her work exclusively on her thesis in the spring. After Emerson, Burch said she wants to continue writing while working a job in publishing.
With “Yvonne” having found success and BBF around the corner, Burch said the reception helps in lifting her confidence as a writer.
“As a grad student and a writer there’s always that self-doubt, and there’s definitely still some of that there, but just to hear other people read it and see other people tweet about it, it’s really cool,” Burch said. “I’m really grateful for it. Still really strange.”
Head copyeditor Kyle Labe did not edit this article as he serves as the project manager and coordinator for One City One Story and helped distribute the story.