Three Pomona Alumni Publish Their First Novels

Alumni at the event “Four ‘First Novelists’”

Patience and persistence. A little bit of luck. And the mentorship of Professor Jonathan Lethem. These factors helped three Pomona alumni publish their first novels last year.

Francesca Capossela ’18, David Connor ’15 and Julius Taranto ’12, along with Tyriek White PZ ’13, convened this month on Pomona’s campus for the event “Four ‘First Novelists,’” presented by the 鶹Ů English Department.

Lethem, author of seven novels including Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, says he couldn’t ignore the confluence of these alumni publishing their first novels in the same year.

Instead of showcasing them individually at smaller events, he thought, “What if I made it one spectacular event?”

“This is a great day for writing at The Claremont Colleges,” W.M. Keck Professor of English Kevin Dettmar said as he introduced Capossela at the event. “Crazy things can happen at a liberal arts college.”

We spoke with Capossela, Connor and Taranto about their time at Pomona, their novels and the difficult process of bringing a book into the world.

Francesca Capossela ’18

Capossela’s book , set in the 1990s in Northern Ireland and the 2010s in a Los Angeles suburb, follows a mother and daughter as they confront the past while navigating their relationship with each other in the present.

“The real question in the book is, ‘How well mothers and daughters know each other?’” says Capossela. “How intimate and close can they be? And how can they, at the same time, be strangers to each other?”

Capossela knew she wanted the mother in the story to be from a different place than the daughter, hence Northern Ireland as one of the settings. Many years later, the mother raises her daughter in a Southern California town with several colleges—"basically Claremont,” says Capossela.

Not only did the setting of Capossela’s undergraduate years contribute a backdrop for her novel, Pomona also provided her the training and mentorship to develop as a young writer.

Though she was unsure she wanted to study when she transferred to Pomona as a sophomore, Capossela had always loved literature. At Pomona, she took an independent studies class on personal essay writing with her faculty advisor Lethem, Roy Edward Disney ’51 Professor of Creative Writing and professor of English. She also took other writing and poetry classes at and eventually declared an English major, writing her senior thesis about female agency in Nabokov’s Lolita.

A year after Capossela graduated from Pomona, she enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin for a master’s in creative writing, intent on writing a novel. After completing the book in 2020, she began searching for an agent and a publisher.

“When you don’t have any kind of foothold in that world, it’s really tricky to find your way in,” she says. “There’s so much rejection. And there’s so much waiting. There’s this constant feeling of, ‘Nobody wants or needs me to do this.’ You have to want it so badly. Because no one else cares. It’s very lonely at times.”

Capossela says it often feels surreal to see physical copies of her book on bookstore shelves now. She’s learning how to pause and celebrate the accomplishment.

“It’s hard for me to dwell in those moments, but it is amazing when I stop and think that this thing that I poured so much love into is out there in the world.”

David Connor ’15

To introduce Connor’s book , Brian Evenson, faculty at California Institute of the Arts, said, “The premise is simple and absurd: the sun has disappeared, and no one knows why.”

“It’s the kind of work that only David could write,” Evenson added.

Connor elaborates on the plot: “The sun has gone missing, and a lost soul thinks he’ll find it in Arizona for some reason. As he looks for the sun, that fabric of reality unravels around him a bit, and he falls into a more psychedelic and psychological space.”

At Pomona, Connor majored in neuroscience and minored in computer science. He also took a fair amount of creative writing classes, which he says, “without hyperbole, are some of the best I’ve been in.”

With an interest in the mind, consciousness and human experience, he says, “As time went on, I discovered that language was a much more malleable way to approach those questions than the scientific method for me.”

He recalls a distinct turning point while in a chemistry lab at Pomona. While waiting hours for a substance to drain through a crucible, he found himself writing poems in his lab notebook.

After graduating from Pomona, he enrolled in an MFA program at California Institute of the Arts. During a period where words felt insufficient to express himself, he wrote a poem that featured the phrase “Oh, God” prominently. From there, his book arose.

Reflecting on the process of publishing a book, he says, “It’s simultaneously deeply gratifying and also comes with a sense of futility. Deeply gratifying in the sense that I spent three plus years writing this book. It’s a very solitary process. A lot of people don’t know what you’re up to. They don’t read it until it’s finished. There is something deeply gratifying about having it in the world and it finding readers. It’s futile in the sense that it’s so much work, and it’s so much energy. Sometimes I wonder if I put all that energy into this, this or that, there would be a more kind of tangible effect it has in the world for good or change.”

“But the benefit of writing,” says Connor, “is I’m engaging with work that is meaningful and aligned with a pursuit of the truth or beauty or whatnot.”

Julius Taranto ’12

Taranto’s novel is set on a college campus: one founded by a libertarian billionaire as a safe haven for canceled scholars and located on an island off the coast of Connecticut.

No, Taranto’s time at Pomona did not secretly inspire this book, but he says his experience on campus “was kind of ambiently helpful, and it did help to get to know a lot of professors so intimately.”

When Taranto arrived at Pomona, he thought he might major in economics or philosophy. But taking a class on James Joyce with Dettmar made him want to “keep coming back for more.” As his interest in economics started to wane, he discovered that he loved working with the faculty in the English Department.

He points out that the English Department at Pomona remains the only place he has received any formal writing training. After graduating, Taranto attended Yale Law School and practiced law for five years. Writing happened in early mornings and in “stolen weeks or months between things,” he says. After years of cobbling together time to write, he decided to leave his job to focus on writing alone.

How I Won a Nobel Prize was named one of the best books of the year by Vogue and Vox. Charmaine Craig, an author of three novels who taught Taranto at Pomona, called the book “timely, provocative, extremely funny, and tender” as she introduced Taranto at the event on campus.

Taranto was pleased to return to Claremont and reunite with longtime mentors Craig, Dettmar and Lethem.

Because of the persistence and waiting that characterize the beginning of almost everyone’s literary career, Taranto says, “It’s very helpful to have models of writers around who have done that themselves, who believe in the role of the artist and the role of the writer and can keep you on the path when you are thinking about bailing.”

“Those connections have turned out to be much more durable than I would have guessed when I was 19 years old,” Taranto says.