On August 3, Ecco will carry out a normally joyous task with a heavy heart: the publication of a hotly anticipated debut story collection by a burgeoning author whom the New York Times described last year as being “on the brink of literary stardom.” Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties will be published less than a year after his sudden death in December, at the age of 28. (The cause of death, So’s loved ones confirmed, is still unknown.) Colleagues, friends, and family are hoping to use the release of the book to celebrate So’s life and work—and to make clear all that he had accomplished in such a short time.
Author Dana Spiotta, one of So’s teachers at Syracuse University’s MFA in creative writing program, from which he graduated just days before his death, said that So “had just begun what would have been a brilliant artistic life.” Still, she noted, “his accomplishment in Afterparties seems nearly perfect to me,” pointing to the writing’s effortless movement between subjects “from pop culture to genocide to the deep tentacles of the family romance with unfailing precision, wit, and sensitivity.” She added, “I believe it will influence a whole new generation of writers.”
Many in the world of letters seem to agree, including author Roxane Gay, who picked Afterparties for her new monthly online book club, the Audacious Book Club, and the literary magazine n+1, where So was a beloved contributor (two of the stories in Afterparties have already been published by the magazine). This month, n+1 established the Anthony Veasna So Fiction Prize in his honor, an annual $5,000 award “granted to an outstanding fiction writer whose work has appeared in n+1, in print, or online.” The inaugural recipient will be announced alongside the winner of n+1’s annual Writer’s Fellowship at a virtual award ceremony in May.
Mark Krotov, the publisher of n+1, said that the idea for the prize came when the magazine’s staff was considering who to honor with this year’s Writers’ Fellowship. “Anthony was an extremely important writer to n+1,” Krotov said. “If he hadn’t died, there’s a very strong chance that we would have given him the fellowship—even though he was earlier in his career than most of our contributors who have received it, he clearly deserved it. Then we thought, what if we just created a second prize named after him? That would be a way that we could keep him in front of mind as long as the magazine is around. And as Anthony was this sort of blistering, brilliant, innovative fiction writer, we decided that it would be a fiction prize.”
The choice was appropriate, according to So’s literary agent, Rob McQuilkin of Massie & McQuilkin, who was introduced to the writer’s work by Krotov. “Like everyone who stumbles on Anthony’s stories,” McQuilkin said, “I was gobsmacked. The blend of pathos in the best sense and the manic, antic comedy, and also the deeper, stiller moments... It was just clear he was something special.”
After taking So on as a client, McQuilkin recalled, “I just sort of doggedly tried to do my best to guide as many of these stories as possible into the kind of outlets that would get him better known.” These included Zyzzyva and, eventually, the New Yorker, which published the final story in the collection last February. A two-book deal with Ecco followed weeks later, for Afterparties and a novel that was left unfinished at the time of So’s death.
Helen Atsma, v-p and editorial director at Ecco, who acquired Afterparties, called the process of publishing the collection—which will receive a 100,000-copy first printing—an opportunity to honor So’s legacy, work, and life. “My aim,” she said, “is to do that the best I can, and I know that everyone at Ecco feels the same way. This book was always an important book for us before he died. It was bought in a big auction, and it seemed both in keeping with the spirit of the Ecco list and pointing toward its future. But I think it’s understandable that everyone feels even more keenly now the importance of getting this right, with carefulness and heart. I think Anthony knew that there were a lot of good things coming for this book, and I think he could sense that the house enthusiasm for it was very strong. But he never got to hold a galley, and the outpouring that came from the literary world came after he passed away... I wish he could see all this.”
Normally, a book’s publishing team would work especially closely with the author of a big debut on ensuring that each piece of the publication process was handled just right. In this case, Atsma and McQuilkin have instead kept in close touch with So’s surviving loved ones—especially his partner, Alex Torres, and his sister, Samantha Lamb. Both, So’s editor and agent said, have been supportive and actively involved in the lead-up to Afterparties’ publication—and attentive to the role this book will play in the preservation of So’s legacy.
“Anthony’s work is a tribute to our family’s Cambodian history and trauma—the good and the bad,” Lamb said. “What struck me when I read Afterparties is how beautifully written it is. Even the most esteemed book reviewer could not fathom how deeply his work resonates with me and my family. His voice eases our burden, gives us hope, and allows us to feel closer to him. We will wear his story like a badge of honor, every single word.”