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As Auburn author Sarah Yaw sent off her first novel for its first real consideration by a publisher, she felt conflicted.

"I knew there was certain work that needed to get done," she said.

Yet she sent if off to Engine Books, a boutique press she'd admired for its select publishing of only six novels a year.

"I had this dark feeling that out there in the world my novel was dying, quietly," Yaw said.

She couldn't have been more wrong. Her novel, "You Are Free to Go," was considered the year's best entry, winning the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize.

Set in Hardenburg Correctional Facility, Yaw's characters Jorge and Moses face long imprisonment. Outside its cement walls, three women live their days heavy with the prison's influence. The inside/outside point of view, Yaw said, is disparate, but the characters are drawn together via a "huge tragedy."

"The characters are tied to one another through their history, through their families' traumas and grief, and through a maximum security prison that looms large and dark over everyone in the book," said Victoria Barrett, Engine Books editor and publisher. "Those relationships are moving and beautifully depicted and endlessly interesting."

A lifelong resident of Auburn, Yaw graduated Auburn High School in 1991. She went on to study writing, eventually obtaining an Master of Fine Arts from Sarah Lawrence University. Currently, Yaw is an assistant professor of English at Cayuga Community College's Fulton campus.

Having a state prison planted in the center of her hometown meant Yaw was transfixed by its high walls, watchtowers and stern presence during her childhood.

"There are a lot of pieces of the book that will be familiar," Yaw said. "The prison held great mystery for me. It had a tension that really fascinated me forever."

The author says she spent "an embarrassingly long period of time" writing her novel, gaining feedback along the way from writer friends and freelance editors.

Most difficult, she said, was heeding the advice of one editor who recommended she eliminate an entire story element by taking "the training wheels off the book."

"I was really blind, myopic," she said. "I only lost 20 pages and it turned out that it really wasn't that essential."

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Despite feeling ambivalent as she sent off a final draft into the non-answering oblivion of novel submission, Yaw went about her days last summer running errands with her children.

That's when she screamed while waiting in the drive-thru queue of her bank.

"I found out in the bank drive-thru that I won and had a cardiac arrest," Yaw joked.

With her 5-year-old twins secure in the back seat she checked her email messages as the bank dealt with her deposit. The message from Engine Books announced "You Are Free to Go" won the year's chief prize. And that meant publication.

The bank teller's voice crackled through Yaw's disbelief. "Do your kids want lollipops?" she remembers being asked.

"I rolled forward; I kind of couldn't drive," she said.

But she did. After confirming the news, Yaw drove immediately home to share her good news with her husband, photographer Douglas Lloyd.

"It was as much his victory as it was mine," she said.

Yaw's 224-page novel is due on bookstore shelves beginning in early September. She is taking the summer and fall off from CCC to conduct research on the school's creative writing curriculum and take a 10-city book tour sponsored by Engine Books.

Yaw's second writing project has come to her quickly, a stark difference from "You Are Free to Go."

Writing a second book was a way to deal with the anxiety of writing the first one, she said.

"It made me feel like I learned a lot writing the first book," Yaw said. "What will and won't work, that cloud of fear that it's not going to work, but it did and I was able to move through those anxieties and not even let them get in the way."

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Staff writer Carrie Chantler can be reached at (315) 282-2244 or carrie.chantler@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @CitizenChantler.

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