In her forthcoming memoir Lit, poet-memoirist Mary Karr credits God with leading her to sobriety and, eventually, bestseller status. But she also owes the latter to a Whiting Award, which gave her some much-needed financial stability and led to her meeting Binky Urban, the agent who implored her to write a memoir.
It’s understandable that Karr would give Jesus credit for a Whiting: The prize, which held its 25th annual ceremony last night — awarding ten up-and-coming writers and playwrights $50,000 — always comes out of the blue. There is no application, just a secret selection process and a potentially life-saving phone call.
"There are actually risks to living this way," says Salvatore Scibona, author of The End, who, before he won a Whiting last night, was scraping by. Last Sunday he totaled his used Subaru Loyale; with no anti-lock brakes or airbags, he was especially lucky to walk away. With his winnings, Scibona plans to buy a new car (one that meets all current safety standards).
More commonly, the Whitings are a ticket out of water-treading obscurity. Not everyone who wins follows the path of Whiting alumni Denis Johnson, August Wilson, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, and Jeffrey Eugenides. But even a book advance would be a quantum leap for another 2009 winner, Joan Kane, a (very pregnant) Native Alaskan writer whose new book of poetry, The Cormorant Hunter's Wife, had a print run of 500 copies with NorthShore Press, which runs off a solar cell. (She bought 400 of them so she could sell them herself.) "No royalties, nothing," says Kane, who has four subsidized months to get some writing done before her second child is due. "This comes at a really fortunate time."
Time isn't always money for a writer, but money always buys time. In the eight years she worked on her novel Miles from Nowhere, Nami Mun — perhaps this year's least obscure Whiting winner — supported herself as a street vendor, an Avon lady, a photojournalist, a bartender, and a criminal-defense investigator. She'll use the money "to stay in my apartment for ten hours a day."
There is also, of course, the recognition, and the legacy. "There are things you know as a writer," says winner Jericho Brown. "You think, 'there's no way I'm getting this award.' I want to be great — we all want to be great." Not all Whiting winners end up great.
It was left to the evening's keynote speaker, Margaret Atwood, to wryly explain that combination of confidence and pressure that ought to come with those checks. "It's time for a bracing quote from Tennyson," she said. "'Doubt not, go forward. If thou doubt, the beasts will tear thee piecemeal.'"