July 12, 2011 — The Creative Writing Program in the University of Virginia's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences has named the first winner of the annual Henfield Prize for the best work of fiction written by one of its graduate students. Austin Smith, a rising second-year master of fine arts student, will receive the $10,000 prize for his story, "The Black Blanket."
"I found out I won the prize by e-mail at the best place I can imagine getting such news: a rest stop in western Iowa," Smith said. He grew up on a dairy farm near Freeport, Ill., but now lives outside Madison, Wis. when he's not in school.
Author Margot Livesey, from the Scottish Highlands, was the outside judge who selected the top story from among manuscripts submitted anonymously. She has published six novels, most recently "The House on Fortune Street," which won the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award. She is a distinguished writer-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston and is fiction editor of the quarterly journal, Ploughshares.
Caitlin Kindervatter-Clark received honorable mention for her story, "The Pygmy Queen."
"I'm very proud that our program was selected as one of five M.F.A. programs to give this award, and delighted that Austin Smith has won it," said Christopher Tilghman, an English professor and director of the Creative Writing Program, "It's a dark, deeply intellectual story, but written with grace and heart."
Livesey said she admired "The Black Blanket" for the way it suggests "much of life is lived, unspoken, beneath the surface of our everyday tasks."
The story captures a day in the life of a woman married to a farmer who is home alone when a veterinarian visits to help a pregnant cow.
"If I had to describe the story," Smith said, "I'd say it's about how a symbol of domestic bliss, a farmhouse in the rural Midwest, actually causes the death of small, beautiful things due to an illusion. The wife in the story is reading 'The Idiot' by Dostoevsky, and as she reads certain characters and scenes from the book resonate in her own life, and in the end, her world and the world of the imagination sort of come together. But what I really want the story to be, if it's successful, is an account of a miracle that the reader concludes has really happened."
"By the end of the story," Livesey wrote in the award citation, "I feel that a veil has been briefly lifted and allowed to fall again, but in the brief moment, I have been allowed to understand something profound."
U.Va.'s Creative Writing Program has poetry and fiction tracks, and Smith is in the poetry track.
"Being a writer, you're constantly being asked how you're going to make a living, so the financial support really helps," he said. "But more than that, it's nice to know that something you wrote resonated with someone else. And for me winning a fiction prize is especially meaningful, because I'm starting to switch to writing more prose.
"I've almost stubbornly held to the idea that I need to write poetry, to the point of writing a 200-page epic poem about Wisconsin. But as I was writing the poem, I realized that for some topics prose is much better, much more fluent and supple, and that certain topics I want to write about are going to require me working in prose."
Smith has had poems published in literary journals, such as The Sewanee Review, ZYZZYVA, Poetry East and Midwest Quarterly. He has also published a few chapbooks, or shorter books of poems.
"Having the opportunity to go to the University of Virginia for two years and just focus on writing really gets me out of my comfort zone and challenges me," he said.
"There are such great and supportive people here, and it's so beautiful and sort of ghostly with all its history, that it really inspires you to work. Last year I lived a few doors down from Edgar Allan Poe's old room, and although the audio recording sort of drove me nuts by the end of the year, it was encouraging to walk by his room every day and know that, unlike him, you're getting a lot of support here."
U.Va. is one of five universities nationwide whose creative writing programs were chosen to host the Henfield Prizes. Established in 1980 by the late literary editor, agent and art collector Joseph McCrindle, the prize is one of the most prestigious individual honors available to promising authors. The McCrindle Foundation is supporting the prize with a $300,000 endowment.
U.Va.'s master of fine arts program in creative writing, established in 1980, is housed in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences' English department. Ranked among the top creative writing programs in the country, the program admits only a dozen new graduate students in each year.
Excerpt from "The Black Blanket"
Then, as if on some sort of mysterious cue, a bird flew into the window above the sink.
"O-o-o-oh," she let out in a long, undulate moan. "I'm hanging the black blanket."
"Don't hang the black blanket, Bessert will ask all about it."
She ignored him and went in the other room to get the black blanket. If she had her way all the windows would have been covered with black blankets. She would rather have lived in perpetual darkness than hear that horrible rubbery sound of a bird hitting the glass, even if it only happened once a month.