Many writers work other jobs in order to afford to write. The Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes are designed to give writers of all kinds the financial freedom to focus on the writing that matters the most to them. Michael Kelleher is a poet and the founding director of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale University. Norah Myers interviews Michael to find out more.
1) The Windham Campbell prize is in its fifth year. How has the prize helped its recipients?
I think the prize can help the prize recipients in several significant ways. First, obviously, there is the money. $165,000 can buy a writer a lot of time — even in London or New York. There is nothing more precious to a writer than time to write. All of the writers have told me that they feel free to write what they want with the money, rather than what is expected of them.
Second, it calls attention to the writer and to the work. In some instances, it might shine a spotlight on a writer who deserves a wider audience. In others, it might be the cause a subtle shift in the way the critics receive their work. Readers often need a reason to pick up a literary work, and sometimes the recognition of a prize like the Windham-Campbell Prize will be the difference in selecting one book over another.
2) Why is it important for the prize to recognize playwrights?
Well, playwrights are writers, too. Plays are a significant part of our literature. So that is one reason. Another is that Donald Windham was himself a sometime playwright (who once co-authored a play with his close friend, Tennessee Williams), while Sandy Campbell was an actor. It was they who made the decision to award playwrights, based on their mutual love of theater.
3) What’s the most exciting part of the prize’s accompanying festival?
The festival is a chance to bring a group of great writers together and to hear them speak about themselves, about their writing, about the various things they like to think about. And we, the audience, are given the opportunity to think along with them in a warm public setting. I am especially fond of the group reading on the final night, when everyone gets ten minutes to show off their writing to the crowd. These have been some of the best moments of the festival. Of course, the prize ceremony is also fantastic. Each year we invite someone to give a lecture on why they write. This year it was Patti Smith. Next year it will be Karl Ove Knausgaard. All of them are different, all of them profound.
4) How have publishers benefited from their authors winning the prize?
Judging by the fact that many publishers have started writing “Winner of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize” across the covers of their books, I would say that they see an opportunity to promote their authors by calling attention to the prize.
5) How do you see the prize evolving in the next few years?
Two major changes are occurring with the March 1 announcement. We are adding poets for the first time, and we are increasing the prize value from $150,000 to $165,000. We are very excited to include poets among the winners. Over the next five years, we plan to keep developing our public programming to include literary festivals and other events that will help make audience engagement and interest in the prize a a year-round affair.