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Celebrating the written word around the world

The Herald talks with Michael Kelleher, Director of the Windham-Campbell Prizes and Festival. This year’s festival will be September 13 through 15.

YH: What’s the story behind the Windham-Campbell Prizes?

MK: Well, it was founded by two men, Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell, who were a couple for 40-odd years. Donald was a writer, Sandy was an actor; they met in New York in the early ’40s, and they ran in this really remarkable circle of people that they befriended at a young age. Some of their closest friends were people like Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote and Joseph Cornell. The list just goes on and on and on of all the people that were at their dinner parties. Donald was somebody who did not come from money; Sandy was somebody who did, and they pretty much lived off of Sandy’s income for most of their lives, which was not a huge income but it was enough for them to live comfortably. Then Sandy passed away suddenly in the late ’80s, and he left everything to Donald. All of the money was stock in one company, the family business basically. And Donald refused to sell it and just sat on it for 25 years, and it just grew and grew. When he passed away in 2010 he had an enormous fortune, and he left all of it to found these prizes.

YH: What inspired Donald to found the prizes?

MK: I think that early in his career Donald had this experience where he co-authored a play with Tennessee Williams, it was on Broadway, and it was a flop. It was called “You Touched Me,” and it was based on a D.H. Lawrence short story. And it had big actors—Montgomery Clift was in it. But it just didn’t pan out. But nonetheless, Donald got a royalty check for about $5000, and this was at a time when he was still dependent on his own income, and that allowed him to not work for about three years and to complete his first novel. I think that experience really was the seed for the prizes—the recognition that what a writer needs most, aside from recognition, is time to write. And that if you could provide enough money to allow them to just focus on their work without having to think about money for a period of time, you’d be doing them a great service. So that’s the spirit of the prize. These men who lived in this milieu of the love of art and culture and writing and had this incredible respect for writers and wanted to support them.

YH: How did the prizes end up at Yale?

MK: How they got here is a little more torturous, because neither of them had any connection to Yale. Sandy went to Princeton, Donald didn’t go to college. At some point they had started to donate their papers, a pretty impressive archive given all the people they knew—and Donald has 40 years of correspondence with Tennessee Williams and all this sort of stuff. They started to donate it to the University of Georgia, then had a bit of a falling out because they didn’t feel that the university were capable of paying enough attention to detail when they were cataloguing things and so forth. So they became disillusioned and decided not to donate anything more to them. At which point, Bruce Kellner, a scholar, who at the time was also the executor of the Carl van Vechten archive and papers (which is here [at the Beinecke]) met Donald and Sandy and said, “Oh, you know, I should introduce you to my friends at the Beinecke Library.” So he introduced them to Donald Gallup, who introduced them to Pat Willis, who at the time was the curator for American Literature here. And he just developed a nice relationship with her and decided to donate all of his papers here over time. I guess when he was thinking about where to leave this money to start these prizes, he had a good feeling about this place. He recognized that Yale was a university that had a global outlook, but also had the knowledge and wherewithal to handle this huge amount of money… He knew it wouldn’t be squandered, I guess.

YH: What audience are you considering when you select the prizewinners and organize the festival?

MK: The audience for the prize is not campus: the audience is the globe. It’s a global English language writing prize. So we are looking constantly around the world to find out who’s doing interesting writing in these different parts of the world. And when we announce the prizes we’re focused on making sure that as many people across the globe as possible know about the prize. The festival is an event that we came up with right at the very beginning. Initially, all I was told was that everybody has to come to campus, they have to accept the prize in person, and you have to have a big ceremony. So talking about it with members of the steering committee and people here at the Beinecke, we started to think, well, we’ve got these incredible writers coming in from all over the world, and why not keep them here for a couple of days and celebrate them and celebrate their work. So when we plan the festival, we’re thinking of the students and faculty as one of the primary audiences, and also as participants in the planning of the festival and shaping some of the ideas of the festival. But we also want this to be a festival that reaches out to the New Haven community, that reaches out to the greater New Haven-Hartford region. People come in from New York, people come in from Boston, and so we’d like to continue to allow for the festival to grow and to reach out to as many people as possible.

YH: What went into the decision to award for poetry for the first time this year?

MK: I think it was always the intent of Donald Windham for poetry to be one of the categories. However, when they brought the proposal here to campus, there were a couple of questions. First of all, it was going to be at the Beinecke Library, and Beinecke has a poetry prize already—the Bollingen Prize—which is a 50 year old prize with a very august history. So there was some concern that we don’t really know what this Windham-Campbell prize is, other than this big pile of money, and we don’t want it to come in and steamroll over something that’s been here for 50 years. And then there was also the Yale Younger Poets prize on campus as well, which is equally august, if not more so. So I think there was just a sensitivity to the fact that you had these two longstanding, really important prizes that are important not just to the campus but to the poetry community across America. When I was hired, the language said something to the effect of: it will be fiction, nonfiction, and drama; poetry may be added later as a category. I think the idea was simply, let’s see what these prizes look like before we add poetry. And it actually worked out rather nicely because the Windham-Campbell prizes fit very neatly in between those two prizes. The Bollingen is essentially a lifetime achievement award, and the Yale Younger Poets prize is a first book prize, so we cover basically everything in between. We specifically say to the nominators that this is not a lifetime achievement award, it’s meant to support active writers and to give them the opportunity to continue writing into the future.

YH: Tell us more about this year’s prizewinners.

MK: The group this year covers a really broad geographic range. We have writers from North America, we have writers from the Caribbean, we have writers from the Antipodes and Ireland. That’s something that we focus on every year. I maintain a database that is broken up by category and region of the world that I pull from every year when I’m looking for nominators. So we’re only going to invite 15 nominators per category per year, so when it’s coming time to start sending out invitations we look at those and we figure out how many slots we’re going to give out to each part of the world and each category. And a lot of that will depend on how heavily they’ve been represented in prize recipients in the past year or two. We pay great attention to making sure that the nominators and the judges and the members of the selection committee are diverse, and that there’s gender parity. As far as the writers are concerned, [there are] a number of firsts this year. First writer from New Zealand, first two writers from the Caribbean, first Aboriginal writer from anywhere. There are these voices that are going to come here that have never been represented in the prize process before, have never been on campus as part of the Windham-Campbell prizes, and have never been part of that discussion. [Diverse voices have] been very much a part of our discussions every year as we’re selecting the prizes because we’ve had plenty of nominees from those areas, but this is the first time that we’re having a chance to talk about these different places—and talk to people from these different places.

YH: Is there one text by a prizewinner this year that you’re particularly excited about? Or one person you’re particularly excited to meet in person?

MK: Well, personally, I would say that one of my favorite books from this year—and this is not to disparage anybody else who won—is Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis. I think it’s just this wonderful model, and I’ve never really read anything like it. He has this incredible gift to tell a story very well, with a great sense of humor, incredible pathos, and with a real intellectual depth that is very rare. And the way that he brings all those qualities together is incredibly unique. And if you had told me that this was a book told from the point of view of dogs—I’ve read several of those in my lifetime (Virginia Woolf wrote one, Paul Auster wrote one)—so I wasn’t all that excited to read it. But just from page one I was taken in by it. And I think for me, Ali Cobby Eckermann is this real discovery. She wrote this book-length—she calls it a novel in verse—called Ruby Moonlight, and it tells the story of an Aboriginal woman having an affair with a white trapper in 19th century outback Australia, and tells it over the course of a book-length poem that’s written in individual lyric poems. Again, that’s one of those where when I looked at it, I thought, “Oh, great, a novel in verse, that’s exactly what I want to read,” and it’s not something that would have compelled me to read it just from its description alone. But I’m so glad that I did, because for me it was the discovery of this writer of incredible power and talent working on this material, working on these stories that are necessary and need to be told.

YH: And for people who want to get excited for the festivities over the summer, are there things they should be looking out for or books you think they should read?

M: We are going to be promoting a Twitter hashtag—#WindhamCampbellWednesdays— starting on May 24, so every two weeks one or more members of our student planning committee will be discussing one of the books or plays they’re reading at that time. So we’re hoping that students who want to engage can plug in either through that hashtag on Twitter, or just follow us on Twitter, follow us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram, or Tumblr, and information about what we’re all reading and talking about over the course of the summer will be available for them to interact with.

YH: Do you want to tell me a little bit about the keynote address this year?

M: Part of the festival every year is we do a keynote address at the prize ceremony. It’s officially titled the Windham-Campbell lecture, and the official theme is “Why do you write?” Why I Write is actually the name of the imprint that we’re doing through Yale University Press to publish the expanded lectures in book form every year. This year, the lecture is by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writer of the 3,000-plus page autobiographical novel My Struggle. And he’s a sort of literary sensation all over the world these days, and he’s one volume away from having completed the six volumes in translation in the US. Five of them have come out, and I think the sixth one is going to take an extra year to come out because it’s something like 1,500 pages long. It should be really exciting.

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