Third time's a charm for Connecticut Book Award winner

Four Fairfield University professors win prestigious literary awards

Image: Michael WhiteThe faculty of the MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University have a lot to be thankful for this holiday season: Program Director Michael White, Ph.D., recently won the 2011 Connecticut Book Award in fiction and three faculty members have won prestigious literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) - three of just 40 given out nationwide.

The fellowship winners, who had to submit samples of their current writing projects to the NEA to be considered, are Nalini Jones, Porochista Khakpour and Suzanne Matson. Each will receive $25,000 to continue with their work.

"The writing act is one thing. It's intense, it's painful, it's exhilarating," said Dr. White, author of six novels and 50 short stories. "Winning an award is another thing. I was proud. I was humbled. As every writer feels, it's rewarding to be recognized for your work. It's a small but important moment."

Dr. White, who has been a finalist for the Connecticut Book Award twice before, won for his 2010 historical novel "Beautiful Assassin," which is based on the life of Tat'yana Levchenko, a female sniper who became a Soviet hero during World War II and later traveled to the United States at the request of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The novel - Dr. White's third work of historical fiction - combines mystery, intrigue, romance and tragedy against the backdrop of one of the most significant events in modern history.

The Connecticut Book Award is presented by the Connecticut Center for the Book at the Hartford Public Library.

Dr. White, an Avon, Conn., resident, is the founding editor of the American Fiction series and the fiction editor of the literary magazine Dogwood. He was previously a Connecticut Book Award finalist for his 2004 novel "The Garden of Martyrs" and his 2008 novel "Soul Catcher."

"Third time's a charm," he said, laughing.

Porochista Khakpour, a native of Tehran, Iran, now completing a fellowship/guest professorship at the University of Leipzig, Germany, is working on her second and third novels simultaneously. Her debut novel "Sons and Other Flammable Things" was a New York Times "Editor's Choice," a Chicago Tribune "Fall's Best" and the 2007 California Book Award winner.

She learned she won the NEA fellowship while traveling in the Czech Republic. "I was in a smoky bar in Prague, where the last thing on my mind was a literary award," said Khakpour, who most recently lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "They had been trying to reach me for days, with an old U.S. cell number apparently. It was surreal."

Khakpour said the prize will allow her to finish her second novel and new works and may help get her more notice. "I think people pay a lot of attention to this list (of recipients) - I always did! - so I suppose it boosts your profile in the literary world."

In addition to teaching in Fairfield's low-residency MFA program, Nalini Jones, of Norwalk, Conn., is a Stanford Calderwood Fellow of the MacDowell Colony and has recently taught at Columbia University and the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Her story collection, "What You Call Winter," was published in 2007.

She submitted a section of a novel in progress, which is set in a fictional suburb of Mumbai, India. "I think the encouragement of receiving the fellowship, not just the funding, will be a real help in finishing the novel," she said. "But the funding will make all sorts of things possible. A better-researched book, for example."

Jones said winning the fellowship left her stunned and grateful. "I owe a great deal to other faculty in the MFA program at Fairfield," she said. "We only meet twice a year, but it's a supportive community."

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Suzanne Matson is a professor and chair of the English department at Boston College. She is the author of three novels and two books of poetry. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, Child, The Seattle Times and Harvard Review, among other publications.

A recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the American-Scandinavian Foundation, she lives in Newton, Mass.

Like her fellow recipients, Matson said the fellowship meant more than just money. "I've already found that it's given me new energy for the work at hand," she said. "When you're struggling to find the right shape for a long work, recognition like this gives you confidence that the struggle is going to pay off if you stick with it."

Asked why she writes, she said, "I can't not write, in all honesty. It's how I live in the world - by writing it and reading how others do."

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Media Contact: Meredith Guinness, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2950,

Posted on December 5, 2011

Vol. 44, No. 135

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