Writer-in-residence wins $50,000 writing prize

Michael Dahlie, Butler University’s Booth Tarkington Writer-in-Residence, has been named a winner of the 2010 Whiting Writers’ Award.

According to the Giles Whiting Foundation website, whitingfoundation.org, the Whiting Writers’ Award was established in 1985 to support creative writing. The award is given annually to “10 emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays.”

The award is based off of “accomplishment and promise,” and comes with a $50,000 prize.

A small group of writers, scholars and editors appointed annually choose the winners of the award.

Dahlie said he worked as a freelance writer in New York for about 11 years prior to coming to Indianapolis.

His first book of literary fiction was published in 2008, but he has been publishing short stories since 1997.

Dahlie said he was completely shocked when he heard he had won the award.

“I was pretty happy,” he said. “It was very exciting; it’s kind of a big honor for a lot of reasons.

“And it’s cool to get cash. There are not many ways to make money as a fiction writer, believe it or not—unless you’re John Grisham. So yeah, it was good news.”

Dahlie said he had no idea he had even been nominated for the award.

“They just call you one day out of the blue and let you know,” he said. “It’s kind of a strange call to get.”

The Whiting Writers’ Award is meant to recognize a writers’ broad body of works, awarding them for their achievements in writing as a whole.

In addition to praising Dahlie ’ s breadth of work, the Whiting Writers’ Award also cited
one specifically noteworthy piece, his novel “A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living.”

“It took me about two years [to write],” Dahlie said. “I actually wrote the first part of it as a short story, and then put it aside.

“Then I kind of decided that there was enough there and that the character interested me enough that I could write a novel based on him.

“I guess really I started it in 2004, then put it aside and resumed it maybe a year later. I sold it in 2006 and then edited it.”

As for the future, Dahlie said he plans to keep writing, but that he has loved his year at Butler as a teacher. Ideally, he would like to find a way to be both a teacher and writer.

He said the award was meaningful in multiple respects, but mostly he appreciates the personal fulfillment it brought him.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re just kind of writing into the abyss and who knows if anyone is reading it or anyone cares, so it’s nice when you have some sort of validation that someone, somewhere read your book and thought it was really good and wanted to tell you.”

Hilene Flanzbaum, English department chair, said the department received applications from people with many more published works than Dahlie, but she knew he was something special.

“We had probably 120 applicants for the job,” Flanzbaum said. “But we read his book and all of our collective judgment said, ‘This is exceptional.’

“It’s better than a first novel should be.”

Flanzbaum said the Whiting Writers’ Award is an enormous honor, and that she is proud to have been a part of selecting Dahlie for Butler’s staff.

“This is a very prestigious award given to people who they anticipate are going to be important writers,” she said.

Dan Barden, English professor, said it is one of “the coolest” awards that can be won in writing, and that to understand its sheer magnitude one needs only to look at the list of past recipients.

“Maybe this goes without saying, but it brings an enormous amount of prestige to the English department and to Butler University,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that doesn’t even often land on people who are teaching at Harvard, Yale or Columbia, let alone Butler.

“It’s a big award.”