by Anthony Varallo
Drue Heinz, the philanthropist who endowed the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize (administered by the University of Pittsburgh Press), passed away this month at the age of 103. This essay was written in honor of her memory and the work she did to support the arts.
When I first heard the news that I’d won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, I was driving over a bridge. My family and I were shopping for groceries and needed to cross the cable-stayed bridge that connects our side of Charleston, SC to the other, more affluent suburbs, when my wife handed me my cell phone, and said, “You got a message from someone at the University of Pittsburgh Press.” I did. It was an editor with good news about the collection I’d submitted. I called back. The editor and I talked for a few moments, me steering with one hand, the phone in the other, me saying things like “Thank you” and “Are you sure?” and “Really?” and “I can’t believe it,” as cars passed ahead of me.
I was being honest: I couldn’t believe it. My collection, Out Loud, had already lost a dozen other contests, had even lost the Drue Heinz twice before, in fact, an event that led me to tell my wife that I had given up on the book, really, that it was time to move on from short stories—who wants to read those anyway?—to the novel. I was ready for that. Or at least I thought I was, until I won the prize, and then I remembered, in what seemed an instant, that I loved short stories, and enjoyed writing them more than anything else. So it was a pleasure (and sometimes the opposite) to sit down with those stories again, as the Pitt Press prepared the manuscript for publication, and remember what I’d enjoyed about writing them, why I wrote in the first place, what I was trying to do in my fiction, and why I’d sent the collection out into the world. Winning the Drue Heinz helped me remember what I loved about writing: the act of making something out of nothing, after much labor, the blank page no longer blank.
There were other pleasures, too. A reception and reading with prize judge Scott Turow, who, along with the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, handed me an envelope with the prize check inside, with its thrilling amount, a gold mine compared to the usual short story rate of pay of two contributor’s copies in a slightly torn, slightly damaged envelope. I kept the prize envelope for years. A few weeks after the reading, I was also invited to introduce Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richard Russo as the featured speaker for the Drue Heinz Lecture Series—a tradition for Heinz winners—where I stood in front of the largest audience I’ve ever addressed, and said a few words, all while trying to summon an expression that said please don’t notice that this is the largest audience I’ve ever addressed. Later, one of the event coordinators invited Richard Russo and me to spend some time alone to discuss writing, a request from Drue Heinz herself, to which Richard Russo and I happily complied. I asked Mr. Russo how he wrote his most recent novel, the incredible Bridge of Sighs, and he gave me some wonderful insights that I still carry with me to this day.
There were so many other great things about winning the prize, like working with everyone at the University of Pittsburgh Press, giving readings across the country, or getting a literary agent at long last, but one of the best rewards happened several months after publication, when an elegant and exotic-looking envelope arrived in my mailbox, complete with a Scottish return address and stamp: a letter from Drue Heinz. Ms. Heinz, then in her nineties, wrote to tell me how much she enjoyed reading my collection and wished me well in my future writing projects. I couldn’t believe she had taken the time to write to me, such a thoughtful and unexpected act. I felt grateful to be part of Drue Heinz’s legacy, fortunate to receive her generosity. I still have that letter today.
Anthony Varallo’s most recent story collection is Everyone Was There, winner of the Elixir Press 2016 Fiction Award. He is the author of three previous collections: This Day in History, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award; Out Loud, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; and Think of Me and I’ll Know (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press). Currently he is an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and serves as the fiction editor for Crazyhorse. See what he’s published in AGNI here.