The University of Indianapolis welcomed Whirling Prize winning authors Helen Klein Ross and Amy Ash to campus on Monday, Feb. 27. Ross, a novelist, and Ash, a poet, read selections from their works and also participated in a question-and-answer session with students and faculty prior to the event.
The Whirling Prize winners are chosen each year by the students in the ENGL 479 Etchings Press class. Assistant Professor of English Elizabeth Whiteacre taught the class for the first time in the fall of 2016. Her role was to help facilitate the judging process and help the student judges learn how to judge a book competition. Whiteacre said that she thought the students’ decision was a difficult one.
“I think the four student judges had an incredibly difficult decision to make in each category, and they selected excellent works,” she said. “Both books are dynamic and complex. I feel the judges were drawn to them because Ash and Ross had compelling characters who wrestled with really challenging problems.”
During the 45-minute session, Ross shared that she had been in advertising for more than 20 years before making the switch to writing full time. Part of the reason she went into advertising came from her father.
“It’s really hard to make money as a writer,” Ross said. “When I was a kid, my father said to me, ‘You like to write, so here’s your choice. You can be a novelist and live in an attic—making no money—and maybe never sell your work, or you can go to work for a company who will pay you a wage to write.’”
Ash currently teaches at Indiana State University in addition to writing. She said during the question-and-answer session that teaching helps to make her writing better.
“That [teaching] was always my goal,” Ash said. “Ever since I started college, I knew I wanted to teach. I knew that I wanted to teach at the college level, and I knew that I wanted to write. I love those things…. I really think about teaching and writing as just going hand-in-hand. My writing is so much better because of the work that I do with my students.”
A few hours after the Q&A, Ash and Ross took the podium in UIndy Hall C to read excerpts from their works. Ash was the first to read. She opened with “Building as Cradle,” a collaborative work between herself and poet Callista Buchen. Her next selections were from one of the collections she is currently working on called “Malady,” about disease, specifically her parents’ battles with cancer. “Lullaby with Broken Lung” is about Ash’s mother’s battle with lung cancer, she said. “Not Flower but Fire” was inspired by the image of the burning, tall grass prairie as Ash drove from Kansas home to Ohio for her father’s surgery.
To close out her reading, Ash shared eight poems from “The Open Mouth of the Vase,” her collection that won the Whirling Prize in Poetry. She read “He Said Come On,” “After Dinner,” “Gutting,” “Taken,” “Why We Will Not Have Children” and “Prayer.” “Public Rest Area I-90” had alternating couplets: one Ash wrote and one that she took off a bottle of Lysol toilet bowl cleaner, she said. “Lies” was a short poem written after Ash visited a Kansas sunflower field too late and saw broken stemmed flowers instead of yellow ones in bloom.
After Ash, Ross read three chapters from “What Was Mine,” her second novel and the Whirling Prize winner in Prose. Ross’ novel tells the story of a woman desperate for a child who kidnaps a baby from an IKEA store in August of 1990 and raises the child as her own. The novel is told from the perspectives of everyone the event affected, especially Lucy, the kidnapper, Marilyn, the birth mother and Mia, the daughter, Ross said.
“At first, I was telling the story from the point of the view of the woman who took her [Mia], and then I realized that that doesn’t really work, because what I was trying to do was tell a really defining story of family-hood and motherhood and parenthood,” Ross said. “…. So I felt like I needed to speak from different perspectives on the story, so my story is actually from 15 points of view.”
Even though the novel begins when the truth of her birth is revealed to Mia, Ross read chapters from the novel that set up the story. First, Ross read a chapter from Lucy’s perspective that illustrated her desire to have children. She also read two chapters about the kidnapping, one from Lucy’s perspective and one from Marilyn’s. She said Lucy’s perspective took multiple attempts to write, because she wanted her readers to buy into it.
Being able to connect with the authors was Whiteacre’s favorite part of having the authors visit campus.
“It’s a special thing to hear authors read their work and later hear their voices when I return to their books, or be able to ask them questions about the choices they make while they write,” she said.
In addition to the Whirling Prize, the UIndy English Department awards prizes for UIndy students’ writing during the spring semester. Whiteacre said that students interested in submitting work can pick up entry forms and find more information in Esch 004. There is an essay contest for freshmen, a fiction prize for short stories, a poetry contest, a literary essay contest and a Ferlini essay contest. The department also awards a senior professional writing student the Professional Writing Award.
Students interested in judging the next Whirling Prize contest should enroll in ENGL 479 for the fall semester of 2017.