Courtesy of Marri Champié
Alan Heathcock, instructor of creative writing at Boise State, has traveled a life-long path woven of darkness and light on his writing journey—a journey which arrived this week in New York. The Whiting Writing Award is given each year to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and playwriting, and on Tuesday, Oct. 23, this esteemed literary award went to Heathcock. Heathcock’s book of short stories, “Volt,” published in 2011 by Graywolf Press, is a disquieting study of people who struggle to move from darkness into the light, and the author has conducted their journey with a masterful and empathetic pen.
Since 1985, the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation has supported creative writing and writers with awards of $50,000 to each recipient. Candidates are proposed by nominators from across the country and chosen by a small committee of writers, literary scholars and editors.
The Whiting Awards committee said Heathcock’s stories are, “intense …harrowing …gorgeous, muscular prose, (wherein) Heathcock paints a mythic vision of rural America that, for all its horror, evokes a deep and genuine sympathy that won’t let you turn away.”
And rarely has anyone turned away from “Volt.” In the year and a half since the book’s well-attended launch party in Boise, Idaho, Heathcock’s collection of stories has been validated by 13 major writing and literary awards. The list is impressive: Publisher’s Weekly Best Book 2011, Chicago Tribune Best Book 2011, New York Times Editors’ Choice and the recently announced, GLCA New Writers Award, are a few of the book’s premium accolades.
Heathcock agreed his stories are “harrowing,” but said he doesn’t write just to give emphasis to the darkness in people. At the many readings he has done in the last year and a half of book tours, Heathcock read the horrific story, Smoke—a tale of accidental murder, inspired by an incident that occurred to Heathcock’s grandfather. The characters in the eight stories that comprise “Volt,” are condensed from the unforgiving shadows in every man’s soul because, Heathcock said, “everyone has something dark inside them. But, …their ultimate need is to find a way out of the horror their lives have become.”
“People who know me now, but don’t know how I grew up in Chicago, think of me as a happy, funny guy,” Heathcock said. “They don’t know what awful experiences I might have had. But how well do you know anybody? As you get older you understand that you’ve misunderstood who someone is, that you didn’t know what was inside them.”
At an interview with Heathcock last week on the Boise State campus, Heathcock sported his characteristic fedora and dark-rimmed glasses. His gaze was intense
and personal as he leaned close to speak in his confident, articulate manner. Heathcock spoke easily about the journey that led to this award.
“I feel completely in balance now,” Heathcock said. “Since I completed “Volt,” I’m now free to be just the happy guy who loves his family, loves his wife. I’m in the exact right place right now and I’m very grateful for that, but I’m also very protective of that.”
Heathcock continued to discuss themes present in “Volt.”
“The biggest frustration with the book is that people have focused so much on the darkness in the stories that they have missed out that in every story there is a deep desire to not want to be in pain, and there is a lacing of love throughout the whole thing,” he said. “It’s about people who want to heal themselves.”
Long-time friend, writer Anthony Doerr, whose book “A Memory Wall” was A Notable Book of 2010 in the New York Times, was a year behind Heathcock in graduate school.
When Heathcock had his first story accepted for publication at a literary magazine called the Cresecent Review, it surprised no one.
“But then Al did something sort of amazing, something legendary,” Doerr said. “Something that has marked his path as a writer ever since.”
Heathcock withdrew his story from this respected literary magazine because the magazine refused to let him revise the piece before they published it. According to Doerr, Heathcock told him, “I just didn’t think it was done.
“His first big publication, something we’d all been working toward for years, news any of us would have happily consumed a few bottles of wine over, and he withdrew it,” Doerr said. “This was Al’s commitment to making his work live up to his standards.”
It took 10 years for Heathcock to finish the stories in Volt because working to his own standard isn’t something which can be done in a hurry.
Heathcock calls this standard “optimizing.” In his fiction workshops, he imparts this passion for “optimizing a story” to the students. He mentors each writer with his joy of writing. Most of his students are familiar with Heathcock’s work and the often sinister turns of his story plots. If a draft doesn’t seem to be working, or falls flat somehow, the students will jokingly suggest the writer should add a murder or some other dark twist to optimize the story.
But Heathcock emphatically made it clear optimizing isn’t only about dark deeds or the blackness in peoples’ souls, but also about the love and light they seek to counter all of this.
And the Whiting Award is proof Alan Heathcock has indeed optimized his writing with his life and arrived at the exact right place.