NEA Literature Fellowships

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2019

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Photo by Sara Houghteling

Author, physician and NEA Lit Fellow

Author, physician, and National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow Daniel Mason wrote and published his first novel while he was still in medical school. The Piano Tuner received international acclaim, was translated into 28 languages, and adapted for theater and opera. Mason took time off after medical school to complete his second novel, A Far Place, which was short-listed for several literary prizes. Mason then finished his medical training and began his clinical practice and--since he’s not super-human after all--his third novel was 14 years in the making. Again,he struck gold wowing critics and readers alike with The Winter Soldier. The Winter Soldier tells the story of Lucius who leaves medical school in Vienna at the outbreak of World War I to serve in the Army. The Austrian-Hungarian empire, facing a shortage of doctors, allows medical students to staff field hospitals. Anxious for this practical experience, Lucius joins up and finds himself in a tiny village in the Carpathian mountains. He is expecting a well-staffed hospital run by experienced doctors who can mentor him. Instead, he finds himself the sole doctor in a bombed-out church doubling as a hospital whose single remaining medical personnel is a field nurse, Sister Margarete. The story that unfolds is Lucius’s medical and emotional coming of age. But the novel is also about the mad incongruity of World War I, the fleeting connections forged by war, and the growing awareness of the pervasiveness of a new condition affecting the armies—shell shock. Mason speaks thoughtfully about writing and psychiatry (his medical practice) and how his two careers are complementary and how they are not. We also talk about the joys and pitfalls of research and the attitudinal changes in medicine in the past 100 years.

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Photo by Smeeta Mahanti

Novelist and 2016 NEA Literature Fellow

Novelist and 2016 NEA Literature Fellow R.O. Kwon's first novel, The Incendiaries, was ten years in the making. But that persistence and hard work paid off: the debut novel was named a best book of the year by over 40 publications. It’s a vivid, dark story that deals with faith, loss, a fractured love, and fanaticism. But Kwon herself is anything but dark. Talking about that ten-year journey of writing The Incendiaries, she told me she would wonder, ”Why didn’t I become a dermatologist? I would have been a good dermatologist. I love thinking about skincare.” It’s one of the funny asides that pepper this conversation in which she is also thoughtful about herself and about writing. We find out about the genesis of the book—the loss of her deep Christian faith and her grief over that loss, her deep love for fiction, and her sadness that when she was growing up there were so few Asian-American writers for her to model a career on. Kwon also shares how her love of language tripped up her writing in the novel's early drafts and some of the strategies she used to keep going. It’s a wide-ranging conversation with an engaging, thoughtful, and smart author.

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Photo by Janie Airey

Translator and NEA Grantee

Literary translator and National Endowment for the Arts fellow Jennifer Croft was passionate about Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights—so much so that she spent ten years trying to persuade a literary house to publish an English translation. Croft would translate excerpts of the book and send them to journals trying to gin up interest in Tokarczuk’s distinctive work—a compilation of 116 chapters or fragments that travel through centuries and countries, ranging from single-page ruminations on airports or hotels to 30-page-long stories about a man searching for his wife and child who disappear as they are all vacationing or Chopin’s sister smuggling the composer’s heart back into Poland. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Croft was able to complete the translation. She also persuaded an independent English publisher to take a chance on the novel. The result: Flights was awarded the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded to the best work of fiction translated from any language into English, and it was also a finalist for the National Book Award. In this episode of the podcast, Croft talks about Flights, the strange alchemy that goes into translation, the importance of grants and the Arts Endowment to translators, and how her own interest in Slavic languages began (Hint: figure skating played a central role).

2018

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Photo courtesy of David Tomas Martinez

Poet and Big Read author

Poet David Tomas Martinez’s book (and new Big Read title) Hustle explodes with verbal dexterity about street life. Born in San Diego to a working class Chicano family, David Tomas Martinez found power and strength by running with a gang. A father at 17, he ended up in college as a returning student through sheer luck, and there he found strength and power through language. David became a poet and the rough side of town and the people he knew (and knows) there became his subjects. His first collection, and first publication, is Hustle which became a prize-winning book…and a new Big Read title. David’s joy in linguistic playfulness isn’t confined to the page. His honesty, exuberance, and charm comes through in this podcast as we walk with him down the streets of Southern California; there’s violence and meanness—but also heart-stopping moments of grace.

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Courtesy of Jennifer Haigh

Novelist and NEA Literature Fellow

In Jennifer Haigh’s fifth novel Heat and Light, she returns to the fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania: its prosperity withered with the closing of the coalmines. So when it’s learned that the area is rich in natural gas, many people are eager to sign over their mineral rights to energy companies. And the debate about fracking and all that it entails upends the community. Jennifer Haigh knows her subject well; she was raised in a former coal town that also sits on deposits of natural gas. In our conversation she talks about her hometown and how it’s become the basis for much of her writing, the pull of the past on the present and the legacy of North Appalachia’s geology.

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Photo by Justus Poehis

Poet and 2015 NEA Literature Fellow

Her poetry collection Scriptorium illuminate her Appalachian Roots.

2016

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Photo copyright 2014 Sharona Jacobs Photography.

Big Read author and 2006 NEA Literature Fellow

Pretty Monsters combines the ordinary and the magical—with flair.

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 Photo: Courtesy of author

Author and NEA Literature Fellow

No one tells stories embedded in Southern Appalachia with more grit or more beauty.

NEA Translation Fellow and Author

Michael Berry reflects on the art of translating Yu Hua’s influential novel and new Big Read title To Live into English

Author and 2004 NEA Literature Fellow

Justin Cronin brings his post-apocalyptic Passage trilogy to a close with The City of Mirrors.

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