May 25, 2017KR BlogBlog

Strange Wonder: Q&A with 2017 Sophie Kerr Prize Winner Catalina Righter

I was having coffee with a new colleague in Cleveland who’d recently reviewed my C.V. He told me he’d once lived in Maryland, where I’d gone to college. “So I know what the Sophie Kerr Prize is,” he said, “which means I also know what a big deal it is that you won it.” He sat back and raised his eyebrows at me, like we now shared a secret.

I was so surprised to hear him mention the Sophie Kerr Prize that I didn’t know how to respond. What ancient history it seems, sometimes, that I won what is considered the nation’s largest undergraduate literary award. That during my commencement ceremony, I waited in surreal, slow-motion anticipation for the surprise announcement of the winner, and then I nearly blacked out when my name was called. That I stumbled onstage so the college president could hand me a check for more than $61,000, a reward for the first novel I’d written that year on the third floor of a sprawling Victorian known as the Rose O’Neill Literary House. It was fourteen years ago, but it already feels like a past life.

If we go back farther, we can consider the strange wonder of the prize itself and how it came to be attached to Washington College, a liberal arts college located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Sophie Kerr, an Eastern Shore native and prolific writer of short stories, novels, and magazine articles, left more than $510,000 to Washington College upon her death in 1965. Her will instructed the college to use half of the gift’s annual earnings for books, scholarships, and author visits while awarding the other half as a literary prize to the graduating senior deemed to have the most “ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.” The first Sophie Kerr Prize was awarded in 1968 and valued at about $9,000. This year, which marked the 50th anniversary of the prize, the award totaled $65,768.

A Spectacular Gift

Back when I was wrapping up my undergraduate degree at Washington College, the Sophie Kerr Prize loomed large. But after I won it and entered the greater literary world, I came back to reality. The prize is a spectacular gift for one Washington College graduate, but it doesn’t equate to long-term literary success. Eventually, the fact that I’d won the Sophie Kerr Prize came to feel like an unusual bit of trivia in my life—which was why I was so surprised to hear my colleague mention it in Cleveland. His words brought the prize alive again, reminding me just how much the prize meant to me as a young writer.

The Sophie Kerr Prize is gifted to one graduate based on his or her perceived literary “ability and promise,” which means it is subjective and imperfect, like all awards. But I have always been serious about making good on the potential the prize committee saw in me. On the day of the 2017 Sophie Kerr Prize announcement, for example, I was busy with a range of literary matters. I worked on a new short story. I read a client’s novel in preparation for our manuscript consultation meeting. I perused a few chapters of Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, which I was reading for both research and pleasure. (Turchi, by the way, is also a past winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize.) I wrote a congratulatory email to a friend whose agent is preparing to send her book out on submission, and then I reviewed an email from my own agent and pondered her revision suggestions for my novel. I’d like to think that my former self would be pleased to know how my writing life has shaped up in the years since graduating from Washington College.

A lot has changed since I won the Sophie Kerr Prize in 2003, including how the prize is awarded. Back then, the winner was announced on the spot during commencement, which created an intensely dramatic—and possibly crushing—moment for the writers who hoped to win. Now, a special ceremony held prior to graduation relieves some of that pressure while allowing everyone to more fully appreciate Sophie Kerr’s legacy and the talented students in Washington College’s writing program. And  the fact that multiple deserving finalists are now recognized seems to me the best change of all.

I watched the 2017 announcement at home as I cooked dinner. (Having access to a live streaming video of the ceremony is another benefit that wasn’t around in 2003.) With my laptop propped open on the kitchen counter, I watched the five finalists file onto the stage and take their seats. I listened as the keynote speaker, poet Elizabeth Spires, offered thoughtful advice about the writing life. (“Your writing will always be yours alone,” she said, “and that is a precious thing.”) Next, the finalists read excerpts from their portfolios. That was my favorite part—hearing snippets of talented students’ work and seeing firsthand why they were selected as finalists. It was a chance to appreciate their writing before the winner was revealed.

Catalina Righter: Winner of the 2017 Sophie Kerr Prize

In the end, only one writer could take home the $65,768 prize—and that person was Catalina Righter, an English major and creative writing minor from Manchester, Maryland who served as the editor-in-chief of the student paper and submitted a portfolio of poetry and journalism. She reacted as I think is only natural—by looking utterly shocked and happy, and by crying a little.

A few days after the announcement, I spoke with Righter to ask how she was handling her windfall. I wanted to hear how she was processing this experience that is filled not only with joy and gratitude, but also, as she herself pointed out, “guilt and uncertainty.” Excerpts from our phone conversation follow.

You and the other finalists handled yourselves wonderfully during what must have been a tension-filled evening as you waited to hear who would be named the winner. How did you handle the nerves?
CR:
Before the ceremony, we waited in a holding area backstage. Everyone seemed to be vibrating with energy. I was nervous, but I tried to convince myself to be excited for the reading. I’d decided I was going to have fun and enjoy reading my poems to an audience.

How did you feel when your name was called as the winner?
CR:
I think my auditory sensory input went out. I was in utter shock—I wasn’t sure what to do. I cried for a few seconds. It was very, very surreal. Afterward, when I went backstage, I was still overwhelmed. I sat down and cried.

How do you feel now that the news has sunk in a little?
CR:
I haven’t fully processed it yet. One part [of the experience] is extreme happiness, but another is guilt and uncertainty. There’s a huge gap between $65,000 and $0, and I don’t think there’s that much of a gap between my work and [that written by the other finalists].

How did your writing grow and change during your time at Washington College?
CR:
I came in writing poetry, and I joined the staff of The Elm [the student newspaper] to give myself a weekly writing obligation. I found a passion in journalism, and one of the benefits of attending a small school like Washington College is that I could move up the ranks on the editorial staff quickly. So between The Elm and creative writing, I had two writing paths: one I pursued academically, and one that was more extracurricular.

How did you view the possibility of being a contender for the Sophie Kerr Prize during your time at Washington College?
CR: It was present in my mind, for better or worse. I always had a goal to be a finalist, but not specifically to win it. I didn’t expect that—it’s so subjective.

Here’s the $65,000 question: How might you spend that money? Your finalist bio noted that you planned to temporarily move home following graduation. Is that still the case?
CR:
Until two days ago, I was definitely planning on moving home because I had $40 in my bank account. But I haven’t had time to think about [the money] yet. I’ll probably put most of it in the bank and try to live the first couple of years post-graduation with a safety net. If I have an opportunity to take a big risk, I’ll have it. Oh—and I’ll be able to buy books by people I’d like to read.

Did you receive the check that night at the Sophie Kerr Prize ceremony, or at commencement?
CR:
Sophie Kerr’s will requires that the actual prize must be given at graduation. It’s funny—at graduation, I was handed the check in a manila envelope that was simply labeled “Sophie.”

I hear you’re on the job market. What kind of work do you hope to pursue?
CR:
Definitely something writing-related. I spent four years developing my writing as a skill, and I’d like a job that involves writing and working with people. I’ve also considered getting an MFA someday.

What advice would you offer other Washington College seniors who are considering submitting a portfolio for the Sophie Kerr Prize?
CR:
Submit! Putting together the portfolio is a really rewarding experience. Submit even if you can’t confidently say, “This is worth $60K.” You may not be the best judge of your work.

For more on Sophie Kerr, watch “The History of Sophie Kerr” or read “Sophie, We Hardly Knew Ye.”