L.A. author Kathryn Scanlan wins $175,000 literary prize: 'Baffling and wonderful'

Kathryn Scanlan’s knowledge that she would be a writer arose in the haze of childhood, like the appreciation for animals that grounds so many of the L.A. author’s stories.

Her most recent success in literature, though, seems to have taken even her by surprise: Scanlan has been awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize, a $175,000 grant for achievements in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama. The award, whose winners were announced Tuesday, is one of the most generous in the literary world; recipients have been given a total of $18 million or so since 2013 to aid their work unbounded by financial constraints.

The prize, which is administered annually through Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, is bestowed completely anonymously. Writers cannot apply for the award. Rather, they are nominated and selected by secret juries.

This year’s winners also include Deirdre Madden for fiction, Christina Sharpe and Hanif Abdurraqib for nonfiction, Christopher Chen and Sonya Kelly for drama, and M. NourbeSe Philip and Jen Hadfield for poetry.

“I’m never going to find out who nominated me for this. Or — wow — the names of any of the jury who selected me,” Scanlan lamented.

“It’s kind of baffling and wonderful and I’d like to thank everyone, but I don’t know who they are.”

The committee that selected her said, “Scanlan fuses mundane experiences with the density of a redemptive vision, capturing the harrowing events of ordinary lives in raw, hard-hitting prose.”

Scanlan is the author of three books, in addition to a significant career writing for various literary magazines. Her most recent novel, “Kick the Latch,” is a chronicle of a woman named Sonia and her career in the horse-training industry. Scanlan became acquainted with Sonia — we never learn her last name — through her parents and their antique business in Iowa, her home state. They insisted the women meet, and “by the end of that first conversation, I felt like I could write a book about her,” Scanlan said.

Their initial conversation lasted four hours, and Scanlan admitted she “really didn’t end up asking hardly any questions at all. I was just listening.”

The pair continued to speak via phone during the pandemic as Scanlan crafted a narrative about the intensity of life in the horse-racing industry using transcripts of their conversations. The book went on to win a Gordon Burns Award and was listed as a book of the year in the Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, New Yorker and more.

“Kick the Latch” matches the style of her previous works, “Aug 9-Fog” and “The Dominant Animal,” with brief, sparsely detailed chapters that Leslie Jamison describes in the New Yorker as “rosary beads” of information rather than a traditional narrative arc. Scanlan took 15 years to derive “Aug 9-Fog” from a diary, kept by an 86-year-old woman, that she discovered at an estate sale in Illinois, while “The Dominant Animal” is a collection of short stories meditating on the balance of power between humans and the natural world.

“I am always trying to say as much as I can with as few words as possible,” Scanlan explained, “so it’s sort of like a game or a puzzle.”

Sonia’s own punctuated storytelling lent itself to Scanlan’s writing style, and the author lauded how much she enjoyed working with original material that matched her strengths so well. The two continue to keep close contact as the book garners accolades.

Scanlan’s current home in Los Angeles, far from the race tracks of Iowa, is part of what she credits with her success.

“I did find that I ended up writing a lot about the place where I grew up … but I think that distance gave me a perspective on the place where I am from that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t moved here.”

As for the Windham-Campbell Prize, Scanlan said, “It’s going to let me be able to just continue to write. And to write for as long as I can make the money last.”

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