Howard County native wins 2012 Sophie Kerr Prize

Kathryn Manion was "at a loss for words" Tuesday night — shortly after being honored for her way with them.

At a private club in New York, Manion, 22, was named the 2012 winner of Washington College's Sophie Kerr Prize, which at more than $58,000 this year is considered the most lucrative undergraduate literary award in the country.

The senior English major, a Clarksville native and graduate of Notre Dame Prep in Towson, said late Tuesday that her win was still sinking in, but that she was honored.

"I think I teared up a little bit, and I don't cry easily, so that surprised me," she said of hearing her name called by novelist Colum McCann.

The award is given annually to the college's graduating senior with the greatest "ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor." It was first awarded in 1968 and is named after an Eastern Shore woman who left more than $500,000 to the college when she died in 1965, after working for years in publishing and writing 23 novels.

Sophie Kerr's only stipulation was that half of the income from the bequest go to award promising literary students.

Manion, one of five finalists to travel to New York City for the ceremony, was selected out of 35 applicants by the Sophie Kerr Committee, a panel of 13 English faculty members and college president Mitchell Reiss.

Last year, Reiss' first as president, represented a change in the ceremony for the award, which in previous years had been presented during Washington College's graduation in Chestertown.

A move to a Manhattan setting, Reiss hoped, would give the contestants an opportunity to display their literary portfolios to a New York audience of writers and agents. McCann, a 2009 National Book Award winner, served as keynote speaker last year and on Tuesday evening.

Faculty members also thought the move might relieve the pressure from students on their graduation day.

Besides Manion, who is pursuing minors in creative writing and anthropology, the other finalists included two students from Maryland and one student each from Virginia and Wisconsin.

Manion's contest portfolio included multiple short stories and part of her senior thesis on letter writing in novels.

"The thing that I think meant most to me was bringing my creative voice and my critical voice, from my academic writing and my fiction, together," she said of what inspired her choice of what to include.

Judges said Manion's fiction "shows flashes of brilliance through her ability to create voice keenly appropriate to the story in progress."

Manion will be awarded a check for $58,274.11 during the college's commencement Sunday.

This summer, she will attend the University of Denver Publishing Institute's writing and editing program, then plans to save money for graduate school in English or creative writing before starting a career in publishing and fiction writing.

The check will help fulfill those ambitions, she said.