Michael White Wins Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction

The author's prizewinning novel Resting Places recounts a woman’s cross-country search for meaning after her son’s accidental death.

Michael White
Michael White (photo: fairfield.edu)

The 2014 Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction — one of a burgeoning number of new Catholic literary prizes — has been awarded to a novelist who has penned a saga of a woman’s cross-country search for meaning after her son’s accidental death.

Michael White has won the second award and $5,000 for Resting Places, which grew out of the author’s fascination with roadside shrines to the dead. Last year’s prizewinner was David Beckett, for The Cana Mystery, which at one time was Amazon’s No. 1 Kindle download.

Peter Mongeau, founder of the Tuscany Press, which offers the award, hailed Resting Places as a “beautifully worded novel [that] truly captures the Catholic imagination, with its gritty exploration of life’s myriad challenges. Throughout it all, the reader experiences the profound personal transformation of a protagonist, who discovers hope in loss and redemption in suffering.”

White, 62, is the founder and director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Fairfield University, a Jesuit school in Fairfield, Conn. He is the author of six previous novels, including A Brother’s Blood, which was nominated for a prestigious Edgar Award, which is named for Edgar Allen Poe and is synonymous with creative plotting.

Though he describes himself as “deeply spiritual,” White, who was baptized into a Protestant church as a child, is not Catholic.

But he has dealt with Catholic themes over the years. The Garden of Martyrs, for example, which came out in 2005, is about Father Jean-Louis Cheverus, who escaped the horrors of the French Revolution to become the first Catholic bishop of Boston. The novel deals with the priest’s ministering to two Irish Catholics wrongly executed for murder.

White has been published by William Morrow and Harper Perennial, secular establishment publishing outlets, but he had heard about Tuscany Press and thought it might be a good home for Resting Places. He believes that sometimes contemporary fiction falls flat because it “doesn’t go into the deepest parts of the psyche and spiritual side.”

Resting Places is scheduled to be published by Tuscany Press in spring 2015.

Although Tuscany Press’ Mongeau, 50, who lives in Wellesley, Mass., and previously worked in financial services, seeks novels with a “Catholic perspective,” he isn’t in the market for didactic fiction. He takes as his editing model the legendary Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s, who helped polish the works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

“We have an old-school approach,” Mongeau said. “We take the craft of the novel very seriously, and in the end, it is storytelling. Can you tell a story? The first question I ask of an author is: ‘What is the question [of your book]?’”

The Tuscany Prize winner is selected from among the submissions to Tuscany Press. Mongeau said that there were about 400 submissions. Tuscany also has a nonfiction imprint called Christus Publishing Imprint.

“A great story stays with you, and Resting Places stays with you after you have closed the book,” Mongeau said of this year’s winning work. Mongeau said the Catholic perspective can be found in works by writers who are not Catholic, and he would never ask an author if he is a Catholic.


Profusion of Awards

Tuscany’s is just one of the new prizes recognizing Catholic authors. The George W. Hunt Writing Prize — with a $25,000 purse — was announced by America magazine in October as a way to honor writers under 45. Endowed by former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent, the Hunt award is administered by America and the St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale University. Meanwhile, Aquinas College’s Center for Faith and Culture in Nashville, Tenn., recently launched an Aquinas Award for Fiction, with a cash prize of $1,000.

Dappled Things, the small-but-select Catholic literary journal that takes its name from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, also got into the act in 2013, with its J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction. But isn’t the short story dead? The editors of Dappled Things don’t think so, and Katy Carl, one of the journal’s founders, believes that such prizes can “provide a focus for identifying talent and recognizing good work.”

Dappled Things is so sold on the value of literary prizes that it has announced a new one for nonfiction works named after the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Carl believes it is “an exciting time to be a Catholic writer” because the secular culture is “more receptive” and “curious” about the work of Catholic authors than in the recent past and that the Christian and secular culture have reached “a point at which there can be dialogue.”

The creation of several prizes for Catholic literature has led some to dream about a Catholic literary renaissance reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s, when Catholic writers were acclaimed by the general culture.

“There was a period when it looked like Catholics were going to take over the culture. It seemed like a Catholic won the National Book Award every year,” recalled Catholic author Jody Bottum.


Walker Percy Etc.

The convert-Southern novelist Walker Percy won the National Book Award for Fiction for The Moviegoer in 1962, followed the next year by J.F. Powers, who won for Morte d’Urban, a novel about a priest. Flannery O’Connor died in 1964, but a collection of her short stories nevertheless won a National Book Award in 1972. On a less-august level, Catholic fiction writers such as Morris West, the Australian who wrote The Shoes of the Fisherman, about the papacy, and Edwin O’Connor, whose The Last Hurrah, about an Irish Catholic politician, was made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy, sold millions of books.

“We don’t have anyone today at the level of the Catholic renaissance,” Bottum admitted. He says that great writers “happen when they happen.” Nevertheless, Bottum, who provided a blurb for the first Tuscany winning book, believes that literary prizes are important. “I think prizes help,” Bottum said. “They are good for the writer’s confirmation of self — that he is doing the right thing in life.”

Catholic writer Paul Elie, the Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor whose The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage won numerous awards including a prestigious PEN award, also sees the prizes primarily as a way to “recognize works of exceptional quality” rather than as a way to promote a new wave of prominent Catholic writers.

The Catholic intellectual Michael Novak, who tried to promote cultural programs in Washington., including inviting Bottum and others to read poetry, takes a dim view of the current state of Catholic literature.

“In teaching a course at Ave Maria [University] on ‘The 20th-Century Catholic Intellectual Renaissance’ with our star professor Michael Pakaluk of Harvard, we both have been struck by how steep the falloff is after Bernanos, Mauriac, Bloy, Peguy, Waugh, Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, etc. to today. Large ambitions seem to have fled,” Novak said.

But Novak does recognize that prizes can make a difference.

 “I found at the Rockefeller Foundation (where I was a grant officer for 1972-74) that prizes do attract talent,” he said. “There is so little support for budding talent today. In Europe, a modest inheritance kept many great artists clothed and fed as they created, unknown and alone. What have we here like that? A university campus job lacks the human variety and turbulence of great literature.” 

Peter Mongeau and his small crew at Tuscany Press aim to correct that.

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.