April 13, 2017
English professor Liza Wieland had no idea when she opened her email recently that she had been chosen for a major award.
The Fellowship of Southern Writers, a prestigious nonprofit organization that encourages the creation and development of literature in the South, has named Wieland the winner of its 2017 Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction. The award, which is given every other year, will be presented at the Fellowship’s meeting in Chattanooga, Tennessee in November.
The award recognizes a writer’s entire body of work. Past winners include Steve Yarbrough, Cormac McCarthy and Lee Smith.
“You don’t apply for it, or gather a package or get nominated,” Wieland said. “It just sort of comes in an email.”
The members of the group choose the winner based on their own judgment of the writer’s literary achievements. Wieland is the author of eight books: three collections of short fiction, “Quickening” (2011), “You Can Sleep While I Drive” (1999) and Discovering America (1994); four novels, “Land of Enchantment” (2015), “A Watch of Nightingales” (2009), “Bombshell” (2001) and “The Names of the Lost” (1992); and a volume of poems, “Near Alcatraz” (2005).
She has won numerous awards including the Pushcart Prize, the Michigan Literary Fiction Prize and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council. She was honored to be named for this award, she said, and excited that her work had earned recognition that she didn’t know was coming.
“I almost can’t believe it,” Wieland said. “I’ve wanted to be a writer all my life and have worked toward it single-mindedly, and it really feels like a sort of arrival, especially because I didn’t put it in motion myself; it just happened.”
The Fellowship includes and honors writers who are from or who identify with the South. Wieland lived in Atlanta, Georgia from the time she was six years old until she left for college. Her first novel, “The Names of the Lost,” is set in the summer of 1980 and centers on the kidnapping and murders of black children in Atlanta at that time.
“I was interested not so much in the murders and the solving of the murders as the way the cases brought all kinds of different aspects of Atlanta into play – Atlanta with its idea of itself as the “city too busy to hate,” if you remember that slogan, but that was clearly not true,” Wieland said.
Even after leaving the South to attend college and living elsewhere, she was interested in and drawn back to the South.
“So many things about the South trigger these memories – the smell of gardenias outside the window – I always sort of knew I would come back,” she said.
Wieland came to ECU in 2007 and teaches fiction writing. She said she is impressed with the commitment to writing and to reading that her students exhibit.
“They’ve got so much energy and they love each other’s work, and read it with enthusiasm and kindness; it’s a great group,” she said.
In much of her own work, as in that first novel, fiction is blended with real people, places and events – Georgia O’Keefe shows up in one book, the Unabomber in another. Real life inspires “what if” moments, she said, and the stories spin out from there.
“Dr. Wieland is a master of literary craft; she creates memorable characters and makes the English language sing,” said Dr. Marianne Montgomery, chair of the Department of English. “She is a prolific and accomplished writer, and I’m glad that the Fellowship of Southern Writers recognized that she belongs in the august company of past winners of this award.”
ECU students benefit from working with top writers, she added. “[Dr. Wieland] holds her students to high standards and offers them mentorship both inside and outside the classroom as they strive to become better writers and to publish their own work.”