U-M writers get $5 million advance
America’s brightest young writers are sharing ideas with established authors and inspiring each other’s work in the same collegial community where literary masters Robert Frost and Arthur Miller once wrote.
One of those young writers, Elizabeth Kostova, earned her master of fine arts (MFA) in creative writing degree from the University last year. She recently received a seven-figure advance for her new novel, “The Historian.”
This kind of success story, repeated over and over, is what U-M alumna Helen Zell (‘64) had in mind when she made a $5 million expendable gift to the program, with instructions that it be spent quickly and specifically on making the University’s program the best in the nation.
“Writing is core to everything we do,” Zell said. “Yet good writing is becoming a lost art, and a lost value. I am looking forward to watching Michigan invest in what it takes to create the best writing program in the country.”
Half of Zell’s gift will be distributed through the program over five years, expanding the number of graduate student fellowships from 18 to 24, and increasing student stipends by 50 percent. The other half will be used to create the Zell Fund for the MFA Program in Creative Writing, to provide annual funding to support the Zell Visiting Writers Lecture Series, and to create the position of Zell director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing.
The gift’s benefits already are becoming tangible. This year the program completed its most successful student recruitment season, as nearly all of its top prospects were admitted. Those involved with the program say this is just one example of how Zell’s generous gift is helping propel an already strong program to an even higher level.
President Mary Sue Coleman praised Zell’s commitment to U-M as a home for aspiring writers.
“This gift makes such a strong statement about Michigan’s long history of nurturing writers and writing,” Coleman said. “From Robert Frost’s days here as a visiting fellow, to Arthur Miller’s time as a student, U-M has been privileged to support and develop great writers who change people’s minds and transform their hearts. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing our efforts grow dramatically as a result of this new gift.”
For Zell, an honorary co-chair of U-M’s $2.5 billion The Michigan Difference fund-raising campaign, the gift represents an ongoing commitment to promoting creative writing at Michigan. Her premier gift funded the first-ever endowed professorship in the English Department—the Helen Herzog Zell Professorship—focusing on fiction. The first Helen Herzog Zell Professor was Nancy Reisman, whose latest novel, “The First Desire,” has received the 2005 Samuel Goldberg Jewish Fiction Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. The award will be presented in New York in June.
Like her husband Sam, who, along with business partner Robert Lurie co-founded the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, Helen Zell is a strong believer in the power of entrepreneurship. As such, she says she wants her gift to help Michigan writers develop not only their writing talents, but also the practical skills necessary to help them find success in their writing careers.
As an example of how this spirit of entrepreneurship is becoming an integral part of the program, U-M plans to offer its creative writing students seminars in arts management, in conjunction with the Zell Lurie Institute. The program also plans to facilitate programs in which MFA candidates will be sponsored for summer internships by qualified arts institutions.
MFA in Creative Writing program director Peter Ho Davies, named one of the “20 Best Young British Novelists” in 2003, said he is pleased with the program’s new entrepreneurial emphasis.
“This is a particularly exciting development, in keeping with our commitment to equipping our students for long and varied writing careers, and emblematic of the Zells’ belief in the relationship between the arts and wider culture,” Ho Davies said.
Terrence J. McDonald, dean of LSA, agreed: “Helen Zell’s gift is a truly transformative one that will enhance the program on several fronts, allowing us, among other things, to offer substantially more generous student fellowships, recruit distinguished visiting faculty and innovate pedagogically, steps which I’m confident will raise the program, already a national leader, to the highest possible level,” McDonald said.
U-M’s commitment to writing has deep roots. An endowment created by 1905 U-M graduate Avery Hopwood—a prominent 1920s playwright—and his mother, Jule, created the Hopwood Awards program that annually distributes more than $100,000 in prizes to U-M students to encourage creative writing. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller, a 1938 alumnus, was one of the early winners.
U-M’s two-year MFA in Creative Writing program focuses on preparing graduates for a writing career with concentrations in either fiction or poetry. The heart of the program includes workshops where writing students assemble as a community, including many distinguished visiting writers who read and comment on works in progress. More than 45 percent of recent graduates have published work in magazines or anthologies and 15 percent have published books or landed book contracts.
Recent MFA in Creative Writing graduates include Michael Byers (’96), winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and Laura Kasischke, a prolific publisher of poetry and novels, recent Pushcart Prize winner, and recipient of an NEA Fellowship.