- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

BALTIMORE — One aspiring artist in Maryland won’t be starving anytime soon.

Besides a diploma, Laura Walter, 22, took home $61,133 yesterday, winning the country’s largest undergraduate literary prize, awarded annually to a writer from Washington College’s graduating class.

“I only hope that I can continue writing novels, whatever happens,” said Miss Walter, a senior at the small liberal arts college in Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “I’m guessing that winning the prize won’t do much in propelling me along as a writer. I think that will be based on how I hard I work on my writing.”

Miss Walter, an English major originally from Lancaster, Pa., submitted a novel and eight poems to win the Sophie Kerr Prize. She plans to pay off her student loans with some of the money, but needs to do “some serious thinking” about how to use the rest.

This year, 27 seniors submitted works to be considered by a panel of Washington College English professors. The material included novels, poetry collections and short stories.

The award, which is subject to federal and state taxes, has been presented since 1968, varying from $9,000 to $65,000.

It’s named for Sophie Kerr, a native of the Eastern Shore who used the region as the backdrop for most of her writing. She wrote 23 novels and more than 100 stories and left about $500,000 to the college when she died in 1965.

In her will, Miss Kerr stipulated that half the income from her endowment be awarded annually to the senior showing the most “promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.”

Miss Kerr’s endowment has grown to about $2.1 million, school officials said. The other half of the annual income, about $50,000 to $70,000, goes to the college, buying books for its libraries, supporting writing workshops, scholarships and student literary magazines and paying for speeches by visiting scholars and writers.

Sarah Blackman, 23, won the prize last year. She used part of the $65,522 to travel to South Korea and to live in California. She recently enrolled in the University of Alabama’s graduate fiction program.

Of the previous winners, some have become creative writing professors, some graphic designers. Christine Lincoln, who won the prize in 2000, has become a successful author, said John Buettner, a college spokesman. But none has become a literary superstar.

“The writing life is fraught with as many disappointments as it is with apparent accomplishments,” said Robert Mooney, director of the college’s creative writing program. “Any writer that can’t deal with these things isn’t going to make it out there.”

Mr. Mooney said Miss Walter’s talent should see her through the rush of attention she will receive as an award winner.

“Her novel is what speaks to me,” he said. “The monetary prize indicates the real prize, and that is the gift she has to shape story. If she didn’t win the award, I think she’d still move forward with her career.”

Miss Walter said she hopes the money will allow her to concentrate on her writing.

“She’ll get up every day and do the fine work she’s been doing and live her life,” Mr. Mooney said. “But if she comes back to visit, she’s got to buy lunch.”

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