- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005

BALTIMORE — As she graduated Sunday from Washington College $53,609 richer and the winner of the nation’s largest undergraduate literary prize, Claire Tonkin received some good advice from her writing teacher.

Ignore the hype and the money, professor Robert Mooney told the 21-year-old English major from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Just write.

“Real writers really want to write. That’s the turkey. The money is gravy,” said Mr. Mooney, director of the college’s creative writing program. “I suggest she put the money away and establish herself as a writer, just as she would had she not had it — establish that bubble of time and calm every writer needs.”

A panel of English professors at the small liberal arts college in Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore awarded Miss Tonkin the Sophie Kerr Prize for her short stories — one of 30 portfolios presented by students this year.

Previous winners of the annual award have become creative writing professors, editors and published authors, but none has become a literary superstar. The winner last year gained notoriety when she was arrested on drug possession charges.

Miss Tonkin said she was delighted by the money and the award, but that it wouldn’t change her plan to work as an elementary or middle school teacher in New York while she pursues her literary career.

“I’ve wanted to write since I was a little girl,” Miss Tonkin said. “This is a boost of confidence, but I still have to work hard, and keep writing and not let it go to my head.”

Angela Haley, who won the prize last year, was charged in March after deputies searched her Chestertown apartment and found marijuana, illegal mushrooms, scales and more than $5,000 in cash, officials said.

Miss Tonkin said talk of making Miss Haley return her award is ridiculous. “What happened had nothing to do with her writing ability,” she said.

Washington College has given more than $1 million in prize money since the award, which is subject to federal and state taxes, was first presented in 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 endowment’s income be awarded annually to the senior showing the most “promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.”

The other half, about $50,000 to $70,000, goes to the college, for buying books for its libraries; supporting writing workshops, scholarships and student literary magazines; and paying for speeches by visiting scholars and writers.

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