The Pulitzer Prizes got their start in Maine.
Joseph Pulitzer reportedly conceived the idea for the annual awards recognizing excellence in journalism and letters while at his estate near Bar Harbor in 1902. Following the newspaper magnate’s death in 1911 and based on a bequest in his will, the Pulitzer Prizes finally came to fruition in 1917.
Maine has had its share of winners in the 100 years that have passed since, starting with Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards of Gardiner, who was recognized in the Pulitzers’ first year for a biography she wrote with her sister of their mother, Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist, suffragist and writer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Three current best-selling Maine writers – literary figures of very different temperaments, perspectives and backgrounds, but Mainers all, in their own ways – share at least one aspect in common. Elizabeth Strout, Richard Russo and Richard Ford each have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Ford’s “Independence Day,” the second novel featuring real estate agent Frank Bascombe, took the Pulitzer honor in 1996 and earned him a PEN/William Faulkner Award the same year. Russo’s turn came six years later, when he was honored for “Empire Falls,” the story of a Maine mill town in decline. In 2009, Strout won the award for “Olive Kitteridge,” a novel-in-stories about a prickly, small-town math teacher in Maine.
Novels hold a special place among the Pulitzer winners, Mike Pride, former editor of the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and administrator of the prizes, wrote in an email.
“Fiction is a special kind of truth-telling through imagination, character and narrative,” he said. “The winners over the years represent the American story in a special way. They inhabit many corners of life, sometimes reflecting history, sometimes reaching beyond it.”
That certainly applies to the work of Ford, Russo and Strout. On the eve of this year’s awards, set to be announced Monday, the three writers share what the Pulitzers have meant to them and to Maine.
GETTING THE NEWS
“That was quite a day,” Strout, 61, said of the date when the Pulitzers were awarded in 2009. “I had been doing a lecture tour on the West Coast, and they had parked me in Las Vegas for the weekend. This fellow in charge of the event was driving me to the airport, and I noticed that my cellphone had a lot of messages on it. But I didn’t think it was polite to listen to them while I was chatting with (the driver.) Then his cell went off, and it was my agent trying to get a hold of me to tell me that I had won the Pulitzer.”
Russo, 67, was closer to home when the news arrived in 2002.
“I remember that I had written it off,” he said. Each year, the Pulitzer is the last of the major literary awards to be announced, and “Empire Falls” had not even been shortlisted for any other awards.
Russo, living in Camden at the time, kept his appointment for tennis with a friend. He arrived home later than usual and found his wife, Barbara, coming out of the house. “I took one look at her face and thought, ‘Either someone we love has died or I won the Pulitzer Prize.’ ”
Ford, 73, was at a writers festival in Rennes, France, when he got the Pulitzer nod. A dinner companion’s cell rang, but the call was for Ford, from his editor in Paris.
“He said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ ‘Yes, I’m sitting down.’ I thought he was going to tell me something terrible.”
But Ford said he never doubted the welcome news. “Anybody who said they didn’t believe (the news of the award) is lying, because I did believe it. I just thought, which is fairly typical of me, ‘Well, someone had to win.’ ”
There’s no doubt that a Pulitzer significantly affects a writer’s life.
“It brought me a lot more readers,” Strout said. “As far as what it’s done for my writing, I think that I have always been writing as best I can. That’s stayed the same. My responsibility to my readers has always been there, even when I didn’t have as many.”
To Ford, the award was validation.
“Most writers operate with a sense that they would like to be able to certify to themselves and to the world that they can actually do this vocation that is writing novels,” he said. “When I won the Pulitzer Prize, it made me think, ‘OK, you can do this.’ ”
Russo echoed Ford in the sense of validation that comes with a Pulitzer, the idea that “your talent has been spent wisely.” Plus, he said, the Pulitzer sells.
“Economically, I don’t think there’s another prize, not even the Booker, that sells more books than the Pulitzer,” he said.
The positive impact can also extend to authors’ local communities. Their literary profiles have allowed these three authors to support various nonprofits and educational institutions in Maine.
In 2015, Ford and his wife hosted the 40th anniversary fundraiser for the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Russo takes an active role at The Telling Room literacy program in Portland. And both Russo and Strout have read and discussed their work in benefits for Wayfinder Schools.
For a state of its size and population, Maine boasts an impressive number of writers accomplished enough to have won a Pulitzer for fiction. In addition to Strout, Russo and Ford, recent recipients with significant connections to Maine include Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon and Paul Harding. Bowdoin College graduate Anthony Doerr won in 2015 for “All the Light We Cannot See.”
Maine is also well represented by winners in other categories of the Pulitzer Prizes.
Recipients include biographer David McCullough; two-time winner in the history category Alan Shaw Taylor; poets Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edward Arlington Robinson and Robert P.T. Coffin; and “special” prize recipients E.B. White and historical novelist Kenneth L. Roberts.
Reflecting on the abundance of Maine-connected writers, Strout suggested the state offers an inspiring setting.
“There’s certainly something about it for me,” she said. “The physical beauty of Maine is astonishing (and) there is a kind of isolation from the rest of the world, making possible the life of the mind to grow.”
Whatever reason for the seemingly outsized impact of Maine on the Pulitzers, Ford, Russo and Strout all said they feel their relationship to Maine is special.
Ford hails from Jackson, Mississippi, and now resides with his wife, Kristina, in East Boothbay.
“I’ve never lived anyplace as long as I’ve lived in Maine in my 73 years,” he said. “I came (to East Boothbay) because I wanted to live beside the ocean and I wanted to live in a really nice house, and I couldn’t afford any place south of there.”
“I find Mainers to be – at least the ones in my community – very accepting,” he said. “They’re used to people who are, as they say, ‘from away.’ But they’re also perfectly cordial.”
Ford also noted that he does not claim to be from Maine.
“I just go along as a Mississippian who happens to live in Maine,” he said. “They completely allow me to be who I am.”
Russo grew up in Gloversville, in upstate New York, and came to Maine in the 1990s to teach at Colby College. He had worried about being accepted by his new neighbors, at least until he received the Pulitzer.
“I remember the headline read, ‘Maine author captures Pulitzer.’ Wow! Not only wow for the Pulitzer Prize, but wow for that headline,” he said. “I was being accepted as a Maine author. It made me feel really good.”
Partly to be closer to his two daughters and his grandchildren, Russo now lives in downtown Portland.
“My roots here in Maine have just gotten deeper and deeper,” he said. “So it has evolved over the years from wondering how will the state react, to a kind of comfort knowing that my work has been embraced by people here.”
Unlike Russo or Ford, Strout is a Maine native. She was born in Portland, raised in South Harpswell and in Durham, New Hampshire, and now lives in New York City while maintaining a home in Brunswick.
“I am very much from Maine,” Strout said. “My parents were from Maine, my grandparents. … Maine is always with me.”
Strout said it took moving away from Maine, to New York more than 30 years ago, to realize what her Maine heritage meant. Eventually, she realized Maine wasn’t only her home. It was her subject.
“I had to be that removed for a number of years to realize that there was some low-bubbling feeling that drew me back to Maine,” she said.
Apart from their own good fortune, all three authors said they value the purpose of the Pulitzer Prizes in general. For Russo, the journalism awards carry a special importance.
“The prizes that are given for news reporting not only make individual people’s careers, but I think they’re the lifeblood of the democracy,” he said. “We’re living at a point in time when the president of the United States is labeling the press the enemy of the people. The Pulitzers suggest the very opposite of that, that the press is absolutely essential to a working democracy and that the work the best journalists do is nothing less than a patriotic act.”
The prize has been important to Strout ever since she learned at a young age that Rockland native Edna St. Vincent Millay won in the poetry category.
While this is an important year for the Pulitzer Prize, it’s an important time for fiction, too, she noted.
“When I was young, I realized fiction was a way of finding out what it might feel like to be another person,” she said. “This thrilled me then and still does. So let me add that, in spite of the state of the world right now – and maybe because of it – fiction is arguably more important than ever.”
Freelance writer Michael Berry is a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who has contributed to the Boston Globe, New Hampshire Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times and many other publications. Twitter: @mlberry