Andrea Lawlor, author of “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl,” and I spoke by phone a few hours before it was announced that the University of Iowa alum had garnered the prestigious Whiting Award. The award, given annually to 10 emerging writers in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama, comes with a $50,000 prize.
“It’s really super weird timing,” Lawlor said from home in western Massachusetts. Lawlor teaches writing at Mount Holyoke College. “It’s great. It’s an amazing thing and I’m totally over the moon about it. And it’s so encouraging. All the things people say about it are true: It’s such an honor to be recognized in this cohort. The writers who are also getting awards this year are just phenomenal writers and heroes of mine, and the writers who have been Whiting Award recipients in the past are really some of my favorite writers on the planet. So it’s incredibly encouraging to me to have this vote of confidence in my writing and my work and the support for making more work in such an uncertain time.”
Lawlor was an English major at the University of Iowa in the early 1990s.
“I never took any creative writing classes at Iowa because I absolutely was one of those undergraduate English majors who was walking around the halls of EPB just being like, ‘Eh, creative writing. MFA programs are so bourgeois.’ I’ve gotten my comeuppance. I now have two graduate creative writing degrees, so I have to hang my head about that,” Lawlor said.
Early ’90s Iowa City is the setting for much of “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl,” a rollicking novel in which the titular character is a shape-shifter with a voracious sexual appetite and a taste for adventure. It’s an original and thrilling book in which Lawlor takes any number of narrative risks and each and every one lands as if the author were an especially skilled magician or trapeze artist who can make the audience gasp in a way that starts as shock and ends as delight.
Lawlor’s time in Iowa City involved a number of jobs and a wide social circle that encompassed much of the writing scene.
“I was a bartender at the 620 Club and from being a bartender, I just knew tons of writers and I met a lot of writers who were in the Workshop and a lot of writers who weren’t in the Workshop,” Lawlor said, including many they keep in contact with like Tayari Jones, Alex Chee, Emily Barton and Rebecca Wolff.
In the book, 1990s Iowa City springs into life. The book’s various settings were extremely important to Lawlor.
“The relationship between setting and character is sacrosanct for me. So I’ve got this character and, yeah, he’s a shape-shifter, but he’s also got this historical subjectivity, so what’s possible for him to think or do or where is it possible for him to imagine going or having the money for a bus ticket to? Where are the queers that he likes at this moment?”
Lawlor said the pandemic has been intruding on their work.
“I’m having a really hard time concentrating on anything — writing a sentence, reading,” the author said. Lawlor has been reading “Severance,” a novel by Ling Ma, another of this year’s Whiting winners.
“It’s phenomenal and I’m obsessed with her writing and it’s also really difficult,” Lawlor said of the book, which features a fever-based zombie plague. “It’s a little much for right now.”
Still, Lawlor is interested in how Ling Ma’s work — and Lawlor’s own — interacts with the present. An ongoing project — centered on a near-future, queer, anarchic, utopian society — is fluid as well.
“Every minute, my thinking about that project is changing because I’m seeing what people are doing in real life — the kind of mutual aid that’s springing up and the ways that people are taking care of each other and the kind of social solidarity ... It’s hard to stay in a total utopian frame of mind right now but it also feels important to kind of imagine what good possibilities — I do think another world is possible, a better world, so hopefully, the things that we’re seeing right now can replace some of the predatory structures that already exist.”
In the meantime, Lawlor remains committed to some core principles and audiences even as their work is about to reach a broader audience as a result of the Whiting Award.
“What’s important to me is to write what I know to be true about the world in whatever way I can get it out there. And then if it’s interesting to people, awesome. It’s most interesting to me to write something that queer and trans readers respond to, but then what’s been amazing is getting response from readers and reviewers who wouldn’t identify themselves as queer or trans who are like, ‘Oh, I identify with this’ or ‘I find something in that.’ And that’s exciting to me.”
Lawlor is, of course, is pleased to receive the money that comes with a Whiting Award because it provides increased security and opens up time to write. But said the money isn’t the most important thing.
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“Even more important than the financial support is the feeling of encouragement and validation. It’s like a ‘keep going,’ kind of a feeling for me,” Lawlor said. “As someone who has really struggled with a lot of insecurity about whether or not I had something to say or whether anyone would want to read anything I had to say, this feels life changing ... It’s so moving and heartening and it’s an amazing thing to be happening right now in a disheartening time.”