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February 15, 1996

$1 million endowment funds Drue Heinz Literature Prize

An endowment grant of $1 million has been given to the University of Pittsburgh Press to fund in perpetuity the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. The Drue Heinz award is the best known prize for new short-fiction writers in the nation.

Funded by Drue Heinz and the Drue Heinz Trust, the endowment was given to the Press in recognition of former director Frederick A. Hetzel's work with the 15-year-old prize and his long service to the Press.

Hetzel, who retired in October 1994 after working for the Press for 33 years, including 30 of them as director, said he is "very flattered and pleased" by the grant.

"The prize was one of the most satisfying and rewarding projects that I worked with in my years of book publishing," he added. "It is one of the things in my tenure that I am proudest of. I watched it develop from an annual prize that nobody ever heard of until it became the most prestigious prize of its type." Hetzel feels the prize and endowment represent Heinz's commitment to young writers and literature. Pointing to her past ownership of Ecco Press and her current role as publisher of The Paris Review, Hetzel said Heinz "is someone who really knows literature and cares about it." Current Press director Cynthia Miller said the endowment will give the prize security and allow the Press to build on what already has been accomplished without concern about money possibly drying up.

"I've been thinking of it primarily as Mrs. Heinz thinks of it as a wonderful way to recognize young writers," Miller said. "It is very exciting for the Press to be involved in that process. But it's not something we could do without outside support. Publishing fiction is more risky than publishing other things." The endowment also comes as good news for the Press in the wake of a recent report by outside consultants. Commissioned last fall by the Board of Trustees and conducted by a team of five prominent educators from around the country headed by James L. Fisher, a psychologist with an expertise in colleges in transition, the review fingered the Press as a significant financial drain on the University.

Since the release of the Fisher report, as the review is commonly known, Miller has been told by both Interim Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Provost James Maher that they consider the report an out-of-date characterization of the Press.

"The Press did have its subsidy increased over several years as it was growing," Miller said. "It is not peculiar to this Press that when you start growing, your expenses kick in before your increased sales do. We're turning that around. That was part of my mandate in coming here, to get the subsidy headed back the other way, and we're doing that." The Drue Heinz prize was established in 1981, when the Howard Heinz Endowment, at the suggestion of Drue Heinz, contacted Hetzel about funding a prize for new short-fiction writers. "It was her [Drue Heinz's] baby from the beginning," Hetzel said.

The first prize went to David Bosworth for his book "The Death of Descartes." It included a $5,000 monetary award, which has since grown to $10,000.

Last year's prize went to Geoffrey Becker for "Dangerous Men," a book that was called "taut and compelling" by Publishers Weekly and "an excellent and original work" by The Washington Post. Winning books are routinely reviewed in the national press, including The New York Times Book Review.

The award is open to all writers who have published a book-length collection of fiction or three short stories or novellas in national magazines.

Much of the success of the prize, according to Hetzel, belongs not only to the insights of the senior judge, but also to the screening judges who first review manuscripts. Most of the screening judges, he noted, are successful, published writers in their own right.

Hetzel said that Ed Ochester, director of the creative writing program in the English department and the prize's administrator, deserves a lot of credit for his work with the judges over the years. "We really did split things up," Hetzel said.

"The Heinz prize has become the most prestigious and sought- after award of its kind because of the quality of its winners and its judges," said Ochester. "Every young writer of serious fiction knows about it. The endowment will allow us to continue to support the art of short fiction by publishing and publicizing some of the very best contemporary writers." Among the judges who have helped to shape the prize and its reputation have been Robert Penn Warren, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Nadine Gordimer, Margaret Atwood and Tobias Wolff.

–Mike Sajna

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