Alice McDermott was in a pleasant daze. Standing amid the crowd of authors and publishers under the splendid vaulted ceilings of the Pierpont Morgan Library here, the La Jolla, Calif., novelist ("That Night") said she was "completely" surprised to have been chosen one of 10 winners of this year's Whiting Writers Award. McDermott said the $25,000 prize, the largest private grant specifically for writers, will enable her to "take some time off from teaching" at UC San Diego and to complete the novel currently housed in her word processor. Her newest fiction "has no title yet," McDermott said, because "that seems so final." Nearby, guest speaker Eudora Welty was drinking straight bourbon just a few feet from a display case housing the letters of Jane Austen. Short story writer Deborah Eisenberg ("Transactions in a Foreign Currency"), another 1987 Whiting winner, agreed the big grant would reduce financial anxiety. "It's hard work, and I love it, but it doesn't pay the bills," Eisenberg said. Other winners this year, selected for the award funded by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation on the basis of past writing as well as the likelihood of outstanding future work, include Mindy Aloff, the dance critic for The Nation; novelist Joan Chase, author of "During the Reign of the Queen of Persia"; Mark Cox, author of a forthcoming book of poetry called "Smoulder"; Pam Durban, author of "All Set About With Fever Trees and Other Stories"; novelist/essayist Gretel Ehrlich ("The Solace of Open Spaces"); playwright Reinaldo Povod ("Cuba and His Teddy Bear"); poet Michael Ryan ("In Winter"), and novelist David Foster Wallace ("The Broom of the System").
MORE WINNERS: Donald Hall has won the $10,000 Lenore Marshall/Nation Prize for Poetry, sponsored jointly by the New Hope Foundation and The Nation magazine. Hall's ninth collection of poetry, "The Happy Man," was published by Random House.
And at the National Book Awards, $10,000 prizes went to David Rhodes for "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" (Simon & Schuster) and to Larry Heinemann for his Vietnamese War novel "Paco's Story" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), called "deeply original and affecting" by Richard Eder in The Book Review (Dec. 7, 1986). The awards, sponsored until last year by the Assn. of American Publishers as The American Book Awards, reverted to their older name this year. Money for them is raised by a controversial $100-per-book entry fee and a $300 ticket to the award dinner as well as by outside contributions. Roger Straus, publisher of the winning novel, has been a persistent critic of the TABA (now NBA) entry fees as well as of the Pulitzer entry fees.