Awards and Honors

Claire Boyles Wins a Whiting Award for Site Fidelity

Claire Boyles just won a Whiting Award.
Claire Boyles just won a Whiting Award. Evan Semon
Claire Boyles hoed a hard row over the past decade, moving from struggling farmer in Weld County to published author. As a result, her 2021 debut — the short-story collection Site Fidelity, featured in a Westword cover story last June — was a triumph for the Loveland-based teacher, who'd been forced to pack up her family farm in the tiny town of Gill in 2013.

And now she has more cause to celebrate her pursuit of writing as a career: She's one of the ten winners of this year's Whiting Award, which comes not only with national literary prestige, but a prize of $50,000.

“The Whiting Foundation is famously secretive about the awards,” says Boyles of the organization that has decided the winners for the past 37 years. “There is a group of anonymous nominators and a group of anonymous judges. As a writer, you don’t know that you are being considered. Once they decide on the winners, they just cold-call us out of the blue in January, swear us to secrecy until the ceremony in April.”

Those secretive judges, who issue their statements collectively, say that the stories in Site Fidelity “address some of the most urgent issues of our time: climate change, land possession, advances that seem to leave some behind.” Those stories are steeped in the humanity, geography and ecology of the Rocky Mountain West, not to mention the economic hardships that have affected Colorado agriculture for centuries.

But Boyles's characters and themes are universal. “I am interested in the connections between humans and land, what land conservation requires in an age of increasing wealth inequality, and what happens when the people who live closest to the land, who know best how to steward it, are severed from it — the ways in which the commodification of land and water that resulted from the original land theft from Indigenous people still influence and limit agriculture today,” she explains.

W.W. NORTON
W.W. Norton
“I’ve had the great honor of being invited to visit with many book clubs — locally and nationally, in person and over Zoom," she continues. "The discussions and debates of the issues and characters in the book are always lively and delightful, but I’ve also been struck by how essential these mini-communities are, the way book clubs function as connecting threads at a time when it can feel like the fabric of society is fraying.”

And she'll soon provide those clubs with more material: Titled Appraisals, a novel coming in 2023 from W.W. Norton, one that will build on many of the ideas and concerns that Boyles began to explore in Site Fidelity.

For now, though, she’s basking in her Whiting win.“I had a lot of overwhelming feelings when I got the news — gratitude, astonishment, a bit of anxiety,” she recalls. “I really never imagined that I would receive such a prestigious award.” Previous winners of the Whiting Award include such luminaries as Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr, Colson Whitehead and David Foster Wallace — not bad company.

Like most of us, Boyles — who teaches in Eastern Oregon University’s MFA program for Creative and Environmental Writing while remaining a Loveland resident — has contended with the draining effects of COVID over the past two years. But now, with a sizable prize under her belt and the national literary spotlight trained on her, she has even more means and motive to push on. “For a variety of reasons, I lost a bit of creative momentum during the pandemic,” she says. “The award really has been a boost that has helped me find my way back.”
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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller