Sophie Kerr prize winner displayed writing talent in high school

Kathryn Manion of Clarksville plans career in fiction-writing and publishing

  • Kathryn J. Manion, Sophie Kerr 2012 winner.
Kathryn J. Manion, Sophie Kerr 2012 winner. (Kelly Neal, Baltimore Sun )
May 21, 2012|By Ellie Kahn, The Baltimore Sun

As a child, Kathryn Manion used to sit on her father's lap late into the evenings and read with him.

That, said her father, Jim Manion, didn't last long. "She quickly began to read on her own," he said, adding jokingly, "I guess we weren't reading fast enough."

Not nearly. Tuesday night in New York City, Washington College senior and Clarksville native Kathryn Manion received Washington College's Sophie Kerr Prize for her body of short stories and other creative work. At more than $58,000 this year, it is considered the most lucrative undergraduate literary award in the country.

"I had the biggest grin on my face," said her mother, Sue Manion, who had used her daughter's work as creative writing examples for her middle-school English students. "She has such a gift of the written word."

"I don't know if a parent can admire their child," her mother said, "but she's one of my role models."

Danielle Jablonski, Kathryn Manion's English teacher at Notre Dame Preparatory School, said that her talents were obvious early on.

"She always created, developed insightful and creative work," she said.

Manion said language and literature have long been her pursuits, and she plans a career in publishing and fiction-writing.

"In high school, I started seriously considering becoming a writer. I really liked writing school papers," she said.

Novelist Colum McCann opened the envelope that contained Manion's name, something Robert Mooney, associate professor of English and creative writing at Washington College, saw as fitting.

"McCann is known for his distinct voices," he said. "Katie also had some great success in finding voice," he said. "The committee was responding to that aspect of her writing."

Mooney taught her in an advanced workshop in fiction — where she began some of the stories she submitted to the contest — and noticed what he considered extraordinary maturity for a young writer.

"She has a wonderful brackish mixture of humility and confidence," he said. "She has the foundation of language and the desire to tell engaging stories."

The 2008 Notre Dame Prep graduate majored in English at Washington College, with minors in anthropology and creative writing.

She experimented with several forms of writing, including playwriting and poetry. She gravitates toward fiction.

"I try to stay true to the characters," she said. "I try not to force plot and to just let it happen."

"She has a kind of fearlessness," Mooney said. "When it comes to scenes others might find embarrassing, she goes right in and investigates."

Her contest submission included a story titled "The Clerk" about a workers at a knockoff department store and his struggles with the ridiculous demands of the customers.

Readers meet the apathetic Jade Polinsky of Checkout 2, the smaller-than-average Paula of Checkout 3, and retired dental assistant Edith-Marie of the "10 items or fewer" checkout.

"It's honest and not all that flattering," Manion said. "There's a Pygmalion theme going on."

She shares bits of her writing with her family, but calls them "a work in progress."

She's continuing to work on her contest submission stories, which she claims are pretty rough — a humble assessment considering they just won such a renowned prize.

"She always conducted herself with grace, dignity, and humility," said Jablonski, recalling Manion's years at Notre Dame Prep. "And I can't think of a more deserving young woman than Katie."

After graduation Sunday, she will head to the University of Denver Publishing Institute's writing and editing program. She hopes to save money for graduate school in English or creative writing before embarking on her career.

"I think she'd make a great university professor one day," her mother said.

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