In the beginning, urged on by Manhattan Media Chairman Richard Burns, I put together a literary prize competition for the eastern end of Long Island. This was in 2012. Prospective entrants wrote nonfiction essays hoping to win a $5,000 first prize and two $500 runners-up prizes. Entries came in all summer. Six judges read all of them and selected winners. In September we held an awards ceremony at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, and we awarded the prizes. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Caro gave a speech. Emmy winner Pia Lindström read the winning entry aloud to the audience.
Richard Burns had not asked me to put together just a literary prize competition. He’s an Englishman. And in England, where the written word is revered almost as much as the Queen, they have whole literary festivals in the hinterlands (a good English word) almost monthly.
Two more years went by similar to the first, with E.L. Doctorow speaking in 2013 and Walter Isaacson speaking in 2014, and with actress Mercedes Ruehl reading. And they were pretty much as before.
As I write this, we have just had our awards ceremony at the John Drew Theater and I am here to report that we are no longer just a literary prize competition. We are that, too, but when you hear what happened on Thursday, September 3, you will have to agree we now have a new name. A festival has been born. This is the Dan’s Papers Literary Festival.
First of all, we had two competitions, not one. The first was the big one, the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction. And the second one, the new one, was for younger writers. We offered it up because we were not only looking to find new writers, we were looking to find new YOUNG writers. We approached colleges and local high schools to urge their students to enter this one. It was also nonfiction. But it was called the Dan’s Papers $4,000 Emerging Young Writers Prize for Nonfiction and it was for anyone age 25 and younger.
All entries, as before, had to be between 600 and 1500 words and reference the eastern end of Long Island in a meaningful way. We also expected more entries than we had ever had before, and we were not disappointed in that. In addition we have contributed a scholarship award to a Stony Brook University student who is pursuing a career in writing, with the recipient decided upon by the faculty there.
At 4 o’clock, we began. The John Drew Theater was packed, and the 2015 event began with the curtain going up not on those presenting the awards, but with a short, classical music recital. The crowd was treated to a live performance by alumni from the Perlman Music Program on Shelter Island, of the exciting Finale from Beethoven’s Piano Trio Opus 1, Number 1. Introductory remarks about the Emerging Writers prize were then made by cartoonist Jules Feiffer. Feiffer has won a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoons in The Village Voice, he’s won an Oscar for a screenplay of a book he wrote that was being made into a movie, and he has authored nearly a dozen books, the most recent of which, Kill My Mother, was for weeks on The New York Times best-seller list last fall and winter. Feiffer spoke for 20 minutes, about where he gets his inspiration and how he goes about his work, urging young writers to do the same and keep at it.
Awards were then given out in the Emerging Young Writers Prize. We gave out three Judges Choice awards, two runners-up awards and the First Prize award. The Judges Choice winners received, in addition to their framed certificates, gift certificates from the American Hotel. The runners-up received $500 and a top-of-the-line full-color Nook reader. And then Barnes & Noble Booksellers Chairman Len Riggio, after a short speech of his own, presented Luke Sawaya from Laurel with the First Prize, which was a trophy and a check for $3,000. His entry, “Night Vision,” was then read by Emmy winner Pia Lindström.
Perhaps the most celebrated writer of both fiction and nonfiction came out at that point to deliver a half-hour speech to preview the next award, the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction. He talked about his work—The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, even his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He was Tom Wolfe, in his trademark white suit. And the audience sat spellbound.
Next, awards were given out for the main prize, and again there were the three Judges Choice Awards, the two runners-up and a First Place winner for 2015. The Judges Choice Awards were presented by Dan’s Papers CEO Eric Feil. The two runners-up awards were presented by mystery writer Chris Knopf and Professor Andrew Botsford, both judges in the competition, and then the First Place winner was presented with the trophy, the $5,000 and the Barnes & Noble Nook by author and historian Barbara Goldsmith, a writer whose five books have all landed on The New York Times best-seller list, who’s founded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and who has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
And the winner was Colette Sewall of Mattituck, and her entry, “Ghosts of Shopkeepers Past,” was then read by Pia Lindström to an appreciative audience.
As for the Literary Festival, it was just beginning. People from the audience and winners and speakers assembled in the John Drew Theater garden for hors d’oeuvres and drinks. And while that was going on, the theater was being filled for the next part of the Festival, which was Dan’s Fields of Dreams.
This, a panel discussion, kicked off at 6:30 p.m. and involved three major sports figures, all of whom have written books. They were Joe Pepitone of the New York Yankees, legendary Notre Dame football player Rudy Ruettiger and the actor Dwier Brown, who starred in the film Field of Dreams that came out in 1989. It was hosted by Stephen Costello, Executive VP of Steiner Sports and the author of My Father Never Took Me to a Baseball Game.
And that STILL was not the end of the Dan’s Papers Literary Festival. At 8:30 p.m., Kathleen Russo and myself came onstage to present a film for the Literary Festival by the Hamptons International Film Festival. It was And Everything Is Going Fine, a tribute to and biography of Russo’s late husband, Spalding Gray. The two lived in Sag Harbor with their children. Spalding Gray was probably the premiere monologist in America, famous for his two-hour talk entitled Swimming to Cambodia.
And then, yes, at 11 p.m. when the Q and A after the movie ended, it finally was over. The Dan’s Papers Literary Festival for 2015 came to an end.
We especially want to thank our staff, particularly Allison O’Reilly for all she did in organizing the event, the judges, the John Drew Theater, our speakers and contributors and in particular the record number of people who entered this competition—461 of them—from all over the country.
But the Dan’s Papers Literary Festival is STILL not over. Once a month, every month for the next year, a group of three or four people will be invited read their essays at the Dan’s Literary Salon, which we hold in Southampton. Our next reading is in October. We hope you enter next year, and we’ll see you at the awards ceremony and the rest of the Festival in 2016.
Find out more about the Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction at LiteraryPrize.DansPapers.com.