Monona writer Kate Wisel’s first book of short stories, “Driving in Cars With Homeless Men,” has won the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize, which includes a $15,000 cash prize and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
The publishing house announced the award on Monday. Wisel’s book was chosen from among over 530 applicants for the prize, and will be published Oct. 1.
The Boston-born Wisel currently teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is a fiction fellow. She said Monday that she got the news unexpectedly while walking the halls of the university.
“To be honest, I was so caught off guard that I felt like I’d either been drugged or shot," she said. "When you put your whole heart into something, your joy and pain, it’s a part of you. So, I was overwhelmed.”
Wisel's nonfiction, poetry and short stories have been featured in numerous publications, including Tin House and New Ohio Review. She also had one of her poems emblazoned on the inside of Boston subway cars as part of a municipal literary project, "Poetry on the T."
Heinz, a philanthropist who was publisher of The Paris Review and co-founded Ecco Press, established the prize, considered one of the most prestigious awards in the country for short story collections, in 1981. She died in 2018.
The interconnected stories in “Driving in Cars With Homeless Men” take place in the working-class neighborhoods of Wisel's hometown. Wisel called the collection a “love letter to women moving through violence."
"These linked stories are set in the streets and the bars, the old homes, the tiny apartments, and the landscape of a working-class Boston," she said. "They are the collective story of women whose lives careen back into the past, to the places where pain lurks and haunts."
National Book Award-winning author Min Jin Lee (“Pachinko”) selected Wisel’s book for the prize.
“You can hear the crackle of heat and the roar of a powerful fire burning through these pages,” she wrote. "Close to the edge, fearful of love yet dying of longing, (Wisel’s characters) are vital and tender. Their stories are incandescent.”