The Winner: James K. Phillips Wins Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction

Back in the middle of March, this newspaper launched the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction. Writers in this community (and elsewhere) were asked to submit entries between 600 and 1,500 words that could be a biography, a day in a life, a piece of history or a memoir. It would be judged on the quality of the writing. But it had to reference the East End in some meaningful way. The winner would receive a trophy and $5,000. The two runners-up would receive $500 each. The last entry would be accepted at 11:59 p.m. on August 1. And the winners would be announced at an awards ceremony in the John Drew Theatre at Guild Hall in East Hampton on August 25.
The fact is that going into this, we had no idea how many people would enter this competition. What if it were just 30 people and all the work was bad? What if the number of entries was in the thousands and our seven judges were simply overwhelmed with the work? Our judges were Len Riggio, the chairman of Barnes & Noble; Marty Shepard, the co-founder of the Permanent Press; Bonnie Grice, the commentator on WPPB; book reviewer Joan Baum; editor Elise d’Haene; author Chris Knopf; and advertising man Jim Marquard.
The requirement was that entries be sent to danshamptons.com by email and then we’d forward them to our judges, who were either on the East End, in Manhattan or, in the case of d’Haene, in Pittsburgh. What if the entries brought down their email accounts?
In the end, between 400 and 500 people sent in entries. It was a huge number, but we would be able to deal with it. But then how would we ask the judges to decide the winners? We asked them to use their best judgment and rate each entry from one to five, with five being the best and one being the least best. At our office I would keep a chart, the seven judges across the top and the entries down on the side, and it came down to filling in the squares. I’d add up the scores. The one with the highest score would win.
In the end, when we concluded the judging just a week after the August 1 deadline, we had seven entries with the high scores bunched in a group. But then there was one that was even higher, a good ways in front of that pack. Five of the seven judges in their various locations had given it a 5. The other two had given it 4s. It was only two points off from perfect.
And so it was, on August 7, three weeks before the awards event at Guild Hall, that I knew the winner. I told no one, not even my wife. Everyone would have to wait for the ceremony.
That event took place this past Saturday, August 25, before a packed house. Going in, I knew that if we were only going to have 3 winners, we’d also have, gulp, 357 losers, because 360 is the total number of seats in the John Drew Theatre. Therefore, I guessed the best way to make the event a success was to make it an entertainment, specifically a performance that in some way would be modeled on the Academy Awards. We’d have music accompanying the theatergoers as they came in and out. (It was Vivaldi.) We’d have the stage festooned with flowers, and we’d have a huge image of a painting by Peter Max as a Dan’s Papers Fourth of July Cover center stage on a movie screen. We’d have a lectern for our speakers. We’d also have a small “library” set off to one side—club chair, floor lamp, book shelves, a small table with the trophy—a nine-inch glass disk with a gold medallion inside all mounted on a trophy base—we’d have speakers and of course, we’d have presenters, one at a time, onstage breaking a gold seal to open an envelope, taking out the card inside to name the winners and then inviting those winners up onstage. Finally, we’d have, at the end of the program, Emmy award winning TV and radio commentator Pia Lindstrom reading the winning entry aloud to the audience from the club chair in the “library.”
This sounds easy, but it wasn’t. Timing was involved. Who hands what to whom and when? In the end, I asked one of the young interns working at the paper this summer, Krystal Whitby, to accompany each of the presenters and carry out with her the various pieces of the loot to give to the winners at the appropriate moment. Also, all this had to be coordinated with the spotlights and sound system controlled from a booth at the back of the theatre. What if I called someone to come out and they didn’t?
I told Krystal backstage that as far as the presenters went, it was her job to make sure everything went in order. We went over the order in the script. Get microphone, hand over envelope, get torn envelope, hand back microphone, wait, hand out prize, wait, wait for winner to speak, then hand over envelope with the check and then the gift from Barnes & Noble, their Nook tablet.
As the time clicked down toward 4 p.m., I began to feel panic. Messages kept coming in that there was a huge crowd out front waiting for the doors to open. Krystal, Pia Lindstrom, Bob Caro and the three presenters were off stage right, but every once in a while one would wander off.
“Where’s Riggio?” I’d whisper.
“I dunno.” Then Shepard was gone. “He’s in the men’s room,” somebody said. I ran to the men’s room by the dressing rooms and knocked on the door. Then ran back to stage right.
“This is like trying to round up cats,” I said.
At a certain point, the stage manager, in touch with the lobby and technical section by phone, told me they were ready to go, should they go? I said “do you need me to say go?” And the reply came, “wait a minute, we’re waiting for a go from the lobby. Okay, here we go.”
I walked out to the lectern and introduced myself, talked a bit about how this competition came to be, about how Dan’s Papers had honored the artists of this community for all these years and so now it was time to honor the writers too. Then I introduced the keynote speaker, two time Pulitzer Prize winning author Bob Caro, who came onstage to talk to the audience. He talked about the importance of holding a competition for nonfiction, and he talked about how the East End was just full of writers and he talked about how he had said yes immediately when I had asked him to be the honorary chairman of the event.
After that, I asked our first presenter, Martin Shepard, to come out. He appeared as planned, accompanied by Krystal, and he got the envelope, broke the gold seal, and opened it to see who had won the award for the first of the Second Place awards.
“The winner of the Second Place award,” he said, “is Susan Cohen, for her entry ‘Littoral Drifter.’
And then he invited her up. “Littoral Drifter” was about a time, when she was 15 years old, long ago, that she learned her mother had died. She had immediately packed a bag and took off as a runaway, sleeping the first few nights in the bathhouse at Jones Beach and then each night after that sleeping further and further out Long Island until finally she got to Montauk—at which point, after a night between some sand dunes—she thought that was enough and she should go back home.
Author Chris Knopf awarded the second place award which went to Jean Ely of Shelter Island for her story called “Waiting for the Ferry.” This was about her mother and her waiting in a car talking to one another for those 15 minutes until the ferry would arrive. It was a very emotional piece, with a bombshell dropped toward the end.
After that, our third presenter, Len Riggio of Barnes & Noble, came out with his envelope that contained the name of the winner. Before he opened it, however, he spoke to the audience for a few minutes. He spoke about the power of regular, everyday people as writers; being impressed with the quality of the entries to the contest; and how he looks forward to this award’s continuing into the future. Then he opened the envelope.
“The Dan’s Papers Prize for Literature in Nonfiction 2012,” he said “is awarded to James K. Phillips for his story ‘Magic Shirts.’” The crowd erupted into applause and, looking out into the audience from the podium where I was, I at first thought Mr. Phillips was not in the building. This would have been a huge shock, a great blow to the event that his prize, the biggest prize, might have to be given to a surrogate.
But then, there was a man getting up way in the back, under the balcony, and sliding down the seats to the aisle to walk up to the stage and I felt relief.
James K. Phillips is a Shinnecock Indian who lives on the reservation in Southampton. He’s slender and graceful with close-cropped hair. He wore, among his regular street clothes, small feathered earrings. It was the only hint about him that announced his heritage.
He clutched the big trophy to himself and thanked everybody. He also now had his Nook and the check for $5,000 in an envelope. “Magic Shirts” is a story entirely about the native clothes he wore to pow wows around the country where he would compete in various events to win prizes. These were handmade clothes. His story spoke of his admiration for the people, mostly women in the tribe, who lovingly sewed these clothes by hand to fit him, put ribbons in them that seemed to infuse them with magic, and how these clothes were then magical and the Shinnecocks who made them were also magical. The piece was also a tribute to the family that is the reservation, and how close they all are.
Then he announced that, appreciative as he was for this honor, he would be leaving this event to go back up to Connecticut for the Mashantucket Pequot Pow Wow which was already underway, but for at least a while he would be sticking around before he left (on his motorcycle) to enjoy this moment for him with all his friends and those others who had come.
With that, the spotlight shifted across the stage to Pia Lindstrom, now sitting in the club chair in the “library” stage left, and the audience went quiet.
“Pow-wow season has arrived and as usual everything is being done now that should have been done during the winter and spring,” is how his piece began.
Pia had received the winning essay from me the week before, with the understanding that she not tell anyone of the author or the entry. She had agreed to this. She had rehearsed how she would tell the story. And she told it just beautifully.
When she finished, the audience once again broke into applause. I then announced that the event was over and there were refreshments in the lobby and people applauded again, stood up, and to the refrains of Vivaldi’s “Spring” section of the Four Seasons, headed back up the aisles and out.
What a wonderful event.
After a long, congratulatory half hour out in front of the theater, my wife and I, Ina and Bob Caro, Pia Lindstrom and four of the judges and their spouses, Joanne Harras and Joanna Virello walked across the street to sit and have drinks and food in the garden in the back of the 1770 House. We talked about how wonderful it was that this whole 40-minute event had gone off without a hitch. Everyone loved it and said so. We talked about the entries that did not win and which ones were our favorites. And we talked about what a wonderful time this all had been and how we really felt we had done something important for the community.
I am greatly indebted to a whole bunch of people who made this event possible. At Dan’s Papers, to Ellen Dioguardi assisted by Lisa Barone who handled the coordination of the seating, the handing out of the programs, the front lobby, the catering, the phone calls and the signage, to Manhattan Media’s Joanna Virello, who handled publicity, email invitations and coordination of the graphics design, to Dave Caldwell, the Dan’s Papers delivery manager who made all the decorative landscaping provided by Marder’s in Bridgehampton and English Country Antiques to arrive on time, to Ty Wenzel, who designed the logo of the award and the program, to Stacy Dermont and Kelly Laffey who helped in reading many of the entries, to Ruth Appelhof, Josh Gladstone, Sebastian and Joseph of the John Drew Theatre for all their help, to Citarella and Wolffer Wineries for their contributions of wine and cheese, to my assistant Nicole Stanek who solved problems, made phone calls, kept up the scoring and forwarding to the judges, to the stars of the show Pia Lindstrom, Bob Caro, Len Riggio, Martin Shepard, Chris Knopf and to the rest of our judges, and also to Richard Burns, the chairman of Dan’s Papers and Manhattan Media who thought up this idea and who urged me on, and to Joanne Harras, our COO and to Susan Weber our bookkeeper. And perhaps most of all to Chris Wasserstein, my wife, for her support and encouragement and to our CEO Bob Edelman who also offered the same. If I have forgotten anybody, please forgive me. It was just a wonderful event. Everyone had a wonderful time. Especially me. Beginning next week, we start planning for next year.

*  *  *
Read James K. Phillips entry “Magic Shirts” in its entirety on page 95. In the weeks that follow we will publish Jean Ely’s piece “Waiting for the Ferry” and Susan Cohen’s “Littoral Drifter.”
*  *  *
This fall, we will publish online The Dan’s Papers Literary Journal 2012 on danshamptons.com. It will contain every piece entered.

BACK TO Dan Rattiner's Stories