Claire Boyles has had a tough row over the past decade, going from a struggling farmer in Weld County to a published author. Accordingly, its debut in 2021 – the collection of short stories Site Loyaltypresented in a Westword cover story last June – was a triumph for the Loveland-based teacher, who was forced to pack up her family farm in the small town of Gill in 2013.
And now she has more reason to celebrate her pursuit of writing as a career: She’s one of ten winners of this year’s Whiting Award, which not only comes with national literary prestige, but with a prize of $50,000.
“The Whiting Foundation is notoriously secretive about the awards,” Boyles says of the organization that has decided 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 considered. Once they’ve decided on the winners, they call us out of the blue in January, swear to secrecy until the ceremony in April.
These secret judges, who release their statements collectively, say the stories in Site Loyalty “Tackling some of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change, land ownership, progress that seems to be leaving some behind. These stories are steeped in the humanity, geography, and ecology of the western Rockies, not to mention the economic hardships that plagued Colorado agriculture for centuries.
But Boyles’ characters and themes are universal. “I am interested in the connections between humans and the land, what land conservation requires in a time of growing wealth inequality, and what happens when the people who live closest to the land, who know best how to manage it, are separated from it – the ways in which the commodification of land and water that resulted from the original land theft of indigenous peoples still influences and limits agriculture today,” explains- she.
“I had the great honor of being invited to visit many book clubs – locally and nationally, in person and on Zoom,” she continues. “The discussions and debates about the issues and characters in the book are always lively and delightful, but I was also struck by the importance of these mini-communities, the way book clubs function as common threads at a time when it can feel like the social fabric is fraying.
And it will soon provide more material to these clubs: Titled reviewsa forthcoming 2023 novel by WW Norton, which will build on many of the ideas and concerns that Boyles began to explore in Site Loyalty.
For now, however, she is rejoicing in her victory at the Whiting. “I had a lot of overwhelming feelings when I heard the news – gratitude, amazement, a bit of anxiety,” she recalled. “I really never imagined that I would receive such a prestigious award.” Previous Whiting Award winners 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 resident of Loveland — has coped with the exhausting effects of the COVID over the past two years. But now, with a major award under her belt and the national literary spotlight on her, she has even more means and motives to go on. “For various reasons, I lost a bit of creative momentum during the pandemic,” she says. “The award was really a boost that helped me find my way back.”