2005 Outstanding Young Alumni Award
Jennifer Haigh ’90
Like the perfect wording or a spot-on description, life as a novelist came to Jennifer Haigh ’90 quite deliberately, but at its own pace.
The daughter of an English teacher and a school librarian, the small-town girl from Barnesboro, Pa., showed literary talent early on.
In high school, the budding writer used school and community activities to further her literary interests, actively competing in forensics and showcasing her theatrical talents both at her high school and in local summer theater.
At Dickinson, Haigh’s creative interests blossomed as she pursued her love of drama, history and literature. A French major with a minor in history and philosophy, the western Pennsylvania native followed her theatrical flair, joining the Mermaid Players, which also produced two of her plays. She took fiction workshops and, inspired by creative-writing professor Robert Olmstead, had all intentions of immediately applying to M.F.A. programs after graduation. That’s where time and experience stepped in to slow her pace and allow her to grow into the more well-rounded writer that she is today.
For the next few years, she traveled and lived, as she says, “filling up [my] tank with things to write about.”
Haigh went to France on a Fulbright teaching fellowship, puttered around the East Coast, cleaned offices at night in Tampa, Fla., and taught yoga to gambling addicts.
At 30, she took a hard look at her life and decided that now was the time to pursue more education. She enrolled in the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There, she honed her craft, bringing to her art varied life experiences. Since graduation from the program, her work quickly garnered acclaim.
Her short fiction has been published in many prestigious literary magazines, including The Virginia Quarterly Review and The Idaho Review, as well as Good Housekeeping and The Hartford Courant.
Haigh’s first novel, Mrs. Kimble, won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2004 for distinguished first book of fiction. Baker Towers, published this year, has been featured by the Book of the Month Club. In a New York Times review Janet Maslin calls the “captivating” novel a “living, breathing organism, “ … a rich, enveloping story of one Polish-Italian family in the small Pennsylvania coal-mining town of Bakerton.”
Haigh writes her manuscripts in long hand, making sure the words don’t “flow too fast and too many” as they would on a computer screen. The technique harkens back to an earlier time when the smooth strokes of pen on paper gave birth to some of the best-known fictional characters of our time.
Haigh now lives in Massachusetts, writing her drafts at the kitchen table once belonging to her grandmother, Fenya Wasilko. The award-winning author says she can’t imagine writing anywhere else.
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