Education
4:54 pm
Thu March 7, 2013

$50 million gift for U of M writing program

Future University of Michigan writers can focus on their work – and not on finding work, thanks to a $50 million gift by The Zell Family Foundation.

The gift is the third-largest to the U of M and the largest ever received by the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.  Helen Zell has been supporting the college for several years.

She talked about the reason for her gift in the U of M’s News Release:

"The goal of this MFA program is twofold—to ease the financial burdens of talented budding authors so they have time to write, and to teach them the skills that will help them refine their voice," Zell said. "Books have the power to inspire and change people, to create action, to generate movements, and to better understand those qualities that are uniquely human. We want to capture important stories that might otherwise go untold."

Michael Byers directs the newly renamed Helen Zell Writer’s Program.

Credit Courtesy: University of Michigan

“Helen makes this gift from what is a really remarkable devotion to the idea that literature matters.  Stories matter and new language matters.  And that this is something that’s worth funding to this extent.  I mean this is a critical part of how we understand who we are.  These books make us bigger as humans.  They allow us to see ourselves more completely.”

The Zell Family Foundation already pays for students' third year in the program. Byers says the additional $50 million gift will ensure that third year is subsidized in perpetuity. Students who are accepted into the program call the third year a “Zell-oship."

“We’re able to recruit the most talented and most interesting and most original voices of young writers across the country … who want to come to a place where they’re going to be supported in the way that they’re going to be at Michigan.”

He adds, “these young writers are producing works of great intensity and distinction and strangeness and importance. And it’s not really something you can do part-time.  You really have to be focused on it all the time.  And this gift allows them to be that.”

Byers says just 22 students out of a thousand applicants are accepted in the program each year.  The Zells have contributed more than $60 million to the program since 2004.

The award-winning authors from the MFA program have produced memoirs, fiction and poetry.

Among their extensive ranks are:

  • Elizabeth Kostova, author of "The Historian," which became the first debut novel to hit number one on the New York Times best-seller list in its first week.
  • Hanna Pylväinen, who took advantage of the program to write her first novel, "We Sinners," about conservative religion in the contemporary United States. The book won a Whiting Writers' Award last year.
  • Jesmyn Ward, who won the 2011 National Book Award for her second novel, "Salvage the Bones," about a Mississippi family during Hurricane Katrina.
  • Nigerian author and Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan, who wrote "Say You're One of Them," a collection of short stories giving voices to the poverty and violence in Africa. The book was named the No. 1 fiction book in 2008 by Entertainment Weekly and was the first short-story collection selected by Oprah's Book Club in 2009.
  • Laura Kasischke, alumna and program faculty member won the National Book Critics Circle Award for the poetry collection "Space, in Chains," in 2012.

- Chris Zollars, Michigan Radio News.