Novelist with South Hadley ties wins Whiting Award for debut novel

  • Tony Tulathimutte

  • Tony Tulathimutte Larry D. Moore

  • Tulathimutte’s debut novel, “Private Citizens,” has won wide acclaim.

Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2017

SOUTH HADLEY — There are any number of prestigious literary awards out there: the Pulitizer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Tony Tulathimutte says he’s thrilled to win one himself, particularly one that comes with the biggest cash prize of any of them: $50,000.

Tulathimutte, who grew up partly in South Hadley and currently teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is one of four winners for fiction in this year’s Whiting Awards. The 33-year-old novelist got the nod for his debut book, “Private Citizens,” which has garnered widespread acclaim since its publication in 2016.

In a phone call Thursday from his parents’ home in South Hadley — he’s staying there this semester during his stint as a visiting writer at UMass — Tulathimutte said he had no inkling he was in line for a Whiting Award, whose nomination process, unlike that of some other literary prizes, is kept secret.

“It’s fantastic news, but totally unexpected,” said Tulathimutte, who now lives in New York City. “I just have to be careful not to go out and blow [the award money] all at once.”

“Private Citizens,” set in and around San Francisco in the first decade of the new century, follows four friends as they stumble through their initial post-college years, trying to find their way in new jobs and realities. They drift through parties, protests and relationships and continually wash up in each other’s lives in a city that one character acidly calls “this little ukulele-strumming party. A ‘They Might Be Giants’ song set in concrete.”

It’s a satire but not a mean-spirited one, what one critic called “a gleefully rude comedy of manners.” Among numerous positive reviews of the novel, The Village Voice wrote that Tulathimutte “captures the anxieties and privileges of having a college degree in a major city with both wit and kindness.”

“I was trying to push back against the idea of satire being an excuse to ridicule [my characters],” said Tulathimutte, who noted that he’s built some pieces of himself into all four of his novel’s characters and that “I’ve always looked for creative ways to make fun of myself.”

Born in Springfield, Tulathimutte spent most of his childhood in South Hadley, attending town schools until seventh grade; he graduated from the MacDuffie School, a grade 6-12 school then in Springfield, in 2001. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in symbolic systems, an interdisciplinary field, at Stanford University.

Though he initially worked in the Bay Area’s tech field, he had begun writing seriously during his time at Stanford, inspired in particular by an “outrageously charismatic” fiction teacher there, Adam Johnson, a winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

Tulathimutte later attended and graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop; aside from his novel, he has published short stories, essays and book reviews for a variety of publications, and he’s taught writing in New York, New Hampshire and now UMass.

He’s also a good friend of novelist Jennifer DuBois, a Williamsburg native whose first two books, “A Partial History of Lost Causes” and “Cartwheel,” have won considerable praise.

In winning a Whiting Award — the award goes each year to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and theater — Tulathimutte shares company with another novelist with Valley connections: the late David Foster Wallace, an Amherst College graduate. In addition, Tulathimutte is among five fiction writers with New England roots or connections who have won a 2017 Whiting Award.

He says he figures to use his award money to finance some of his current writing projects, including what he laughingly called a book of “weirdo, fictitious literary criticism.”

But, he added, “I want to enjoy myself, too.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazette-net.com.

Tony Tulathimutte’s website is www.tonytula.com.