By Brendan Wolfe
“What I love about the Pulitzer project,” says Sarah McConnell, host of VFH’s With Good Reason (WGR) radio program and podcast, “is that it lets us talk to so many amazing people we would never otherwise get a chance to.”
That’s because WGR, an award-winning weekly public radio program and podcast, generally consists of interviews with Virginia-based scholars and academics. However, a $125,000 grant from the Pulitzer Prize Centennial Campfires Initiative has allowed the program—briefly, at least—to expand its focus. To help commemorate the 2016 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, WGR produced “Pulitzer100,” a series of shows featuring prize winners.
Rick Atkinson, a military historian and three-time winner, talked about his long career in journalism. Dan Fagin, whose book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation won the 2014 award in General Nonfiction, explained how one New Jersey town fought against the pollution—and polluters—killing its children.
“That was an amazing story,” McConnell says, referring to Toms River, “and the credit goes to Fagin, but also to our producer Allison Quantz. It has been her job to look at all these past winners and figure out who would give us the best interviews.”
Which was easier said than done. “Obviously, they’re all incredible thinkers,” Quantz says. “So I had to really focus on who will connect with an audience via radio. I tried to find people who could give us those ‘driveway moments.’ So not just talking interestingly about their work, but also people who are willing to talk more generally about who they are and what occupies their mind.”
In particular, Quantz mentions Paula Vogel, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for How I Learned to Drive, a play that explores difficult issues such as pedophilia and incest.
“When I first saw an interview with her I was instantly hooked,” Quantz says. “While she talks, she builds this other world and you desperately want to be a part of it—and you feel like you are a part of it. She’s known to be an incredible teacher, and I totally get it. I came away from my pre-interview with her feeling not just that she was a genius, but also proud of myself. Somehow she managed to make me a better interviewer.”
Still, Quantz says that Vogel was “kind of dark and edgy.” She was worried about whether she and McConnell would connect. “I think Sarah was a little unsure,” Quantz admits, “but you can hear in the interview how delighted and surprised she is by Paula’s warm and open presence. They clicked instantly.”
In addition to Atkinson, Fagan, and Vogel, WGR has interviewed Elizabeth Fenn, author of Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People, which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in History. Natasha Tretheway, a 2007 award-winner in poetry; Caroline Shaw, a 2013 award-winner in music; Junot Diaz, a 2008 award-winner in fiction; and Fredrik Logevall, a 2013 award-winner in history.
To learn more about With Good Reason and listen to the Pulitzer100 series, visit WithGoodReasonRadio.org.
About the Pulitzer Centennial
The Pulitzer Prize Centennial Campfires Initiative grant to VFH also funded a two-part program during the 2016 Virginia Festival of the Book, a special Centennial-edition trio of poetry broadsides produced at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center, and a live production in Washington, D.C., of the VFH radio program BackStory with the American History Guys. The Campfires Initiative aims to ignite broad engagement with the journalistic, literary, and artistic values the Prizes represent. The Pulitzer Prize Board partnered with the Federation of State Humanities Councils to inspire yearlong programming throughout the country by awarding $1.5 million in funding to forty-six state humanities councils. The initiative is supported by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Pulitzer Prize Board.