WILLIAMSBURG — Williamsburg local Sophia Rooks has been named to the shortlist for the Sophie Kerr Prize at Washington College, the nation’s largest literary award for a college student.
This year’s award is valued at nearly $80,000.
Rooks is one of five graduating seniors who will give a reading on Friday, May 19, after which a winner will be announced.
The Sophie Kerr Prize is named for an early 20th-century writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland who left what Washington College called a generous bequest with the stipulation that half of its annual proceeds would fund a literary prize for a student.
Other support made possible by Sophie Kerr’s gift is funding for visiting scholars and writers, scholarships for promising students, library books, internships, and research, all in the fields of literature, writing, and publishing.
Rooks grew up in Williamsburg and attended Bruton High School. There, she was enrolled in the School of the Arts program focusing on the Literary Arts track, a program designed to provide high school students with a fine arts educational opportunity comparable to the math and science programs at the Governor’s School of Science and Technology. She was also a rower.
Washington College was the only college Rooks applied to.
“I knew as soon as I visited that this is the place for me,” Rooks explained. “When I got here I intended to be a Political Science major, but someone had found out I dabbled in theater in high school and asked me to work on a show for them. And ever since then, I haven’t looked back.”
Rooks will be graduating from Washington College on May 21 with a double major in theater and environmental studies. She is also practicing with the women’s rowing team for the upcoming NCAA Division III Rowing Championship.
Rooks was chosen as a finalist for a 96-page play she wrote, “Grendel,” adapted from John Gardner’s 1971 novel of the same name. “Grendel” is a retelling of the story of “Beowulf” from the perspective of the antagonist Grendel, who is portrayed as an anti-hero.
The work was originally created as her senior capstone experience project as a theatre major.
“When I was beginning the process fall of my junior year, I was meeting with a professor and it was really funny because he was like ‘What do you want to do Sophia?’ and I said ‘Well there was this book in high school I loved called ‘Grendel’ and I wish there was a play of that so I could do something with it.’ And he said, ‘Sophia, you could write the play.’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh your so right,'” Rooks recalled.
“I think one of the most rewarding parts of this had to be watching the show,” Rooks added, explaining the process behind the staged reading of her project, which originally had no budget, in accordance with the college’s procedures.
After she pitched the project, her professors felt her passion for it, and allowed her to put on a full production of the show, “which is, at least to my knowledge, one of the first times that has happened for a playwright thesis here.”
The cast for the production was primarily students, with the exception of the director, a professor of the college, and the Dramaturge who was an alumnus and the previous Sophie Kerr prize winner.
Washington College notes the Sophie Kerr Prize is awarded each year to the graduating senior who has the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor. In the past, the prize has been awarded for both creative and critical writing.
Student winners are chosen for their literary excellence, regardless of genre. Rooks was the only one of this year’s five finalists who did not submit a portfolio, which typically includes the full range of writing that students pursue at Washington College. This includes fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, screenplays and drama, journalism, editing, scholarly criticism and research in all disciplines — even song lyrics.
“The finalists demonstrate Washington College’s longstanding strengths as a unique community for the literary and creative arts that also fosters critical thinking and writing across all disciplines. The writers represent areas of study that include English, creative writing, journalism, editing & publishing, theatre, anthropology, and environmental studies,” said Elizabeth O’Connor, associate professor of English and acting chair of the English department.
“The committee was particularly impressed by the range of work submitted in the portfolios: poetry, short fiction, excerpts from novels, essays and creative nonfiction, an entire play, oral history and ethnography, and even a graphic novel. In reading through these portfolios, we all were struck by the expansive vision of literary production that emerges from the minds, hearts, and hands of these young writers,” Hall added.
“It was very difficult to narrow down to five finalists,” Hall said. “Reading these finalists’ work is to recognize how good writers draw from every genre and manage to mix in their own imagination to make the world feel new.”
After graduation, Rooks plans to work for the university, running ushers for the Gibson Center for the Arts, as well as booking and scheduling.