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‘Carolina is in my blood’: UNC alumnus awarded 2020 Thomas Wolfe Prize

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Michael Parker gives an address during the Oct. 6 Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture.

For fiction writer Michael Parker, writing is more than just a job. It’s an art form and a skill, one he acquired while attending UNC in the early 1980s. 

Nearly 40 years later, the school that fostered his passion for creative writing is recognizing him for his work.

Parker is the 2020 recipient of the Thomas Wolfe Prize, an award honoring distinguished authors in memory of fiction writer Thomas Wolfe, who was a part of UNC’s class of 1920. 

Due to the effects of COVID-19, this year’s Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture activities were held virtually. One of these events, the annual reading and lecture, was held on Tuesday. 

While the lecture is typically held in person at the Genome Sciences Building Auditorium, this year’s Zoom format still included a speech by Parker and a question and answer session. 

Parker said he’s looked to notable authors such as Wolfe for inspiration in his writing. He cited Wolfe’s most widely known novel "Look Homeward, Angel," as one source of his early interest in writing. 

“'Look Homeward, Angel' was the first book I can remember reading that affected me physically,” Parker said at the lecture. “That novel and most of Wolfe’s works radiate exuberance, and it is surely the only novel I’ve ever read that left me feeling intoxicated.”

Like Wolfe, Parker said he draws from his North Carolina heritage in his writing. He said retaining aspects of his upbringing, such as his Southern accent and vernacular, has affected his writing.

“Growing up in the swamps and tobacco fields of Eastern North Carolina, I absorbed a harmonious blend of high and low diction,” Parker said at the lecture. “I had to work vigilantly to make sure this gift was pitched to the register of each story.” 

A UNC alumnus himself, Parker graduated with Honors in creative writing in 1984. Since his time at the University, Parker has written seven novels and also published short fiction and non-fiction pieces. Parker said the creative writing program was crucial in fostering his writing skills. 

“Carolina is in my blood,” Parker said at the lecture. “It was here that I found my first encouragement as a writer, as well as my first honest critics.”

Marianne Gingher, a professor in the department of English and comparative literature, said she witnessed Parker’s talent first-hand as a college student in one of her classes.

“I first knew Michael Parker as a young man in my Advanced Fiction class in 1982,” Gingher said at the lecture. “He was reluctant to believe in himself, the way many young writers are, although he was the best writer in the class.”

In addition to graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, Parker taught at UNC-Greensboro for 30 years. He said being awarded the Thomas Wolfe Prize is especially meaningful to him as someone with decades of experience in the UNC System. 

“I was absolutely thrilled,” Parker said. “To have been chosen by a group of my peers all of whom I respect is just an amazing feeling, it’s very gratifying. The list of former recipients includes two of my teachers and one of my former colleagues at UNC-G — to join that group is amazing.”

In his lecture, Parker said he hoped to convey that creative writing is an art that can be taught and learned. 

Daniel Wallace, director of the creative writing program, said because Parker is a product of the creative writing program, he serves as inspiration for young writers at UNC.

“A takeaway, I think for every student who is engaged in this very difficult endeavor of writing is that you can look at Michael and see the potential you have in yourself,” Wallace said. “If he can come here with his passion and his work ethic and create something as wonderful as he has, I think it’s possible for everybody who brings that same desire.”

Elizabeth Gualtieri-Reed, a teaching assistant professor in the department of English and comparative literature, organized the lecture.

She said during the pandemic, it is especially important to recognize the arts and literature.

“It’s a demonstration that the literature and the arts are really important for getting through any sort of pandemic or any sort of crisis that we face,” Gualtieri-Reed said. “So celebrating it seems all the more important this year than any other year.”

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Parker’s 11th book will be published next year by Algonquin Books, a Chapel Hill publishing company. Parker said he believes continuing to spend time with literature during the pandemic is important.

“People are distracted and they’re having a hard time focusing, all of us are, and I think it's sort of difficult right now to channel your energy into any one thing,” Parker said. “So I think art, reading, listening to music, playing the guitar, painting, all those sorts of things have been tremendously important to getting through this.”