Edward P. Jones, author of the critically lauded novel "The Known World," is one of 23 recipients of a $500,000, do-anything-you-want-to-with-it grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The winners list, which will be announced today, includes a physician who makes movies at Yale University; a high school debating coach; an archaeological illustrator and an engineer who fashions undersea robots. The prize money is ladled out in quarterly dollops over five years. Known popularly as "genius grants," the awards are equivalent to Oscars for the smarterati.
Gretchen Berland, a physician and filmmaker, is a 2004 MacArthur Fellow.
(The Macarthur Foundation)
For Jones, 53, it has been a tornadic year. The first-time novelist -- and lifelong Washingtonian -- won the National Book Critics Circle Award in March, the Pulitzer Prize in April and now, rounding out the trifecta, a MacArthur Fellowship.
"Life hasn't changed," says Jones, who also published a book of short stories in 1992.
He has moved from Arlington to Tenleytown, near the National Cathedral. But he still doesn't own a car and he says he never will buy one. He enjoys watching the same old television set. "I haven't had time to go out and get any furniture," he says. But "I do have a dollar or two in the bank."
When Daniel J. Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, called with the good news last week, Jones says, "I thought it was a telemarketer."
Jones is in the middle of a promotional tour for the paperback of "The Known World," a risky novel about the antebellum South that includes an African American slave owner. He is working on a collection of 14 short stories.
The MacArthur grant, according to the official announcement, emphasizes "the importance of the creative individual in society." The foundation has assets of more than $4 billion. It is named for the man who developed and ran Bankers Life and Casualty Co. and his wife. Each year the foundation selects a group of nominators who suggest people who are pushing the limits in research or philanthropy or creativity. A selection committee of a dozen or so folks decides who the fortunate winners will be.
"The call can be life-changing, coming as it does out of the blue and offering highly creative women and men the gift of time and the unfettered opportunity to explore, create, and contribute," Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, said in a statement.
For Gretchen Berland, a teaching physician at Yale University, the grant enables her to think about new ways to use video-documentary techniques to improve health care. Berland puts cameras in the hands of her subjects and allows doctors and patients to tell their own tales.
"There are days in your life that you'll never forget," Berland says. One of them is when the MacArthur Foundation called her. "I told them," she says, "I think they gave it to the wrong person." Berland, 40, is flattered by the honor. "They have talked to a lot of people about you," she says. "It's very humbling."
Though Berland has known for a week, she was told she could only tell one person. She said she chose someone who is very good at keeping secrets: her mother.
She says, "With the privilege comes a sense of responsibility."
For many brainy and creative people, winning a MacArthur is the golden ring. It's the kind of thing that will be mentioned in the first paragraph of someone's obituary. On the plus side: Doors and opportunities open. On the negative side: Great things are expected of MacArthur Fellows; after all, they are the pick of the litter. Past winners include Tim Berners-Lee, granddaddy of the World Wide Web; English lit professor Harold Bloom, critic Stanley Crouch and psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison.
An internist who teaches and practices in New Haven, Berland commutes to a family health clinic in Waterbury, Conn., three days a week in a 1993 red Toyota Camry with 204,000 miles on the odometer. She says she is fascinated by -- and instructs residents in -- the art of the patient interview. "I teach them how to listen," she says, and focus on "the rhythm of attention."
Medical professionals "have become so reliant on technology," she says, "we forget how much a patient can tell us."
Berland is no Luddite. She uses video cameras in new ways to document the world of medicine. In a recent project she gave hand-held cameras to several folks in wheelchairs and asked them to record video diaries. She edited the raw footage and created "Rolling," a film about abilities and disabilities.
The MacArthur Foundation is wise to not send the first check for three months, she says. That gives a winner time "to think about how to use the money."
Angela Belcher, 37, nanotechnologist who uses genetically engineered viruses to build extremely tiny semiconductors, Cambridge, Mass.
James Carpenter, 55, sculptor and design engineer who experiments with the effects of glass on light and space, New York.
Joseph DeRisi, 35, molecular biologist who studies the complex behavior of genes, San Francisco.
Katherine Gottlieb, 52, health care advocate who works with pregnant women and abused teenagers, Anchorage.
David Green, 48, technology transfer innovator who dreams up ways to manufacture high-quality health care products at lower costs, Berkeley, Calif.
Aleksandar Hemon, 40, short story writer who explores ethnic conflicts, Chicago.
Heather Hurst, 29, archaeological illustrator who uses field data and artistic materials to reconstruct Mayan artwork, New Haven, Conn.
John Kamm, 53, human rights strategist who uses his business acumen to work on behalf of political prisoners in China, San Francisco.
Daphne Koller, 36, who creates computer models to further the advance of artificial intelligence, Stanford, Calif.
Naomi Ehrich Leonard, 40, marine roboticist who designs autonomous underwater research-gathering machines, Princeton, N.J.
Tommie Lindsey, 53, high school debating coach who teaches the art of persuasion to urban kids, Union City, Calif.
Rueben Martinez, 64, bookseller who specializes in Spanish-language volumes and promotes reading, Santa Ana, Calif.
Maria Mavroudi, 37, philologist fascinated by the intellectual exchanges between the Arabic world and Byzantine culture, Berkeley, Calif.
Vamsi Mootha, 33, physician who focuses on metabolic research, Boston.
Judy Pfaff, 58, sculptor concerned with making paintings more like sculptures and sculptures more like paintings, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Aminah Robinson, 64, folk artist who employs a variety of media to explore her childhood, Columbus, Ohio.
Reginald R. Robinson, 31, pianist/composer specializing in ragtime music, Chicago.
Cheryl Rogowski, 43, a farmer dedicated to nurturing family farms, Pine Island, N.Y.
Amy Smith, 41, inventor who designs helpful technologies for people with limited resources, Cambridge, Mass.
Julie Theriot, 36, microbiologist concentrating on bacterial infections, Stanford, Calif.
C.D. Wright, 55, poet who has created literary maps of Rhode Island and Arkansas, Providence, R.I.