James Zwerneman
Third-year M.F.A. student James Zwerneman was awarded the first UCI Henfield Prize of $10,000 for the best work of fiction by a graduate student. Michelle S. Kim / University Communications

James Zwerneman, a third-year M.F.A. student, is off to an auspicious start as a writer. He has received the first UC Irvine Henfield Prize, established with a $300,000 grant from the Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation. The $10,000 annual award is among the most prestigious available to promising young authors and puts Zwerneman in a league with other well-known honorees including Walter Mosley, Mona Simpson and Ann Patchett.

“We were honored to be selected for this special endowment; and we’re terrifically pleased to have this new award, which will support a substantive fiction project,” said Ron Carlson, co-director of the programs in writing. “We don’t work toward awards, but anything that offers our writers time is a true gift.”

UCI is one of five universities whose creative writing programs have been chosen to award a Henfield Prize from 2011 forward for the best work of fiction written by a graduate student. Others are University of Virginia, University of Iowa, Columbia University and University of Michigan.

Zwerneman is working on a novel and a collection of stories. He has lived in Israel, Spain and Grenada. Here, he answers questions about his life, work and travels.

Q. How do you feel about winning the Henfield Prize, and how will it support your writing goals?
A. I feel honored and very grateful. It’s a big deal for me because it’s going to allow me to write fulltime and finish this book I’ve been working on for two years. It’s a comedy about tribes of cavemen.

Q. Cavemen? How did that idea come about?
A. I was intrigued by the idea of early humans coming together out of the wild for the first time and trying to figure out how to make a society from scratch. The early inspiration was a comic strip series, sort of Calvin & Hobbes in tone. It’s playful and exaggerated, but underneath are sincere questions. The cavemen are trying to understand how to be happy, coming to terms with death, inequality and this urge to mate in a society that has no established sexual or romantic rules. They’re being eaten, scalped by other tribes, or decimated by plague. Their life expectancy is a lot shorter, and they don’t think there’s an afterlife, so everything they do has a compressed urgency. The story focuses on one tribe as a new Ice Age settles over the world.

Q. You’ve lived in Israel, Spain and the Caribbean. What brought you to all of those places and how has travel influenced your writing?
A. My father was a volunteer doctor in Jerusalem and the Caribbean, so I was with my family in those places. On the island of Grenada, where we lived for six years, we had a small house back in the jungle surrounded by banana and mango trees. You couldn’t get there except on a dirt path. Snakes, tarantulas, parrots, and a lot of time to read, which is good for a writer.

After college, I moved to Madrid because I was living by the theory that it is important for the young writer to travel, which is a fun theory to live by. Some friends and I taught English four days a week to pay for trips, and on weekends biked around Tuscany, skied the Alps, hiked in Scotland. I was on a boat on the Nile River when I found out I had been accepted to UCI.

Q. Why did you select UCI’s M.F.A. program in writing?
A. I felt it was one of the best in the country, maybe the best. Obviously, I’m biased but I still feel that way.

Q. What is the best writing advice you have received from mentors and instructors in the program?
A. Ron Carlson and Michelle Latiolais are fantastic. Good writers, good teachers, invested in your success. They have this writer’s code, like a samurai code. I learned a lot from them and from the other students in workshop. There were some very smart people around the table. Maybe it seems like obvious advice, but it was a big deal for me, learning to welcome the times in writing when you don’t know what’s coming next. Ron Carlson says, “If you get what you expect it isn’t good enough.”

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A. I’m still aspiring too, but I’d repeat the basic stuff that people told me: read a lot, write a lot, get life experience, persevere, seek wisdom from wiser writers. Then, to steal again from Carlson, go with your quirks.

Q. What books are on your nightstand?
A. I just moved to L.A., so I’m enjoying Ask the Dust by John Fante. Next in line on the nightstand is Hunters and Gamblers by Ryan Ridge, a UCI classmate.