Senior wins Evelyn Waugh essay contest

A Handful of Dust
Mary Kathleen Reilly chose to write her essay for the Evelyn Waugh undergraduate essay contest on Waugh’s novel “A Handful of Dust.”


Senior Mary Kathleen Reilly, winner of the Evelyn Waugh essay contest, began to admire Evelyn Waugh and his novel “A Handful of Dust” during her high school years. Reilly’s father, whom she says is a devoted Evelyn Waugh fan, was the one who introduced her to him.

Reilly, an English and history double major, entered the contest after finding out her final paper for her Maps and American Literature class, taught by professor Martin Brueckner, fit the requirements for the contest. Reilly’s passion for Waugh’s work and her hard labor paid off, Brueckner says, as Reilly beat out students from universities around the world.

Presented is a brief interview with Reilly about her essay while she was on her service trip to help rebuild homes in New Orleans.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about why you wrote your essay on Evelyn Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust?”

A: Well, Evelyn Waugh is one of my favorite authors. My dad first introduced me to Evelyn Waugh in high school. [Waugh] was a contemporary author, like C.S. Lewis, who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, so I was really open to reading him. I first read A Handful of Dust when I was a senor in high school and it really resonated with me first hand. It is a very unique work. He was Catholic, so there were a lot of themes, like faith, that I could really relate to. When it came to writing my final English paper in college, it really made sense to bring things full circle having written a paper on him my senior year of high school on one of his books. It fit the theme of the class so well.

Q: What class did you write the original essay for before entering it into the contest? Professor Brueckner told me you had been in two of his classes.

A: Yes, well the class was my honors English (480) Maps and American Imagination. We read “Treasure Island” and “The Wizard of Oz,” books where characters use maps or when you open a book and the author drew a map in our brains. As the semester went on, we moved to more abstract things like how characters perceive space, move through space and use space. We read a really interesting article about how authors use architecture and actual structures to do all kinds of crazy things. That pretty much fit directly with “A Handful of Dust.”

Q: How did those themes fit into “A Handful of Dust?”

A: Evelyn Waugh uses really interesting structures in “A Handful of Dust.” He starts off with the main character, who lives in a huge grand old abbey, which was considered by a lot of people to be really ugly, but he loved it. This reflected and affected him. There was an apartment as well, and then the story ends in the middle of the jungle, so there is really lack of structure there in the wild and nature. The themes of the class kind of expanded and the book really fit the class well.

Q: How did you hear about this essay contest? Did you enter it on a whim?

A: My dad is an Evelyn Waugh nerd pretty much and he subscribes to the EW society mailing list. He forwarded me this email that had the outline and statement for the contest. When I got it, I was like, ‘This could not be any more perfect.’ Of course, I just so happened to write a paper that exactly fit the contest, so I was able to submit it right away. It was fate.

Q: So, what happens now that you have won the contest?

A: I am going to be published in the Evelyn Waugh Studies Journal. They publish their actual journal once in the fall and once in the spring. They sent me the notification that I won with comments from the editorial board that read my essay and were the judges. They typed out really thoughtful criticism. I am going to use an extra month to edit the paper- I am going to cut it down a little bit then it will be published in the journal in the fall. There was also a monetary prize.

Q: What about this essay was different from others you’ve written in the past?

A: This essay was definitely more interesting because I was able to pick a text that we hadn’t read in class. Knowing that this was our ending point of our English career at Delaware, he let us kind of go wherever we wanted with it. My essay kind of went outside the class, which was American Literature, since Waugh was British. But it was the longest paper I have written.

Q: Did you enjoy writing this essay?

A: Not that I haven’t enjoyed writing my other papers in college, but it was especially enjoyable because I got to go in any direction I wanted. The theories we were using were about architecture and space – abstract ideas that were very different from anything I’ve written about before. You were pretty much able to pick your poison and do whatever you wanted as long as it tied back to the class. Having that freedom was really nice.

Q: Do you have any big plans for after graduation?

A: I am actually going to be doing a program at Saint Joseph’s in Philly. It partners with the Alliance for Catholic Education and is a part of the University Consortium for Catholic Education. People teach full time in Catholic schools, either K through 8 or high school—-I am hoping for high school—-while taking classes pursing a masters in education. It is kind of like a Teach for America for Philadelphia urban Catholic schools. I’m really excited about it. I am looking to teach high school English.

This interview was edited April 9, 2014 for transcription errors.

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