Was it just me, or was this year’s Story Prize event an even better show than usual? Which is not to say that it ever isn’t good—Larry Dark and his finalists never fail to be interesting and lively. And, as I’m fond of pointing out, there are only three of them, which means even the most literarily overscheduled among us (me) can still read all the books between the time the shortlist is announced and the evening the prize is given. This past Wednesday night, though, felt extra substantial. Each of the three authors—Dan Chaon, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Junot Diaz—gave good readings, but they were also seriously engaging on the subject of their work. They were also all really funny—they could take this stuff on the road. Though I wouldn’t want any of them quitting their day jobs.
Dan Chaon led off, reading from the final story in his collection, Stay Awake. And while it’s easy to cite an author’s “dark humor,” especially when it comes to tales of the macabre and psychologically tenebrous, you really need to hear them in Chaon’s own voice to get that all the way. He has a marvelous delivery, dry and a little sad in a way that hits a nerve; the opening line from ““The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands” drew a surprising ripple of laughter that I would have never expected from having read it to myself. That revelation, of how thin the dividing line is between funny and terrible in his stories, made me want to go back and read them again. “We all live different lives and we all carry ghosts with us all the time,” Chaon explained later—which, interestingly, seemed to be the common thread through the three very different collections.
Claire Vaye Watkins read next, from the opening piece in Battleborn—a collection that comes out of the gate just swinging, as has Watkins herself. Afterward, she talked at length about the choices she made with that story, which I have to say was deeply gratifying. As a reader, hopefully something of a critical one, I’ve coached myself hard not to speculate on issues of authorial biography. And mostly I’m successful, but “Ghosts, Cowboys” absolutely confounded any discipline I might have acquired there. Hearing Watkins discuss the story, and her decision to use the form of memoir to tell it—to “use the reader’s curiosity about the writer as part of the reading experience”—eased my troubled soul. That, her dynamite dress, and her use of the word “fuckery”—which I clearly need to incorporate into my vocabulary as soon as possible—made my evening.
Junot Díaz finished off the night with “Nilda,” from This Is How You Lose Her. Díaz’s collection is more of a piece than the others, an extended riff on one Dominican family, and one of my favorite aspects of the book was the Spanish scattered throughout. Phrases, slang, I couldn’t even tell you—I’m not a Spanish speaker beyond the vague comprehension living in New York’s fringier neighborhoods has bought me—but the language rounded out the stories for me in a way that straight comprehension wouldn’t have. So again, it was perfect to hear him address that: how he reversed the process in the book’s Spanish translation, and the importance of the “angry sibling thing English and Spanish have going on.” Plus the man deserved a prize all his own for thoroughly rocking the hoodie-under-the-suit-jacket look.
The prize, $20,000 and a very shiny silver bowl, went to Claire Vaye Watkins. Battleborn is a deserving collection, to be sure, and I’m happy to see a young and obviously talented writer get that kind of encouragement. But it was a satisfying evening all the way through, and extra credit should probably go to Larry Dark, who managed to come up with all the questions I wanted to hear answered. And, of course, thanks to the authors who answered them so well.