In a stunning upset of red-hot author Junot Diaz, Claire Vaye Watkins took home The Story Prize, the Stanley Cup of short-fiction prizes, at an event in New York City on Wednesday.
Watkins’s collection “Battleborn” won over finalists “This Is How You Lose Her” by Diaz, and “Stay Awake” by Dan Chaon, as well as the 95 other entries–which makes the win better than winning the NCAA's 64-team basketball tournament, if you think about it. Watkins also walked away with $20,000, which is actually much better than the zero dollars athletes win during March Madness, while the other finalists got a cool five grand each.
The spoils of victory. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
This was the ninth Story Prize, which, according to the prize’s website, is awarded to “the author of an outstanding collection of short fiction.” The work must have been written in English and published in the U.S. in the previous calendar year. While the prize’s director, Larry Dark, opened the event at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium by explaining that the prize was a celebration of the art form of the short story–and the candidates had only nice things to say about each other’s work–it’s probably more interesting to think of it as a cutthroat competition.
As the well-established and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” many felt that Diaz had the prize locked up. No one seemed more surprised than by her victory than Watkins herself. Her hands were shaking as she gave an extemporaneous acceptance speech, reading off names from the back of her hotel bill, in front of the audience at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium.
“That list was just a list of people I was going to go find and thank later,” she explained afterwards, while clutching the coveted Story Prize Silver Bowl, which she joked would probably be used for M&Ms or, failing that, human blood. The whole event was pretty funny and light-hearted.
So light-hearted that nominee Dan Chaon looked up somewhat incredulously to the good-natured laughter rippling through the auditorium after he read his first line, “Midnight and Daddy was on his way home to kill us all.” A creative writing professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, Chaon’s collection was praised for having twelve “gripping tales of fear, loss and anxiety,” which veer to the “grotesque and supernatural.”
Diaz’s collection “This Is How You Lose Her” is also a finalist for the National Book Award, and like his novel, is a New York Times bestseller. In spite of a back ailment that made sitting down painful, Diaz spoke eloquently about his process and the candid, and often sexist, perspective of his characters.
Watkins is the first woman to win the top prize since Mary Gordon won for the very clearly titled collection “The Stories of Mary Gordon” in 2007. To make a remarkable win all the more remarkable, “Battleborn” is Watkins’s debut book, making her an undefeated champion of short fiction.
Thematically, Watkins described “Battleborn” as dealing with the dominant mythology of the American West, specifically in her home state of Nevada, drawing from her experiences collecting fireworks in dried up lakebeds and her father’s history with Charles Manson.
Back in her home state, Vegas has not yet started a betting line for the Story Prize, even though it’s a totally awesome idea and not at all bad for art.