PEN/Faulkner finalists have Pittsburgh ties
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Prestige doesn't need glitz. It's the talent that matters.
The organizers of the 28-year-old PEN/Faulkner Prize for fiction understand this truth. While the honor is among the highest a writer can earn in America, there's no hoopla surrounding the announcement. The prize is enough.
This year's ceremony deserves some hoopla here, however. Three of the five honorees have Pittsburgh somewhere in their past:
Winner Kate Christensen, 45, for her novel, "The Great Man," is married to Jon Lewis, son of the late real estate developer Eddie Lewis.
Finalist Annie Dillard, 63, author of "The Maytrees," was born and raised here. She wrote of her Pittsburgh upbringing in "An American Childhood."
Finalist David Leavitt, 46, ("The Indian Clerk") was born here, but grew up in California, leaving town at age 4.
"We come to Pittsburgh a lot. I really love visiting there" said Christensen, who lives in Brooklyn where her husband is a photographer. "For a small town, it feels very cosmopolitan."
"The Great Man," Christensen's fourth novel, was not inspired by her late father-in-law who built One Oxford Centre and Monroeville Mall, but those "bad boy" artists of the 1950s.
"I have no romance for these guys, but I was always bemused by them and what they got away with," she said. "If you were a dentist and did those things, you'd never hear the end of it."
When the novel opens, the title character, Oscar Feldman, renowned painter of female nudes, is dead. The book then focuses on the women in his life who survived.
"Largely, these women [the painter's wife, mistress and sister] are people on periphery. They are on the outside of money, power, sex. In some ways, they have a writer's perspective."
Christensen believes the cliche -- "Behind every great man is a great woman" -- should be changed to "Behind every great man is a great ego."
"The true inspiration for this book is my mother," she said. "I saw as she got older, she didn't get old. It had nothing to do with chronological age. She is very much alive, vibrant, sexy. You don't see a lot of women like that in today's novels."
"The Great Man" is really about "women at the end of their lives who still have a lot of life in them," she said.
Great men were the inspiration behind Leavitt's finalist entry as well -- English mathematicians G.H. Hardy and Alfred Turing, the latter considered a pioneer of computer development.
It was his research on a short biography of Turing, whose work cracked German codes during World War II, that led Leavitt to the curious story of Hardy, a Cambridge scholar and the title character of his book, Srinivasa Ramanujan, an unschooled math genius from Madras.
"I was not all that interested in mathematics until I started researching these guys, and I become fascinated by it," said Leavitt, co-director of the creative writing program at the University of Florida.
It's the second time he has been a finalist, earning that honor in 1985 for his first novel, "Family Dancing." He has written five since, as well as four books of short stories and the Turing biography.
"I'm not really comfortable with the label 'historic fiction,' " said Leavitt. "It has the connotation of something on a grand scale about Marie Antoinette or other larger-than-life people. That's not what I'm trying to."
Although a novelist who chooses real people and events has much of the details already available, Leavitt finds that "the main challenge to that kind of book is to write about a world you were not around to witness. You can't rely on your sensory experience as you can with a contemporary novel. Still, it's fun to imagine what it was like."
Leavitt was born in Pittsburgh when his father was on the business school faculty at Carnegie Mellon University, "back when it was Carnegie Tech," he said. The family moved to California when the father took a teaching post at Stanford University.
"The Maytrees" is Dillard's second novel after a long career as a nonfiction writer and professor at Wesleyan University. The book spans the long and strained relationship of a couple from Provincetown, Mass.
Dillard will not be attending the ceremony, a PEN/Faulkner spokeswoman said. That ceremony will be Saturday in Washington, D.C.
The other finalists are T.M. McNally for his story collection, "The Gateway," and Ron Rash for "Chemistry and Other Stories," short fiction was well.
First Published May 6, 2008 12:00 am