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UW Professor Finalist for 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

March 3, 2011
Man with two dogs
University of Wyoming English Associate Professor Brad Watson is a finalist for the prestigious 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his collection of short stories, "Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives." The PEN/Faulkner Award is America's largest peer juried prize for fiction. (Photo courtesy of Nell Hanley)

University of Wyoming English Associate Professor Brad Watson is a finalist for the prestigious 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, America's largest peer juried prize for fiction.

Watson's collection, "Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives," 12 stories of family strife, personal loss, physical trauma and emotional reckoning, is among five books published in 2010 selected as finalists. The other nominees are Jennifer Egan for "A Visit From The Goon"; Deborah Eisenberg for "The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg"; Jaimy Gordon for "Lord of Misrule"; and Eric Puchner for "Model Home."

"It's a surprise and a real honor to be among this distinguished group of finalists in fiction. I feel fortunate, lucky and happy just to be one of the five, whoever is named first," Watson says. He adds that he's also grateful to the UW Department of English for giving him some crucial time during the Fall 2008 semester to, "really pull the book together."

"I am lucky, also, to work every day among such a group of very smart, very talented and very pleasant-to-be-around colleagues and students in the MFA Program and the department as a whole," Watson says.

Beth Loffreda, UW MFA Program in Creative Writing director, says the nomination is a major recognition for Watson.

"The PEN/Faulkner Award is easily one of the most prestigious honors in American fiction, right up there with the National Book Award," she says. "To be named a finalist is to be recognized as one of the most important fiction writers working in the country today. It's marvelous to see one of our own, Brad Watson, receive that recognition."

Directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation say the winner, who will receive $15,000, will be announced March 15. The remaining four finalists will be awarded $5,000 each. In a ceremony that celebrates the winner as "first among equals," all five authors will be honored during the 31st Annual PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony Saturday, May 7, at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

Judges considered approximately 320 novels and short story collections by American authors published in the United States during 2010. Submissions came from more than 125 publishing houses, including small and academic presses. There is no fee for a publisher or writer to submit a book.

"Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives" is steeped in the Southern gothic tradition. Watson steps beyond the borders of the traditional south to inflect even southern California with the lush trauma of its influence and the absurdity of its humor. "His prose is sure enough to carry this mantle and his plots are brutal enough to earn it," the judges wrote.

One of "Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives" stories, the wrenching "Water Dog God," tells about a teenage girl in Alabama who was raped by her brothers and impregnated by her father. She flees their tortured company in the wake of a tornado to seek refuge in the house of her cousin and the company of a pack of stray dogs.

Stories such as this prompted the New York Times to identify Watson's "great gift to be his portrayal of the hardscrabble lives of odd but everyday people, their relationships to the surrounding land freighted with privately held histories and traumas."

Earlier this year, the Boston Globe named "Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives" among the year's best fiction books.

"And yet, Watson's real gift is the humor and restraint that accompany these portrayals. His characters come to their own slow terms with life, providing us a reading experience both searing and hilarious," the judges say.

Watson is the author of a previous short story collection that won the Sue Kauffman Award for First Fiction, as well as a novel, "The Heaven of Mercury," that was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Originally from Mississippi, Watson teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at UW. He previously taught at the University of Alabama, Harvard University, University of California-Irvine and University of Mississippi, and has held fellowships through the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lannan Foundation.

The other PEN/Faulkner Award finalists' and their work:

-- Egan's "A Visit From The Goon Squad" is a novel comprised of 13 interlocking chapters, each a self-contained story, which spans 40 years from 1979 into the scientifically futuristic 2020. She is a journalist from Brooklyn, N.Y.

-- "The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg" brings together four volumes of Eisenberg's work -- "Transactions in a Foreign Currency"; "Under the 82nd Airborne"; "All Around Atlantis"; and "Twilight of the Superheroes." Eisenberg has taught at the University of Virginia since 1994.

-- Gordon's "Lord of Misrule" novel is set in the ramshackle world of a second-rate racetrack, Indian Mound Downs, downriver from Wheeling, W. Va. Saturated in racetrack idiom; the novel's world is ominously decrepit, peopled with con men, loan sharks, mystical grooms, trainers and jockeys. Gordon teaches at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

-- Puchner's debut novel "Model Home" tells the tragicomic story of the disintegrating Ziller family in 1980s southern California and their foray into a failed real estate development plan. The novel is also about family in a nutshell, a fusion of nuanced daily observation, pained hilarity, absurd circumstance and heartbreaking dislocation. Puchner lives in Los Angeles and teaches at Claremont McKenna College.

Celebrating the 31st year of the award, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation is committed to building audiences for exceptional literature and bringing writers together with their readers. This mission is accomplished through a reading series at the Folger Shakespeare Library by distinguished writers who have won the respect of readers and writers alike.

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation is an outgrowth of American novelist and short story writer William Faulkner's generosity in donating his 1949 Nobel Prize winnings, "to establish a fund to support and encourage new fiction writers."

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