- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2009

Author’s first prize

It must have been a sweet night for author Joseph O’Neill. Just days after he discovered that President Obama was reading his novel “Netherland,” he traveled from New York to Washington to accept the 29th PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction — his first, but unlikely to be last, literary prize.

“I’ve never won a prize before,” he says, sneaking out for a little fresh air just before Saturday night’s ceremony, before correcting himself: “I’ve won a sports cup.”

It might be fitting that his first honor pays tribute to William Faulkner — he says his third son is named Oscar Faulkner, after the novelist.

“I’ve had a lovely day here, looking at the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, all the rest of it, with my family,” he reports. He hasn’t spent much time in Washington before, but was here on election night: “I was dancing in front of the White House.” And that was before he knew the new president had such great taste in books.

Mr. O’Neill’s first honor happens to be the largest peer-juried prize for fiction in the country. He receives $15,000 for his novel, in which a Dutch banker living in Manhattan finds solace, after his marriage starts to crumble following the Sept. 11 attacks, in New York’s immigrant cricket community.

Master of ceremonies Marie Arana, a novelist herself, noted what a diverse group the winner and finalists comprised. Mr. O’Neill was born in Ireland of half-Irish, half-Turkish ancestry and grew up mainly in the Netherlands. Susan Choi, honored for “A Person of Interest,” has a Korean father and a Russian mother. “Lush Life” author Richard Price grew up in a housing project in the Bronx (and still has an edge — he wore cowboy boots with his suit and tie). Ron Rash, whose novel “Serena” was honored, grew up in a small town in Appalachia. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, a finalist for “Ms. Hempel Chronicles,” was born to Chinese and American parents. (The dimpled author’s breathless delivery was one of the evening’s highlights.) Each finalist receives $5,000.

Judge and novelist Antonya Nelson — looking as chic as any attendee of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, unfortunately held the same night — said the judges found “Netherland” early in the process. “It became the gold standard by which we measured the rest.” Mr. O’Neill asked to break with tradition and read two excerpts from his book. The first, though, was only two words: “To Sally,” he said, as read the dedication. (His wife is Vogue editor Sally Singer.)

PEN/Faulkner Foundation president Jackson Bryer reported the organization has come through trying economic times on its feet: Nissan is supporting its gala this fall, despite the troubled climate for car companies. One staffer noted that cutbacks meant there were no flowers for centerpieces this year at the dinner held after the ceremony. The attendees didn’t mind — they were more than happy to take home one of the hardcover books used as decoration instead.

Kelly Jane Torrance

Lance discusses split

Lance Armstrong is finally revealing why his engagement to musician Sheryl Crow ended three years ago, Denverpost.com reports.

In “Lance,” a book due out in July, Mr. Armstrong tells author John Wilcockson the decision to have children became an issue in their relationship.

“She wanted marriage, she wanted children; and not that I didn’t want that, but I didn’t want that at that time because I had just gotten out of a marriage, I’d just had kids,” he says. “Yet, we’re up against her biological clock — that pressure is what cracked it.”

The Tour de France champ says that he and Miss Crow underwent counseling to address their problems but that it didn’t work. “We were at different points in our lives. We were not compatible on that issue.”

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