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“Their lovers will be ecstatic,” Conroy said to laughter from about 40 people gathered in the cramped parlor. “Their families over the top with pride and their very best friends and fellow writers will be bitter and suicidal. … It will be one of the finest days of their lives and everything that happens to them after this will be a downhill slide to the abyss.”

Four of the finalists were born in the South.

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Associated Press Writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., contributed to this report.