The PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize honors exceptionally talented fiction writers whose debut work—a first novel or collection of short stories—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise. From a crowded field of dazzling debut fiction, the judges chose Shawn Vestal for Godforsaken Idaho (Little A/New Harvest), Anthony Marra for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth), Ian Stansel for Everybody’s Irish (FiveChapters Books), Hanya Yanagihara for The People in the Trees (Doubleday), and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh for Brief Encounters with the Enemy (The Dial Press) as this year’s finalists. To get a better idea of the writers behind the books, we sent each of the finalists the same four questions addressing inspiration, routine, and craft. Here’s what they sent back.

The winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize will be announced live on Monday, September 29 at PEN’s 2014 Literary Awards Ceremony in New York City. 


If you could pose 1 question to a dead writer, what and who would you ask?

SHAWN VESTAL: I don’t understand this new power I’ve been granted—to miraculously pierce the veil of death, but only once! What kind of theoretical physics is this? I’d like to ask Nabokov to give me a chess lesson. I’d like to ask Flannery O’Connor over for a bourbon. I’d like to ask Kafka about metaphor and dream logic. I’d like to ask Homer why his work is so gratuitously violent.

ANTHONY MARRA: Bohumil Hrabal, the great Czech writer, is one my all-time favorite novelists. He had the reputation of being a barroom bard and judging from the rambling raconteur-style of his many narrators, I imagine he was the kind of guy you could listen to for hours. If I could, I’d pull up a stool and ask him to tell me a story.

IAN STANSEL: I’d be interested in hearing Charles Dickens discuss the relationship between fiction and social justice.

HANYA YANAGIHARA: Joe Orton, I suppose: his diaries are one of the funniest reads around (and, of course, very sad as well). I’d ask him to narrate to me his last two dozen sexual encounters. Then I’d turn on the voice recorder and leave him to it while I ran errands. But really, there are so many people I’d like to just ask: Tell me a story. Ovid; Aesop; Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

SAID SAYRAFIEZADAH: Dear James Baldwin, How do you think psychotherapy would have changed your writing?


Where is your favorite place to write?

STANSEL: Every time my wife and I move, which is more often than either of us would like, I always go through the trouble of setting up a proper office with an actual desk, and then I almost never use it. Right now I write most productively at our dining room table. All of our bookshelves are right there and there is good light.

YANAGIHARA: Somewhere dark and snug. Ideally, it’s cold outside and I can hear the wind but not feel it. Significant parts of both my books were written in hotel rooms of various levels of comfort in China and Japan while I was traveling for work.

MARRA: Ideally, somewhere very far from the Internet, cells phones, and the general distractions of daily life. A bunker somewhere on Greenland would do nicely. For now though, I have an office in the spare bedroom of my apartment occupied by nothing but a desk, a chair, and hopefully, me.

VESTAL: I have a little office in my house with lots of windows that is surrounded by trees. I like to sit on the small couch in that room, with my laptop on the top of my lap and my feet up on the seat of the chair, with a big cup of coffee and a stern self-prohibition against going online until I’ve gotten some work done.


Where is your favorite place to read?

SAYRAFIEZADAH: Starbucks by Washington Square Park. There are three comfortable seats in the corner, which for some reason are never taken despite it being the busiest Starbucks in the Northeast. It’s almost impossible to ever get a cup of coffee, but the baristas are nice and there’s a big window that faces the park.


In five words, what’s your advice for aspiring novelists and short story writers?

YANAGIHARA : Always keep your day job.

SAYRAFIEZADAH: Write. Rewrite. Submit. Reject. Repeat.

MARRA: Retype. Be curious. Enjoy yourself.

STANSEL: Be patient and no navel-gazing.

VESTAL: Read and write a lot.


What’s next?

SAYRAFIEZADAH: Whenever I announce what I’m writing next, I never end up writing it. Someone once explained that the mind can’t differentiate between having said it and having done it. So in deference to my confused brain, I will respectfully decline this question.

MARRA: I’m wrapping up a collection of short stories that picks up a few threads of the Chechen-Russian conflict I wasn’t able to weave into Constellation. After that, I’ll begin a second novel set somewhere warmer.

STANSEL: Along with a few stray stories and essays, I’m working on two larger projects: a novel set during World War II and a contemporary Western novella.

VESTAL: Trying to finish a novel, trying to start a different novel, trying to corral little scraps of stories and build them up a bit.

YANAGIHARA: My next novel, A Little Life, will be published by Doubleday in March of 2015.