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 Molly Antopol for The UnAmericans (W. W. Norton & Company), Cynthia Bond for Ruby (Hogarth), Phil Klay for Redeployment (Penguin Press), Jack Livings for The Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and Merritt Tierce for Love Me Back (Doubleday) as this year’s finalists. To get a better idea of the writers behind the books, we sent each of the finalists four questions addressing inspiration, routine, and craft.

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

Cynthia Bond:  When I was a kid my dad taught at Kansas University. Because he was one of the few black instructors, we met many black authors on tour. Maya Angelou came to our house for rice and beans. I remember she sang the blues while my dad played his guitar. I hopped into her lap after dinner and asked, “Why did the caged bird sing?”  She spoke about freedom—but I was too young to fully understand. I wish I could ask her that question again. I would really love to hear the answer.

Jack Livings: I’d ask Vonnegut what it’s like to be dead. He might give a straight answer, as opposed to, say, Nabokov.

Molly Antopol: I’d love to ask Grace Paley about her trip to Moscow in ’74 as a delegate to the World Peace Congress. I’ve often wondered what it might have been like for her to travel to the part of the world her parents left, particularly in that capacity and at that time—I read somewhere about what an emotional trip it was for her, “surrounded by the conversation of my childhood.”

Merritt Tierce: Adrienne Rich: What’s on the other side?

Phil Klay: I’d ask Dostoevsky what he left out of Notes from a Dead House (and his other works) to get past the censors. 


2) Where is your favorite place to write?

Cynthia Bond: I usually write outside on the back porch surrounded by roses, agapanthus, and a salvia bush—a beacon for hummingbirds. On bad days I write in bed, under a pile of blankets and dirty clothes, a bowl of Honeycomb cereal on the nightstand.

Jack Livings: My desk at home, early morning.

Molly Antopol: At the kitchen table, with my dog at my feet.

Merritt Tierce: In my cedar closet, on the top shelf, in the dark. It’s a pantomime of climbing up into my brain. Also the door to the cedar closet is at the back of my Flemish giant rabbit’s enclosure, so people forget I’m in there, which is perfect. And I like imagining I’m entering Narnia, or going down the rabbit hole.

Phil Klay: When the weather is nice, it’s hard to beat Prospect Park.


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

Cynthia Bond: Don’t let the fear win. OR…Stay in the damn chair.

Jack Livings: Be tenacious, be humble, persevere.

Molly Antopol:  Live cheap. Read a lot.

Merritt Tierce: Read write read write read.

Phil Klay: Be interested in your errors.


4) What’s next?

Cynthia Bond: I am currently writing the Ruby screenplay for Harpo Films. I am also completing the second book in the Ruby Trilogy for Hogarth Press—whose unyielding commitment to my writing inspires me daily.

Jack Livings:  I’m working on a novel set in New York.

Molly Antopol:  A novel called The After Party.

Merritt Tierce: See answer to #3.

Phil Klay: A novel, I hope. It’s hard to talk about something in the early stages. 

Illustrations by Kristen Radkte

Excerpts from the 2015 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize Finalists

Frago” by Phil Klay

Mountain of Swords, Sea of Fire” by Jack Livings

• “Retrospective” by Molly Antopol

• Ruby by Cynthia Bond

• Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce