Author of Godforsaken Idaho Accepts $25,000 Award for Debut Fiction at Ceremony in New York

NEW YORK— PEN American Center named Shawn Vestal winner of the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for his short story collection Godforsaken Idaho at a ceremony this evening at The New School in New York.

This year marked the first that PEN announced the winner live at the ceremony, creating a sense of excitement for the five shortlisted finalists—Anthony Marra, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Ian Stansel, Vestal, and Hanya Yanagihara—as well as some of the biggest names in literature attending the ceremony, including E.L. Doctorow, Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, and James Wolcott.

“It is such an honor to be here with so many writers who I admire, who I have read for years and tried to do something in the vein of what they did,” said Vestal as he accepted the $25,000 prize, presented by acclaimed novelist and winner of the 2014 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, Louise Erdrich. “But I’d like to say something about my fellow nominees, who all have written beautiful books. One of the great parts of this process has been what PEN has done for those books, for us, to give them to a wider audience and bring more attention to them.”

Published by Little A/New Harvest, Godforsaken Idaho is a collection of nine stories that use the state and its Mormon traditions as a backdrop to explore questions of purpose through comedic retelling of religious history, narration from beyond the grave, and autobiographical anecdotes from the author’s own childhood.

“Shawn Vestal’s Godforsaken Idaho ranges not only across time but across genres—historical fiction, fantasy, contemporary realism—all executed with the sure hand of a versatile and gifted writer,” said judges Charles Bock, Jonathan Dee, Fiona Maazel, and Karen Shepard in their citation for the award. “The stories in this debut collection deal in religious and spiritual conundrums; perhaps more impressively, they dare to charge into the well-trodden arena of the hapless male and make that subject fresh again.”

The PEN/Bingham Award marks the first major honor for Vestal and Godforsaken Idaho. PEN’s annual Literary Awards, and this prize in particular, have a reputation for championing under-recognized literary works of merit that have been largely ignored by the mass media. In 2013, the award went to Sergio De La Pava, whose debut novel A Naked Singularity had been repeatedly rejected and finally self-published before being picked up by Chicago University Press. Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen, which took the honor in 2012, was published by Red Lemonade, a publishing house that bears the responsibility of “bringing the alternative to the mainstream by any means necessary.”

For over 50 years, the PEN Literary Awards have honored—and introduced—some of the most outstanding voices in literature across such diverse genres as fiction, poetry, biography, children’s literature, science writing, translation, and drama. With the help of its partners, supporters, and judges, PEN conferred 18 distinct awards in 2014 totaling nearly $150,000. Since 2012, PEN has significantly expanded its Literary Awards program, introducing both long- and shortlists for the awards, a new ceremony venue generously donated by The New School, satellite events for PEN members around the city, and an exciting new award: the PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize, sponsored by Univision. The prize, which will be conferred for the first time in 2015, will honor a writer under age 35 for an unpublished nonfiction manuscript that addresses a global or multicultural issue, reflecting PEN’s increasingly diverse and vital membership.

Other 2014 PEN Literary Award winners include Frank Bidart, Nina McCongiley, and David Rabe. A complete list of 2014 winners is available at https://pen.org/blog/announcing-2014-pen-literary-award-winners

High resolution photographs from the awards ceremony will be available by Tuesday, September 30, 1:00am EST, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/penamericancenter/sets/72157647999909825/

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Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is the largest of the 145 centers of PEN International, the world’s only international association of writers working to defend free expression and to protect persecuted writers. PEN International was founded after World War I to dispel national, ethnic, and racial tensions and to promote understanding among all countries. Founded a year later, PEN American Center works to advance literature, to defend free expression, and to foster international literary fellowship. Its 3,500 distinguished members carry on the achievements in literature and advancement of human rights of such past members as James Baldwin, Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, and Alice Walker. www.PEN.org

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