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Saroyan Prize awards authors Galchen and Himelstein

Novelist Rivka Galchen, author of the innovative and cerebral 'Atmospheric Disturbances' and Linda Himelstein, author of 'The King of Vodka,' will receive $5,000 prize.

Rivka Galchen

Rivka Galchen

Linda Himelstein

Linda Himelstein

BY CYNTHIA HAVEN

Novelist Rivka Galchen, author of the out-of-this-world Atmospheric Disturbances, and Linda Himelstein, who wrote The King of Vodka, the tale of Pyotr Smirnov’s creation of a vodka empire, are the newest winners of the Saroyan Prize.

The biennial Saroyan Prize offers $5,000 to new or emerging writers, honoring Saroyan’s legacy of originality, vitality and stylistic innovation.  The prize, awarded to a fiction and non-fiction writer, is sponsored by Stanford University Libraries in partnership with the William Saroyan Foundation.

Other 2010 finalists include:  Elizabeth Kelly, Apologize, Apologize! and Peter Neofotis, Concord, Virginia, for fiction; and Brian Brett, Trauma Farm, and Maryalice Huggins,  Aesop's Mirror, for non-fiction.

The New Yorker earlier this year named Galchen one of the top 20 American writers under the age of 40.  When asked if she ever considered not becoming a writer, she responded, "All too seriously – I went through four costly years of medical education."

The Canadian-America physician, a daughter of Israeli émigrés, now teaches writing at Columbia.  The New York Times called Atmospheric Disturbances "a brainy, whimsical, emotionally contained first novel" by a "cerebral, demanding, original new writer." It also commented on the rarity of "a first novel by a woman writer that concerns itself with such quirky, philosophical, didactic explorations."

Her recipe for making fiction work?  "Productive confusion. Surprise. Some blood. A little parsley."

Himelstein was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek before she decided to tackle the improbable rise of Pyotr Smirnov (1831-1898), who was born to a family of illiterate provincial serfs yet became one of Russia's richest men, and how the family empire unraveled in the international squabbling of his heirs.

The San Francisco Chronicle called it "an impressive feat of research, told swiftly and enthusiastically."

This year's judging panel for fiction included: Geoffrey Burn, director of Stanford University Press; award-winning author Elizabeth McKenzie; and Hank Saroyan, writer, performer, and nephew of William Saroyan. The non-fiction panel included Keith Devlin, executive director at Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information; archaeologist Patrick Hunt; and Fritz Maytag, legendary brewer, distiller and winemaker.

The William Saroyan International Prize for Writing was first awarded in 2003 to Jonathan Safran Foer for his novel Everything is Illuminated.  Subsequent awards were given to George Hagen for his novel The Laments, Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman for The King of California, Stanford alumna Nicole Krauss for her novel The History of Love and Kiyo Sato for Dandelion Through the Crack.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Saroyan was born in Fresno in 1908. A high school dropout, he was largely self-educated and decided at an early age to pursue a career as a writer, drawing on his experience as an Armenian American growing up in California. Although he is best known for his short stories, he also wrote novels, plays, memoirs and essays. He died near his hometown of Fresno at the age of 72.