Fiction, nonfiction writers honored with biennial Saroyan prize


Mark Arax, left, and Rick Wartzman won the Saroyan writing prize in nonfiction for The King of California.

George Hagen

George Hagen

George Hagen, author of the novel The Laments (Random House, 2004), and Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman, authors of the nonfiction book The King of California (Public Affairs, 2005), received the biennial William Saroyan International Prize for Writing at a ceremony at Green Library on July 19.

The $12,500 prize, first awarded in 2003, is given to authors of newly published works in fiction and nonfiction categories. (A nonfiction category was added to the prize for the 2005 award competition.)

Fiction finalists included How to Breathe Underwater (Knopf, 2003) by Julie Orringer, The Calligrapher (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) by Edward Docx and Bloodvine (Heyday, 2003) by Aris Janigian. Finalists in the nonfiction category include Chasing the Sea (Pantheon, 2003) by Tom Bissell and The Children's Blizzard (HarperCollins, 2004) by David Laskin.

The Laments follows a family who travels from Africa to England to New Jersey?the same course traveled by Hagen, who was born in 1958 in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). The novel is "a family story on speed, with a jolt of black comedy that makes it a close relative to that greatest of all American family stories, The Simpsons," critic Jonathan Wilson wrote in the New York Times Book Review last August.

As he accepted the award, Hagen confided that the Saroyan prize was the first that he had won since he composed an award-winning traffic safety poster. ("Wear white at night" was the poster's slogan.) "I've come a little bit since then," said Hagen, who lives in Brooklyn.

Arax and Wartzman, both of the Los Angeles Times, document the creation of a cotton kingdom in the San Joaquin Valley in The King of California: J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire. Bridget Kinsella, writing for Publishers Weekly, described the book as "a nonfiction Grapes of Wrath." Writer Joan Didion termed the book "flat-out wonderful."

Fiction judges were Hank Saroyan, nephew of the late writer William Saroyan and a two-time Emmy Award-winning writer; English Professor Eavan Boland, the author of eight volumes of poetry and the director of the Creative Writing Program; and writer Burt Prelutsky.

Judges for the nonfiction category include Geoffrey Nunberg, the author of multiple books about language and culture and a senior researcher at Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information; author Richard Rhodes, the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award; Steven Leveen, a writer and businessman; and Ginger Rhodes, a psychologist and former journalist.

Organizers of the prize, which is co-sponsored by the Stanford University Libraries and the William Saroyan Foundation, say they would like to see it join the ranks of such eminent literary awards as the PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2003, the Saroyan prize was awarded to Jonathan Safran Foer for the novel Everything Is Illuminated (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

Hank Saroyan, nephew of William Saroyan, read excerpts from Saroyan's work at the ceremony, accompanied by cellist Eugene Friesen and pianist Philip Aaberg.

Stanford University Libraries houses the world's largest William Saroyan archive, including an extensive collection of papers assembled by the author himself.