D.C. writer wins $25,000 PEN/Bellwether Prize

Ron Childress, author of “And West is West."
Ron Childress, author of “And West is West.”

Washington writer Ron Childress has won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

The $25,000 prize, which is awarded every other year, goes to an author of an unpublished novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.” Founded by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000, the prize also includes something potentially more valuable: a publishing contract with Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Childress accepted the Bellwether award Tuesday night at a party in New York. His winning manuscript, called “And West is West,” addresses both the recent financial crisis and the war on terror. It tells the story of an Air Force drone operator in Nevada and a Wall Street programmer who develops a way to profit from military crises abroad.

In a statement released before the party, the judges said, “By taking us into the lives of these and other characters, ‘And West Is West’ reveals how the lower-order participants in corrupt systems take the fall when things go badly. Even more so, it’s about the impossibility of steering clear of corruption both on Wall Street and in the military.”

Childress, the first Washington resident and the first man to win the Bellwether prize, used to run a marketing company with his wife, the artist Sondra Arkin. He has written four previous novels, but never got them published. “I was more interested in the writing process than the part when you have to go out and get an agent and all the other stuff,” he says by phone from his home near Dupont Circle.

When a writer friend inspired him to submit “And West Is West” to the Bellwether Prize, he never dreamed that he’d win; he just hoped for some helpful advice. “This is the only contest I’ve ever entered,” he says. “I thought if I send this and somebody reads it and gives me some commentary, I could legitimately get an agent. And then Barbara Kingsolver called me.”

The plot of his winning novel stems directly from recently history and is based on the work of relatively new professionals: drone operators who can strike targets on the other side of the world and Wall Street “quants” who compute algorithms for high-speed traders.

“We were so saturated during the middle Obama years with the drones and the quants that I thought those two types of people would make very interesting characters,” Childress says. “I just went forward, learning more and more about their separate fields, more about the moral problems of their jobs. Bankers have made more money on wars than they have made on anything else in history.”

Childress’s editor at Algonquin will be Kathy Pories, who is also a member of the prize jury along with the novelist Terry McMillan and the critic Nancy Pearl. Pories was particularly impressed by the global reach of “And West is West.” “He’s bringing together two parts of the world,” she says, “and that’s kind of amazing, connecting these people who are in the lower levels in wartime. The book is so carefully and beautifully written that you can tell that he’s been spending a long time with this.”

Past Bellwether winners have sometimes had mixed success avoiding a polemic tone. Pories acknowledges that this is a challenge for socially engaged fiction. “Nobody wants to read a pedantic book,” she says, “but this one has the feeling of a page-turner. You kind of get swept up in the story without thinking, ‘What is the whole issue here?’ It’s a hard challenge to write a book like that.”

Kingsolver notes that Americans are particularly skeptical of socially engaged fiction. “I suppose it’s a peculiarly U.S. phobia,” she says via e-mail, “dating back to the McCarthy era, that fiction that’s relevant to actual challenges existing in our world will be threatening or unliterary. Good fiction is good fiction, regardless of subject matter. And a didactic or polemic work that reads like a pamphlet or an advertisement is, by definition, not literature. It’s not hard at all to discern the difference. Good artists trust their instincts, attend to their craft and enter any territory that arouses their passion.”

Over the next several months, Pories and Kingsolver will work with Childress to polish his winning manuscript. The novel will be published in the fall of 2015.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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