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Novelist Mary Lee Settle; Founded PEN/Faulkner Award

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mary Lee Settle, a National Book Award-winning novelist who founded the annual PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, died of lung cancer Sept. 27 at her home in Ivy, Va., near Charlottesville. She was 87.

Best known for her "Beulah Quintet," a panoramic fictional series that explored the history of her native West Virginia, Ms. Settle published 15 novels and seven other books during her career. She was considered a "writer's writer" whose well-wrought works -- drawing on her worldwide travel, painstaking research and unerring ear for dialogue -- brought her literary respect if not always public acclaim.

In 1978, her novel "Blood Tie," about British and American expatriates in Turkey, where Ms. Settle had lived in the early 1970s, won the National Book Award for fiction. The next year, she was a judge on the fiction panel, which awarded first prize to Tim O'Brien's "Going After Cacciato," instead of the bestselling "The World According to Garp" by John Irving.

Upset by the obscurity of the fiction winners, the New York publishing industry canceled its support of the awards and changed the voting rules.

She envisioned what she called "a community of writers" who would encourage one another and, perhaps, make a larger impact on American life. In fall 1980, Ms. Settle and some friends from Charlottesville launched a competing group that would present an annual prize for American fiction, which she called PEN/Faulkner Award. (PEN stood for poets, editors and novelists; Faulkner was a salute to novelist William Faulkner, one of Ms. Settle's chief inspirations.) The awards would be judged by writers, not by industry insiders, and no favoritism would be granted to bestselling authors.

Since the first award was presented in 1981 to Walter Abish for "How German Is It," the PEN/Faulkner has become one of most prestigious honors in American letters. Headquartered at the Folger Shakespeare Library since 1983, PEN/Faulkner carries a first prize of $15,000, with $5,000 for each of four runners-up. It also has an ambitious educational program that brings well-known authors into high schools in Washington and other cities.

Ms. Settle was on the PEN/Faulkner board until her death.

"She really believed in the power of books to enlarge the imagination of the readers," said novelist Thomas Caplan, who helped organize PEN/Faulkner.

Ms. Settle was born July 29, 1918, in Charleston, W.Va., and lived in Kentucky, Florida and her mother's ancestral home in West Virginia as a child.

In a 1987 interview with The Washington Post, Ms. Settle described a childhood that gave her "a familiar sense of the mountains, of the daily life of a small town, of coal, of an atmosphere of violence that seemed taken for granted."

After two years at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, Ms. Settle turned to acting and even tested for the movie role of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind." She moved to New York and worked as an actress and model before her first marriage in 1939.

During World War II, she lived in England and served in the British Women's Auxiliary Air Force before transferring to the U.S. Office of War Information in London. She worked for magazines in New York after the war, then returned to London, where she wrote fiction and plays and penned an etiquette column under the name of Mrs. Charles Palmer.


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