Behind Every Great Man . . .
Kate Christensen Wins PEN/Faulkner Award

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kate Christensen has won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction for her novel "The Great Man," whose ironic title refers to a recently deceased painter but whose focus is on the women in his life.

"They're vibrant, curious, eccentric and fresh," said Molly Giles, one of the three judges who picked Christensen's novel out of around 350 submissions.

Among many books by better-known writers, said Victor LaValle, another judge, hers was one "I kept coming back to again and again."

Christensen, 45, was doing the laundry in her Brooklyn home when she got the news of the award, which was announced yesterday.

"I'm really shocked," she said in a telephone interview. To her, an award like the PEN/Faulkner "always seemed unattainable." Among other reasons, in the 28 years it has existed, only four other women have won.

"It's me and John Updike and Philip Roth. I was like, do women actually win this thing?" Christensen joked.

The "great man" of her novel is Oscar Feldman, a New York artist who resisted the 20th-century trend toward abstraction, winning fame and fortune by obsessively painting female nudes. Now that he's dead, at 78, two competing biographers are pursuing the women who've survived him -- notably his wife, his long-term mistress and his sister, herself a painter but less well-known.

"In literature, older women are not often given center stage," Christensen said. "It's the Oscars who get center stage."

The four other finalists were:

¿ Annie Dillard for "The Maytrees," a novel about a fractured family on Cape Cod that becomes, as Marilynne Robinson put it in The Washington Post, "a highly localized meditation on the question, Why are we here?"

¿ David Leavitt for his novel "The Indian Clerk," based on the real-life connection between an eminent English academic and a poor, untrained man from Madras with a mind capable of expanding the horizons of mathematics.

¿ T.M. McNally for "The Gateway: Stories," a collection described by writer David Shields as "uncommonly dense, complex and well-made."

¿ Ron Rash for "Chemistry and Other Stories," set in Appalachia and called "flawless" by PEN/Faulkner judge Giles.

Christensen will receive $15,000 and each finalist will receive $5,000. The five authors will be honored at a ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library on May 10.

"The Great Man" is Christensen's fourth novel, and while she hasn't gone unnoticed, she's had to shake off the fact that her first got pegged as "chick lit" when it appeared in 1999.

"It gave me something to prove," she said.

Born in Berkeley, Calif., in 1962, she was the kind of child who invented elaborate imaginary countries (she called hers Zenobia). She wrote her first story "when I was about 6" and always thought she'd grow up to be a writer. "I'm no good at anything else," she said. "There were a lot of eggs in that basket."

She graduated from Reed College, picked up a master of fine arts degree at the Iowa Writers' Workshop -- so far, so good -- then "moved to New York and completely fell apart." She wasn't ready to write, because "I needed to live. I needed to get out of school and have some experiences."

The result, eventually, was "In the Drink," which she described as a "slightly autobiographical" novel about a troubled 29-year-old who wants to be a writer. It got strong reviews, but too often they came with the chick-lit label attached.

That wouldn't be a problem with Christensen's second novel, "Jeremy Thrane," which is about a gay man, or her third, "The Epicure's Lament," which also features a male protagonist. As for the women of her prize-winning fourth, well, they're in their 70s and 80s.

If anything, Christensen said, "it's 'biddy lit.' I think my editor coined that."

More seriously, she said, her subject was "what it is to be at the end of your life and still wanting more life." Having defined themselves in relation to Oscar, "they're stuck and they're yearning." Conjuring their connection to the painter for his biographers helps unstick them.

"I've written about all different ages," she said, but "I think these women are not so different from me. They've just lived more years."

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