Thomas Mallon's "Watergate" is a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award. Thomas Mallon’s “Watergate” is a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award.

Watergate,” by Washington writer Thomas Mallon, is among the five finalists for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. His eighth novel and his 15th book, “Watergate” (Pantheon) is a witty, fictional treatment of the scandal that brought down the Nixon administration.

“I’m totally delighted,” Mallon said from his home looking out at the Watergate building. “I feel as if I should have something Nixonian to say.” Like most people in D.C. today, he’s enjoying a snow day. (He teaches writing at George Washington University.)

“PEN/Faulkner is such a Washington institution and is responsible for so much of the literary life around here,” Mallon said. “I’m getting a kick out of the fact that my most Washingtonian book landed me on this list.”

The other finalists are relatively obscure, a quality the PEN/Faulkner judges have never shied away from:

  • Threats, by Amelia Gray (Farrar Straus Giroux)
  • Kind One, by Laird Hunt (Coffee House)
  • Hold it ‘Til It Hurts, by T. Geronimo Johnson (Coffee House)
  • Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club, by Benjamin Alire Saenz (Cinco Puntos)

That the little nonprofit publisher Coffee House Press managed to get two of the five finalist slots is the latest evidence of its editors’ savvy good taste. Managing editor Anitra Budd attributed their success to broad creative license. “What works for us is letting the editors go with their gut,” she said from the Coffee House office in Minneapolis, Minn. “Even if one of us doesn’t agree with one of our acquisition decisions, everyone gets that choice to go with their aesthetic. And that’s the real reason we do so well. We don’t have groupthink when it comes with our acquisitions.”

Coffee House has just seven full-time employees. This is “Nimo” Johnson’s first book with the press. “I’m especially excited,” Budd said, “because I acquired Nimo. Part of our mission is discovery and publishing books that big places won’t take a chance on. Both these books really capture the magic of that mission.”

Cinco Puntos, the publisher of Benjamin Alire Saenz’s “Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club,” is an even smaller operation. It was started in 1985 by writers Bobby and Lee Byrd in El Paso, Texas.

“We keep trying to make a living doing this,” Lee said by phone this morning. Their four-person operation publishes eight to 12 books a year.

Saenz’s first books for Cinco Puntos were for the young adult market. Last year, he brought the Byrds a collection of short stories, which they published as “Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club.”

“He’s always been real generous with us,” Lee said. “He can run over here and have a cup of coffee and laugh and talk and  ask us all kinds of questions. We’re all good friends.”

Despite the challenges of getting attention in a publishing world dominated by a few New York houses, Lee says there are advantages to working with a small press. “One of the things that we have going on is that we really hustle. We really work hard to make a national presence. And we surprise people. We have a reputation for doing incredibly interesting, off-the-wall sort of books.”

The PEN/Faulkner announcement wasn’t the only good news Cinco Puntos and Saenz received today. “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club” was also just named a finalist for the Gay General Fiction Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation in Los Angeles.

This year’s PEN/Faulkner judges are Walter Kirn, Nelly Rosario and A.J. Verdelle

The winner of the $15,000 prize will be announced on March 19th. The other four finalists will receive $5,000 a piece. All five writers will read from their work at a ceremony on May 4th at the Folger Shakespeare Library. For tickets ($125) and more information, click here or call (202) 544-7077.

You can follow Ron Charles on Twitter @RonCharles.