Daniyal Mueenuddin, winner of the Story Prize
In a ceremony at the New School in New York City on Wednesday night, Daniyal Mueenuddin was awarded the 2009 Story Prize for his collection "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders." The collection has received many commendations -- it was a finalist for the National Book Award and is nominated for the L.A. Times book prize for first fiction -- and Mueenuddin has been running to keep up with them. He splits his time between his farm in Pakistan -- the setting for the stories in his book -- and cities like New York and London.
"At the farm, there's nothing that distracts me. There's nothing to do there," he said after the awards ceremony. Mueenuddin has plenty of responsibilities in Pakistan -- he manages the large farm -- but beyond that, he's got nothing but time to work. "I write in the morning and farm in the afternoon."
But away from the farm, there is nothing but distraction. Friends and fans gathered around him after the awards announcement, one a former classmate from his MFA program at the University of Arizona (he also has a law degree from Yale). There's the travel -- Thursday morning he heads back to London, where his wife is studying. E-mails come pouring in, so many that he's considering going offline to refocus on his writing.
"You can make a choice if you're a romantic or a cynic," Mueenuddin had explained earlier in an onstage interview with the Story Prize's Larry Dark. "And you end up being happier if you're a romantic." The stories in his collection, which have a timeless feel, illuminate feudal Pakistan and its decay. "I'm a romantic and I love nostalgia -- that's one of the things that makes me write. Therefore I look back."
The Story Prize comes with a substantial award -- $20,000 to the winner and $5,000 each to the two other finalists -- and has three judges, including, this year, me. It is designed to bring attention to superb short fictionand is designed to bring attention to superb short fiction. Short stories are often thought of as getting short shrift: the old sow in publishing is that they don't sell, that readers don't want them. Maybe this isn't entirely true -- collections by Jhumpa Lahiri make bestseller lists. After more than 20 novels, megaseller John Grisham has just published his first collection of short stories. And when Oprah picked "Say You're One of Them" by Uwem Akpan for her popular book club last year, it was the first time she'd selected a short story collection.
Standing on a New York sidewalk Wednesday night, Mueenuddin lit up a cigarette. "I love writing short stories," he began. "My wife has to keep telling me -- he stopped midsentence as writer Colson Whitehead stepped outside; the two hadn't seen each other since they did a dual book-signing for the New Yorker Festival in October. Whatever Mueenuddin's wife has been telling him about short fiction was lost to the flurry of the life of a very busy writer.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: W.W. Norton and Co.