Claire Vaye Watkins wins U.S. Story Prize for short fiction

NEW YORK Wed Mar 13, 2013 10:01pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Author Claire Vaye Watkins won the annual Story Prize for short fiction on Wednesday for her collection of short stories that focus on the American West.

Watkins, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania's Bucknell University, won a $20,000 cash prize for "Battleborn," a series of 10 stories published by Riverhead Books that delve into the struggles of characters in both the historical and contemporary West.

With settings ranging from the gambling meccas of Reno and Las Vegas to rural brothels and Gold Rush towns, some of the stories are informed by Watkins' family notoriety - her father was a member of the Manson family and testified against Charles Manson at Manson's murder trial before dying of leukemia in 1990. The first story is entitled "Ghosts, Cowboys."

Watkins herself was born and raised in the unforgiving lands of the Mojave Desert, where she remains co-director of the Mojave School, a non-profit creative writing workshop for teenagers in rural Nevada.

The other finalists for the prestigious award, each of whom received $5,000, included Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz for "This Is How You Lose Her," and National Book Award finalist ("Among the Missing") Dan Chaon for "Stay Awake."

The finalists, all of whom read excerpts and discussed their work on Wednesday at The New School, a university in Greenwich Village, were chosen from a list of 98 entrants.

In choosing Watkins, the judges cited the first-time author for "the audacity of her voice."

"In the 10 stories in her first collection, Claire Vaye Watkins takes an unflinching look at the apocalyptic dimensions of our culture's boom-or-bust obsession," they said in a joint statement.

"She's a fierce and original new writer, and 'Battleborn' is an astonishing short story collection," they added.

The judges were critic and author Jane Ciabattari, author and past Story Prize finalist Yiyun Li and New York City bookseller Sarah McNally.

Past winners of the annual prize have included Mary Gordon, Jim Shepard, Tobias Wolff and last year's winner, Steven Millhauser.

(Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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