Doerr, Brooklynite Pardlo among Pulitzer Prize winners in arts
Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” an emotional and intimate World War II novel that has been one of the top-selling literary works of the past year, has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Pulitzer judges on Monday cited Doerr’s “short, elegant chapters that explore human nature and the contradictory power of technology.” Doerr’s book alternates between a blind French girl and young Nazi soldier, with radio a means of resistance and propaganda.
Doerr, fittingly, was in Paris when the award was announced. A resident of Boise, Idaho, Doerr needed more than a decade to complete “All the Light We Cannot See,” more time than the war itself. He told The Associated Press that there were days when he thought he “would never finish the book,” which has been on best-seller lists for months, and was especially surprised by his Pulitzer since the story “contains no Americans.”
The $10,000 prize is given “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”
“Obviously, it’s wonderful,” the 41-year-old Doerr said of the Pulitzer, adding that he was enjoying ice cream with his family when his editor called to share the news.
Fiction finalists included previous Richard Ford for “Let Me Be Frank with You,” post-Hurricane Sandy stories featuring his longtime protagonist Frank Bascombe, the main character of his 1996 Pulitzer recipient “Independence Day.”
The poetry prize was given to Gregory Pardlo’s “Digest” and Julia Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields” won for music.
Pardlo, a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident, former professor at Brooklyn College and Medgar Evers and associate editor for the literary journal Callaloo, drew upon his “loving, but complex” relationship with his father as an inspiration for “Digest.”
Pardlo, 46, said that the book was a process that “took a lot out of me. I was feeling frustrated with my work, and this book was a Hail Mary. I took some risks. It was scary for me to face some of my demons.”
Wolfe’s work, described by judges as a “powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet,” was composed after a year’s study of the Pennsylvania coal mining industry at the turn of the 20th Century, near where Wolfe grew up in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania.
“I’m definitely shell-shocked,” Wolfe, 56, said from her home in New York City. She describes herself as a musical renegade, with inspirations that come from folks, classical and rock, and said she hopes the award can inspire other musicians to follow dreams that follow unconventional paths.
Also Monday, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Between Riverside and Crazy” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, with judges hailing the New York playwright for using “dark comedy to confront questions of life and death.” The play tells of a cantankerous ex-cop who owns a piece of real estate on the Upper West Side and makes it a refuge for the hard-luck orphans who have become his surrogate family.
Guirgis, who has been a member of the off-Broadway LAByrinth Theatre Company since 1994, had a critical hit on Broadway in 2011 with the searing recovery story “The Motherf—- With the Hat,” starring Chris Rock.
His other plays include “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” ”Our Lady of 121st Street,” ”In Arabia We’d All Be Kings” and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”
“He never forgets about the people that much of society has left behind. I feel like he has a belief in real people and their ability for redemption,” said Neil Pepe, the artistic director of Atlantic Theater Company, where “Between Riverside and Crazy” made its world premiere starring Stephen McKinley Henderson.
The Pulitzer for general nonfiction went to “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, whose work was praised by judges as “an exploration of nature that forces readers to consider the threat posed by human behavior to a world of astonishing diversity.”
Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, was working on an article for the magazine in a small town in Bavaria when she got the news.
“I’m one of those people who didn’t even know the Pulitzers were being announced today,” she said. “But I heard my email going ding ding ding and I knew something was up.”
Kolbert said she’d worked for four and a half years on the best-seller, and attributed its success in part to some famous supporters: Jon Stewart, who highlighted the book on “The Daily Show” and former vice president and leading environmentalist Al Gore, who recommended “The Sixth Extinction” in a New York Times review. “That was huge,” she said.
David I. Kertzer’s “The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe” won for biography-autobiography, and “Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People ” by Elizabeth A. Fenn, won for history.
Kertzer, a professor of social science, anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, has written often about Italy and about church and state. He felt compelled to write “The Pope and Mussolini” after the Vatican opened its archives more than a decade ago.
“They really allowed for new perspectives,” Kertzer said of the archives. “And the Fascist archives are incredibly juicy, not least because Mussolini had his famous surveillance system.”
Fenn’s book profiles the Mandans, who live in what today is North Dakota, and among whom the Lewis and Clarke expedition camped in its first winter of 1804-1805. The Mandan people numbered about 15,000 in the year 1500, Fenn said; her work profiles them through a terrible small pox epidemic in 1837-38 and up to 1845.
“My pitch is that stories like this need to be a part of the early American canon,” Fenn said. “We need to think of early America as far bigger and more interesting than the 13 English colonies, or the Russian colonies, the Spanish colonies and the French colonies.”
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