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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Claire Vaye Watkins' cheeks hurt. The Bucknell University assistant professor of English is gladly suffering a recent overload of smiles, and for good reason. It turns out winning two literary prizes in one day for her short story collection Battleborn is, said Watkins, "a tremendous amount of fun."
On March 14, Watkins' collection of 10 stories set in the American West won the $10,000 Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the $20,000 Story Prize, considered the most significant award for short fiction in the U.S.
"I'm still reeling from the fact that Battleborn was even published," she said. "It was my secret dream for so long."
The other finalists, celebrated authors Dan Chaon for Stay Awake and Junot Díaz for This Is How You Lose Her, are "giants in the field," said Watkins. "I was overcome by happiness and excitement when I won. I can't stop smiling."
Both prizes were announced during spring break, while Bucknell students were off campus — and, Watkins assumed, not "tapped into the literary scene." But her students showered her with congratulations, both in person and via email. "It was pretty incredible, and one of my favorite moments of winning," she said.
The scholarly work of teaching seems to help spark Watkins' creative fire. "Bucknell is a really great place to be writing," she said. "Part of what the Stadler Center for Poetry does is create a culture where writing and art making and talking about books and poetry and stories is really important. That's pretty nourishing for the soul." || Read Watkins' essay "All This Really Happened?" in the Winter 2013 issue of Bucknell Magazine.
Watkins is working on her first novel, set in a strange, futuristic landscape in the Mojave desert. "You can't really hold an entire novel in your head at once, like you can with a short story," she said. Rather than strategically placing imagery at different points of the work, Watkins said she finds that a novel has "its own internal logic. The imagery still finds its way into the project even though I don't have the control that I have with a short story collection."
Winning the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award and the Story Prize still brings a smile to Watkins' face, but she is keeping things in perspective. "They don't make my manuscript in progress any better," she said. "They won't show me the next plot move for my character to do, or show me the beautiful image that will tie this whole monster of a book together. They're wonderful for recognition and encouragement of a writer's career. But the really important stuff is the work."
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