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May 23, 1996

Drue Heinz literature prize isn't first award for this year's winner

Edith Pearlman, a recipient of two O. Henry Short Story Prizes and two PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards, has won the 1996 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

Pearlman's collection of short stories, "Vaquita and Other Stories, was chosen from 246 manuscripts submitted for the Drue Heinz prize, one of the most prestigious short fiction awards in the nation.

As the sixteenth winner of the Heinz prize, Pearlman will receive a $10,000 cash award and have her book published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in November.

Rosellen Brown was this year's final judge. She is the author of the book "Tender Mercies," which became a movie starring Robert Duvall. She also is the author of the book "Before and After," which was made into the current movie by that name starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson.

"What a pleasure it is to see the characters of 'Vaquita' living their rich lives in the tumultuous and difficult world," Brown said of Pearlman's stories. "These characters are experienced but not cynical, sophisticated and wry and hopeful in spite of every terrible thing they've seen, and Edith Pearlman's generous intelligence keeps them from looking foolish for their commitment.

"They are perplexed, desperate, amused, skeptical," she continues. "In other words, they represent civilized virtues and civilized vices, the best and worst of us, only much improved by Pearlman's insight and wit." Another judge, Molly Giles, author of "Rough Translations," wrote of Pearlman's work: "I was charmed by the people in this collection. They are intelligent and educated and committed and quirky. The writing is graceful and there's a range of sensitive intelligence at work; this is a book I would buy and give to friends." Pearlman received her bachelor of arts in English from Radcliffe College and spent 10 years in the computer industry working for IBM and General Electric. She married in 1967 and began her full-time writing career while raising two children.

A prolific writer who has published more than 100 stories and essays in publications ranging from small literary journals to Redbook, Seventeen and Smithsonian, Pearlman won O. Henry prizes in 1978 and 1984, and PEN syndicated fiction awards in 1987 and 1991.

Despite her past success, winning the Drue Heinz prize still came as a real surprise to Pearlman. Since she did not expect to win, she thought someone was playing a practical joke when Ed Ochester, director of the creative writing program in the English department and the prize's administrator, called to inform her that "Vaquita" had been selected for the award. "My husband's name is Chester," she said with a laugh, "so it seemed like someone was playing a prank of some sort when someone named Ochester called." Unlike the majority of writers today, Pearlman has resisted the word processor. "Eventually my stories go on computer, but the serious drafts are on a typewriter," she said. "I may be the last living human to do that. John Updike used to write on a typewriter, but I read recently that he has gone over to composing on a computer. Saul Bellows, I think, writes with a pen." Pearlman has clung steadfastly to her typewriter because she feels revision is the most important part of writing. She said with a typewriter a person is forced to revise because every page needs to be revised from scratch as it is added to or subtracted from.

"Even sentences that haven't been changed are open to change because they have to be re-typed," she explained. "I think it gives the author just that much more opportunity to think again." "Vaquita," the title story, is Spanish for "little cow." It is about a Polish-born minister of health in an unnamed Central American country during a revolution. The story takes place in one day, according to Pearlman, "but it has a great deal of back-flashing so that one gets the whole story of her life." The setting of the story comes from Pearlman's travels through Central America. The main character is a composite of people she has known who were born abroad, survived World War II and emigrated either to the United States or to South America.

Although "Vaquita" is longer and more involved and, Pearlman feels, sounds better as a title, the author's favorite story in the book is "Felix's Business." It tells the tale of a letter writer, a person who other people hire to handle their personal correspondence.

Like "Vaquita," "Felix's Business" takes place in a single day. On the particular day involved, Felix's girlfriend has told him that letter writing may soon become extinct and he with it. "The puzzlement of his day is what he would do if he could not longer make a living writing letters," said Pearlman, adding, "and I don't think I'll reveal what he decides." "Felix's Business" is Pearlman's favorite story in the collection because she feels letter writing is a "terribly neglected" form of pose that is a great exercise in communications. "They [letters] also are often written in the second person, which is rare," he noted.

Unlike many short story writers who win a major award or have a book of stories published, Pearlman has no plans to follow up her success with a novel. She intends to continue with short stories and essays.

"The briefer the better as far as I am concerned," she said. "I like very short stories, the one page or two page short story. I don't have any included in the collection, but I have written and published a number of those 'palm-of-the-hand' stories as they are called in Japan."

–Mike Sajna

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