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March 16, 1995

Despite the blues, Drue Heinz prize has author-musician smiling

Blues may be the music crying out from the stage at Fat Matt's Rib Shack in Atlanta, but the guitarist playing them should be excused if he does so with a hint of a smile on his face.

It's not that he sees anything funny in songs about drunkenness and cruelty, loneliness and despair. Sometimes, though, it is just tough for Geoffrey Becker, 35, to avoid smiling since being named the winner of the 1995 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

"I am really excited about it," says Becker. "You spend a long time waiting for something good to happen when you are trying to become a writer, so something like this is a really terrific thing. I am pleased to death." Becker, who along with playing at Fat Matt's on Saturday nights teaches creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, knew that "Dangerous Men" was a strong manuscript when he submitted it for the prize, which is administered by the University Press. But he also assumed the most important short fiction competition in the nation received a lot of strong manuscripts and winning it would require some luck.

In fact, he was sure a bit of luck would be needed to win because twice previously he had submitted manuscripts for the Drue Heinz Prize, short story collections that contained some of the same tales in "Dangerous Men," and walked away empty handed. Sounding like someone who plays music associated with fortune might be expected to sound, he says: "I like to think quality is recognized, but I also know there is a little, tiny bit of a lottery to it." In selecting "Dangerous Men" over 283 other manuscripts submitted for the prize, though, novelist Charles Baxter, author of "First Light" and "Shadow Play," saw only craft.

"Each story in the book has an absolutely rock solid interest and assurance in the craft of fiction writing," Baxter noted. "The stories have verve, humor, forward momentum and an astonishing level of feeling. This writer delights in dramatic invention. I don't see how anyone can read this book and not be impressed by the craft, the humor and the feeling in it." Since Becker has worked as a musician for most of his adult life, it is only natural that about two-thirds of the 11 stories in "Dangerous Men" have musicians as characters. He actually began playing music when he was about 12 years old, but did not decide he wanted to be a writer until he was 25. He says he continues to both write and play music because of the difference in feedback.

"In my case, it can take two or three years before somebody reads my writing and tells me they like it," he explains. "But I can get up on stage and play something and get public appreciation immediately." Even though most of the stories in "Dangerous Men" involve musicians, Becker says that is not intentional. It just worked out that way over the course of the past eight or nine years, when he was writing the stories.

"It's something that I know about," he says. "I think I just sort of naturally tend to write stories about musicians." The title story, "Dangerous Men," is set at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in August 1974 on the night Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. It involves three young men who get high on drugs and decide to do some gay bashing.

"The story is about looking back," says Becker. "It is a first-person narrator story and there is some distance between the person who is writing it and the teenager who was trying very hard to be a dangerous person." Although Becker himself spent the summer of 1974 at Berklee, he is quick to point out that he did not personally do the things the kids in the story do. "But I knew people who did," he adds. "And I was trying to understand them." Becker says he chose "Dangerous Men" as the title story for the collection because it is a newer story and he thinks the title refers to some of the other stories in the collection. "There are a number of stories in which the characters think of themselves as dangerous or are intent on being rough types," he says, adding, "I also like the idea of trying to write a story placed to a particular moment in time, like the night Nixon resigned." Another favorite story of the author's is "The Hand Stand Man." It is about a "busker," a man who plays the harmonica on the streets of Europe. Becker has never done that himself, but saw many such musicians when he was traveling in Europe as part of a bluegrass duo in the early 1980s.

"I based that story on a lot of the experiences I had over there," he says. "A lot of the characters tend to be people who don't quite make it for one reason or another, but you have to admire them for trying as hard as they do." Most of the stories in "Dangerous Men" are set in New York City because it is familiar territory for Becker. He grew up in New Jersey and lived in Brooklyn for several years. Other stories are set in Boston and Iowa City, the latter where Becker lived while earning a Master's of Fine Arts in English from the University of Iowa.

The Iowa City story, "Darling Nicky," is one of the few in the collection that does not include musicians. It is about the rivalry between two sisters, one who is very feminine and the other who is very athletic and suffers an injury while playing softball.

"She no longer can do what she is good at," Becker says. "As a result, she gets convinced by her sister to go to nursing school, which is what her sister is doing. That puts her in a place where she has to compete, but can't because nursing is not what she is good at. She was always the star, but now she is in a position where she is bound to lose." If there is one theme running through the stories in "Dangerous Men," Becker believes it is love. "These are people who find themselves in points of crisis in their lives and are confronted with making important choices," he says. "I think most of the characters are looking for love in one way or another, even if that sounds a little hokey." Becker is the 15th winner of the annual Drue Heinz Literature Prize. He will receive a $10,000 cash award. "Dangerous Men" will be published by the University Press in the fall.

–Mike Sajna

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