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Quite a Prize for a New Novelist Used to Adversity

Times Staff Writers

Edward P. Jones, who hammered away at his debut novel after being laid off from his job two years ago, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction Monday for that book.

“The Known World” (Amistad/HarperCollins) -- Jones’ first book after a short-story collection 10 years ago -- is the story of a black slave owner in antebellum Virginia. The novel, which made Jones a literary sensation, also won the National Book Critics Circle’s award for fiction.

Jones, 53, whose single mother couldn’t read or write, said in a telephone interview from his apartment in Arlington, Va.: “You write a book, you send it off and you hope that someone will publish it. People giving you prizes for it? That’s a different thing altogether

Columbia University announced several other winners in the Letters and Drama category, each of whom will receive $10,000.

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The poetry prize was awarded to Franz Wright for “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard” (Alfred A. Knopf). Wright’s father, the critically acclaimed poet James Wright, who died in 1980, also won a Pulitzer for poetry.

Other winners included biographer William Taubman and nonfiction writer Anne Applebaum.

On Monday, Jones answered the phone while programming his VCR to tape the syndicated TV show “Judge Judy,” which he says he watches to see how people get themselves out of terrible predicaments -- the kind that have marked his life.

In 2001, while on a five-week vacation to begin research for his book, Jones got the call that he had lost his job after 19 years.

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“I meant to do research before I wrote. But I never did do it. I just started writing,” said Jones, who is single. “Over the past 10 years, it had all been playing out in my head, in my imagination. And when I wrote, I just sort of let all that imagination come out.”

His mother, who worked as a dishwasher and hotel maid, died in 1975.

Franz Wright said he was “literally astounded” when he got the news of his poetry prize in Fayetteville, Ark., where he is a visiting instructor at the University of Arkansas. “It’s something I’ve always associated with my dad,” said Wright, 51. “Psychologically, it’s a little hard to take in. It’s hard for me to grasp that I might somehow be my father’s equal in any way. He himself would be delighted.”

At age 15, Wright, whose parents were divorced, struck up a correspondence with his father, who helped him with his first poems.

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Applebaum, 39, a columnist and editorial board member at the Washington Post, won the general nonfiction prize for “Gulag: A History” (Doubleday). In “Gulag,” Applebaum chronicles the history of Soviet concentration camps. “I didn’t know it was the kind of book that won Pulitzer prizes,” she said by phone Monday. “People would look at me quizzically when I told them what I was writing about.”

In New York, Doug Wright, 41, (who is no relation to Franz Wright) was directing a play reading when he got the “monumental news” that he had received the drama prize for “I Am My Own Wife.”

The one-actor play, based on the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who survived World War II and Communist East Germany, was workshopped at La Jolla Playhouse in 2002 -- an “extremely valuable” experience, Wright said. He wrote the second act there and first saw the full-length play in La Jolla.

Wright credited his collaborators, including director Moises Kaufman and actor Jefferson Mays, saying the play “was born of a collective.”

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Taubman, 62, won for his biography, “Krushchev: The Man and His Era” (W.W. Norton). “I wore myself out writing this book,” said Taubman, who worked on the book for 20 years and has taught at Amherst College in Massachusetts since 1964. “I’m an academic.... All my life I’ve hoped to write for a general audience. Even apart from the Pulitzer, it’s what I wanted all my life -- to write something that gains the respect of both academics and general readers.”

The history winner was Steven Hahn for “A Nation Under Our Feet” (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), which traces the political evolution of African Americans after the Civil War.

The prize in music was awarded to Paul Moravec for “Tempest Fantasy.” Moravec, who was born in 1960, is head of the music department at Adelphi University on Long Island, N.Y. Few of his pieces have been recorded, but for “Tempest Fantasy,” he attracted impressive performers: the versatile avant-garde klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer and the Trio Solisti. In winning the Pulitzer, Moravec’s score triumphed over the work of two of America’s most significant composers, Steve Reich and Peter Lieberson, both of whom were finalists.

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Times staff writer Mark Swed contributed to this report.


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