2015 PEN Hemingway & PEN New England Awards Ceremony @PENNewEngland

I was especially looking forward to this year’s PEN Hemingway & PEN New England Awards ceremony because Ann Patchett was giving the keynote address. She had a large number of fans in the audience at the event which was held the Sunday before last at the JFK Library in Boston.  This year I had both of my parents with me.

I never get to events early enough to sit close to the front, so I apologize for the poor quality of the photos. Picture a large room with two big banners of Ernest Hemingway hanging on either side of the stage. The stage is in front of a huge window looking out over Boston Harbor, with some kind of magical anti-glare screen so the audience can see out the window (and watch planes that have just taken off from Logan Airport  fly over the speakers’ heads) but with no direct light streaming in.

photo of stage from seat in audience Patrick Hemingway reads a passage from his father’s work every year before the presentation of the PEN Hemingway Awards. This year he mentioned the influx of fit young people in town for the next day’s Boston Marathon, and – to balance this off – had chosen a passage about a person who was old, which condition he thought Ernest Hemingway had portrayed very well when he was still in his early twenties.

Judges for the PEN Hemingway Awards read over 150 works of debut fiction this year, and chose Elegy on Kinderklavier (Sarabande Books, 2015) by Arna Bontemps Hemenway (no relation) as the winner. In Elegy, the judges wrote, “attention is salvation.” The author was present to receive the award, which includes a $20,000 cash prize, a three-month residency at the University of Idaho’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and a one-month residency fellowship at the Ucross Foundation, Wyoming.

Arna Bontemps Hemenway was clearly thrilled to receive the award, confiding to the audience that when he first got the phone call, he may have blurted out “something that rhymes with ‘moley pit’.”  Before reading an excerpt from his book, he gave such a long, moving tribute to his wife that Ann Patchett, when she came up to give the keynote address, said to him (now back in the audience): “Arne, when I die – if you’re available? If you could do my eulogy? That would be great.”

The winner of the 2015 PEN New England Award for fiction was Carolyn Chute for Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves, but she could not be present for the ceremony. The winner of the 2015 PEN New England Award for nonfiction was Kevin Birmingham for The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysees (Penguin Press). He spoke about the censorship of Ulysees and said that Ernest Hemingway had smuggled the book into the U.S.

Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You, introduced Ann Patchett, saying she remembered a speech Ann gave before at a writers’ conference with “the Muse” as the theme, when Ann stood up and started her talk with: “The muse is bullshit. Get the work done.”

photo of Celeste Ng at podium
Celeste Ng introducing Ann Patchett. The tall man in front of me and slightly to the right is sitting up straight again.

Ann Patchett received a standing ovation after her address, in which she exhorted the literary crowd to “put the work first” as she said F. Scott Fitzgerald said to do, or the writing will never get done, but she also said, “I’m a much better wife than I am a novelist. And you know why? Because it’s easier to be a great wife.”

Ann Patchett giving the keynote address
Ann Patchett giving the keynote address

Writing is hard work for her, and she said she is easily distracted from it, but sometimes the work doesn’t really come first. She said she struggles to be a good writer AND a “decent person.” She concluded with this reminder: “There is, after all, a great deal of good to be done in the world.”

It was a wonderful event, with a lot of great speakers in one short hour. I’ve ordered a copy of Elegy on Kinderklavier, but didn’t buy anything that day.

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