Last week, an awards ceremony fêted the two winners in the fifth William Saroyan International Prize for Writing at Stanford’s Green Library. Each of the two winners takes $5,000, as well as a nifty little crystal book engraved with a Saroyan self-portrait and the particulars of the event, which is sponsored by Stanford University Libraries and the William Saroyan Foundation. (Alas! I cannot find a photo of the glass books anywhere!)
The event was informal and, for fiction winner Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories (Faber and Faber, 2011), it was a triumphal return to campus, where (in a pleasant coincidence) he had been a Jones lecturer and a Wallace Stegner fellow in the Stanford English Department’s Creative Writing Program. He now teaches way up north at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. Yes, he is as charming and affable as his photo (at left) suggests.
For non-fiction winner Elisabeth Tova Bailey, a visit to Stanford was not an option. As she describes in her book, travel is somewhat difficult for the author, who has been waylaid by the illness she describes in The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010). But she delivered these words, which were read at the reception:
“Could I really write a whole book about a snail? It’s the questions that haunt us that take us on the most interesting journeys. Imagine the startled and dubious looks I received when confessing that I was not only writing a book about an individual snail, but it was an adult book! The minuteness of my topic was a conversation stopper.
“Yes, there is mystery and grace in the life of a snail, even romance and sometimes humor! Having chosen my main character I realized I was in a sticky situation, I was going to have to write an entire chapter on slime and another on the strange rituals of gastropod courtship. I thought of all the writers who would love to dip their pens into such topics, but my subject had clearly chosen me.
“When a specific snail came into my life unexpectedly it captured my attention by going about its life. As I observed its nightly adventures I learned that my snail had an epicurean appetite, an opinion on the most comfortable places to sleep, a love life, a memory, complex defense mechanisms, and enviable natural abilities, all of which put human limits into perspective, and that was humbling.
“At an early age, I fell in love with sentences and the places they took me. Writing a book has allowed me to travel even further. Why write a sentence unless it can take one on a journey both literary and interesting? Thank you for recognizing these aspects of my small book about a humble mollusk.”
Orozco, however, wasn’t expecting to speak at all, and had to ad lib for the occasion – he delivered his intentional gibberish with improvised brio: “I don’t have any prepared remarks to make. I’m hoping to spend most of this time. I don’t have any prepared remarks, but I don’t have any time. Good reviews, bad reviews – it’s a surprise, and it’s wonderful.”
I’m not sure I got that quite right. I’m not sure anyone could.
But Hank Saroyan, the author’s nephew and one of the judges for the contest, seemed pleased with Orozco’s response to his crisis. “It’s a very Saroyan thing to do,” he said.