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Joy Williams Wins 2021 Prize for American Fiction

Joy Williams, wearing her trademark prescription sunglasses, accepts the 2021 Prize for American Fiction from Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. Photo: Rob Casper.

This post was co-written by Brett Zongker, chief of media relations.

Novelist, short-story and non-fiction author Joy Williams, known for works such as “State of Grace” and “The Quick and the Dead,” is the winner of the 2021 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, Librarian Carla Hayden announced today.

The award, made annually for a lifetime of outstanding work, will be presented during this year’s National Book Festival in September.

“This is a wonderful award and one that inspires much humility,” said Williams, who now resides primarily in Arizona, but who also is known for her cross-country road trips. “The American story is wild, uncapturable and discomfiting, and our fiction — our literature — is poised to challenge and deeply change us as it becomes ever more inclusive and ecocentric.”

One of the Library’s most prestigious awards, the Prize for American Fiction honors an American author whose work is distinguished not only for its mastery of the art but also for its originality of thought and imagination. Last year’s winner was Colson Whitehead. Previous awardees have included Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Louise Erdrich.

“I am pleased and honored to confer this prize on Joy Williams, in celebration of her almost half-century of extraordinary work,” Hayden said. “Her work reveals the strange and unsettling grace just beneath the surface of our lives. In a story, a moment, a single sentence, it can force us to reimagine how we see ourselves, how we understand each other — and how we relate to the natural world.”

Hayden selected Williams as this year’s winner based on nominations from more than 60 distinguished literary figures, including former winners of the prize, acclaimed authors and literary critics from around the world. Williams is the author of four short story collections, two works of nonfiction and five novels, including the upcoming “Harrow.”

The black and green cover of "Harrow"

“Harrow,” by Joy Williams, will be published in September.

“The fiction of Joy Williams reminds me how lucky I am to be an American writer,” said Don DeLillo, winner of the 2013 prize. “She writes strong, steady and ever-unexpected narratives, word by word, sentence by sentence. This is the American language and she is an expert practitioner.”

Williams’ many honors include the Rea Award for the Short Story and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was elected a member of the Academy in 2008, and she has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

“We are American writers, absorbing the American experience,” she once said at a literary conference, as quoted by the Paris Review in 2014. “We must absorb its heat, the recklessness and ruthlessness, the grotesqueries and cruelties. We must reflect the sprawl and smallness of America, its greedy optimism and dangerous sentimentality. And we must write with a pen—in Mark Twain’s phrase—warmed up in hell. We might have something then, worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.”

She is best known for her short stories, but all of her work is populated by offbeat characters, often middle-class and on their way down, related in grim and darkly comic narratives. Her essays, particularly about the environment, are fierce and uncompromising.

Born in Massachusetts in 1944, she grew up partly in Maine, the child of a minister, and was a self-described indifferent student in high school. She went to college in Ohio, then went to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. Her first short story was published when she was 22. Her first husband worked at newspapers in Florida, and she quickly became attached to the place.

Headshot of Joy WIlliams, with a bright smile and long, loose hair, wearing a turtleneck sweater.

Joy Williams. Photo: Courtesy of Knopf.

Here’s a hint to her personality, from that Paris Review interview:

“We rented a trailer in the middle of tangled woods on the St. Marks River. Didn’t know a soul, husband away all day. I wrote ‘State of Grace’ there [her first novel]. Excellent, practically morbid conditions for the writing of a first novel. We returned to Siesta Key, and I got a job working for the Navy at the Mote Marine Laboratory, researching shark attacks.”

Her career has since garnered the admiration of fellow writers, critics and fans of literary fiction, though she’s never been a big name on bestseller lists. Her second marriage, for 35 years, was to L. Rust Hills, the influential fiction editor at Esquire Magazine, ending only at his death in 2008. The couple had one child, Caitlin.

Williams lived in the Florida Keys for years, once writing a guidebook to the region, before moving to Arizona. She’s taught creative writing at universities from Florida to Wyoming.

She will appear at the 2021 National Book Festival, set for Sept. 17-26. The festival, with the theme “Open a Book, Open the World,” encourages attendees to create their own festival experiences through multiple formats over 10 days.

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