JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The PEN-Faulkner Award for fiction has, in recent years, gone to some writers you might be familiar with: Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, John Updike. But tonight in Washington, D.C., the prize will be accepted by a relative unknown; Kate Christensen. Her darkly comic novels about society's outsiders have delighted her fans, but have never received widespread acclaim until now.

NPR's Robert Smith reports on what happens when a woman who writes about failure suddenly wins big.

ROBERT SMITH: When I go over to Kate Christensen's row house in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, I'm not terribly surprised when I find she's cooking this big green pot of soup. In her novels the characters are always whipping something up to eat.

Ms. KATE CHRISTENSEN: This is named after St. Germain of the suburb of Paris. Apparently they grew peas in their garden so the name of it is lovely; Potage St. Germain.

SMITH: It's the sort of simple meal with a pretentious name that would've been featured in her most recent novel, "The Great Man." The book is the story of a dead painter and the remarkable trio of women he left behind; his wife, his mistress, his sister. They're all women in their 70s all frustrated in some way. And they use food like a weapon to intimidate their rivals or seduce their lovers.

Ms. CHRISTENSEN: Writing the food was like writing dialogue; a way of revealing more of who they were. And then I made all the recipes and they all turned out really well, I have to say.

SMITH: Christensen is in her mid-40s, that she would even write a story of love, and sex, and revenge among 70-year-old women is quite an achievement.

Ms. CHRISTENSEN: I don't know that many books where the older women get to be the protagonist of the novel and get to have sex and get to be sexual and get to have opinions and say bad words, and you know, really just sort of strut around on the stage. And that's part of what made me want to write it.

SMITH: Christensen delights in giving characters who live on the fringe their moment in the spotlight. In her first novel, "In the Drink," her heroine was a 20-something underemployed drunk. The subject matter got Christensen labeled as just another chick lit writer. So she started writing about male losers for a change.

Her next novel was about a celebrity hanger-on who gets booted out of his cushy life. Her third book features a misanthropic poet slowly trying to kill himself.

Ms. CHRISTENSEN: I'm really interested in people who are a little bit crabby and a little bit unfulfilled and have a lot to yearn for.

SMITH: So you can imagine Christensen's reaction when the PEN-Faulkner Foundation called to tell her she was a winner of a prize she didn't even know she was up for.

Ms. CHRISTENSEN: The PEN-Faulkner, I mean it was, it's not the kind of award I even dreamed of winning. I didn't really think I was that kind of writer. Philip Roth and John Updike and Tobias Wolff, you notice they're all men.

SMITH: Only four other women have won the award and Christensen said she doesn't want to launch a feminist critique of the prize, but...

Ms. CHRISTENSEN: It's hard not to notice that men win more awards than women and are taken more seriously. But I also think women write more character-driven, on the whole, to generalize wildly, more character-driven fiction and it's not taken as seriously as the show-offy sort of stylistic tour de forces that men seem to write more of.

SMITH: The judges of the PEN-Faulkner award say that at least this year they chose the novel that simply delighted them the most. Molly Giles was on the judging panel and said she just couldn't get the characters that Christensen created out of her head.

Ms. MOLLY GILES (Judge): This was a pleasure to read about; sophisticated, intelligent, honest, vain, sexual older women. And I really liked the way that, as far as I can see, Kate Christensen is a young woman, the way she evoked these characters.

SMITH: The prospect of being an award-winning author does create a little bit of stress for Christensen. She says she's lived much of her life watching from the sidelines. When she was a child she created this make believe world that she could control. She wanted to be invisible so she could stare at other people. Now when she accepts her prize tonight, everyone will be gawking at her.

Ms. CHRISTENSEN: It makes you vulnerable also to win an award. It's not just a pure thing. Before I won the award, nobody had ever heard of me really, and so I felt like I was operating in a kind of safe anonymity. And writing these books about failed artists or somebody who doesn't have what they want, and those are the kind of people that appeal to me.

SMITH: And not only did you get what you want, you got what you didn't even know you wanted.

Ms. CHRISTENSEN: I didn't even know I wanted it. I didn't even dream of it.

SMITH: The book that won the PEN-Faulkner award; "The Great Man" will be released in paperback next week. And luckily Christensen says she's already finished her next book. It's called "Trouble," and it's about two successful and famous women who, no surprise here, have lives that are falling apart. In Christensen's world, even winners can be losers.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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