When author Benjamín Alire Sáenz tells you that the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction that soon will be presented to him was a surprise, he’s not just giving you the generic award-winning answer.
“I was really stunned, to tell you the truth. It’s not something I really expected,” Sáenz told Fox News Latino.
Sáenz, a former priest, is the first Hispanic to receive the prestigious award, established in 1981 by a foundation started by American author William Faulkner.
The seven stories in the book, titled “Everything Begins And Ends At The Kentucky Club,” are set on a locally known club in El Paso, Texas, where different kinds of people from both sides of the border spend their time drinking and socializing.
“I wanted to capture ordinary people, the reality,” said Sáenz, who is 58 and lives in the border city.
“Lately we see the border as headlines. People write about the border all the time but it’s always a news story. I wanted to remind people that people live here,” he added.
Sáenz was a little emotional on the phone talking about the award, as he was when he was notified.
“I just asked her to give me a moment,” Sáenz said. “I have the gift of tear from my mother.”
Originally from Southern New Mexico, Sáenz grew up on a farm until 1992, when he settled in El Paso.
He said his environment plays a critical role in his work.
“Writers are really influenced by the confines of their space,” said Sáenz. “El Paso and Juarez are real cities. El Paso is a city. It’s a particular kind of city with a particular kind of personality.”
Sáenz said of El Paso and Juarez’s influence: “When Spanish lives right next to you, it changes your English.”
A creative writing professor at the University of Texas-El Paso, Sáenz has received awards for his poetry and has written children books.
Earlier this year, the American Library Association cited Sáenz's "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe" as the best young adult novel about the Latino cultural experience and the best book about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender experience, according to The Associated Press.
As for whether or not this highly touted award has changed his life, Sáenz doesn’t think much about it.
“I don’t think my students care. That’s a great thing,” Sáenz said. “It keeps you grounded. I’m in that classroom to teach. It doesn’t change anything.”
He said his family gives him too much credit.
“The only thing that makes me sad about this is that neither of my parents are alive. But they would have been proud of me,” he said.
As for expanding beyond the border and El Paso, Sáenz intends to do what feels right.
“All true writers write what they need to write,” he said.
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