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The Woman Behind 'The Great Man'

Kate Christensen is only the fifth woman to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Kate Christensen is only the fifth woman to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Kate Christensen had to kill Oscar Feldman before she could start writing about him. She had no choice.

"He was successful. He got what he wanted in life," she says of the womanizing, larger-than-life artist who inspired the title of her PEN-Faulkner Award-winning novel, The Great Man. "Characters who don't suffer have no interest to me." So Oscar was dead before Page 1.

Enter the charismatic women of Oscar's life: Abigail, Oscar's long-suffering wife; Teddy, the Bohemian mistress; and Maxine, Oscar's chain-smoking lesbian sister, an abstract painter who labored in the shadow of her more charismatic (but less talented) brother.

Christensen says she was frustrated that older women usually end up shoved to the sidelines of novels as twittering old biddies or wise, sexless crones. So she wrote Oscar's women as anything but. They have sex and swear and "strut around the stage," she says.

It's an approach that caught the eye of PEN/Faulkner judge Victor La Valle, who wrote that the women of the novel stuck with him: "They're defiant, infuriating and alive. And that's what you ask of literature."

The list of PEN/Faulkner winners over the past 28 years includes legends like Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, John Updike and Don DeLillo. But only four other women have won it.

"I always thought of it as this big award for these literary lions," says Christensen. "I didn't even know they gave it to women."

In fact, Christensen didn't realize she was up for the award until she received a phone call telling her she won. And while she's thrilled, she concedes that she's been worried about the small measure of fame that a literary award can bestow.

"For writers and artists, it's always a balancing act between wanting to be the center of attention and wanting to be invisible and watch what's going on," she says. "It makes you vulnerable to win an award. It's nice to get the attention, but your neck is stuck out."

Thankfully, she says, she finished her next novel before she heard about winning the PEN/Faulkner. Trouble is about two women who forge a friendship in college during the 1980s. Thirty years later, they are both successful, one a shrink in New York, the other a rock star in LA. But, of course, they aren't happy.

If they were, says Christensen, she couldn't ask the central question that runs through all her work: "What's missing in a life? What didn't you get that you wanted?"

Originally published in 'Reed' magazine, Spring 2008.

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Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
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