Kelly Sather announced as the winner of the 2023 Drue Heinz Literature Prize


Image courtesy of Elisabeth Fall

Author Kelly Sather, winner of the 2023 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

By Serena Garcia, Senior Staff Writer

Kelly Sather began writing short stories around 10 years ago, and now her first collection of short stories, “Small in Real Life” won the 2023 University of Pittsburgh Press Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

Sather, a California native, earned her MFA at Bennington College in 2015. Founded in 1983, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize awards one writer of short fiction a publishing deal as well as a $15,000 cash prize. As the winner, Sather will publish her debut collection of short stories on Oct. 3.

Sather emphasized the importance of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for her career.

“For me, to win the prize and be published, and the University of Pittsburgh Press is so well regarded, it’s just a really great moment for my career,” Sather said. 

Sather said she began writing a long time ago, but she didn’t start focusing on short fiction until about 10 years ago. A few stories and a couple years later, she realized that she had enough material for a collection. Once her collection was ready, Sather said she knew she would apply for the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. 

“I started working on them as a collection and then after a while, I decided to try and submit to the Drue Heinz because I always heard about it,” Sather said. “It’s something, when you write short stories, it’s such a fantastic prize that you hear people talking about. And so last year, I submitted and I just was like, ‘I’ll try it!’ and I was so, so thrilled when I heard the news.” 

John Fagan, the director of marketing for the University of Pittsburgh Press, said the Press selects a guest judge to pick the best collection of short stories from the submissions they receive. 

“That’s usually one of the real goals of the prize is to introduce new talent into the literary world,” Fagan said. “And by using the guest judge, it’s a prominent name selecting the author, and that gives the book a certain amount of attention too.”

This year’s judge is writer Deesha Philyaw, who recently debuted her first collection of short stories in 2020, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.” Philyaw’s collection won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award of Fiction. 

Philyaw said she received seven finalists’ manuscripts for the competition, which made the judging difficult. 

“I was tasked with reading manuscripts, book-length manuscripts, and then deciding, you know, which was the one that I thought should win the prize,” Philyaw said. “It is tough because you’re not choosing necessarily the only good book. All of the finalists that they sent me were really strong contenders for the prize.” 

When reading through the manuscripts, Philyaw said she was looking for a manuscript that introduced her to something new, but stayed with her once she reached the end of the pages. She said authors achieve this through their plot, characters or simply the voice of the piece. 

“I always want to be surprised,” Philyaw said. “I want to read voices and characters that linger and stay with me long after the stories or story if it’s a novel is over.” 

Sather said “Small in Real Life” highlights both the glamor and struggles that come with living in Southern California. The collection allows readers to delve into the world of Southern California and traverse through stories that show both the perceived easiness and lightness of living in California, but also the hardships that her characters face. 

“I think the characters in ‘Small in Real Life,’ they’re very determined and they’re also acting on their impulse in a way that even though they want connection and ultimately would be much happier with love, that isn’t as spectacular as what they’re going for. They’re just gonna go for the harder road,” Sather said. “I’m exploring loss a lot, that sort of feeling of how you want things to be and then how it is instead.”

Philyaw highlighted Sather’s ability to write characters who many will identify as “morally gray,” a term that means the characters are not fully pure morally, but also not fully evil either. Philyaw said Sather’s writing of the characters, especially the women in her stories, allowed her to feel and empathize with them. 

“Kelly’s writing has this quality that makes you feel and empathize with even some of the most unsavory characters,” Philyaw said. “I like that the characters, particularly the woman characters, are what I call prickly. They have edges. They’re not always nice, and I find those kinds of characters really fascinating.” 

Philyaw said in the literary world short story collections usually fall to the background, and writers are even warned that short story collections are harder to sell. 

“The genre has always been rich and full of great characters and great moments and exquisite language, and so I feel like we have been this sort of slept on genre,” Philyaw said. “So it’s especially fun for me when I’m asked to judge for short story prizes because you know, it can be hard to get our due.” 

Fagan said bringing attention to new writers like Sather is one of the most important things to the University of Pittsburgh Press. 

“We’d like to sell the book. We’d like to help develop that person’s writing career,” Fagan said. “It’s important to us to share these great pieces of fiction with other writers and other readers.”