This morning, Artist Trust announced that Seattle writer E. Lily Yu is the recipient of this year's Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award. This is a fairly new award in Washington State's arts scene, but it's a mighty one — it pays $10,000 to its winner, with no strings attached. In 2015, Anca L.Szilágyi was the first Gar LaSalle recipient, and that prize money seems to have paid off; her debut novel, Daughters of the Air, is launching tomorrow night at the Hotel Sorrento. Last year's winner was the novelist Peter Mountford, whose The Dismal Science is a sophomore novel that is so good it will make you renounce the very idea of a sophomore slump.
Both Szilágyi and Mountford are writers of literary fiction, but Yu has a different pedigree: while she's published in literary outlets like McSweeney's and Hazlitt, she's also appeared in science fiction and fantasy publications like Tor.com and Fantasy and Science Fiction. A Clarion West graduate, Yu has appeared in multiple annual best-of sci-fi anthologies. You can read some of her short work by following these links on her website.
If you're the last human being on earth who is still snooty about sci-fi, Yu might be the author to turn you around. Her prose is weird and beautiful and striking. She's a unique voice, she has published some beautiful fiction in the past, and she will undoubtedly produce great works in the years to come. You'll want to be a fan of her now so you can say you knew her before it was cool to be a fan of E. Lily Yu. Yu was kind enough to talk with me over email about winning the Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award; hopefully she'll do a longer interview with the Seattle Review of Books in the future.
Congratulations! What was your response when you were told you'd won this award?
Joy. Astonishment. Amusement and embarrassment over my lack of faith; the phone call was a bit of a divine I-told-you-so. Then a sudden and overwhelming sense of peace. I'd felt anxious the day before, and that all went away as if it had never existed. It'll come back, of course, all the colors and tones of the human experience do, but for right now there's just peace.
May I ask what you're planning to do with the prize money? Is it going toward living expenses, or is it devoted to a special project?
Buying time. I'm buying two months and ten days with it. And I'm spending that time right now.
Do you think of yourself as a Northwestern writer? Does your regional identity figure into your work on a thematic level?
This is home. It was not always home, it might not always be home—that's in God's hands—but right now it is home in the deepest way. Like blood. Like bone. It has and it is and it will appear in my work.
That said, I am many regions. Most of us are. One crosses whole countries between Fulton Street and Harlem, but who would call themselves a Bed-Stuy writer?
The previous two recipients of this award have been literary writers. Do you think it's significant that this time it's going to a writer whose work can be classified as genre fiction?
Not particularly, but I am not best placed to know. I came to Seattle years after it made a name for itself as a hub for both literary and speculative fiction, so the intermingling of the two communities seems to me to be the most natural thing in the world.
Does that distinction—the literary and the genre—mean anything to you?
As much as fences mean to flowers.