MEMBER PROFILES: Andrew Tonkovich, Piotr Florczyk, Brian Doyle, Bill Minutaglio



MEMBER PROFILE: Andrew Tonkovich
Fiction Judge

One benefit of being a Literary Awards judge is receiving a one-year membership to PEN Center USA. As a new PEN Center USA member, what excites you most about the organization?
I'd been a member, but lapsed. As a returning member, I am excited to integrate PEN Center USA’s issues and campaigns whenever possible: at readings, in print, in the classroom and on social media, related to my own work as reviewer, editor, writer, teacher, and activist. I've invited Rattling Wall editor Michelle Franke to introduce readers at an upcoming event, confident that she will jump at the chance to engage the audience in PEN Center USA’s agenda.

What did you enjoy most about serving as a Literary Awards judge?
I most enjoyed, of course, the challenge of figuring out what appealed to, engaged, and delighted me in so much of the work that made it to the second round of consideration. And why, exactly. And working with, learning from my two excellent co-judges, of course. As a writer myself, I truly enjoyed composing the short write-up explaining, celebrating, justifying—as it were—our enthusiastic decision.

PEN Centers share a Freedom To Write mission, which means we believe that people should be able to read and write freely. What does Freedom To Write mean to you?
In a quiet way, I embrace and interpret the ethos of this campaign by boostering dissident and often overlooked voices editorially. I'm proud to have printed fiction and nonfiction addressing any number of provocative political issues, taking care not to "protect" readers from too much, and yet also, of course, advance the most elegant and lovely prose.

You just finished reading a large number of submissions for the 2015 Literary Awards. What are you reading now?
I host a weekly books show on community radio, part of my own political commitment to civic literacy and boostering the literary arts. No kidding, I plan to follow up with the best books and authors I was lucky to read for the award, and hope to interview some of them.

Just now, I am also reading Jay Parini's biography of Gore Vidal (Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal), a hero of mine and an outspoken activist. Also, Brenda Hillman’s poems in Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire—she is also an antiwar (Code Pink) and human rights activist hero. And recently, I was honored to introduce Chris Hedges (Wages of Rebellion), a journalist and writer I admire because he engages literature and philosophy toward advancing similar values.

Andrew Tonkovich edits the West Coast literary magazine Santa Monica Review and hosts Bibliocracy Radio, a weekly books show on Pacifica's KPFK 90.7 FM. He teaches writing at UC Irvine, and serves as campus president of the labor union representing Librarians and Lecturers. Recent essays, short stories, and reviews appear at OC Weekly, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ecotone, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.




MEMBER PROFILE: Piotr Florczyk
Translation Judge

One benefit of being a Literary Awards judge is receiving a one-year membership to PEN Center USA. As a new PEN Center USA member, what excites you most about the organization?
The way PEN Center USA goes out into the community to get people interested and involved in literature.

What did you enjoy most about serving as a Literary Awards judge?
Reading wonderful books! I’m in awe of what my colleagues and peers are writing.

PEN Centers share a Freedom To Write mission, which means we believe that people should be able to read and write freely. What does Freedom To Write mean to you?
It means that every person is free to express their thoughts, feelings, and emotions in writing—and to read what others have to say about themselves and the world we live in.

You just finished reading a large number of submissions for the 2015 Literary Awards. What are you reading now?
Lots of new poetry, from the U.S. and abroad.

Piotr Florczyk is the author of a poetry chapbook, Barefoot, and a volume of essays, Los Angeles Sketchbook. He has also translated/co-translated six collections of Polish poetry. His work can be found in The New Yorker, The American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, The Threepenny Review, Salmagundi, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Boston Review, and other journals. He studies in the Ph.D. Program in Literature and Creative Writing at USC, and lives with his wife, Dena, in Mar Vista. His newest book of poems, East & West (Lost Horse Press) will be released in 2016.




MEMBER PROFILE: Brian Doyle
Research Nonfiction Judge

One benefit of being a Literary Awards judge is receiving a one-year membership to PEN Center USA. As a new PEN Center USA member, what excites you most about the organization?
Its brass and bravura and defiant courage in taking on slimebag governments in the matter of speaking and writing freely, which should be a basic human right to be defended and shouted vociferously.

What did you enjoy most about serving as a Literary Awards judge?
The chance to read a lot of writers who are so much better than I am that it isn’t funny. It was refreshing, though.

PEN Centers share a Freedom To Write mission, which means we believe that people should be able to read and write freely. What does Freedom To Write mean to you?
If you cannot speak and write freely, then there’s not much bone to the word freedom, is there?

You just finished reading a large number of submissions for the 2015 Literary Awards. What are you reading now?
James Norman Hall, the great and now obscure writer of the South Seas; and I just finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which is the best novel I have read in years, since Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. But now I am diving back into writing a novel of my own. When I write novels I am terrified of reading other novels, for fear they will be better than my novel, so it’s Silver Surfer comics for me again for a while, I am afraid.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland—“the best spiritual magazine in America,” says Annie Dillard—and the author of many books of essays, poems, and fiction, notably the novels Mink River and The Plover.

Photo Credit: Laszlo Bencze




MEMBER PROFILE: Bill Minutaglio
Journalism Judge

One benefit of being a Literary Awards judge is receiving a one-year membership to PEN Center USA. As a new PEN Center USA member, what excites you most about the organization?
Simply put: Its willingness to walk the walk, to take stands on issues that are at the heart of creative, thoughtful, dialogue on planet Earth.

What did you enjoy most about serving as a Literary Awards judge?
It served as a wonderful reminder that there are so many fine writers committed to doing socially relevant work. That there are writers still willing to give voice to the voiceless, and who prove that there is still a deep power in doing the kind of empathetic storytelling that heals the human condition.

PEN Centers share a Freedom To Write mission, which means we believe that people should be able to read and write freely. What does Freedom To Write mean to you?
To write because you need to—and because it is a wonderful way of joining the greater discourse that binds us all.

You just finished reading a large number of submissions for the 2015 Literary Awards. What are you reading now?
I’m reading several books, including White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg by Peter Conners, and Fugitive Days: Memoirs of An Antiwar Activist by Bill Ayers.

Bill Minutaglio is the author or coauthor of several narrative nonfiction books, including Dallas 1963, which won the PEN Center USA 2014 Literary Award for Research Nonfiction, and which was named to several “Best of Year” lists including ones from The New Republic, Kirkus Reviews, and others. He wrote the original magazine story about The Dallas Buyers Club, and his work has appeared in Esquire, The New York Times, Outside, Texas Monthly, Newsweek, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists. His book, City on Fire, was optioned by Tom Cruise/Paramount. He wrote the first unauthorized book about George W. Bush, published by Times Books/Random House. He is a professor of journalism at The University of Texas at Austin and is at work on a book about Richard Nixon’s war against Timothy Leary.




MEMBER PROFILE: Shem Bitterman
Drama Judge

One benefit of being a Literary Awards judge is receiving a one-year membership to PEN Center USA. As a new PEN Center USA member, what excites you most about the organization?
What excites me most about PEN Center USA is that it exists—that it honors great writing in general. In particular, as it relates to the broader issue of Freedom of Speech—that it understands and acknowledges the essential role free speech plays in the growth and development of our society, towards greater justice through articulate non-conforming self-expression and a cultured empathy for the situation of others.

What did you enjoy most about serving as a Literary Awards judge?
This is my second time. This time, I really enjoyed meeting my fellow judges for drinks and having the opportunity to interact with them about what each of us believed constitutes exceptional writing, the underpinnings of which were fascinating to articulate.

PEN Centers share a Freedom To Write mission, which means we believe that people should be able to read and write freely. What does Freedom To Write mean to you?
I recently returned from China, where Google is not available and where local people have never seen the famous photo taken from Tiananmen Square of the lone protestor facing off against a row of tanks. Nowadays, access to Tiananmen Square is tightly controlled in the same way that information is tightly controlled. Lest we grow complacent in our own country, few Americans have seen photos of the civilian casualties in America's war on Iraq. They were published on Al Jazeera but not in any of our major domestic papers. I don't know what the stated rationale was for that omission of conscience, other than to speculate that the powers that be learned their lesson in Vietnam and didn't want Americans to turn against the war. I'm sure they were right. In the current refugee crises, we've seen how a single image can provoke a massive action. Freedom of speech means accessibility to information from which we can make a reasoned determination as to how we want to live our lives. To stifle freedom of speech is to make might right.

You just finished reading a large number of submissions for the 2015 Literary Awards. What are you reading now?
Hell is Empty, a Walt Longmire book by Craig Johnson. That dude rocks!

Shem Bitterman is a prolific playwright and screenwriter. He won the PEN Center USA 2008 Literary Award for Drama for his play, Harm's Way, and was a PEN Center USA Literary Award Finalist for Drama for his plays Open House (2014) and The Circle (2005). He was a HUMANITAS Prize Nominee for Betty & Coretta, about the friendship between the wives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and his biopic Whitney recently aired on Lifetime. He also founded and runs the Skylight Theatre’s Playlab, which has developed more than twenty five new plays in the past three years, and also established the new PLAY LA Workshop, sponsored by HUMANITAS and the Center Theatre Group to support local playwrights.