Jayne Anne Phillips (Photo by Elena Seibert)

Buckhannon native Jayne Anne Phillips wins Pulitzer Prize

BUCKHANNON — A Buckhannon native has won one of the most prestigious awards in American literature.

Author Jayne Anne Phillips won the 2024 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her latest novel, “Night Watch,” which is described as “a beautifully rendered novel set in West Virginia’s Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in the aftermath of the Civil War where a severely wounded Union veteran, a 12-year-old girl and her mother, long-abused by a Confederate soldier, struggle to heal.”

The Pulitzer Prizes are a set of annual awards that recognize achievements in journalism, literature and music. They were established in 1917 by provisions in the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a prominent newspaper publisher, and are administered by Columbia University. Awards are presented annually in 21 categories, ranging from local reporting to poetry.

The $15,000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is awarded “for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”

Phillips was born in Buckhannon, West Virginia, on July 19, 1952. She grew up in Buckhannon and spent much of her childhood and young adulthood in the state. She attended West Virginia University, where she earned her B.A. in 1974.

Although Phillips now lives in New York and Boston, her roots in the Mountain State have had a significant influence on her writing. Many of her early works, including her short story collection, “Black Tickets” (1979), and her debut novel, “Machine Dreams” (1984), are set in West Virginia and draw upon her experiences growing up in the state. These works explore themes of family, identity and the complexities of rural life in Appalachia.

Phillips’ Pulitzer win comes just one year after another novel about Appalachia captured the prize in fiction: “Demon Copperhead,” by Barbara Kingsolver. That book is described as “a masterful recasting of ‘David Copperfield,’ narrated by an Appalachian boy whose wise, unwavering voice relates his encounters with poverty, addiction, institutional failures and moral collapse–and his efforts to conquer them.”

According to the Pulitzer Prize announcement, “Night Watch” beat out two other finalists: “‘Wednesday’s Child,’ by Yiyun Li, an affecting volume of thematically and stylistically connected stories that are set around tasks carried out by caretakers of the infirm and mothers struggling to carry on after the death of a child, work that mixes grief with gentle humor; and ‘Same Bed Different Dreams,’ by Ed Park, an inventive postmodern novel that moves from the brutal Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula to a lonely Korean-American boy’s passion for the Buffalo Sabres, interlinked narratives that jump historical and imaginary time zones with humor, sorrow and irreverence.”

The jury tasked with awarding the 2024 prize included:

  • Sam Sacks (Chair): Book Critic, The Wall Street Journal
  • Michael Chabon: Writer, Berkeley, Calif. (and a former Pulitzer winner)
  • Lan Samantha Chang: Program Director, Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Elizabeth M. Stanley Professor in the Arts, University of Iowa
  • Tayari Jones: Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing, Emory University
  • Lydia Millet: Author and Deputy Creative Director, Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson, Ariz.

Phillips returned to her hometown just last month for an event at the Opera House on Main Street.

“I’m so glad to be coming to Buckhannon,” Phillips said at the time. “There’s just no substitute for having grown up in West Virginia.”

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