Writer Anthony Doerr won the seventh annual Story Prize for short fiction on Wednesday for "Memory Wall," his collection of memory-themed tales.
Doerr, from Boise, Idaho, won $20,000 for his book of six globe-spanning short stories about subjects ranging from a Holocaust survivor connecting with childhood friends as her health fails, to an aging Cape Town woman whose memories are stored in cartridges for replay.
"I was a nerdy kid," said Doerr, author of books "The Shell Collector" and "About Grace," during an onstage interview before he was announced as winner.
Addressing his stories' semi-magical or scientific fantasy elements, Doerr, whose mother was a science teacher, said "science and literature are both ways to ask questions about why we're here."
"They're not necessarily disparate elements," he said. "It's still a human story, ultimately."
With his stories' far-flung settings, from China and Lithuania to Wyoming and South Africa, Doerr said he was able to satisfy the need for writers to "step outside their own experiences" and hopefully depict "a greater variety of human experience."
Citing a "human commonality," he said the oft-cited exhortation to "write what you know" shouldn't discourage anyone from writing about a 16th century washer woman.
He said the prize was particularly gratifying given that "short stories are not maybe the biggest deal in our culture anymore," with only a few magazines like The New Yorker and Playboy still printing them.
Doerr, who previously won three O. Henry awards and a Guggenheim fellowship, was one of three finalists for the prize along with Beijing native Yiyun Li and Suzanne Rivecca.
Yiyun, author of "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," was cited for "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl," while Rivecca was a finalist for her first book, "Death is Not an Option." Each won$5,000.
The finalists, all of whom read excerpts and discussed their work, were culled from a list of 85 entrants.
Past winners of the Story Prize have included acclaimed author Tobias Wolff and such lesser-known writers as the very first winner, Edwidge Danticat for "The Dewbreaker" and Jim Shepard, who won for "Like You'd Understand Anyway."
The judges were bookseller Marie du Vaure, writer, critic and Granta editor John Freeman and author Jayne Anne Phillips.