Justin Torres wins the 2023 National Book Award for Fiction

Justin Torres

Justin Torres. Photo by JJ Geiger

November 16, 2023 - 1:45pm

Written by John Riehl

Justin Torres, a 2010 graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, won the 2023 National Book Award for Fiction at the 74th National Book Awards Ceremony & Benefit Dinner in New York City Wednesday evening.

Torres was honored by the National Book Foundation for his novel Blackouts, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux/MacMillan Publishers. Blackouts tells an intergenerational story of a young man who cares for a dying soul, whom he once knew briefly, but who has haunted the edges of his life.

“This is without a doubt the most prestigious award in which I have ever been a finalist,” Torres says. “I'm honored. There's always a certain amount of randomness built into all awards. But it’s literature that sustains us.”

Torres and his former Writers’ Workshop instructor Paul Harding, also an Iowa MFA graduate (2000), were among five finalists for the National Book Award for Fiction. Harding’s novel This Other Eden, published by W.W. Norton & Company, is inspired by the true story of the once racially integrated Malaga Island off the coast of Maine.

This is the second time Torres and Harding have been together for a momentous occasion.

Torres was a student in Harding’s seminar class in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, when Harding won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel Tinkers. That day, Torres and his fellow graduate students brought bottles of champagne to class to celebrate with their teacher.

Paul Harding
Paul Harding. Photo by Sam Harding

“Ten years or so later, the students have gone on and published the books that they were workshopping and now they are getting awards themselves,” Harding says. “That's just really wonderful.”

Torres, an assistant professor of English at UCLA, published his first novel, We the Animals, in 2011, That book won the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, was translated into 15 languages, and was adapted into a feature film.

“I learned a lot from Paul, especially his brilliant thoughts about the stories that we read in that class,” Torres says. “We spent a lot of time on Tinkers and really focused on the craft of that book. I learned a lot from what he had to say to us in class and from watching the arc of his career. You must be faithful to your vision for the book and pay attention to the sentences and what you're writing.”

Being named a finalist for the National Book Award prompted Harding to reflect on his time as a graduate student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He was admitted into the program by then-director Frank Conroy.

“Frank Conroy must have seen something in me. I guess I had some good reading chops,” Harding says. “When I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it wasn't a turning point in my life as a writer. It was the beginning.

“Something Frank Conroy said has stuck with me. As an author, I'm trying to feel the presence of another person trying to push through the page and get to me as a reader,” Harding says. “I didn't just learn how to be a better writer at the University of Iowa. I learned how to be a writer, period.”

Harding is the author of three novels, This Other Oden, Tinkers, and Enon. He currently teaches creative writing and literature at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York.

The 2023 Long List of the National Book Award for Fiction featured 5 of the 10 authors with MFAs from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Joining Harding and Torres were Eliot Duncan (2021), Mona Susan Power (1992), and Jayne Anne Phillips (1978). Duncan and Torres received Truman Capote Fellowships while at the University of Iowa, while Power was awarded an Iowa Arts Fellowship from the Graduate College.