When the PEN American Center announced its literary awards last week, the big winner in the debut fiction category was a book with an unconventional path to publication, from an unlikely publisher. Sergio De La Pava originally self-published his winning novel, A Naked Singularity, before it was acquired and re-released by the University of Chicago Press.
The book, which in 688 pages tells the story of a Colombian immigrant working as a public defender in Manhattan, was lauded by the PEN judges for its willingness "to directly confront the question of justice and to explore the implicit absurdities and hypocrisies of our contemporary understanding of what it means to do justice, make it both ambitious and critically important."
De La Pava, himself a public defender, published the novel in 2008, and in 2010, a glowing review of the book in the Quarterly Conversation caught the eye of University of Chicago Press's Levi Stahl. Stahl then set out to convince an editorial staff unaccustomed to acquiring original fiction, as well as a university board, that they could effectively publish a novel of A Naked Singularity's size and scope.
"My one liner pitch was [that the book was] a big huge ambitious novel about New York and criminal justice," said Stahl, promotions director at the Press. "It's incredibly funny and clever. I said, 'Read the first 50 pages; it just sinks you right into this voice instantly. It's hard to look away after that.'"
Margaret Hivnor, editor at the Press, acquired the book in 2011, made very few editorial changes to the work, and published it in paperback in April 2012. The heft of the book was left intact.
"It's the same book," said Stahl, adding that the size of the book, both physically and narratively, earned it comparisons to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. "It's a big, baggy book and deliberately so."
Fiction is out of the Press's wheelhouse, but Stahl felt that the unlikely acquisition could work to his advantage during the marketing and publicity processes.
"Every season Random House and FSG comes to you and says they have the next big thing," said Stahl. "We're coming to you and saying this is a big deal. If it weren't a big deal we wouldn't be doing it."
In 2012, the Press signed up De La Pava for a second book, Personae, set to publish in October. De La Pava is currently writing his third novel.
With the next publication imminent and writing underway for a third novel, Stahl said that the recent media attention has thrown De La Pava in a bit of a time warp—a book he wrote nearly five years ago is suddenly squarely in the public eye. Stahl related the feeling to Ian McEwan's phrase about book tours and publicity: feeling like an "employee of a former self" while championing something rooted so firmly in a personal and artistic past.
Still, De la Pava is emboldened and honored by the award, and, because the Pen American Center is rooted in a mission of freedom of expression and social justice, as a public defender the distinction takes on even greater significance for the author. Stahl added that De La Pava wears the novelist and lawyer hats simultaneously, weaving narratives of social justice into his work, and balancing writing and his very taxing role as a public defender.
"I don't know how he does it," said Stahl. "I think he must just not sleep."