Add Oregon Book Award to writer's successes

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Ismet Prcic didn't expect to win anything at the 2013 Oregon Book Awards.

"I didn't put a tie on," the Clark College instructor said. "Then they called my name."

That call on Monday was an invitation for Prcic to accept the best-fiction award for his first novel, "Shards."

Unexpected turns have highlighted Prcic's recent career path. When he applied for a job opening in an English class at Clark College, he wound up teaching theater.

Prcic grew up in Europe two decades ago in war-torn Bosnia, which was the basis for "Shards." Now he's co-writing a film about two young black men in Los Angeles, struggling to achieve the American dream.

"The film is based on the lives of inner-city youth in Watts," Prcic said. "We just got in touch with the production company. They want to shoot this summer."

He was invited into the film project by director Malik Vitthal, who grew up in that world.

"When my friend approached me, I said, I can't write about this," Prcic said. "I don't know anything about inner-city youth!"

Then he reconsidered, remembering his own years growing up in Tuzla, a Bosnian city under siege.

"It's interesting how similar it is. I grew up in the projects -- big buildings that look like filing cabinets. And there is a gang influence in Bosnia as well," Prcic said.

"Imperial Dreams" was one of a dozen indie film projects tabbed for the 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

That nod from the prestigious Sundance Institute was part of the run of honors that Prcic has earned for his writing, capped by the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction a week ago at the Oregon Book Awards.

Perhaps the biggest award was the 2012 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. It's presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York.

"The building looks like Congress," observed Prcic (pronounced per-sick).

Previous winners of the Kaufman Prize include "Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier, a book whose film adaptation was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

"Shards" has been translated into eight or nine languages, including two different Spanish editions, Prcic said: one for Spain, the other for Latin America and Spanish-speaking American readers.

And the Bosnian version was translated twice, with Prcic stepping in after the first try didn't go so well.

"The translator left out stuff she didn't understand," said Prcic, who lives in Portland. "So I took off winter quarter to translate the book into Bosnian."

That exercise amounted to an overload of his own material.

"After translating it into Bosnian, I know it in two languages, and I'm sick of my own stuff," he said.

There is some compensation, however. While he doesn't know what the sales figures are -- "Because it's a literary book, I didn't write it for money" -- Prcic does see a check every once in a while.

"It's fun to get paid for something. I come home and there's an envelope sitting there," he said. "Maybe I will be able to put down a down payment on a house some day."


Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.