Two Minneapolis writers have won prestigious PEN America literary awards for their debut books.

Jonathan C. Slaght and Kawai Strong Washburn were honored at a virtual awards ceremony Thursday evening.

Slaght's book, "Owls of the Eastern Ice," a riveting nonfiction account of his five-year mission to locate, band, track and conserve the elusive Blakiston's fish owl in a remote corner of Russia, won the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, which carries a cash prize of $10,000.

This book "takes people outside, with a capital O," something we need especially now, Slaght said in a video message from his home in Minneapolis. Plus, "there's tigers and bears and owls!" His book, Slaght said, "is a reminder that wild places still exist." His book was also longlisted for a National Book Award.

Washburn's novel "Sharks in the Time of Saviors," a haunting, magical tale of a Hawaiian working-class family touched by the gods, won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. That award, too, carries a prize of $10,000.

Speaking from his home via video, Washburn — wearing a jaunty bow tie and a small hat — seemed giddy at the news, but then grew serious.

"For me, this was a year of a lot of loss," he said. The pandemic erupted just days after his book was published in March. George Floyd was killed just a few miles from his home in May.

"To be in the middle of all that made for such a difficult year," he said. Receiving the award "is a nice silver lining to what was otherwise a dark year."

Washburn had been longlisted for an unprecedented four PEN America awards and was a finalist for two — the Hemingway Award, and the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, which is given to the best book of the year in any genre.

That award went to poet Ross Gay for "Be Holding: A Poem."

Slaght and Washburn are both finalists for Minnesota Book Awards, to be announced April 29.

Other winners Thursday night included "Inheritors," by Asako Serizawa, for the PEN Open Book Award; "Further News of Defeat," by Michael X. Wang, for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a debut short story collection; "Obit," by Victoria Chang, for the PEN/Voelcker Award for poetry collection; "Raised by Wolves," by Amang, translated by Steve Bradbury, for the PEN award for poetry in translation; "A Country for Dying," by Abdellah Taia, translated by Emma Ramadan, for the PEN Translation prize; "Had I Known," collected essays by Barbara Ehrenreich, for the PEN essay award; "Stranger in the Shogun's City," by Amy Stanley, for the PEN biography award, and "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments," by Saidiya Hartman, for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for nonfiction.

Laurie Hertzel • @StribBooks