Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Story Prize Finalists: Daniel Alarcón, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Elizabeth Strout

We're pleased to honor as finalists for The Story Prize three outstanding books published in 2017, chosen from 120 entries representing 93 different publishers or imprints. It was a deep field with a lot of worthy story collections—more so than usual. The finalists are:

Authors extraordinaire: Daniel Alarcón, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Elizabeth Strout

The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón portrays citizens struggling to belong to or hoping to escape from an unnamed South American country. The stories in Ottessa Moshfegh's Homesick for Another World unflinchingly depict women and men seeking meaning in off-kilter circumstances. Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout navigates the bleak terrain of a rural Illinois setting, depicting the haunting effect of the past on the present lives of its characters.

This year's judges—author Susan Minot, author and critic Walton Muyumba, and librarian Stephanie Sendaula—will decide the outcome.

The annual award event will take place at the New School’s Auditorium at 66 West 12 Street in New York City at 7:30 p.m. on Wed., Feb. 28. Tickets cost $14. That night, Alarcón, Moshfegh, and Strout will read from and discuss their work on-stage. At the end of the event, Julie Lindsey will announce the winner and present that author with $20,000 along with an engraved silver bowl. The two runners-up will each receive $5,000. The Creative Writing Program at The New School co-sponsors the event.

In the weeks ahead, we'll announce this year's winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award. We'll also publish an index of guest posts from 2017 authors and a long list of other exceptional collections we read last year.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Olivia Clare on Accountability

In the 47th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Olivia Clare, author of Disasters in the First World (Black Cat), discusses the value of tracking her writing time.



On this New Year’s Eve—on an uncharacteristically chilly day, writing from a cottage in St. Francisville, Louisiana—I speak in praise of accountability. I sing to it. For it. I cherish it.

Am I a disciplined writer? How does discipline relate to artfulness and less easily accessed moments of insight? Does disciplined writing result merely in artificial products, lacking grace and sincerity, or artful, delicate creations that try to live and breathe?

Accountability can feel like a boring, dry thing to write about. But I’ll tell you: it’s kept me going, especially this past year. I believe in it so much that I have several ways to track my accountability. Some of those ways are for my eyes only. But I am also (seemingly, at least) accountable to others: I track my writing time every week in a spreadsheet with a group of colleagues, and I do the same with a group of friends. I also track my writing time in my own private document. I count the minutes, let my goals be known, and write down what I’ve written that week.

I’ve always craved structure, more than that which I can get from structuring sentences and verses. When studenthood ended, and the ready-made structures of student life vanished, accountability to myself became a challenge. I graduated from graduate school in May of 2016, and I started my first full-time teaching job that fall. My editor, Corinna Barsan, keeps me going with a sui generis combination of friendship and insight. My internal writing engine—located, I have to believe, somewhere inside my inner heart—keeps me going.

And for some reason, simply writing down the number of minutes I’ve written for the day keeps me on track. Like crossing out the passing days on a kitchen calendar, the visualization of time spent and words earned drives and inspires me. It lends gravity and significance to the art of writing and the writer’s life. Here’s to the new year!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Anthony Varallo's First Story

In the 46th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Anthony Varallo, author of Everyone Was There (Elixir Press), describes a writing breakthrough, of sorts.


I wrote the first story I would ever publish in 1996. I was in my second year at my MFA program, where I was writing sensitive and melancholy short stories about children who felt, well, sensitive and melancholy about a variety of things. Their parents, for example. Their vanishing childhood, for another. Also, winter. Or, more specifically, snow. Snow in winter. The children were always walking around in the snow in winter, feeling sensitive and melancholy. Or they were sitting at the window (it was snowing outside) thinking about the way the past was always alive in the present, which was thoughtful of them, since that was usually the theme of the story. The snow picked up outside the window whenever they did that.

Thematic: Sensitive and melancholy
During this time, I remember going to workshop and not feeling well. I don’t remember what was wrong with me, exactly, probably a headache or the start of a cold, but I do remember that I was having a hard time paying attention to what everyone was talking about. My mind began to wander. And, for reasons that I still don’t understand, I began to imagine a short story where the main character fails to show up for his or her own story. Like a lead actor neglecting to show up for the play. The story goes on—but the main character never appears. A concept that struck me as incredibly clever at the time. I think I even jotted a few notes in my notebook, on the sly: Character doesn’t show up for story. Story continues anyway. Problems, etc. 

I went home and wrote the story in a single weekend. The story, “Not Stuart,” didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, though: the main character, Phoebe, doesn’t show up for her story (she’s only pretending to be asleep) while her rude and horrible but lovable husband Stuart walks through what would have been Phoebe’s story, complete with embarrassing meta-asides from the writer (me) about how badly the characters are behaving. A concept story within a concept story. Sort of. Even though I’d lost sight of the original concept so soon—how had that happened? The story ended with the meta-writer throwing his hands up in disgust. This story went all wrong! I can’t fault the ending for a lack of honesty.

“Not Stuart” was not the story I’d set out to write, but I sent it out anyway on the hunch that it was short enough (five pages) and clear enough and maybe clever enough in places to grab a reader. But some minor miracle, an acceptance letter arrived in my mailbox a few months later, a letter I would later unfold and fold so many times that the crease split in half. My first published story! My first published story in a magazine someone might actually read. Or, more consolingly, my first published story in a magazine very, very few people might actually read.

When I look back at “Not Stuart,” I don’t regret publishing it, and I certainly don’t regret writing it. True, I don’t think it’s the best story I’ve ever written, but I don’t think it’s the worst, either. I remember writing it quickly, flush with the concept, certain of how clever it was all going to be. I remember putting words on the screen before I thought about them too much, or before I realized how heavy-handed the concept was. Before my doubts had a chance to get the best of me, too. I would give anything to write like that now.

Anyway, I’ve made my peace with “Not Stuart,” my first published story: I included it in my new collection, Everyone Was There, to keep the others company.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Emily Bieniek's New Year’s Resolution: To Devalue the Hero’s Journey

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Emily Bieniek, author of On the Great Land (Ward Street Press), compares her own reaction in a stressful situation to how characters behave in fiction.


The night I was mugged started like any other night; better than usual, actually, because my boss let me go home early before the holiday break. I was riding my bike home from campus, as I always did, when I saw two people cross the street about a block in front of me. They looked too small, and therefore too young, to be fellow college students, which was odd because it was already 10:30 at night. What’re those kids doing out here? I thought. 

I wish I could paint the moment that I knew the situation was not just weird, but dangerous. Both children stopped in the middle of the street, and each raised a long, thick rod over their shoulder. Silhouetted in the streetlight, they looked like batters at home plate.

It didn’t occur to me to turn around and bike away. As I drew closer, helplessly letting my wheels spin toward the pair, I realized that each kid was holding a golf club duct taped to a sturdier metal bar. I rolled slowly up to them and tried to sit up straighter on my seat.
Writer's task: Get real

“How can I help you?” I asked. I took my hands off my handlebars and held them up like the twin ends of a goal post. The children’s hoodies were drawn over their faces, but I could tell that they were both boys and that they were even younger than I had first thought - neither one was taller than my chest. If they hadn’t been carrying weapons, the situation might have been funny.

The bigger boy pushed the smaller boy in front of him. The littler boy staggered forward and froze, his reinforced golf club raised over his shoulder.

The older boy sighed. “Give me all your money!” he said, gesturing toward me with his own rod.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to reach into my backpack to get my wallet, okay?”

“Okay,” the older boy agreed.

I reached into my backpack and held out my wallet.

“You know what?” the boy said. “Just give me the whole thing.”

“No problem.” I took my backpack off and gave it to the smaller boy. Both children relaxed. “You guys okay?” I asked. “Can I go now?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s fine,” the older boy said.

“Thanks!”

I pedaled off. They hadn’t taken my bike or any of my jewelry, and I’d put my housekeys in my pocket before leaving work. My neighbor found my driver’s license on his lawn the next morning. I hadn’t been carrying my laptop. The kids’ net gain was an old backpack, eight dollars, and a flip phone.

Reflecting on that night, I’ve often wondered how I knew what to do and say to avoid getting beaten up. I had never been mugged before. Maybe the boys were never going to use those heavy golf clubs, but I think that the way that I instinctually sat up straighter and spoke calmly and politely impacted the outcome of the exchange.

People act on instinct in novel and complex social interactions all the time. In a story, it is the writer’s job to show the reader why their characters respond the way they do to new experiences, but in reality, people often don’t understand their own intuition. In a hero’s journey, the entire story can lead to on one pivotal moment for which the hero practices through a series of tests, but this is not how real life works; in reality, the pivotal moment is lost in the course of the hero’s life. In 2018, I hope to refine my ability to capture a character’s history, to convey that the character isn’t introspective enough to sufficiently to know why they are acting in a certain manner when faced with a new social challenge, and to demonstrate that although the story has climaxed, the character’s life will continue beyond the confines of the page.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Matthew Pitt on Making a Memorable Impression

In the 44th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Matthew Pitt, author of These Are Our Demands (Ferry Street Books), discusses learning how to nail an audition—and how it applies to his writing. 


In my life, I’ve been compared to a musical diva exactly once—and not because my singing was like buttah.

It happened during final callbacks for a play I really wanted to take part in. Actually, there was one lone part for performers with Y chromosomes (this was at Smith College), and the play itself wasn’t the thing: What I wanted was to work with the professor directing the production. I’d heard he ran rehearsals with an improvisational mindset; that each exercise and read-through was spirited, challenging; that you could count on discovery each day.

This professor gathered the lucky few who’d emerged from first auditions into a circle, gently describing what he hoped we’d aim toward that evening. Did we have questions? “I’ve got one, John,” I piped up (his name is John). I pulled a small, purple orb from my jacket. “Have you heard of this fruit? It’s a muscadine. My roommate from Georgia grows them in her yard and brought some back. It’s a form of grape, but what’s interesting is, you can’t simply chew it like a grape. The skin is too, well, tough. To eat one you have to pierce the skin, then suck the pulp and juice. It’s quite a process. And that pulp is delicious to us but poisonous to certain animals. Anyway, do you know it?”
Streisand: A portrait of the artist
as an ingenue

“No I don’t,” John shot back. “But I do know Barbra Streisand’s first audition. Do you know Barbra Streisand’s first audition?” I shook my head. “Let me show you Streisand’s first audition.”*

Wordlessly John moved to the wings, re-entered with an outsize wave (transforming our group into casting directors), and sauntered to stage center, where a folding chair awaited. While walking he pantomimed chewing invisible gum, mouth masticating extravagantly as if it belonged to a bovine. He peered at us quizzically, then himself, innocently (“Something the matter?” was the subtext). After giving a thumbs-up, he stretched the “gum” into a thin strand, rolled it, and plugged it under his chair. “Know why Barbara Streisand did that?” he asked. “Same reason you just told me that story. You know now I’ll never forget you.”

Of course, he was right about my story then and continues to be, in those I tell today. Whenever I flip through a notebook, scouting for material with potential, something like Streisand’s entrance insists when I have an actual, active story in my sights, rather than some dull scrap capable of singing a few pretty bars back and little else. The rare notion in my notebook that nails its audition is the bracing one. The perplexing one. Such notes take many forms: a character wearing a predicament like an illusionist’s straitjacket; a tone chiming out misaligned from its setting; dialogue pledging to tell a secret, or better still, withhold it at all costs. The common denominator is that they somehow both conjure and contest a familiar melody, moving into uncharted waters and pitch that cannot be circumscribed. You know, like divas do in their renditions. There is an uncouth, maybe even unprofessional, quality to such notes. But their depths are obvious from one glimpse. So too is the sense, equally entrancing and aggravating, that it will take reams of artistic patience, and indirect and delicate methods, to access the fruit under the skin. These are notes, in theatre and improv parlance, that aim not to please, but push ahead: “Yes, and…”

A postscript: Those callbacks were like no other auditions I’d been through before. They enlivened and exhilarated me. And…I didn’t get the part. But I did wind up with a future acting teacher in John, Tai chi coach, a man who brought me to Javanese puppetry, commedia dell’arte, and later, served on my creative thesis committee. John at first was hesitant about that last role, but I told him I wanted my fiction to improvise the same way he encouraged me to onstage. Awareness is awareness, no matter the form of art being enacted. After my thesis defense, on my way out the door, John entreated me to be sure and write to him.

“Of course I’ll write,” I offered breezily.

“No.” He gripped my wrist, a grip I still feel writing this sentence. “Not right away. Write me much later. Write me at the moment I would have thought you’d forgotten me.”

I’d say more, but this moment seems to have moved into endings, a topic for another time. So dear, John, consider this your latest letter. I haven’t, I hope, forgotten any of it.


*So far as I know, no recording exists of Streisand’s audition for viewing or confirming pleasure. But several accounts of it have been written, including one in a book by the late Michael Shurtleff. The consensus seems to be that the gum Streisand gnawed away at was imaginary.

Monday, December 18, 2017

What Cynthia Flood Has Learned

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Cynthia Flood, author of What Can You Do (Biblioasis), shares some wisdom.



In 2016 a story I wrote in the 1980s reappeared in an anthology. I hadn’t read it in years, felt that the work held up well. So long though! Six thousand words. A frame story, yes—but I like now to stay somewhere between 2500 and 4000. Past that I get nervous, fear rambling. Also, in that 1980s story, many of the academic narrator’s sentences run 35-45 words, some close to 70. Today I’d use way more varied sentence structures. Much less punctuation. Zero semicolons.

Back then I greatly admired Doris Lessing’s stories. Later, even more, William Trevor’s and Nadine Gordimer’s and Alice Munro’s. Now Lydia Davis, Colm Toibin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Carys Davies. . . . I’ve published a novel and five collections of short fiction. What have I learned?

Length has little to do with the difficulty of writing. Some long stories in What Can You Do reached good draft in a few days, while others took weeks, months to get that far. The shortest story went through thirteen drafts. My reading preferences have changed, too. When reading fiction now, especially novels, I often think This would be so much better at two-thirds the length! (Same, with movies). Trevor’s novels Felicia’s Journey and The Story of Lucy Gault should have been stories. They’re horribly/beautifully overweight.

When finishing a day’s work I make a To Do list, including any puzzles, problems to solve. I like to spend some days or a week on one story, then move to another. Having three or four going means I don’t get bored. Also, when I return from one fictional world to another, the staff in the back rooms of my head may have answers ready for me. I’ve learned to trust them, particularly with images.

To invent plot is way easier than to convey emotion without labeling it, to show an individual sensibility, one person living in the world. For that, imagery’s crucial. Alice Munro excellently chose the word magnet to express its power. While reading a draft, I may find some energy-laden words, not chosen with conscious design. How to use them? Not heavily, not to lay down clues for detectives. Perhaps suggest? A reader might notice—or not, yet enjoy going where those images gently lead.

After drafting some pages of a story, I used often to realize that stuff needed near the beginning must be hauled forward from pages 5 or 6 or 15. This frustrated me no end. Still, sometimes I waste hours trying to fix those pages in their present order, make them something they can’t be. I believe now that what gets written first = what the brain produced recently. To write a draft can require a descent through many pages to reach earlier deposits, perhaps laid down long before I thought of writing anything.

I try now to begin with bits, sentence fragments, unrelated paragraphs. No connective tissue. The aim: to get them down on paper. I have to fight the wish to complete, get organized. I don’t always win, but those scraps may resolve into fiction months later when I reread them in my notes-folder. There, felt-pen coding gives a slap of color to story ideas, so they stand out.

Having taught college English, I easily write the thesis-followed-by-evidence form. For years I rechecked story drafts to ensure they didn’t carry this essay-taint. Fictional design, however, makes its own demands. Although narrative paragraphs and sentences don’t argue, they must work to create a reality. Editing, I ask each one Why are you here? What do you contribute? Amazing, how often favorites serve little purpose.

Clean-up comes near the end. I love lists, but try to limit them. I kiss goodbye to most copula verbs, passive voice, pluperfects, adjective strings, series of coordinating clauses, expletive constructions, adverbs. These clog prose arteries. To use another image, the elaborate gears of English can mangle meaning and reduce a reader’s interest.

I set the story aside for some days, then follow a fellow writer’s surprising advice: Read it aloud from the end, sentence by sentence. Check the rhythms. Find unexpected repetition, omission, overlap.

Finally, I’ve learned to trust the liminal times in each twenty-four hours: just before sleep, just while waking. To be aware, then. Good material may emerge to meet—what is it in writers that generates fiction? I don’t know. I’m grateful, always. Writing: one of the best parts of my life.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

John Shea Gets Started

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, John Shea, author of Tales from Webster's (Livingston Press), discusses sources of inspiration that include a Robin Hood movie, the Hardy Boys, and riding the subway.


I grew up among books. My parents were readers, and the love of books certainly carried over to me and my younger sisters. In some ways, though, I owe my start in creative writing to the nuns of Marymount International School—and Errol Flynn. It was in third grade, I believe, while my family was living in Rome, that the school decided that one of the monthly assemblies would be given over to an airing of the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood. My earliest memory of writing outside of schoolwork was developing a short (very short) story involving Robin and his archenemy, personified by Basil Rathbone. At least as important was a drawing, my attempt to recreate their classic duel on a castle stairway. My materials: pencil and paper, cut into very small pages. That booklet no longer exists, but I’m confident I adhered to the film’s plot and had Robin win. It was only many years later, when I had heard about Mr. Flynn’s worldly adventures with many women, that I realized the irony of those chaste Catholic nuns showing us youngsters one of his movies.
Adventures of Robin Hood: Flynn, Rathbone face off

My next inspiration for writing was much humbler: The Hardy Boys detective series. I still have one or two of my booklets in that genre—indeed, I used the names Frank and Joe Hardy as well! Perhaps a little angel warned me because I then wrote a couple of stories about young brothers with different names. The next step, as a budding author, was to write little mysteries or adventure stories using the names of the boys in my class in Notre Dame International School. I figured that might be a way to attract an audience. And it was. We gradually developed a small circle of grade-school writers. On the other hand, you had to be careful: If I had one of my classmates humiliated or even knocked off, chances were that “John Shea” would come into some equivalent trouble in my friend’s story. I think it was in part a way to bolster ourselves in a foreign country, keeping our own language alive and well. At the same time, we could experience the vicarious thrills of adventures, mysteries, and science fiction.

Fortunately, although I continued to read and enjoy stories and novels that had little resemblance to my own life, I eventually began to write more contemporary, realistic pieces. While I was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, I got a terrible haircut in the student union, thanks to an Italian-American barber who may have been somewhat deranged. Among other things, he tried to persuade me that women in art always looked more beautiful when they were being killed. Once I had escaped from his scissors, I was able to turn the experience into a short story. My first story published by a national journal had its origins in an encounter with an attractive neighbor. At one point, bumping into her outside our apartments, I learned that she had recently returned from a vacation in Italy and had enjoyed meeting a handsome Italian man. The problem: He was writing her letters, in Italian, and she couldn’t read them. That brief meeting started me thinking: Why not shape a story in which a young man, unattached, volunteers to translate love letters written to his attractive neighbor. And what might happen once a pattern started? It was only when I was deep into the writing that I realized the story had a Cyrano de Bergerac angle.

I’ve found that even the prosaic, everyday world can sometimes provide a start for fiction. Having spent many years using the Philadelphia subways, I one day came up with a twist: What if a commuter gets stuck in one of those full-length turnstiles and the efforts of police and firemen to release him are not working? And if his secretary comes by with papers for him to read in the meantime?

My friends have noticed that I often have a little notebook and pen handy—when I was at work and when I’m at home or visiting. I’ve found it very useful to jot down ideas or even phrases and words: I never know when some random thought or some particular happening in the world will help inspire me to write. And when I’m at a loss for ideas, I find it useful to turn to these notebooks and hope something there will start me going.