In January 2010, I received an email from my newly assigned editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, letting me know that out of 78 story collections, including many by authors I revered and studied (Mary Gaitskill, Antonya Nelson, Aleksander Hemon), Drift had been selected as one of three finalists for the 2009 Story Prize. The other finalists were Wells Towers for Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and Daniyal Mueenuddin for In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which was already a finalist for the National Book Award, and which would go on to become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The winner would receive $20,000 (more than the winner of the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, or the PEN/Faulkner Award) and the other finalists $5,000. There would be a reading and Q & A in New York, where the winner would be announced.
Short story lover and philanthropist Julie Lindsey teamed with Larry Dark, editor for many years of the O. Henry Prize Stories, to found the Story Prize in 2004 in an effort to champion story collections and their writers. The Story Prize is especially generous to writers: endlessly advocating for them, providing a forum and exposure on its blog for all writers that enter the prize, and ensuring that the two finalists are also awarded with a healthy portion of prize money. Only the PEN/Faulkner comes close, paying its four finalists $5,000 each (and its winner $15,000). The three-judge panel that selects the winner for the Story Prize is rotated each year with editors, writers, critics, teachers, booksellers, publishers, and, during my year, a librarian from a small town in Ohio.
To say that I was the underdog is an understatement. Drift had received one mainstream review from the San Francisco Chronicle, and its publication had coincided with massive layoffs at HMH, including that of my editor and advocate, Anjali Singh, who’d worked with me for over two years.
I’d hustled for Drift, never turning down a single promotional opportunity, seeking out more, and I’d finally reconciled myself to my limited power and the book’s small trajectory.
In what felt like a final gesture of abandonment, HMH had recently mailed me a box with 64 copies, as if to say, we have no use for these. Good luck.
The Story Prize was a vindication and a morale booster. Suddenly, HMH had to acknowledge me, agreeing to finance a round trip plane ticket and a hotel reservation for one night in New York for the award ceremony.
As a writer married to a painter, and with two young kids, we’d never had the money for a vacation, much less a vacation with airfare. No health care, no frills—bills, rent, groceries. I hadn’t been on a plane in over ten years.
A few weeks ago, the undergraduate students in my fiction class at UC Riverside asked me to bring in some of my rejections, so that they could see what they looked like. I brought an 8 by 10 envelope—stuffed with over 100 rejections—and my students passed them around, laughing at some of them, reading them aloud.
I believe in the admonition not to take literary prizes and acclaim too seriously. If you do, you’re obligated to believe the bad press and reviews and rejections as well. Besides, the attention tends to evaporate as quickly as it arrives, and out of nowhere. A writer friend of mine likens it to a wave: now this writer is riding the wave, but soon it crashes and ends, and then another rides the wave, and then another and another, and so on.
“The problem is that when you’re on the wave,” she says, “it’s hard to think of anything else.”
“Media fawning is addictive,” Lionel Shriver writes in The Guardian, “but not very nutritious… The world is teeming with hungry has-beens snuffling around for public acclaim with all the unseemly desperation of heroine addicts. Snort a few hits, just don’t start main-lining.”
I understand all this. It’s good advice. If I’d believed my rejections, I wouldn’t have continued writing. The good reviews are far more pleasurable than the bad reviews, but both provide a strange emotional kick that has no bearing on the actual lonely years-long production.
But in the week or so before the Story Prize announcement, when I didn’t know who the other finalist were, and when I was asked to sit with my news and not tell anyone, I would often break into tears of gratitude while driving alone in my car—to the post office, or to pick up my kids from school.
I understand the political angle to prizes and awards, but that only makes my inclusion in the Story Prize all the more creditable, because nobody was pulling strings for me. How did the writer with the near-bankrupt publisher and the invisible publicist make it to the finals? Sometimes (with a little luck) a book can get a new life, and an author can get a much-needed morale boost.
I learned many things from the Story Prize experience, including that when one travels, it’s important to have carry-on luggage with wheels.
My editor accompanied me to the luncheon at the Lotos Club in New York, where I sat across from Wells Tower, and between the reviewer Sam Sacks (guest of Daniyal), and the writer and wife of Larry Dark, Alice Elliott Dark. I was scared most of the time, and nervous, excited, and intimidated. In retrospect, I probably hugged people too freely, like an overeager Gomer Pyle.
I spent one night at a hotel courtesy of HMH, and the other two nights, my editor put me up at her apartment. I met my agents, one for the first time, and they took me to a celebratory dinner.
Wells and I had a few long conversations, and he was thoughtful, intelligent, funny, and kind. Reporters arrived before the ceremony, whisking off the better-known male authors for interviews, leaving me alone. There were other demeaning moments (if you want to know, ask me in private and I’ll talk), but as a writer, I’m accustomed to these. The ceremony itself was a blur, as was the cocktail party that followed. The next morning, I received a write-up in the New Yorker’s Book Bench:
Soon I was on a plane coming home. I remember knowing that the excitement was over when I was asked by my nine-year old son to please unplug our toilet.
I hadn’t expected to win the award, and when Daniyal’s name was called at the ceremony, there was no disappointment. In fact, relief swept through me. I hadn’t tripped or cried or otherwise embarrassed myself on stage, and now I wouldn’t have to go back on.
I was disappointed not to have that check for twenty grand though, knowing that it could have gone to bills, and a thousand other things for my family. But I had my check for five grand. Thank you, Story Prize.
Larry Dark and Julie Lindsey make it a point to honor the finalists as equals, and I was extremely grateful and honored in return.
After the ceremony, the audience hobnobbed, and I spotted A.M. Homes, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Colson Whitehead, though I didn’t talk to them.
I did talk to a maintenance worker. I’d met him earlier. He’d helped me with my microphone, and we’d discussed his job, our kids, the weather, and my trip to New York.
“Hey,” he said, giving me a small hug. He pulled back, smiled. “I got to tell you,” he said, “I was rooting for you.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “Don’t worry. I knew I wouldn’t win. I’m not disappointed.”
“No, really,” he said. “I was hoping it’d be you. No offence to the others, but I was really, really hoping you’d win.”