Good Chemistry at The Story Prize

StoryTrio2014Wednesday night’s Story Prize event was, as always, entertaining and edifying. There’s something about the chemistry of getting three very disparate short story writers together to read their work and talk about it—the distillery that goes into short fiction makes for some good, concentrated conversation among its practitioners, and three is a reasonable number for all sorts of things. This year’s finalists—Andrea Barrett, for her collection Archangel, Rebecca Lee, for Bobcat and Other Stories, and George Saunders, for Tenth of December—didn’t disappoint.

This was my sixth Story Prize event, and I think it’s time to make my ancillary Best Hair of the Evening subdivision an official thing; I was negligent last year in not explicitly giving it to Dan Chaon. This year, unsurprisingly, it went to Andrea Barrett—so sue me, it’s my award. Aside from that, it was a very well-distributed playing field.

Barrett read first, from “The Ether of Space,” Archangel‘s second story. The collection’s loosely linked five stories revolve around the blooming of fin-de-siècle scientific knowledge, and as I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of years working with Charles Darwin and his cohort, the book hit a kind of anachronistically familiar series of thrilling and despairing notes for me. She discussed the process of weaving the stories together, once she’d ascertained that they were all pieces of a whole, and sympathized with her characters and their visions, no matter how ultimately off the mark—the “sense of great passion and love we will have for a theory that turns out to be completely wrong.”

Rebecca Lee then read from “Bobcat,” the knockout title story of her book that was fiercely funny and hugely discomforting at the same time. Lee’s deadpan reading ratcheted up the dark humor, and her admission that it took six years to write went a long way toward explaining how all the small parts fit together so seamlessly. She talked a bit how important her stories’ far-flung settings were to her, and admitted, “I like writing dinner parties … I guess I grew up reading The Dead.” And it’s true; people sit down to eat in Lee’s stories and things happen, not all of them good but every one of them extremely palatable.

“Tenth of December,” as read out loud, turned out to be a more compassionate story than I’d first thought, less cynical. Saunders, who had also been a finalist for The Story Prize in 2006, for In Persuasion Nation, managed to range far and wide on the subject of writing without seeming to ramble. He talked about his lack of any real desire to write a novel (“No, YOU write a novel”), of middle age manifesting in not killing off quite so many characters, and the art of letting the story take him where it wants—“that moment when the implicit condescension between you and the reader goes away.”

The second time must have been a charm for Saunders, and clearly Tenth of December had its own charms beyond his persistence; he took the Story Prize for 2013. But having only three finalists means that everyone is a star, really—or maybe, more seasonally appropriate this year, a snowflake, with no two ever alike. Congratulations to George Saunders, and Andrea Barrett and Rebecca Lee as well, and thanks—as ever—to the prize’s host Larry Dark, for bringing them together.

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