Anthony Doerr Wins the 2010 Story Prize

Last night’s award event for The Story Prize couldn’t have been less of a sure thing, which made for an exciting contest and some very good readings and discussion. Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and Suzanne Rivecca’s Death Is Not an Option were strong contenders with clear, singular voices—if it’s possible to have been rooting for them all, I was.

Anthony Doerr was up first and gave a lively reading from his title story, yanking the auditorium full of listeners out of a wintry New York evening and throwing us into a rainy night in Capetown. Doerr, whose collection skirts the edge of speculative fiction, is unabashedly pro-nerdiness. His mother was a science teacher, and he believes that science and literature are both ways to examine why we’re here. “It’s still a human story even if an element is magical,” he asserted, and added that writing what you know isn’t necessarily the same as writing characters who are like you.

Yiyun Li started off by reading the opening passage from William Trevor’s novella Nights at the Alexandra, the inspiration for her lead story, “Kindness.” The two pieces did indeed “talk to each other,” as Li said; her homage was both heartfelt and skillfully done. One of her main motivations as an author, she explained, is to speak to other writers. She noted that what her characters have in common, different as they are, is a stubbornness in the face of the flow of China’s political current, and perhaps the accompanying wish for stillness. And while her work is contemporary, “in China,” she said, “you can never say when the story starts”—an event may have happened last year, but it also began a hundred years ago.

Suzanne Rivecca, reading from part two of “Very Special Victims,” reminded me why I like to hear authors read out loud. The story, “Uncle,” gained a new degree of gravitas and dark humor in her voice. Rivecca wanted, she said, to write the book about young women’s lives that she wished she could have read. She spoke of her interest in confronting thorny issues, of “mystery, demystification, and monsters,” and of her regard for Tatiana, the San Francisco Zoo Bengal tiger who fought back. Interestingly, she was the second woman I’ve heard in the past month describe the images she requested not appear on her book cover—the first was Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way, with an almost identical list: no legs from the knees down, no women gazing into middle distance, no gauzy dresses. (Both writers got what they wanted, which is encouraging.)

At the evening’s end, the three judges—bookseller Marie du Vaure, writer, critic and Granta editor John Freeman, and author Jayne Anne Phillips—awarded the seventh annual Story Prize to Anthony Doerr. He takes home $20,000 and a handsome engraved silver bowl; the runners up each receive $5,000. The rest of us get some insight on the work of three talented short fiction writers; Story Prize director Larry Dark says, “I’m looking for stories that deliver something I wasn’t looking for.” That’s not a bad prize either.

(Photo of Anthony Doerr by Shauna Doerr.)

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