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Continuing Our Tenth Anniversary Countdown: the American Influence

On Friday we celebrated Emma Cline’s place on the shortlist. If Emma was to win the Award this year she would become the third American woman – the seventh American in total – to take the prize. Inspired by her status as this year’s sole American in the final, we will now take a look at the unrivalled contribution her fellow countrymen have made throughout the history of the prize.

This year's shortlist has seen Irish writers seize the crown from the Americans, who dominated the shortlist last year with an all American – and exclusively female - line-up.

That performance in 2018 echoes the general trend of writers from the U.S. throughout the Award’s history. To date, six of our previous winners have come from America: Anthony Doerr in 2011, Juno Diaz in 2013, Adam Johnson in 2014, Yiyun Li in 2015, Bret Anthony Johnston in 2017 and Courtney Zoffness in 2018. Furthermore, there has never been a shortlist without at least one representative from the United States as part of it.

Emma Cline can therefore proudly take her place as the latest writer to hail from a culture that has provided a rich and varied influence on the prize. And it is worth noting that the writers who have shaped it are not just the entrants: we have been honoured to have had Lionel Shriver judge for us in 2013, and Sarah Churchwell this year.

To mark the integral part of the award’s ten years that American writers have played, and Emma’s place on the shortlist this year, we are delighted to share with you below our new interview with Bret Anthony Johnston, winner of the prize in 2017.

Laura Mell, Award Administrator

Interview with 2017 Winner, Bret Anthony Johnston:

Bret Anthony Johnston won the 2017 Short Story Award for his story Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses. He is author of the novel Remember Me Like This and the collection Corpus Christi. We caught up with him to discuss his writing, short stories and the effect of winning the award on his career.

How has winning the Award 2017 impacted on your career? Has it impacted on your writing practice?

A number of very nice and flattering things have happened as a result of the Award, but what has meant the most to me is the reception from the readers, many of whom had no reason to know about the story before it won. I’ve received notes from writers whom I admire, countless kind readers, and a hard-copy letter from the President of Harvard University where I was teaching at the time. At this moment in history, a hard-copy of anything makes its own impact.

Whilst you were developing as a writer where there any publications or authors which particularly supported you?

Well, I hope I’m still developing as a writer. I hope I never stop developing.

There were more writers than publications that supported me. I wrote my first-ever story for Vanessa Jackson, a poet/story writer/novelist who hails from England, and my only goal was to impress her. To this day, I’m still trying to impress her. Steven Bauer, Ethan Canin, Marilynne Robinson, Jorie Graham, Chris Offutt, and Frank Conroy were also incredibly supportive of my work. Upon the publication of my first collection, the peerless novelist David Mitchell also showed extraordinary kindness.

Your winning story Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses has such a strong sense of place - is this something that you particularly try to depict, and do you believe that this is something the short story lends itself well to?

Thank you. I’m endlessly curious about place, how it forms and informs the lives of its characters, how it becomes a dynamic character unto itself. I don’t set out trying to depict place, but rather I’m incapable of cleaving it from the cast and action of a story. In certain ways, for me, place is the story. If a story can happen somewhere else, I feel less invested as a reader and a writer. That said, the more particular and specific the setting of a story is, the broader and more universal is its reach.

If stories lend themselves to depictions of place, I would say it’s because their lifeblood is detail. Like poetry, the short story works by suggestion. Rather than indulging in pages of description and digression—which indulgence often proves to be the greatest pleasure of reading and writing a novel—a short story writer finds the few revelatory details that will evoke the whole.

How do characters create themselves on your head? Do they appear fully formed or are they fleshed out through the writing process?

Without exception, the characters in my stories introduce themselves to me with an action. It doesn’t have to be especially significant or dramatic, but they’re always doing something. From there, I tend to work forwards or backwards; that initial action, if it stays in the story, serves as a beginning or end. I write in whatever direction feels most mysterious, whatever direction offers the most to learn and discover. So, in a way, the characters do arrive fully formed; it’s akin to meeting a stranger who’s lived a full life up until that encounter. The writing process is my clumsy way of getting to know them.

If memory serves, the origin of Atlee was him talking with his grown daughter on the porch of a retirement home. They were disagreeing about a piece of their shared history, the day when she came to own her first pony. I didn’t know whose memory was most accurate, so I wrote the story to find out.

Do you have any favourite short story outlets that you read?

There are magazines that publish reliably great stories such as Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, and Ecotone. I’ve admired stories in Granta recently. The Best American Short Stories anthology and NPR’s Selected Shorts always offer interesting and inspiring work.

In the 18 months since you won the Award, what have you been working on? What are your current writing plans?

I’ve finished another collection of short stories, and I’m working on a novel. The problem with the novel is I keep coming up with story ideas.

How do you approach a new writing project?

With great scepticism and trepidation!

I suppose that sounds like a joke, but I’m quite serious. I’ve never been one of those writers who trusts inspiration. When I get an idea for a story or book, I don’t rush to scribble it down or start writing right away. I ignore it. I give myself every opportunity to forget it, and I give the idea every opportunity to reveal itself as flawed, unoriginal, or unworthy of a reader’s attention. This phase will last for months, sometimes years. I’m a very, very slow writer, so I think I’m testing every idea’s durability. Is it going to continue to hold my interest after that first exciting rush? Will it sustain the weight and time the writing process is going to exert upon it? If the idea endures, if it continues to insist itself, then I’ll surrender.

Which current writers, stories or story collections would you most highly recommend?

Amy Hempel’s latest collection Sing To It is a masterpiece. Every story in the book is transcendent.

Is there a particular American relationship with the short story? Indeed, is there a particularly ‘American’ type of short story?

America has, to a degree, long embraced the short story. With Poe and Hawthorne, with Carver and Cheever and Paley, with Lorrie Moore and Edward P. Jones and Shirley Jackson and the aforementioned Amy Hempel, with the heydays of the Saturday Evening Post and Esquire, America has certainly had a hand in shaping the short form. But when you factor in William Trevor and Mavis Gallant, Tolstoy and Joyce, Cortazar and Murakami and Frank O’Connor—and I haven’t even mentioned the titans of Chekhov and Alice Munro—it becomes clear that America is hardly alone. One of the many triumphs of the short story is how well it travels, how a great story knows no borders.

What is your favourite short story?

What an impossible question! There are too many to list!

Here’s what I can say: I know exactly where I was—in a farmhouse outside of Oxford, Ohio—when I first read A Father’s Story by Andre Dubus. I’d just started to become familiar with his terrific work, so when I happened upon one of his stories that I hadn’t yet read, I was thrilled. I loved the narrator’s voice, the rich and nuanced prose, the unique and moving pressure that Dubus rained down on the characters. But it was the final move of the story that shook me, the surprise and beauty of it. I remember thinking, maybe for the first time in my life as a writer, something along the lines of “I didn’t know that was allowed.” The story offered me an immediate and profound sense of possibility, of how incredibly liberating the short form could be, how much it could hold and how far it could reach. I felt as though I’d been given a priceless gift—by the author, by the English language, by the universe—and all these years later, it still means the world to me.

Interview by David Ward


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