Courtney Zoffness won the 2018 Sunday Times Short Story Award with the story Peanuts Aren’t Nuts. The American writer is based in Brooklyn, New York, and directs the Creative Writing Program at Drew University in New Jersey. Here, she discusses with us how winning the Award has affected her writing, her inspirations and future writing plans.
It has now been 9 months since you won the 2018 Sunday Times Short Story Award for your story Peanuts Aren’t Nuts. What have you been doing since then?
Basking in gratitude! Also, of course, writing (and teaching and mothering). I wear both fiction and nonfiction hats, and was two-thirds of the way through a book of lyric essays when I won the Short Story Award. The prize imbued me with more confidence and motivation to finish that manuscript, which I nearly have. The book explores life paths I’ve imagined, rejected, feared, and dodged.
The prize imbued me with more confidence and motivation
Whilst you were developing as a writer, were there any authors who particularly supported you?
I think the development of a writer is lifelong; I was and continue to be supported by books that use beautiful language to create memorable characters. Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Vladimir Nabokov were early favorites for their lush, immersive prose. In graduate school, I discovered and took pleasure in the wit and humor in Lorrie Moore’s work, the richness of Denis Johnson’s, and the sweeping genius of Alice Munro. I continue to teach stories by all of these authors to my undergraduates, alongside contemporary favorites.
How much do contemporary conversations, such as the #MeToo movement, influence your work? Peanuts Aren’t Nuts, for instance, explores ambiguities of power relationships and abuse. Do you think you draw inspiration more from personal experiences or the outside world?
“Peanuts Aren’t Nuts” took many years to coalesce, and I finally finished it in 2016, before the #MeToo movement took hold—though, of course, the issues the movement illuminates are age-old. My work is influenced by both personal experience and the outside world, elements that I see as intertwined. I think everything from the political climate to popular culture informs how we think and behave, even if unconsciously.
I imagined histories and futures for several characters while writing it, and though I see the short story as complete, I have a lot more to say.
What are your current writing plans?
As I spent this past year writing nonfiction, I’m itchy to return to fiction. For a while—since before I entered the contest—I was taking notes on a “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts” expansion. I imagined histories and futures for several characters while writing it, and though I see the short story as complete, I have a lot more to say. This project’s still in a tender stage, so I can’t speak to what shape the book will take, but I hope to spend 2019 figuring that out. I have several other short stories in the hopper, too.
Which current writers, stories or story collections would you most highly recommend?
I will always recommend Justin Torres’s We the Animals, a slim book that packs a profound punch. Another recent favorite is Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You. I admire many contemporary short fiction writers—there’s brilliant work being done in the field—but here are a few stand-outs: Claire Vaye Watkins, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Jamel Brinkley. Also, the posthumous work of Lucia Berlin.