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Introducing our longlisted authors: Daniel O'Malley

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Daniel O'Malley

Meet the authors longlisted for the 2020 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award

Introducing our longlisted authors: Daniel O'Malley

Daniel J O’Malley is an American writer whose fiction has appeared in Granta, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, and other publications. His story Bridge was included in 2016’s Best American Short Stories anthology and broadcast on the NPR programme Selected Shorts. He grew up in Missouri and currently lives in West Virginia with his wife, the poet Mary Beth Ferda, and their two children. He teaches in the English Department at Marshall University.

He is longlisted for the story: Simon

A childless couple takes in a mysterious, neglected young boy who emerges from the woods and into their garden one afternoon. Although they bring him step-by-step into their home and into their lives, they find that they know no more about him. This is a story both tender and disquieting about responsibility, boundaries and love.

What inspired you to write the story? Is it drawn from personal experience?

I tried for a few years, off and on, to write a story about the boy who appears in Simon. I had a pretty clear sense of him, I thought, a few details that felt right, several sentences that I had more or less memorised, but I couldn’t get past the beginning. I would try writing more, but the happenings kept feeling false. These attempts were always in third-person, and then somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that this boy didn’t have to be the beginning, he could make his way into someone else’s story. At that point, another character, a first-person narrator, began to appear and feel real to me, and then a place came into focus, and with the change in point of view, the story came together fairly quickly. All the questions and uncertainties that I’d had about Simon could now become the narrator’s concerns. I didn’t have to know any more about this boy than he did.

How does writing short stories differ from writing full-length fiction, and what do you enjoy about writing in the genre?

Most of what I do is short stories. In my experience, a big difference between trying to write a story and trying to write something longer is that, in a story, you at least have the illusion that you might find the ending in a reasonable amount of time. For me, a story still usually takes a while, but the illusion is real. With a story, I appreciate the way you can kind of lean back and keep the whole thing in view. It feels more like an object that way.

How do you write? Longhand or typed? Why does your chosen method work for you?

Usually, I begin longhand. I like the mindset I have with a pen and paper much more than what I experience at a computer. I like the pace. I like the way words have to keep re-asserting themselves from one draft to the next when I rewrite by hand. Even when I do get around to typing, I often type drafts over and over again from the beginning rather than tinker inside of a file.

Which short story collection by another author would you recommend?

The writer I recommend most frequently is Joy Williams. Each of her collections is a marvel. Same for the novels. I keep copies of The Visiting Privilege in various rooms.

What’s your favourite short story of all time? Who would you cast to read it?

Choosing a favourite is difficult enough. A favourite of all time is just impossible. I’ll say Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. I’ve been fairly worshipful since it came out in 2014. There’s something about the way the sections come together that defies explanation. Each piece is satisfying on its own, but the combination of the pieces, and the way the story reveals itself moment by moment – the whole thing feels like a miracle. At one point the narrator says, “I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you…” I think Bill Murray could read it well. He could honour the humour of it, and the melancholy, and keep a straight face. He could properly marvel at the Mystery, which I think a lot of adults can’t let themselves do. John Hawkes would be great, too.

Who would you cast to read the story you have entered?

Patti Smith, I think. Or Will Oldham.

What are you reading now?

Michael Hofmann’s new translation of Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, and Kathryn Scanlan’s collection of stories The Dominant Animal.

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