1. The crowd at Tishman Auditorium. 2. Mr. Elusive, AKA Don DeLillo, with Larry Dark.
Last night in the Tishman Auditorium at The New School, Robert Polito, Director of the Graduate Writing Program, said The Story Prize has “accomplished something incredible … a sophisticated evaluation of the form.” Now in its eighth year, The Story Prize selects three finalists, hosts a reading and conversation, and, at the end of the night, awards one book $20,000 in cold hard cash, and $5,000 to each of the two other books. If that sounds pretty sweet it’s because it is. Dish editor Julia Jackson and I made our way to Tishman to see and hear Don Delillo (The Angel Esmerelda), Steven Millhauser (We Others), and Edith Perlman (Binocular Vision, winner of the 2011 Wallant Award and PEN/Malamud Award) read from their 2011 collections. Later, we went to the reception and ate spicy meatballs, tried to photograph Don DeLillo, and talked about Livejournal communities. Yes, I repeat: Livejournal communities.
1. Robert Polito, director of the MFA program at The New School. 2. Larry Dark, the director of The Story Prize and our emcee for the evening, said this year’s nominees were perhaps the most evenly matched in the prize’s history. 3. When Don DeLillo cracks jokes, he maintains his serious facial expression, which is something that makes me love him all the more.
In 2010, The Story Prize was all about debut: three debut authors with collections as their coming out party, while this year was all about accomplishment. All three authors have been steadily publishing work over the last 20-something years and, parallel with the alphabet, the authors have either never collected stories in book form or have only done so. The Angel Esmerelda is Delillo’s first collection of short fiction ever, Millhauser’s published several, and Pearlman has only ever written short stories, with 250 currently under her belt. According to Larry Dark, the director of the Story Prize and our host for the evening, this year’s prize not only celebrated “the short story form and stories in general” but also the length of these writers’ longevity. “Fiction [is] a reflection of the stories we project onto others as an antidote to our own loneliness,” Dark said of DeLillo’s work, though it is one of the truest statements about fiction, especially of shorts. In one sentence or another, all three echoed Dark’s sentiment: we need stories, and, more importantly, stories need us.
1. Steven Milhauser and his thingamajigs. 2. Edith Pearlman, in conversation with Larry Dark.
Don DeLillo should be no stranger to anyone who reads this blog. Delillo was much of the impetus to attend the Story Prize reading: Once upon a time, I was 16, depressed, blah blah, read White Noise and found out I could laugh at everything, even nuclear threats. Notorious for avoiding public appearances save for the occasional reading, DeLillo stepped up to the mic and was, as most non-public public people are, normal. DeLillo quickly thanked The Story Prize and read from the last story in the collection, “The Starveling.” “His name was Leo Zhelezniak. It took half a lifetime before he began to fit into the name. Did he think there was a resonance in the name, or a foreignness, a history, that he could never earn?” Mr. Zhelezniak spends his early mornings and afternoons watching movies alone, eventually imagining the life of another “enlistee,” who is our titular hero. “He thought she was a person who lived within herself, remote, elusive, whatever else.”
DeLillo and Dark conversed about the genesis of the collection, the difference between novels and short stories, and development as a writer. It was Delillo’s editor, Nan Graham, who had the idea for the collection, though Delillo was able to sit in the editor chair himself, weaving a theme of “desperation through the stories” and erase series of serial commas from the original forms of some stories. Delillo said by the late ’70s, he had “finally figured out how to do the job” of being a writer, and hasn’t changed much. The crowd laughed and Delillo smirked, my favorite moment of the evening. Dark had one question for all three writers: the difference between novel and short story. Delillo’s answer: “Narrative, theme, and characters suggest themselves in a novel. They occupy five years. 748 pages in book form. Short stories take about a month.”
Steven Millhauser is the author of twelve books of fiction, teaches at Skidmore in Saratoga Springs, and reads like a steady caramel drip. His selection, “Snowmen” from We Others, was one of the first stories Millhauser published, and was a rooftop view of a town that built snowmen with “visible veins … clocks with moving ice pendulums.” More elaborate designs appear, even “an entire park of snow, already abandoned by its makers.” And then snow gargoyles, trolls, and ogres, “protests against the solemnity and rigidity of our ordinary snowmen.” Another scene sees the narrator finding a snow nickel, replete with a relief of the buffalo. Millhauser’s story is a reminder of the immense freedom and room short stories afford writers and, like the snow trolls, how they are “direct expressions of shadowy inner selves.” Millhauser ended his reading with a “thingamajig about divorce,” which was part jig, part poem, part jaunt, part song, part prose. “He takes the week / She takes the weekend, He takes a miss / She takes a Mister, He takes it on the chin / She takes it lying down.” Millhauser was nearly eating the mic by the end, chanting the thingamajig in nearly one breath.
Dark gushed that it was “one of the best thingamjig’s [he’s] ever heard” before launching into the conversation. Millhauser chose the stories that surprised him by reading them as if he didn’t know them. I loved what he had to say about his development as a writer: “Is that it? 30 or 40 years of elaborating Dr. Seuss?” But more seriously: “Some I love that I have written them, some I carefully widow … Some have excellence I prefer not to understand.” Before the event, Julia and I ate burgers nearby, and we were talking about process. Much of that process involves discovery, but also letting that discovery remain a mystery, which Millhauser echoed. “It can go out of control, and I’m aware of it … I’m deliberately vague about what drives me as a writer.”
1. Jean Hartig & Melissa Faliveno, who both work at Poets & Writers. 2. Mark Labowskie, a Rutgers-Newark MFA student; Paula Neves, a Rutgers-Newark MFA in Poetry alumna; Krissy Sadler, a “working professional”; Britt Melewski, a poet; Jon Corcoran, a fiction writer; & Roberto F. Santiago, a poet and MFA candidate.
The final reader of the evening was the supremely charming Edith Pearlman, whose voice reads like warm cake, or, a cashmere blanket. She read the story “Mates” from Binocular Vision. Keith and Mitsko McGuire arrive into town with nothing, raise three children, and then suddenly vanish. The narrator is schoolteacher and taught the three McGuire kids, and is also a “maiden lady.” “The McGuires were probably glad to run into anybody,” the narrator says, “probably their backs too.” Alone all her life, our narrator imagines that the McGuires part ways after an entire life together, attesting her belief that all humans usually denied the most fundamental quality of existence: solitude. Pearlman’s voice quietly plows through, as does her story.
Pearlman was the only writer of the bunch to exclusively write short fiction, reusing characters and settings as a way to satisfy her craving to write something longer, and the only one of the bunch to exclusively publish on small presses. Her relationship with her publisher, Lookout Books, is “wonderful” – enough reason to publish with any press. Pearlman is a “30-page maximum” type of person, who was told as a child, “not to keep too much of anyone’s time … I guess I’ve kept to that.” And when pressed further for reasons why, Pearlman simply said she liked the form, and that she would keep writing them.
1. Ryan told me that asking DeLillo for a photo would be “ballsy,” which I interpreted as a dare, and I’ve never been able to resist a dare. (It’s a character flaw.) He, unsurprisingly, declined. But I managed to shake his hand and make him smile, so I consider the encounter to be a GREAT SUCCESS! 2. KILLING IT! Kate Greenspan, who is friends with Millhauser and also a professor in the English department at Skidmore; the winner himself; and Millhauser’s editor at Knopf, Robin Desser.
Julie Lindsay, founder of The Story Prize, approached the podium holding a silver trophy. “Tonight we not only celebrate these authors,” she said, “but also the short story form,” and called for Steven Millhauser to claim his prize. He admitted he didn’t want to do a New and Collected stories, and “found such an idea [to] be a tombstone.” Though through work on the book, he found that while most use short stories as a sort of “apprenticeship” before writing novels, it was “on the contrary. The novel was prep for the rigors of the short story form.” All stories, novel or flash, are indeed rigorous and implicate the writer in various challenges, though short fiction might be the most daunting of its shorter siblings. A completed narrative with characters that show the reader a slice of their life, but send echoes of the entirety. Dish congratulates Steven Millhauser on The Story Prize award and the ever-awesome finalists, Don DeLillo and Edith Pearlman.
–Julia Jackson [pictures and captions] is a fiction writer and the editor of Electric Dish. You can find her on the internet here.