Anchor Books The O. Henry Prize Stories
About the Series Widely regarded as the nation's most prestigious awards for short fiction
O. Henry Bio
Publishing History
Author Spotlight
Winners
Prize Jury
About the Editor
Notable Magazines
Index of Literary Magazines
Resources
Bookshelf
Contact Us
Contact Us




Prize Jury 2009
  • A. S. Byatt
  • Anthony Doerr
  • Tim O'Brien

  • Read about other jurors and their selected favorites.


    A.S. Byatt

    A. S. Byatt was born in 1936 in Sheffield, England. Her novels include the Booker Prize–winning Possession, The Biographer's Tale, and the quartet The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman. Byatt's story collections include Sugar and Other Stories, The Matisse Stories, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, Elementals, and Little Black Book of Stories. A. S. Byatt was appointed CBE in 1990 and DBE in 1999. She lives in London.

    Juror Favorite:
    A.S. Byatt on "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen" by Graham Joyce

    When I was young, we were told that a good short story conveyed a single impression, or a concentrated action—its essence was condensation and singleness. Stories I like don't necessarily conform to this model—they change direction, they surprise, they tell tales. It is true that in a short story every word must count—as it must in a poem. A novelist can get away with clumsy, or heavy, or skating passages, whereas a short story must make every word work, and each hold together with the others.

    I enjoyed reading this selection of stories and almost didn't want to single out a favorite. I reread them after some time, paying particular attention to those that had persisted in my memory. I admired the ferocious energy of "Wildwood" and the complex shifts of feeling and information in "Purple Bamboo Park"—those two are still complete inside my head. But the story that haunted me, whose rhythms run in my mind, is "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen."

    This is the tale of an ordinary soldier—a decent man, a responsible man, a professional man, who looks after his men and understands his work. It is told in a completely convincing first person, which begins at ease in a known world—combat in the Falklands, in Northern Ireland, in Bosnia. The main action takes place in the desert in the first Gulf War. The British infantry is mopping up—the narrator tells his men to respect "the enemy" and not to sneeringly call them "ragheads." They come across strangely shrunk bodies in strangely spread man–size shadows. There is a dust storm, maybe the result of aircraft and vehicle action, maybe natural—"a dark thing, like a live creature, part smoke, part sand."

    The tale moves into another kind of tale, always keeping the reasonable rhythm of the narrator's voice. He gets separated from his men. He hears a click, and realizes he is standing on an unexploded mine. He is visited by a butterfly—or maybe not—and an Arab in a red–and–white shemagh who has one blue eye and one horribly stitched up. He stands for hours on the mine, avoiding detonating it, and converses with the Arab.

    The very practical, precise military tale becomes uncanny. The Arab is clearly a djinn or afreet. He has a courteous sardonic voice that the narrator—always straight with himself and the world— faithfully records. The narrator says his interlocutor would have to be a genie to help him. The Arab tells the narrator, "If I am a djinn I can summon up a wind. But if I help you, you will never be rid of me."

    The narrator is blasted off his mine by friendly fire, and is found with the red-and-white cloth on his head.

    Things do not go well for him thereafter.


    The thing I admire most about this tale is the pace, the rhythm, the economy of incident and the accuracy of the words. Each sentence adds something to the world being described. It looks simple and easy, and is in fact controlled and crafted.

    I think the greatest English short–story writer is Kipling, and this story has things in common with one of his—the ability to mix genres seamlessly, the familiarity with both the daily and the strange. It is about events in the world of action and politics. There is a brief— but telling—passing mention of depleted uranium in among the shrunken corpses and strange atmosphere in the desert, but it is not dwelled on. The fate of the ex–soldier in the last section—slightly out of his mind, working in "security," insecure, briefly in prison, disintegrating—is true to many lives of ex–combatants, and has a perfectly down–to–earth explanation. But the djinn or afreet is real, too. The phrase "friendly fire" is a compressed figure of speech—the djinns were made by God from smokeless fire when he made the world. Friendly fire blasts the narrator off the mine. The supernatural story is indivisible from the realist one. The colloquial dialogue and commentary can contain intensely, sharply poetic passages, which are still part of the plain, believable voice that talks to us. And tries to retain its dignity and goes mad.



    Anthony Doerr

    Anthony Doerr is the author of a story collection, The Shell Collector, a novel, About Grace, and a memoir, Four Seasons in Rome. His work has won the Rome Prize, Barnes & Noble's Discover Prize, the New York Public Library's Young Lions Award, and inclusion in three previous O. Henry Prize Stories. In 2007, Granta put Doerr on its list of Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Boise, Idaho.

    Juror Favorite:
    Anthony Doerr on "Wildwood" by Junot Díaz

    It was the burning wig. The wig stayed with me all night and into the next day, like one of those afterimages flash–burned into the retinas, the lights we see even after our eyes are closed. "It went up in a flash," Lola writes, "like gasoline, like a stupid hope, and if I hadn't thrown it in the sink it would have taken my hand."

    Isn't that sentence a précis of Lola's entire struggle? The desperate prospect of her insurgency against the thermonuclear dominion of her mother?

    In that moment the combustible space between Lola and Belicia, between obedience and rebellion, between wig and burner, between (as Lola's abuela would say) the egg and the rock, ignites, and the story catches fire.

    "People saw me in my glasses and my hand–me–down clothes," writes Lola, "and could not have imagined what I was capable of."

    "You think you're someone," says her mother, "but you ain't nada."

    A dark, flummoxed, and deeply human heart beats beneath every sentence of "Wildwood." Its first sentence is a proclamation, almost a thesis statement. It then delivers its first fourteen paragraphs in second person and present tense, even though the rest of the story is in first person and past tense. It also wanders in time; shoehorns scenes into summary; dispenses with quotation marks; drizzles Spanish onto its English; strives toward a nearly unbelievable transformation (Lola runs the four hundred meters, Lola finally understands her mother); and the precipitating moment of the plot—"I ran off, dique, because of a boy"—does not occur until the reader is many pages in!

    These are all formal risks, all chances the author has taken willfully and carefully, and these are all decisions that, had I been writing this story, I would have screwed up. And yet don't the risks of the story feel natural, inherent, and intrinsic? Don't they involve you more deeply in the charged intensity of Lola's voice?

    I believe a good story writer is a generous story writer, generous in a sort of maniacal, foaming-at-the-mouth, Dr. Frankenstein way. A good story writer expends more than is expected—more than, perhaps, seems possible. She pours the full force of her intellect and energy into every paragraph, every dead end, every false start. And I believe the magic of a good short story comes from the compression of so many days of thought—a thousand afternoons of its writer thinking on things, wrestling with problems, noticing how light falls through leaves, or how a man wipes his glasses with a thumb and forefinger—compressing all those tens of thousands of hours into a space that can be experienced by a reader in an hour or so.

    If it works, a good short story can show us something thorny and sublime and fabulously complex beneath the text, something trembling behind the little black symbols on the white page, some truth we can only feebly grasp, as if we are peering up at stars through thin clouds.

    Writing stories is not, despite appearances, about spending lots of time with oneself. It's about learning to be able to look beyond the self, beyond the ego, to enter other lives and other worlds. It's about honing one's sense of empathy so that a story might bridge the gap between the personal and the communal.

    Doing this well has to do with generosity, I'm certain of it. And "Wildwood," which is about Lola and Belicia first and foremost, and then and only then about sexual and psychological abuse, racism, misunderstanding, adolescent rage, and wig-burning, is a wildly generous story.

    Here's Lola: "It's about that crazy feeling that started this whole mess, the bruja feeling that comes singing out of my bones, that takes hold of me the way blood seizes cotton."

    Here's Mary Shelley: "It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open."

    Story writers don't fumble through so many lonely hours for money or glory. They write for love, to figure things out, to practice going after the truth, to investigate hurt, guilt, complexity. They do it to bring people like Lola to life.

    You put in a thousand hours, you whittle away at a pillar of clay, and some rainy, electric midnight, when your candle is nearly burnt out, its eyes open.



    Tim O'Brien

    Tim O'Brien was born in Minnesota in 1946. His books include If I Die in the Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home; Going after Cacciato, which won the National Book Award; The Things They Carried; In the Lake of the Wood; and July, July. O'Brien's short stories have appeared in Esquire, Harper's Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, Granta, GQ, The New Yorker, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Short Stories of the Century. The Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts have awarded fellowships to O'Brien. He lives in Austin, Texas.

    Juror Favorite:
    Tim O'Brien on "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen" by Graham Joyce

    "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen" is a superb ghost story. It's also a survival story, a horror story, a bitterness story, a demon story, a class story, a trauma story, a miracle story, a tailspin story, and...yes, to be sure, a very wonderful story about war, though in exactly the same way and to exactly the same extent that "Bartleby" is a wonderful story about office life.

    There is so much to admire, and so much to love, about "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen" that I'm daunted by the task of doing justice to this beautifully shaped, immaculately pitched, and scarily convincing—as nightmares are convincing—short story. In the opening pages, we are carried along by the jaunty, no-nonsense voice of Seamus Todd, a worldly-wise color sergeant in the British infantry during the opening stages of the Gulf War. The voice alone is a literary accomplishment: tough, cynical, funny, wise, wiseass, courageous, down-to-earth, and rich with the lingo and flatly nuanced diction of a seasoned combat veteran. The first paragraph sets the tone: "I'm going to ask the Queen. IÕm going to tell her what I know and ask her what is true, and if she winks at me, well, there will be trouble. This is me, Seamus Todd, born in 1955, ordinary soldier of the Queen and very little else, and this is my testament, which is honest, true, and factual. If I haven't seen it with my own eyes, then I have left it out."

    In this cunning vein, Graham Joyce leads us to expect a realistic, even conventional tale about the terrors of modern desert combat— an account that is "honest, true, and factual." Twice in the first five paragraphs, Joyce reinforces our expectations by deftly injecting his prose with the numbing word "normal." For example: "War is normal. That's why it's a paid job.... You don't argue with the Queen. You form up. Move out. Press on." The events Seamus Todd sets out to recount, however, are anything but realistic or conventional, and his war experience is anything but normal. As a storytelling device, it is precisely the narrator's voice—so matter-of-fact, so wholly military, so ordinary—that gives heft and poignancy to an astonishing, even magical turn of events midway into the tale.

    In the midst of battle, isolated from his comrades by a sandstorm, Seamus Todd steps on a pressure-release land mine. If he lifts his foot, he dies. As Seamus considers his predicament, in what is already a suspenseful scene, a "ghost" suddenly makes its appearance, smack in the vast Iraqi desert, a ghost both as real and as unreal as the land mine beneath the trembling foot of Seamus Todd.

    Certain ontological questions arise, worthy of a color sergeant or a Queen: What exactly, or even inexactly, is a ghost? Is this one real? Can a ghost be unreal? (If so, what kind of pitiful ghost is that?) Oh, and how do you know when you're dead, or if you're dead, or if, years later, you're in fact still out there in the desert with your foot on an armed land mine? For that matter, how do you know it is years later? Minds malfunction, don't they? Clocks too? Is it all the hallucination of a corpse? (The surname Todd, remember, is only a consonant away from the German word Tod: death.) And what if the ghost, dressed as an Arab, offers to extract Seamus from this terrible mess, but with the proviso that "you will never be rid of me"? Is the offer credible? Is anything credible amid the upside-down, inside-out horrors of war? Is everything credible?

    These are not the sort of questions we would have expected from Seamus Todd, which makes them all the more profound and all the more moving. In any case, let's hope the Queen has answers, because Color Sergeant Seamus Todd is not the type to put up with regal (or presidential) waffling. He wants the fucking truth.

    Reading "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen," I'm reminded that a good many fine war stories reach into the world of magic and ghosts and gods and angels and avatars and the awakened dead. Start with The Iliad. Move on to Ambrose Bierce's "Chickamauga," or to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, or to Mark Twain's "The War Prayer," or to Ian McEwan's recent Atonement. To some temperaments, my own included, the systematic, sanctioned butchery of war does not always feel "real," and at times a so-called realistic story can seem to violate, or even demean, the essential unrealistic reality of the experience. Plenty of soldiers will testify that wars do not end with the signing of a peace treaty, that memory haunts just as a ghost might, and that in the middle of the night, decades after hostilities have ceased, a voice will murmur, "You will never be rid of me."