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What does it mean to be included in the O. Henry Prize Stories? How does an author refine their art? We've given the authors of the winning and recommended stories free rein to share their thoughts on these questions and others, and the result is a rare treat.

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Comments Allison Alsup
"Old Houses"
2014 O. Henry Award-winning Author

Confusion at first. Surely the e-mail from the series editor was intended to sell me the anthology, not to include me in it. Then disbelief. Then hands to the chest, a tough time breathing followed by jumping up and down. A near hysterical phone call to the hubby—Get home RIGHT NOW. Uncontrolled smiling. More disbelief. Difficulty restraining myself taking a victory lap around the block and shouting, Who Dat? Even more difficulty not being able to tell my family and friends for months. Telling the dogs instead. Again and again. Weeks of silent, continuous elation from the greatest validation my writing has known. Receiving an O. Henry? As we say in New Orleans, It's all that AND a bag of chips.

(author photo © Allison Alsup)

About the Author

For me writing involves two contrary impulses: recklessness and control. Initially there has to be a willingness to take risks and stumble through tricky, questionable territory, and to grope for a story when there doesn't appear to be one. For instance, I wasn't sure that "Old Houses" would pan out to be more than lots of detailed phrases about architecture and setting; I also had to resist the easier, safer approach to catch the reader's attention by mentioning the murder from the start.

But no one, at least no one sane, wants to read endless recklessness. So once enough risks have been taken, the story and the reader require control until the piece defines its own form and aims, and the piece feels so certain of itself that it couldn't have been any other way. As Paul Harding, who won the Pulitzer for his first novel Tinkers, told a workshop I attended at Aspen Summer Words, fully achieved works create their own rules. They tell the reader how to read the story.

I am still an emerging writer, so I'm not sure that I've earned the right to give advice. But my thought is this: don't write the story you think you can. Write the story you don't think you can, the one that's a bit out of reach—even the story you're not sure is a story. Then write it until you have the story that needed to be found.

Author's Desk

I am currently at work on an historical literary novel based on the ill-fated, final expedition to China by plant explorer Frank Meyer (of Meyer Lemon fame). Dutch born Meyer worked for the U.S. Department of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction. He mysteriously drowned in the Yangtze River in 1918.

In his younger days, Meyer's passion for plants and new terrain was unquenchable; he quit jobs and walked without care. But by his fourth expedition, the loneliness of China had taken its emotional toll: without companion or wife and long separated from his family in Amsterdam, Meyer saw his chances at real human relationships and permanency dwindling. Meyer was an idealist; the War in Europe and China's poverty and political turmoil added to his disillusionment.

Eventually he was trapped in a remote colonial outpost where he was both unable to feed his need to explore and where he was witness to brutal violence between warring military factions. Meyer intrigues me as do all individuals whose extreme passions make them both exceptional and vulnerable‐exceptional because they are driven to accomplish what most would turn away from; vulnerable because they can't control these drives and often fall prey to their own compulsions.

About the Author

Allison Alsup grew up in Oakland, CA; in 2000, she and her husband purchased an decrepit, century-old cottage in New Orleans and spent the next year renovating the property. They have since redesigned and salvaged several old houses in the city. Their current house is a work in slow progress.

Allison teaches writing at Urban League College Track, an after school program for under-served New Orleans high school students motivated to attend college. In addition she is the co-author of a narrative bar guide, The French Quarter Drinking Companion and writes for the tourist site, Her stories have won several awards, including prizes from New Millennium Writings, Philadelphia Stories/Marguerite McGlinn and the Orlando Story Prize from A Room of Her Own Foundation. She is currently at work on an historical novel about the final expedition of plant explorer Frank Meyer.

Writer's Desk

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