Anchor Books The O. Henry Prize Stories
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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 John Burnside
O. Henry Award-winning Author

To write in any form or genre is to enter a tradition, and the O. Henry marks what, for me, is the best of the short story tradition. To be included among this year's PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories is a huge honor, but it is also a humbling reminder of the greatness of that tradition and of the demands of a form that, in the hands of its best practitioners, combines a subtle mix of lyricism, economy, and a scrupulous attention to nuance that renews our sense of the complexity of human emotion and the ever-deepening mystery of daily life.

(author photo © Lucas Burnside)

Writing Tips

I have spent most of my writing life working in other forms (poetry, for many years, and more recently the novel and life-writing), and, though I wrote stories some years ago, I have only recently returned to the form. My method is rather simply stated: I do not write anything down for as long as I can avoid doing so, allowing the characters to form—organically, as it were—and to decide for themselves where they live, how they are together, and where they want to go. Once I do start to write, though, I write quickly, to get something down whole, and so set myself up for the rewriting process. What I am pursuing, at that stage, is a proper balance between the story's necessary economies and a somewhat lyrical impulse that seems native to my temperament. I do admire great rigor in the short story, but it isn't in my nature to aim for the very pared-down or the severe. I don't want fat, as such, but I don't want spikiness either and rewriting is mostly concerned with finding that balance, so the characters are defined by their own natures rather than by my understanding or by the lineaments—and in my hands, probably the limits—of a given literary approach.

About the Author

John Burnside was born in 1955 in Dunfermline. He is the author of six novels, of which the most recent are The Devil's Footprints and Glister, as well as a memoir, A Lie About My Father, and a collection of short stories, Burning Elvis. He lives in rural Fife, Scotland.

Writer's Desk

  • I have just cleared my desk, having finished a second volume of memoir (in the loosest possible usage of that term) and put the finishing touches to a book of poems, called The Hunt in the Forest. As is often the case, I have two stories on simmer, but the next big project is a novel set on the island of Kvaloya, in the Arctic Circle. It is told from the point of view of a curious, detached, solitary&but not at all lonely&young woman who spies on her neighbors and gradually emerges from what she calls her "invisibility" when several of her classmates and a neighbor drown, and she is forced to confront the idea that a "hulder" (one of those troll-like creatures who appear to unsuspecting young men as beautiful women) may be at large in the community.

  • Writer's Desk

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