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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 Lauren Groff
O. Henry Recommended Story Author

This story was the end-product of an explosive experiment combining three different things I'd been thinking about for some time: the 1918 Influenza epidemic, which I'd first read about in Ellen Bryant Voight's incredible book of poems, Kyrie; the real (though fictionalized) life of Olympic gold medalist Ethelda Bleibtrey; and the very beautiful, very sad medieval love story of Abelard and Heloise. I was in the MFA program in Fiction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at that time, and it was brutally cold outside, and I thought with longing of swimming. As swimming is the most sensual of sports, that thought led to the idea of a love-story. Sometimes stories take forever to write, but this one was almost magically implanted in my head, and all it took was putting pen to paper. Which, when writing is a struggle, I look at with a mixture of awe and massive confusion.

I was very new to publishing, and had no idea what it took to get into the glossies--had I realized, I probably would have started more modestly. Instead, I sent the story directly to The Atlantic, where C. Michael Curtis was wonderfully kind to pull it from the slush pile. That was a few months after they had stopped publishing fiction in their regular issues, so I had to wait a year to see the story come out. I don't think I've ever been so superstitious about anything in my life--I knocked wood, skirted black cats, crossed my fingers for a whole year.

(author photo © Lucy Schaeffer)


From "L. DeBard and Aliette," an O. Henry Recommended Story

The girl's name is Aliette Huber. She is sixteen, and she is a schoolgirl, or was before her illness. She won her school's honors for French, Composition, Rhetoric, and Recitation for three years in a row. She can read a poem once and recite it perfectly from memory years later. Before the polio, she was a fine horsewoman, a beautiful archer, the lightest dancer of any of the girls at the Children's Balls society had delighted in staging in the heady days before the war. Her mother died when she was three, and her father is distantly doting.

She knows L. from his book of poetry, which she read when she was recuperating from her illness. She feels she knows him so intimately that now, freezing on the dock, she is startled and near tears: she has just realized that, to him, she is a stranger.

And so, Aliette does something drastic: she unveils her legs. They are small, wrinkled sticks, nearly useless. She wears a Scottish wool blanket over her lap, sinfully thick. L. thinks of his this sheet and the dirty greatcoat he sleeps under, and envies her the blanket. Her skirt is short and her stockings silk. L. doesn't gasp when he sees her legs, her kneecaps like dinner rolls skewered with willow switches. He just looks up at Aliette's face, and suddenly sees that her lips are set in a perfect heart, purple with cold.

After that, the swim lessons are easily arranged. When they leave--the brunette pushing the wheelchair over the boards of the docks, her trim hips swishing--their departure thrums in L.'s heels. The wind picks up even more, and the waves make impatient sounds on the dock. L. dresses. His last nickel rolls from the pocket of his jacket as he slides it on over his yellowed shirt. The coin flashes in the water and glints, falling.

("L. DeBard and Aliette" was first published in The Atlantic Monthly. Copyright © 2007 by Lauren Groff. Excerpted by permission of the author.)

About the Author

Lauren Groff was born in 1978 and graduated from Amherst College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and Five Points as well as in the anthologies Best American Short Stories 2007, Pushcart Prize XXXII, and Best New American Voices 2008. She was awarded the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville, and her first novel is The Monsters of Templeton. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.

Writer's Desk

  • I'm finishing a book of stories called Delicate Edible Birds, and working on a new novel.

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