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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 Mary Beth Keane
O. Henry Recommended Story Author

I started thinking about the characters in "Believers" after hearing a news story on the radio about a man who was being released from prison. The reporter included the information that the man had a daughter, but no mention of her age or what their relationship was like before or after. The piece was mostly about rehabilitation programs in prison, but I started thinking of what it might be like for that daughter to have a father she'd long since written off come knocking on her door. Then I imagined her life as quite different from the one she'd had growing up, and how the pull from her father, her blood, and the pull of a new life--house, husband, dinner at 7 sharp every night--might work against one another.

I wrote this story at the same time I was working on my first novel, and I see now that they have very similar themes. This story, like my novel, is largely about how precarious the lives we create for ourselves can be, and how we buoy them up and protect them with small fibs or secrets locked away.

(author photo © Carina Romano)


From "Believers," an O. Henry Recommended Story

Rose watched him from the kitchen as she filled two mugs with coffee. She arranged them on a tray along with cream, sugar, spoons, napkins. She'd gone out early that morning, before Richard left for work, and picked up a few cinnamon buns. Did they have sweet things in prison? Richard had sat up with her all night, asking her to please guess what he might want from her, from them. Rose noticed the way he kept putting her on his side, and Barry on the other. "He's my father," Rose said at one point, closing the discussion. Now that she was looking at Barry again, up close this time, she saw that although he looked different there were more similarities than she'd noticed that day on the sidewalk. He had the same way of becoming the main focal point of the room. It was more than his appearance, his hair standing on end, the rough way he handled the cushions of the couch. Where Richard had a habit of blending in to Rose's peripheral vision, Barry had a way of drawing her eye back to him. She watched him cross his legs, left knee over right, and this one detail forced her to put down the coffee pot and hold on to the counter. As a child, she'd been fascinated by this odd contradiction in him, the splash of refinement. Despite filthy socks, two days' worth of stale booze emanating from his pores, there he'd go, crossing one leg over the other as if he were a British lord.

("Believers" by Mary Beth Keane first appeared in Antioch Review. Copyright © by Mary Beth Keane. Excerpted by permission of the author.)

About the Author

Mary Beth Keane was born in New York City and grew up in Pearl River, New York. She graduated from Barnard College in 1999, and from the University of Virginia's MFA program in 2005. Her first novel is The Walking People. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and son.

Writer's Desk

  • I'm currently trying to figure out how to balance writing with parenting. I'm beginning work on a new novel, and occasionally resurrecting stories I thought I'd abandoned for good.

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