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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 Owen King
O. Henry Recommended Story Author

The germ of the story has to do with an idea I had about the way that lovers develop their own language. I was especially thinking about the way that, in the bunker of a committed relationship, our codes and shorthand often have a defensive aspect--how we adopt a phrase that honestly hurt or disturbed us, and turn it to our own ends.

Say, for instance, that your sister-in-law describes your toddler as "actually quite clever." "Actually quite clever" swiftly becomes a code for describing anyone you think is a jerk; "The man at the garage who fixed the brakes on the Celica was actually quite clever." The pleasure of a private joke is further sweetened by the satisfaction of defusing your sister-in-law's assholery.

So, my main characters, Cheryl and Leonard, adopt the coup de grâce of a lunatic driver who crushes a pedestrian against a loading dock--"I just had to park the car, you see," he tells the police. The story follows the way their changing usage of this phrase mirrors certain developments in their marriage.

(author photo © Tanya Tribble)


From "Nothing Is in Bad Taste," an O. Henry Recommended Story

The next day Dr. Fliess asked her if she was okay. "Why?" she replied.

"You're standing in the middle of the hall with a cup of urine." The doctor's scarred face appeared particularly eroded in the sun falling through the plate glass window beside them. A bit later they went out together for a cigarette break and stood by the loading dock, smoking without talking.

Cheryl started to feel nervous. She asked him if he missed Vienna. Dr. Fliess said, "No," then added, "The feeling is mutual, I think." He didn't smile. Grabbing for the next thing that came to mind, she asked, "Do you remember the accident here?" She pointed to the cement wall of the dock. "Yes. The Loading Dock Man. Crushed by the car. Not good." The doctor made a slow wiping gesture with his hands. "Not good," Cheryl echoed. "Well?" Dr. Fliess looked at her. A little ash dribbled off the end of his cigarette and was scattered by the wind. "No thanks," she said after a moment. He nodded. When it was time to go inside, he said, "The driver of the car, he had just had enough. He was tired of going in circles and he had had enough. You don't want to get in the way of someone like that."

("Nothing Is in Bad Taste" by Owen King first appeared in Subtropics. Copyright © 2008 by Owen King. Excerpted by permission of the author.)

About the Author

Owen King is the author of We're All in This Together: A Novella and Stories and the co-editor (with John McNally) of Who Can Save Us Now? Brand New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Bellingham Review, The Boston Globe, One Story, Paste magazine, and Subtropics.

Writer's Desk

  • I'm simultaneously indulging my love for brick-thick fiction about dysfunctional families and bizzaro cinema in a novel I'm calling Reenactment.

  • Writer's Desk

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