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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 Manuel Muñoz
PEN/O. Henry Award-winning Author

I'm writing this a few days after the Academy Awards, struck once again by how acceptance speeches were rarely simple and gracious thanks for the recognition. As usual, there was the gesture of congratulating the other nominees or the urge to make a political statement or a tip of the hat to a career-nudger and so forth, but only the rare glimmer of truly felt thanks.

I don't know why prizes befuddle so many people. Maybe some feel they deserved them all along. Me, I'm still beside myself that my story was even found. When Horace Engdahl, the Nobel Prize literature secretary, dismissed the whole of American letters last fall by claiming that we don't "participate in the big dialogue of literature," I'm not sure that he had a clue about just how many American journals produce extraordinary amounts of strong work. That's a lot of stories to fail as a big dialogue, Horace!

I'm positive there was a Mickey Rourke of a story out there that should have taken my place in the anthology. That's my way of saying, "It's an honor," and hoping our ironic times don't belittle my sincerity.

(author photo © Helena María Viramontes)

Writing Tips

Living in New York taught me to be mindful of time because of the city's distractions, so I don't start a story until I'm sure where it's going. I tend to carry lines or sometimes small paragraphs in my head before I put them down.

I try to learn as much as I can from my poet friends. I read my stories aloud. Sound helps me refine. I try to say a sentence a couple of different ways, as if I were preparing for a reading, checking if I can hear or build in rhythms, pauses, or allusions. It can be unnerving to hear myself sometimes, alone in my apartment, and I'm already soft-spoken and don't like the sound of my voice. But if I can't literally give voice to the page, then I go right back to work.

I end up writing slowly because of this practice, but that's okay. It's made me slow down when I read books. I savor them now.

About the Author

Manuel Muñoz was born in Dinuba, California, in 1972. He graduated from Harvard, the first in his family to receive a college degree, and later received his MFA from Cornell. He is the author of two short-story collections, Zigzagger and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. He was a winner of the Whiting Writers' Award. Muñoz worked for several years in the managing editorial department of Grand Central Publishing in New York City before moving to Tucson, where he is now an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona.

Writer's Desk

  • I'm finishing last edits on my yet-to-be-titled first novel. It's set in 1959 Bakersfield, California, and involves a young woman who has ambitions to be a country singer. She falls in with a handsome bartender, and we know what happens when handsome bartenders get involved in anything. Also making appearances are a lonely diner waitress, a famous film director, and a nervous actress, who has no idea that the part she's filming in Bakersfield will go on to be a film classic. My apologies for being so coy, but the novel is so far away from the "immigrant novel" that a few New York editors professed to be expecting that my choice of subject still unnerves me. Am I doing the right thing when American lit expects only so much from Latino writers? At the core of it is how artwhether it's dreaming of stardom or Ricky Nelson songs or Hollywood offsite shoots—infiltrates even places like California's Central Valley. And it's those small places that people always think don't matter at all, which is why art's presence is so exhilarating and malicious and redemptive.

  • Writer's Desk

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