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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 Lori Ostlund
"Bed Death"
2011 PEN/O. Henry Award-winning Author

My first understanding of the contemporary literary world (that is, the world of writers who were alive and writing and being published) came from two anthologies: The O. Henry Prize Stories and Best American Short Stories. I have both series lined up chronologically in my study, going back to the '80s, which is when I was in college and first starting to think about writing. It was from them that I learned about literary journals and developed my love of the short story—as both a reader and a writer—and so inclusion in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories is particularly thrilling because it reminds me of all that I didn't know in my twenties but wanted to know. That the story chosen was "Bed Death" is particularly gratifying because I struggled for so many years with this story, through many drafts, and thus developed a notion of it as one of my more challenging stories.

(author photo © Dennis Hearne)

Writing Tips

In 1996, my partner and I moved to Malaysia, where we taught business communications at a college very much like the one in the story. There was a bed, for example, behind glass in the lobby, and we looked at an apartment in Nine-Story Building, which, at least then, was the tallest building in our town and was thus, sadly, attractive to jumpers. We found an apartment elsewhere, but during our stay, several people committed suicide by jumping from the building's roof, and so we became familiar with the building through newspaper accounts and public lore as well as through a friend who lived in the building. What intrigued me was the way that people sometimes spoke of the jumpers, with a detachment that allowed them to view the suicides as an irritation, an occurrence whose salient feature was its ability to make less pleasant the lives of those who lived in the complex. Yet, on another level, I understood how and why the tenants came to feel this way, and this understanding—of the way that others' pain or suffering can become a minor and curious backdrop for the drama of our own lives—became the framework of my story.

Like the couple in the story, we stayed at a seedy hotel where the smoke alarms beeped every few minutes. After trying to explain that the batteries needed to be changed, to no avail, we spent an afternoon trying to buy replacement batteries&mdashalso to no avail. Finally, we were moved to the only beep-free room&mdashoutside of which lay a wounded, moaning man on a chaise lounge. We never learned what had happened to him, which is ultimately for the best when it comes to writing fiction. It is very easy to get caught in the trap of writing down just what really happened, so I'm happiest when I know only an intriguing snippet. I have a rule for myself when I'm writing something rooted in a real event: I force myself to deviate from fact in some crucial way very early on to break out of the confines of reality, to break that spell.

This story evolved slowly, over the course of ten years, beginning with images and scenes that I wrote down but did not necessarily regard as parts of the same story. Usually, especially with my first-person narrators, the narrator 'arrives' first and starts telling the story, but this time the narrator came along later, a narrator who is nothing like me except for a shared navel phobia. As I recall, that narrator appeared one morning as I was reading through all these bits and pieces, wondering whether they would ever amount to anything; she began commenting on them, weaving these disparate parts together, and through her seemingly insightful and often cynical analysis, I began to see how ill-equipped she was for the world, how fragile her relationship was, and how incapable she was of extending compassion to another lost soul.

About the Author

Lori Ostlund was born in 1965 in a town of 411 people in Minnesota. Her first collection of stories, The Bigness of the World, received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, and the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, and was a Lambda finalist. The Story Prize named it a 2009 Notable Book. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, and The Georgia Review, among other publications. She was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Recently, she was the Kenan Visiting Writer at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She lives in San Francisco.

Writer's Desk

I am working on another collection of stories, though many regard this as folly, and a novel entitled, tentatively, After the Parade. For good measure, I am making notes for a second novel, The Proprietresses.

Writer's Desk

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