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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 Miroslav Penkov
"East of the West"
2012 PEN/O. Henry Award-winning Author

I can only liken what I feel—the honor of having a story selected for inclusion in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories—to the honor that a writer of twenty-eight, one who has left his country and ventured to write in a language he couldn't form a sentence in until he was fourteen, feels when a story of his has been selected for inclusion in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

I feel validated. The number of times this story was rejected by literary journals was, near the end, heartbreaking. I feel humbled to be allowed, even with a single story, among those writers whose work has been included in the anthology before. I feel excited to see my work alongside that of some of America's finest contemporary writers. I feel joy—because many readers will now read a story about Bulgaria and this, when I first started writing in English, was one of my big hopes.

(author photo © Nelly Tomova)

Writing Tips

A great number of young writers read the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, writers who struggle not just with writing, but also with publishing their work. So I'll address them here, even if this might seem a bit presumptuous. I've come to realize that writing can poison your life. Publishing, on the other hand, if you allow it, poisons both your life and your writing. So you have to figure out a way to develop a thick skin and not let rejection bring you down too much.

Over the period of four years "East of the West" was rejected by a large number of respectable journals. And those were rejections of the "thank you for your poem/story/essay" variety. No explanations were given and the taller the pile of rejections grew (figuratively speaking—I now throw away all rejection slips), the greater the heartbreak. The thing is—there are rules in writing and a good story is a good story—but reading can be subjective. It's inevitable that your work be rejected many times—what's important is that you don't give up. Don't let a "Dear writer" letter keep you down for too long. Instead, keep writing the kind of stories you believe in. End of sermon.

About the Author

Miroslav Penkov was born in 1982 in Bulgaria. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas. His stories have won The Southern Review's Eudora Welty Prize and have appeared in A Public Space, One Story, Orion, and Best American Short Stories 2008. Author of the story collection East of the West, he teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas, where he is of the American Literary Review. He lives in Denton, Texas.

Writer's Desk

At the moment, I'm translating my story collection into Bulgarian. This undertaking is proving to be just as torturous as I expected. Reinventing the narrative voices has been a really difficult part, because I don't want to rewrite the stories and get away from the original. But I'm happy with the results. The stories are coming alive in Bulgarian and, to me at least, in Bulgarian they sound more colorful, messier in a good way.

After this, I hope I will have the time to work on the novel I've been thinking about for a few months now.

Writing Tips

From "East of the West" by Miroslav Penkov

The year of the new sbor, 1975, our geography teacher retired and Mother found herself teaching as well. This gave me more exams to sell and I made good money. I had a goal in mind. I went to my sister, Elitsa, having first rubbed my eyes hard so they would appear filled with tears, and with my most humble and vulnerable voice I asked her, "How much for your jeans?"

"Nose," she said. "I love you, but I'll wear these jeans until the day I die."

I tried to look heartbreaking, but she didn't budge. Instead, she advised me:

"Ask cousin Vera for a pair. You'll pay her at the sbor." Then from a jar in her nightstand Elitsa took out a ten-lev bill and stuffed it in my pocket. "Get some nice ones," she said.

Writer's Desk

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