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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 Ted Sanders
2010 PEN/O. Henry Award-winning Author

It's a curious thrill to be included in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and indicates to me that the world is continuing to operate in a way I can't fully understand—an ongoing condition that in general benefits the biology of my writing and that in this particular instance, I hope, benefits the murkier practicalities that come after the writing.

(author photo © Lillian Bertram, 2009)

Writing Tips

The impetus for "Obit" came in part because I'd heard an old man had died in a restaurant I used to work in, at table 21 against the back wall, and blood had been left behind on the scene for the owner and a busboy to dispose of, coughed up by the man as he sat and died in front of his wife. I remember wondering how dissimilar this dying was to any of the deaths the man had imagined for himself.

Meanwhile around the same time, for some time, I'd been thinking about obituaries as a species of writing, and had been trying to excavate some discomfiting vein of distaste I had—that I still have—for the form. An obituary, I think, speaks a strange dialect of sadness—sadness that comes not simply from the apparent tragedies involved, but also from the obituary's own entrenched inability to convey anything meaningful about the nature of those tragedies. The obituary supplies us with names, dates, locations, maybe a few choice activities (a list which may or may not include the specifics of the dying itself), but leaves everything unexplicated. So much is lit upon but nothing is illuminated. These conspicuous omissions diminish the very endeavor—that is, life—the obituary alleges to honor; the obituary does not, for instance, say anything about love. And because those limitations—the sterility, the terseness, the yawning implications—are the obituary's own most salient features, they have always seemed callous to me, and the practice is so ritualized that the callousness can come to feel like conspiracy. The whole custom feels a bit like serving an empty plate stained with the remnants of some already-eaten meal. And the meal itself, the diner knows, was nothing short of everything.

So that suggested a direction. I wandered into the thing hoping to summon up both the physical structure of the obituary and some of its crueler limitations. I can't, of course, say how clearly I'd refined such concerns at the time; I find that writing is often not much more than the act of allowing some half-unearthed dissatisfaction to speak obliquely for itself. I do know I fussed endlessly over the details of the story's structure, but whatever's worthy there now came together more the way an artifact of nature might, which is to say by force but not decree: The outlines of characters emerged from the constraints of the prose, and eventually these paper shapes began to belong to one another—as if by echolocation—and in the end the entire structure of their delicate interactions managed, I hope and sometimes think, to briefly illuminate what any formal expression of grief must imply but never explore—which is to say again: everything.

About the Author

Ted Sanders was born in 1969 in Illinois. His stories and essays have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Georgia Review, Cincinnati Review, Gettysburg Review, Massachusetts Review, and other journals. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and lives in Urbana, IL.

Writer's Desk

  • I'm convincing myself I'm finished with this first story-collection, titled No Animals We Could Name. I'm trying to get the last scraps of that collection, which includes "Obit," off my plate so I can devote more energy to two longer projects already underway: One is a novel tentatively titled Quiet, about—among other things—a boy and his deaf sister; the other is a collection of stylized shorter memoirs about my family, titled Relative To.

  • Writer's Desk

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