series editor larry dark

  In early January of each year, I consult with my editor at Anchor Books, Tina Pohlman, and make the final choice of 20 stories for the O. Henry Awards. After that, blind copies of the stories are sent to the jurors, who have three weeks to read them and vote on top-prize winners.

Everything went according to schedule this year and by February 2, 1998, I had the votes from my jurors--Andrea Barrett, Mary Gaitskill, and Rick Moody. Then came what is, for me, one of the best parts of my job: notifying the winners. I try to reach every author by phone, partly because I like telling them personally that they have won O. Henry Awards, but also so I can verify their addresses. If I can't reach some writers directly, I can usually get in touch with them through an agent or a publisher. This year, however, I had particular trouble finding one author, Maxine Swann.

First, I called Don Lee, the editor of Ploughshares, which had originally published Maxine Swann's story, "Flower Children," in an issue guest-edited by Mary Gordon. Don gave me an address in Paris, but he wasn't sure if Maxine was still living there and he didn't have a phone number. Since this was her first and only published story and her bio in Ploughshares provided scant information, I had little else to go on in finding her. I not only contact authors to give them the good news but also because I need their permission to include each story in the book. I also need a contributor's note from each writer. Trouble getting any of this from even one writer can delay publication of the book.

After talking to Don Lee, I searched for the name "Maxine Swann" on the Internet, using the Alta Vista search engine, and found a site from a school alumni association, which listed the same Paris address Don Lee had given me, plus a phone number. The next day, February 10, I sent out a special delivery letter to Paris and early in the morning called the number listed. An answering machine picked up and I left a message.

On Wednesday, February 18, I received a phone call from someone named Juan Pablo Domenech, who said he lived with Maxine Swann. His name had been on the outgoing message, so I wasn't entirely surprised to hear from him. There was a lot of background noise and static on the line, plus a few seconds delay, which made it difficult to communicate. Juan Pablo was calling from a bar in Paris. He and Maxine were now living in Pakistan, he told me, and teaching at a school in Punjab. But Maxine was presently traveling alone in India for a month, without an itinerary, and couldn't be reached. He was just in Paris for a few days and had happened to check the messages and pick up the mail. Though Juan Pablo spoke excellent English, it was difficult to convey to him why it was so important for me to reach Maxine and the significance of her winning an O. Henry Award. We were disconnected before I could find out more. Fortunately, Juan Pablo called back and told me that he was planning on talking to Maxine in a few days.

I spoke to Juan Pablo one more time before he left Paris and he told me that Maxine would call me next week. She might even be able to fax a handwritten contributor's note from one of her stops in India. He also gave me their address and phone number in Pakistan, but advised me that both mail delivery and phone service were iffy where they lived.

On February 24, I returned to my desk at work from a morning meeting and saw that the voice-mail light on my phone was blinking. The message was from Maxine Swann--I had missed her call by fewer than five minutes. She had some questions about the award and seemed skeptical about the urgency of her reply. In any event, she was going to be in Bombay for a day or so and would try to fax me a contributor's note. I immediately called home and asked my wife to switch on my computer to receive the fax. When I got home that night, the icon for an incoming fax was blinking. I thought I had what I needed, but when I opened the file on-screen, I found that the note had been garbled in transmission and most of it was unreadable. I tried several times to call the Bombay number Maxine had left me in her message that morning, but I couldn't get an answer. I realized that this was a fax line, not a voice number, and quickly faxed a note. But I didn't get anything back.

I left my computer on day and night for the next month. By the middle of March, I had all of the other contributors' notes and permissions. The manuscript went for proofreading without Maxine Swann's contributor's note and I could only assume from the fact that she had tried to fax me something that she was granting permission for "Flower Children" to appear in Prize Stories 1998: The O. Henry Awards.

Finally, on April 1, just in time, I received a fax from Maxine with her contributor's note. She was back in Pakistan by this time. I called the phone number she gave and, after nearly two months of trying, we spoke for the first time. A search that had involved letters, and phone and fax messages to three different countries was over.

I'm glad it worked out because "Flower Children" was, for me, an exciting discovery. The subject matter--what it is like to grow up as the children of hippies--is one that is just starting to come into prominence in stories, novels, and memoirs. And Maxine Swann's use of a collective, plural, third-person protagonist is an unusual but brilliant artistic choice. The story-telling is masterful and the writing has a knowing quality, depth, and lyrical beauty. I'm very pleased to be able to include "Flower Children" in Prize Stories 1998: The O. Henry Awards and to have it posted on Bold Type.
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Copyright © 1998 Larry Dark.