3:45 pm Mar. 26, 2012
For those who gathered at the New School's Tishman auditorium Wednesday night, it was a chance to see three much-admired writers of short stories read from their new work and answer questions about their process.
Some of those answers were more revelatory than others.
Larry Dark, who administers the Story Prize, an annual award granted to short-story collections, began the evening of the award ceremony by talking about how the form gets short-shrift in awards circles, with the very big famous prizes going to novels. The low-key stage decor seemed appropriate for the literary form. It consisted of two leather armchairs, a coffee table and a lectern bearing the name of the award. Purple velvet drapes behind the furniture lent a mildly formal touch to the event.
And the three finalists who presented work at the ceremony were similarly un-self-promoting: when Dark asked one of them, Don DeLillo (pictured at left), what made him decide to put together The Angel Esmeralda, the first short story collection he's published in a career spanning four decades, the response was dry.
“My editor,” DeLillo said, and the audience laughed.
He read from the most recent story in the collection, "The Starveling," about a man who spends every single day, all day, in movie theaters in New York.
DeLillo described how the “depth and range” of European movies that hit New York cinemas in the 1960s influenced his work; how a “theme of desperation” may unify the stories he chose to include in this compilation; and how he considers himself a novelist first but sees short stories as a “classic American form” with a proud lineage.
Millhauser, next to take the stage, discussed how the stories which made the cut in the new work “surprised or excited me, rather than being representative in some scholarly way”; how short stories as a literary form seem “infinitely possible” to him; and how digital technology figures little in his writings because it doesn’t possess “the same wonder that the technologies of age 11 have.”
Edith Pearlman (pictured at right), in her turn, described the behind-the-scenes confabs that helped to winnow 34 stories from 250-plus published works; her mixed experiences of working with small presses; and the ways in which travel has influenced her writings.
What has kept you writing short stories almost exclusively?, Dark asked.
“I was told as a child not to take too much of people’s time. I’ve been obeying it,” Pearlman replied, eliciting laughs from the assembled crowd.
That led to the announcement of the night’s award winner.
Millhauser, a resident of upstate New York, returned to the stage to collect the award of $20,000 and a silver bowl.
“I am really surprised,” he said. “I feared such a book could only be a tombstone.” He expanded on his literary career, noting that writing novels earlier on prepared him for the “rigorous pleasures” of the shorter form to which he has devoted the last 15 years.
“I love and revere this form of writing,” Millhauser said. “I’m deeply grateful short stories should be recognized on an occasion such as this.”
The other finalists received $5,000 each. Judges included the writer Sherman Alexie, academic Breon Mitchell and memoirist Louise Steinman.
After the event, the audience formed into small groups outside the venue for the inevitable critique of the writers’ style, both on and off the page.
“Then Don, he’s this distinguished dude, right, he walks off the stage and you look at his shoes—old man shoes!” said a young man in a pompadour and pixie shoes.
“That’s true! I noticed that about the woman,” one of his listeners replied. “Edith Pearlman? It’s like, I felt she was easy to read.”
It was not a compliment, as her self-conscious pause after these words made clear. Then everyone in the group laughed, a bit awkwardly, and dispersed with the rest of the crowd into the streets of Greenwich Village.
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