Jim Shepard, the winner of the fourth annual Story Prize, chats with fellow nominee Vincent Lam after the ceremony, held last night at the New School. Accepting the $20,000 prize for Like You’d Understand, Anyway, a clearly moved Shepard had nothing but praise for Lam’s Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures and Tessa Hadley‘s Sunstroke and Other Stories. “They focus with economy and grace our empathetic attention,” he said of the two collections. “They compel our interest in lives other than our own.”
During the presentation, each of the three authors read from their work and then sat down for a brief interview with prize director Larry Dark; Shepard discussed how he came to write “The Zero Meter Diving Team,” an emotionally wrenching story that interweaves family dynamics and Chernobyl, comparing the Soviet Union’s chronic denials that there were any flaws in their nuclear energy program with the way families might say “Uncle Billy doesn’t have a drinking problem, when I’m pretty sure he does—his liver just exploded.” How’d he latch onto Chernobyl as a short story subject? “I’m enough of a nerd that I’ll take a big pile of oral histories of Chernobyl out of the library just because I want to read it,” he admitted; that led to him recognizing an emotional theme that could work as a story, after which the deeper research began.
When Dark observed that many of Hadley’s stories were set in the 1970s, and how useful it must be to be able to set a story before the advent of personal computers and cell phones, she replied that she found it harder to write stories set in the present, when those devices are constantly around. “You have to remember to put them in,” she said, “and sometimes it really messes up the plot.” Lam discussed the glossary of medical terms tucked into the back of his set of interlocking stories about medical students and doctors; he wanted to write stories with a strong enough narrative flow that they could be enjoyed by readers without a medical background, but retained authenticity for those readers who did have his training. He also confessed that the book was originally titled One in Three, a reference to the call schedule he had to work under early in his career, but that title “immediately drew looks of bewilderment… It didn’t really have any significance to anyone outside the culture.”
Here’s the best photo I got of Larry Dark with the three finalists at the post-ceremony reception (that’s Tessa Hadley’s face peeking out from behind Shepard). And look for video footage from the Story Prize proceedings as soon as I get a chance to upload. (I should mention, too, that I’m not only a former judge of this prize, but remain on the advisory committee.)