first/ literature/ Short and Sweet
For 30 years, state foundation has championed short-story writers with $30,000 Rea Award
By Erik Ofgang
When Jim Shepard received a phone call from Elizabeth Rea, who oversees the Rea Award for the Short Story, he wasn’t expecting the news he was about to get. Shepard, a Bridgeport native and celebrated short-story author, had previously served as a judge for the prestigious Connecticut-based award and says his first thought was, “Oh, they want me to judge it again. Where am I going to fit this in?” Instead, he learned he was the 2016 award winner, a surprise he likened to “winning the lottery when you didn’t know you bought a ticket.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Washington, Connecticut-based Rea Award for the Short Story. Awarded to a living writer who “has made a significant contribution to the discipline of the short story form,” the Rea Award is one of short fiction’s biggest honors and comes with a $30,000 prize. Past winners have included luminaries like Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro and John Updike. Though this year’s winner grew up in Connecticut, recipients are not required to have ties to the state.
The award was founded in 1986 by the late Michael M. Rea. Since Michael’s death in 1996, his widow Elizabeth has been the steward of the award. Elizabeth, who lives in Washington and runs the Dungannon Foundation, which was formed to administer the Rea Award, says the concept grew out of her husband’s love of the short story as a distinct literary expression.
“He was Irish in heritage and he was passionate about being able to sit down in one sitting and being able to read one story,”she says. “He often compared it to a painting where you could take it all in in one viewing.”
A commercial real estate owner and developer, as well as an art collector, Michael was also a collector of first-edition short stories by American authors such as Edgar Allan Poe.
Young authors are frequently advised by agents, publishers and even fellow writers that short stories are not profitable. It’s a trend Michael wanted to fight. “He wanted to give the short-story form prestige and a special quality and not have it just be a stepping stone to the novel,” Elizabeth says.
Each year three writers are invited to be jurors for the award. Each nominates two authors, then an award winner is selected. No one but the jurors is involved in the selection of the nominees and finalist. The nominations list is not made public.
The award is not granted for a specific story or lifetime achievement, but for a writer’s advancement of the short-story form. Elizabeth says 1994’s winner Tillie Olsen “wrote only four short stories in her life but she had such a significant contribution to the form that it allowed her to win the award. That was the kind of writer that Michael wanted.”
This year’s jurors, Deborah Eisenberg, Amy Hempel and Joy Williams, all previous Rea Award winners, explained why Shepard won the award in a written citation. “In the course of visiting other centuries, a range of nations, and the homes of ordinary citizens, Jim Shepard has — in five stellar collections of stories and seven novels — proved himself an original, darkly funny, and deeply humane writer. His prodigious research combined with a kind of X-ray vision of the soul produces stories that we learn from, that improve us, that expand our sense of what a life can be.”
After growing up in Bridgeport, Shepard received his Bachelor of Arts from Trinity College in Hartford and his Master of Fine Arts from Brown University in Providence. He is the J. Leland Miller professor of American history, literature and eloquence at Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
His work is built on intense historical research. “The results often end up resembling journalism, as if a newspaper’s account of a train wreck suddenly became encrusted with enough background and context to switch genres and become fiction,” The New York Times wrote in a February review of his latest story collection, The World To Come: Stories.
Despite details from this research informing his work, they never overwhelm it. The stories in The World to Come cover such diverse topics as John Franklin’s lost expedition in 1845 to finding the Northwest Passage, a British submarine alone in the Indian Ocean, and a Cold War-era observation platform being battered by storms in the Atlantic Ocean, but the human experience of the people at the center of his stories remains the focus.
Like the founder of the Rea Award, Shepard is fascinated by the poignant, piercing directness of a short story.
“I’m really drawn to that ability to get to the heart of the matter very quickly and construct a form that seems more evocative than comprehensive. That seems to point more toward information that’s still to be gathered and/or intuited. So, I like the way the short story encourages us to think and I like the way the short story encourages us to find out more,” he says. “I’m also, as I’ve gotten older, more and more impatient with what feels to me like the furniture-moving involved in getting a big novel moving or going; that kind of throat-clearing that you see in the beginning of a novel. It’s almost like you’re watching a play and everybody’s carrying the sets on and arranging everything and getting ready to get this thing moving.”
He adds, “Somebody years ago compared the novel to the Normandy invasion and the short story to a guerrilla action. I think that’s kind of true. I like that feeling of getting in and getting out fast, even with a subject that would seem to be one filled with scope.”
Arts & Entertainment
May 21, 2017
Story award goes to Jim Shepard
By Tracey O’Shaughnessy
Bridgeport native Jim Shepard has received this year’s Rea Award for the Short Story.
Shepard, the author of five short story collections and seven novels, learned of the award May 1. Jurors noted Shepard’s “original, darkly funny and deeply humane” skills as a writer, as well as the prodigious research he undertakes to tell stories with imagination and mordant wit.
The award, sponsored by the Dungannon Foundation in Washington, Conn., comes with a $30,000 prize.
Shepard has long been passionate in his determination to put science and history to use in fiction, and to, as he puts it, make himself into a more interesting person, according to a release.
In an interview in The Boston Globe, he said, “My fiction is very research-based, but it’s not just because I want to get the facts right. The good news for fiction writers is that once you start reading history, you teach yourself about all sorts of things you didn’t know you didn’t know. And you realize that histories don’t always agree on the facts, so you have a little wiggle room. That wiggle room is where fiction writers operate … I’m trying to do something that persuades me and provides the basis for a persuasive illusion.”
Shepard is the author of five short story collections and seven novels. His story collections include Batting Against Castro (1996); Like You’d Understand, Anyway (2007); which won the Story Prize and was a finalist for The National Book Award; You Think That’s Bad (2011); and the recently released The World to Come: Stories (2017).
Michael M. Rea established the Rea Award in 1986 to honor a writer who has made a significant contribution to the discipline of the short story form. This year marks the Rea Award’s 30th anniversary. Under the direction of Elizabeth Rea, the award continues.
“He wanted to encourage the writing of short stories because he was passionate about the form itself,” said Rea. “He would be thrilled that there are more collections of short stories now than there were. There are more short stories awards. With the attention span of most people, the short story has become more important. Its is right up there with the great novel.”
Michael Rea was a reader and collector of short fiction, including the first short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and Henry James. He and Elizabeth Rea were married for 16 years until his death in 1996.
Shepard was born in Bridgeport in 1956. He’s the J. Leland Miller Professor of American History, Literature and Eloquence at Williams College, and teaches creative writing, contemporary literature and film. He lives in Williamstown, Mass., with his wife, writer Karen Shepard, their three children.
Shepard’s short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Playboy, among others.