It may have been International Women’s Day, but on the evening of March 8 The Story Prize went to Rick Bass, the sole male author among the three finalists. Bass’s collection, For a Little While (Little, Brown), took the $20,000 prize (and an engraved silver bowl), awarded to the outstanding short story collection of the year. Bass and the two other finalists—Anna Noyes, for her debut book Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove), and Helen Maryles Shankman, for her second work of fiction, They Were Like Family to Me (Scribner)—were chosen by Story Prize founder Julie Lindsey and director Larry Dark from a field of 106 collections published in 2016. The Spotlight Award, for a collection meriting further attention, was given to Randa Jarrar for Him, Me, Muhammad Ali (Sarabande). Noyes and Shankman each received $5,000; Jarrar received $1,000.
This year’s panel of judges consisted of Harold Augenbraum, former executive director of the National Book Foundation and presenter of the National Book Awards from 2004 to 2016; Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Madeleine Is Sleeping (a 2004 National Book Award finalist and Winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize) and Ms. Hempel Chronicles (both Mariner); and Daniel Goldin, proprietor of Milwaukee’s Boswell Book Company. In a statement, the three commended For a Little While’s craftsmanship and the “depth and clarity of Bass’s vision.”
Bass was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2007, the year Mary Gordon won for her collected Stories. For a Little While showcases the arc of a long and productive career, gathering short fiction from the past 30 years and introducing new work as well. He led off the award event at the New School Auditorium in Manhattan, reading from “How She Remembers It,” published in The Idaho Review in 2014 and included in the 2015 Pushcart Prize XXXIX: Best of the Small Presses. The story, of a 12-year-old girl on a road trip with her father, who is losing his memory, is densely atmospheric—as is all of Bass’s work. In conversation with Story Prize director Larry Dark, he spoke of using his senses as “five go-to things” to attach a reader to the story. He also admitted to not knowing where his narrative is going until he’s there, which makes for something of a shared experience between writer and reader. “The end is when the end happens” and you run out of space, he said, adding, “My job as a writer is to get lost as quickly and deeply as I can.”
Noyes followed, reading from “Changeling,” a story of a woman who may or may not have encountered her long-lost mother on a bus trip. Noyes’s collection, set mostly in Maine—where she grew up—features girls and women in various states of peril, from internal struggle to outright danger. Although they are loosely based on people she has known, Noyes said, she didn’t intend the book to be a series of tales of sexual violence. Rather, she was interested in writing about a collective female experience that was at the same time “reflective of truthful things that I have seen.” She cribs freely from life, including her own secrets, she noted. Still, the collection felt a bit raw when she first published it, she told Dark—and “when you come from a 200-person town you can’t hide.”
Shankman followed with a reading from “In the Land of Armadillos” (also the title of the hardcover edition of her collection). The book gathers a series of linked stories set mainly in the Polish town of Wlodawa during the Nazi occupation, moving among Jewish citizens, Polish farmers, and even German officers—the latter not a conventional point-of-view choice for the daughter of survivors, said Shankman. But her parents, uncles, and aunts had always told rich stories of surviving the war by going into hiding as children and of a SS officer who helped them. “I was astounded,” she said; “what kind of a man would be an SS officer and protect his Jews in a slave labor camp?” Her research revealed that, indeed, such a man existed, and he became one of Shankman’s cast of characters. However, she told Dark, she had never considered writing her family stories as memoir. When she tried, she explained, “they came out flat.” But as soon as she turned them into fiction—incorporating historical characters such as the writer and artist Bruno Schulz and adding elements of magical realism and Jewish folklore—“it just lit on fire.”
The cover of the award night’s program pictured a snowy forest, and this was not random, explained Dark. Not only did each of the finalists’ collections feature stories set in the woods, but they all drew readers in as a forest might. “I like to think of stories as a refuge,” said Dark, “as a way of slowing down a little bit.”
The judges, as well, cited Bass’s “gift at conveying the vastness of the American wilderness through a form as compact as the short story.” His characters, they added, “experience extreme weather and terrain, extreme solitude and loss, as well as moments of intense, transformative connection. Sentence by sentence, story by story, he does the patient, passionate work of awakening his readers to the innate wildness, mystery, and beauty of the world, and of the people who inhabit it.”