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When Your Literary Idol Chooses Your Story for a Prize

posted Jan 13, 2015, 3:33 PM by Holloway McCandless   [ updated Jan 13, 2015, 6:25 PM ]
Holloway McCandless Fiction Prize ARTS LETTERS JOURNAL
My story "Motu Tapu" appears in issue #29 of Arts & Letters

Bewitched by the Voices of Black Tickets
I became a fan of Jayne Anne Phillips's writing when I read her short story collection Black Tickets in college (for fun, not for a class). Phillips wrote "brave" stories before brave writing by young women was A Thing. The stories in Black Tickets depict poignant and gritty situations with high-proof lyricism; their effect is both literary and voyeuristic. Some of the stories are only a page or two long but I still had to pace myself. At the time I was unaware of the concept of "voice" in fiction, but no lit crit filter is required to appreciate Phillips's ventriloquism: even her most outwardly subjugated and youthful characters tell their stories in voices substantiated by the authority of particularized experience.

Deep Novels of Love and War
Often writers who début with a story collection make their first tilt (if any) at the novel with a tiny cast and a restricted timeframe, but Phillips's Machine Dreams confidently inhabits the lives and voices of four members of a West Virginia family straight through a big hunk of the 20th century, starting with the Depression and ending with Vietnam. The stories in Black Tickets displayed Phillips's breadth and daring but the novel Machine Dreams goes deep and long. It tackles the influence of war on the American psyche without being stompingly political. Phillips's more recent novel Lark & Termite, in which a father's experience of the Korean War is juxtaposed with the lives of his family back home, touched me personally because Phillips creates a convincing interior language for Termite, a non-verbal handicapped child, and bolsters his connection to the world through Lark, his older sister and champion. (Lark & Termite was a 2009 National Book Award finalist--listen to Phillips read an excerpt here.)

(To learn more visit and be sure to look at the fascinating sub-page "Behind the Words" where Phillips pairs images and documents with quotes from her work.)

Best Part of the Prize: Kind Words from the Judge
Now that I've explained part of why I admire Jayne Anne Phillips's work so much you can understand my nervousness when Allen Gee, the fiction editor of Arts & Letters, emailed me to let me know that my story "Motu Tapu" had been chosen as a finalist for the 2014 Arts & Letters Fiction Prize and would be read by contest judge Jayne Anne Phillips. Fortunately for me I did not have to wait in torment for long--a week later Professor Gee let me know that my story had won the contest. I was ecstatic (it's been a good while since I've had a story published). There was also a nice check in the offing, but the biggest prize, for me, was receiving the very kind comments Jayne Anne Phillips wrote about my story:

"Motu Tapu" is a wry, mature story on the complexities of relationships, memory, and our own ambivalent remembrance of ourselves.  The author gives us believable characters, not only in the witty, astutely observant protagonist but in the minor characters who fill her world. Though time passes and situations evolve, a controlling narcissist seldom responds to environmental cues. The protagonist regards her life anew against her remembered escape from exotic Motu Tapu and the attractive ex who showed her its Tahitian delights.  Against a backdrop of mundane family chores and expertly rendered weekend pancakes, the story takes a surprising turn and shares a secret with the reader.  "Motu Tapu" is not a story about domesticity, but about paths not taken and the pain of making difficult decisions. The fact that life, twenty-five years later, may reveal such a decision as inspired, is "Motu Tapu's" charming coup de grace.
​"--Jayne Anne Phillips, ​judge of the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize for 2014

Ordering and Submitting Information
If that summary tempts you to read "Motu Tapu" for yourself,  you can order the handsome print journal of Arts & Letters #29 pictured above for $12 here, or get immediate gratification via downloadable PDF for only $8 by ordering the digital version of Arts & Letters #29 here. (Both the print and digital options include the entire contents of the journal.)

The experience of being published by Arts & Letters has been a joy and I highly encourage other writers to submit their work to either the regular journal or the annual contest (Kyle Minor will judge the 2015 fiction contest). Visit the home page of Arts & Letters for the most up-to-date information.