Award-winning fiction writer Danielle Evans is the final judge of our second annual Georgia Review Prose Prize. Here, associate prose editor Maggie Su interviews Evans about short-story craft and books that have felt urgent this year. As a reminder, the deadline to submit to the prose prize is January 15, through Submittable or by regular mail postmarked by the due date. The best short story and essay will both be published in The Georgia Review. The overall winner, chosen between the two, will receive $1,500. The runner-up will receive $600. Submissions include a one-year subscription to The Georgia Review. All entries will be considered for publication. We invite writers from all backgrounds to submit.
Maggie Su (MS): I’m a huge fan of your work and I especially admire how you’re able to render complex characters so quickly. From the brash vulnerability of Jasmine and Erica in “Virgins” to the grieving Confederate-flag proponent Claire in “Boys Go to Jupiter,” your stories seem invested in the messy contradictions of your protagonists. How do you approach writing characters, especially those with conflicting motivations?
Danielle Evans (DE): I think contradiction is my approach to writing character. It’s those tensions, between what characters think and what they say, what they want and what they do, how they see themselves and how they present themselves to others, that create narrative potential, or the possibility that they will behave in unanticipated ways. I also often think of character in terms of performance: when does a character understand themselves to be putting on an act, what kinds of structural or personal relationships compel performance, and what can a character’s performance for an external audience tell us about the rest of the story?
MS: In your fantastic interview with Jamel Brinkley in BOMB Magazine, you refer to The Office of Historical Corrections as your “present-tense project”—even though not every story is in the present tense. How do you envision time operating within the stories in Historical Corrections, both thematically and on a craft level?
DE: That was one of my early working understandings of the collection, and even though it didn’t turn out to be true, it was useful for me understanding the shape of some of the stories and one of the collection’s recurring anxieties. There are multiple things present tense can do, but one of them is that it can allow you to experience the story from the perspective of a point of view character who doesn’t yet know what kind of a story they’re in—either can’t see or won’t look at the thing at the story’s heart. So, there’s a structural possibility in that kind of mismatch between surface plot and emotional plot, and it lends itself well to feelings that aren’t so much plot events—grief, rage, longing—but the sea the plot is floating on.
MS: We love short stories at The Georgia Review. You’ve written two short-story collections—what excites you about the short-story form? What do you think the medium allows for?
DE: I like the urgency of a short story, and the tension between what it wants to do—tell you quickly what’s at its heart—and the way that in the best stories the heart of the story often comes as a surprise. The compression of a story feels satisfying like solving a puzzle or packing a suitcase does—how much meaning can you fit in this particular space. I think my favorite story writers often operate like magicians in that they make infinite space out of that confinement. I often reread an Alice Munro or Edward P. Jones story with just a sense of awe of how much capacity they’ve found in just a few pages. I also love that in a collection you can see a writer’s own wrestling with sometimes answering the same question in different ways. A collection of stories from a writer I love feels like they’ve given me a gift of a map of their brain.
MS: I’m curious to hear about what you’ve been reading recently. What writers have felt urgent to you? What writers have brought you comfort?
DE: I do love short-story collections, and among my favorites this year are Company by Shannon Sanders and Witness by Jamel Brinkley. I’m looking forward to catching up on some of this year’s collections over the break, particularly Yiyun Li’s Wednesday’s Child. More generally, I’ve been lucky enough to teach a few seminars that let me explore questions I have about genres that are important to me and their longevity. This fall I taught a class on passing narrative, and so I reread some favorites like Plum Bun and Quicksand and Pachinko. I don’t know if any of those are particularly comforting, but I do think the recurrence of the question of how we survive systems that aren’t designed for our survival and what it costs to be honest and what it costs to lie makes them perpetually urgent. I’m reading now some work for a class I’m teaching on works of witness, documentation, or historical reimagination, so I’m reading Jesmyn Ward’s new novel and am excited to put it in conversation with Clotel, Beloved, and The Known World. I’m also looking at Mean Spirit, Minor Detail, Brotherless Night, and The Book of Daniel, and thinking about other projects of witness or reconstruction.