Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
October 16, 2001
Library staff member wins prestigious writing award
A short story written by a University of Guelph library staff member has won first prize in the prestigious O. Henry Awards, among the top prizes for literature in North America.
Mary Swan’s story, The Deep, was selected to receive the top honour. The O. Henry awards are given each year to the best short fiction by Canadian and American authors published in Canadian and American magazines. All of the 3,000 or so stories published over the course of a year are reviewed and whittled down to about two dozen that make up the Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards collection.The critical acclaim vaults Swan into the ranks of such authors as Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. It’s the highest honour she’s received in the course of publishing a dozen stories in literary magazines over the last 20 years.
“It’s very flattering and gratifying to have my work appear in a volume with writers I’ve been reading for years,” said Swan, who has worked for the University since she graduated from Guelph with a BA in the early 1980s.
The Deep is a poetic tale about twin sisters and their experiences in the horror and confusion of the First World War. It was first published in the Summer 2000 issue of the University of Victoria’s Malahat Review. The seed for the story came to Swan during a conversation with a friend who was reading about the war. “She came across a footnote about an incident that really intrigued me. That started it all off,” she said.
Swan worked on The Deep off and on for 10 years, during which she read extensively about the war, especially the memoirs of women who served overseas. “What really struck me is that although they weren’t on the front lines, they put up with terrible conditions. But their attitude was: ‘Let’s get on with it; this is the job.’”
Mary Gordon, a juror for the O. Henry prizes, said chose Swan’s story “as first among so many strong others because of its utter originality, its daring to assert the primacy of complexity and mystery, its avoidance of the current appetite for ironic anomie and thinness. It flowers entirely on its own terms, and the terms are rich and strange.”
Gordon and fellow jurors Michael Chabon and Mona Simpson awarded the second prize to Dan Chaon for Big Me and third prize to Alice Munro for Floating Bridge.
Munro called Swan to congratulate her on the first-place finish. The two have known each other since they met in the early 1970s when Swan was a student at York University. “She’s been very encouraging and supportive over the years, and this has been important to me,” Swan said. “Sometimes I’ll send her a story that’s been rejected all over the place to see what she thinks. We don’t talk specifics, but her response is always positive, things like: ‘Hang on, it’s fine, it’s all working.’ Sometimes you really need to hear that.”
Porcupine Quill press plans to publish The Deep next fall along with a collection of Swan’s work.
Mary Swan (519) 824-4120, Ext. 2977
For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs, 519-824-4120, Ext. 3338.