Danielle McLaughlin on why Evelyn Walsh won the Sean Ó Faolain story prize
White Rabbit is a funny, dark, zany story told in a distinct voice. It delights and unsettles. Set in an affluent US area, it takes risks and uses humour to take readers by stealth
Evelyn Walsh: a native of Philadelphia, she lives in Atlanta, teaching writing to children while working on her story collection and a novel. She is first generation Irish-American, and so the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize “means the world to her”
I remember where I was when I first read the winning story in this year’s Sean Ó Faolain competition. I was at home, sitting on the floor of the room where I write, a bundle of stories beside me on the carpet. It was a Sunday and I had a roast in the oven. When I was part ways through ‘White Rabbit’, I heard, through the wall, the ping of the oven timer going off in the kitchen. “Let it burn,” I thought, and I carried on reading. I was keeping a notebook as part of the judging process, and after I finished reading each story I would enter its number and title in the notebook and then record my verdict: yes or no or maybe. When I look now at what I have written after White Rabbit I see that I have written “yes, yes, yes”. It was my immediate and instinctive response to a story that grabbed me from the very beginning and didn’t let go. After I had finished reading the story and had made my note, I got up and went to the kitchen to rescue the dinner. And then I went back to read the story again, this time just for me, for the sheer pleasure of it.
There were over 900 stories entered in this year’s competition. What was I looking for as I read? At the risk of sounding like a smart-aleck: the stories that I liked the best. And the ones I liked best were the ones that burrowed in deep, the stories that I “felt”, and felt intensely, even before my brain had finished formulating the reasons why I liked them so much. These were stories that were good all the way through, not just for two or three pages in the middle. Some of them got me a little teary-eyed, not necessarily because of any sadness they contained, though some were indeed sad, but because of their beauty or ferocity or strangeness, sometimes all of those things. And yes, I do like a bit of strange, however it might present itself.
White Rabbit is by Evelyn Walsh, a Philadelphia native now living in Atlanta, Georgia and it is a funny, dark, zany story narrated in a wonderfully distinct voice. Set in an affluent American neighbourhood, it is a story that takes risks, that uses humour to take the reader by stealth. It delights and entertains, it impresses with its cleverness, and at the same time it unsettled me, led me, even as I was laughing, into explorations of such things as neighbourhood dynamics and racism.
In second place was Small Yellow Sun by Dolores Walshe of Leitrim, a poetic and evocative story set in a desolate ghost estate. It is bleak, the bleakness exquisitely rendered with beautiful images. It is also a very moving story, full of humanity, that amid the bleakness, encompasses hope. Each of the 15 stories that made it to long-list stage was a joy and a privilege to read. The first and second placed stories, as well as four shortlisted stories by Kevin Dorn (USA), Miranda Luby (Australia), Wayne Price (Scotland) and John Saul (UK) will appear in the next issue of Southword, published by the Munster Literature Centre.
A native of Philadelphia, Evelyn Walsh has published stories in Narrative and Brain, Child; more fiction is forthcoming in The Hamilton Stone Review. She attended Wellesley College and Brown University and has worked with Rick Moody, John Hawkes, Robert Polito and Paul Harding. She has been awarded residencies at the Atlantic Center for the Arts (New Smyrna Beach, FL) and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (Amherst, VA). In 2013 she was granted a full scholarship at the New York State Summer Writers Institute (Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs). This spring, her story Foundling was nominated for an O Henry Award. Today she lives in Atlanta with her family, teaching writing to children while working on her story collection and a novel. Evelyn is first generation Irish-American, and so the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize means the world to her. She hopes to return to Cork with her four children in tow.