An Irish author’s 500-word story has defeated more than 2,100 other writers from around the world to win her a 10-day stay in the Key West studio where Ernest Hemingway lived in the 1930s and wrote such classics as For Whom the Bell Tolls and Green Hills of Africa.
Denyse Woods, who lives in Inniscarra, Co Cork, and is a former director of the West Cork Literary Festival, won the Florida Keys Flash Fiction Contest with a piece of flash fiction entitled Wallpaper, reproduced below. It depicts a woman so enthralled by mysterious letters from a travelling stranger that she papers her walls with them.
“I am thrilled and so honoured,” said Woods. “This is the best prize of any competition ever.”
Woods, who also writes as Denyse Devlin, has published five novels including the critically acclaimed Overnight to Innsbruck (Lilliput Press, 2002), the bestselling The Catalpa Tree (Penguin Ireland, 2004), Like Nowhere Else (Penguin Ireland, 2005) and Hopscotch (Penguin Ireland, 2006). Her most recent novel is If Not Now (Penguin Ireland, 2008). Her breakthrough as a writer was winning an Irish Times short story competition whose theme was Australia. “That was the first time I knew I could write,” she said.
Woods was born in Boston in 1958. Her father, Gerard Woods, was Irish Ambassador to Australia, Belgium and the Holy See. She is also a niece of the poet and diplomat, Denis Devlin. After studying Arabic and English at University College, Dublin, she worked and travelled extensively abroad before settling in Cork with her husband and their two daughters.
She attended the Key West Literary Seminar in 2012 and is working on a novel set partially in the island city, as well as a collection of flash fiction pieces.
Contest judge Karen Russell, whose books include the Pulitzer Prize finalist Swamplandia, praised the story for its tinglingly vivid word pictures and eloquent description of the reading process.
“I’ve always loved that uncanny pleasure of the reading experience – eavesdropping on another consciousness, fusing my subjectivity with a stranger’s experience,” said Russell, who was a panelist at the 2016 Key West Literary Seminar where the flash fiction competition was launched. “And Wallpaper captures that uncanny intimacy, while showing us how words can make the walls go porous, opening up portals into another season, another country, another body.”
Woods plans to spend up to 10 days writing in the Key West studio where Hemingway authored novels and short stories in the 1930s. Her prize also includes complimentary accommodations in a residency cottage at The Studios of Key West, funds for travel, attendance at Key West’s 2016 Hemingway Days festival and a day of fishing in the Bacardi Oakheart Key West Marlin Tournament.
The Florida Keys Flash Fiction Contest celebrates the Key West literary heritage that dates back to Hemingway, who wrote many classics while living in a Spanish Colonial estate on Whitehead Street.
The letters kept coming. She wrote of Bormio, of winter-white hills and Alpine ridges hanging from the skies, of streets busy with get-there skiers and lithe ski instructors in sausage-skin suits. She described the brittle night air so well that you could smell it off the crinkly stationery. Airmail Light. A traditionalist, then, sending missives in the old style, as though there was no way to communicate other than organizing thoughts into sentences and lives into paragraphs. She had fetched up in Bormio, she explained, a resort huddled in a saucer-like basin with thermal springs and baby slopes and a come-again, go-again population. As a chalet chef, she was learning to deliver tajines that soothed aching limbs and desserts that sweetened the pain of spectacular bruises. She fully intended to be as seasonal as her guests, to move on – or move home? – before the hikers came, and the botanists. Not for her, she insisted, the fresh mountain springs or cow-bell summers.
And yet, soon enough, letters came full of wild flowers and walkers. In summertime, you could loll about in the terme without icicles forming on your nose, she joked, and the mirror-eyed ski instructors were replaced by leather-skinned climbers … But still no lover, for her, although a kind of hope wafted about the pages like the smell of thyme drifting around Bormio’s trails. Only passing mention was made of yearning and loneliness, but a wistful eye was sometimes cast back - back to this studio apartment, with its too narrow bench-bed high on the wall and its backyard view of urban grit.
All this, in a neat hand. A good hand, easily read, one side only.
Marsha came to crave each new delivery – the bulky envelope with Lombardy stamp and, within, the simple, affectionate greeting, ‘Dear You,’ the ‘xx’ in parting. It was like having a subscription to a monthly travel mag; and it was soap opera too, with chalet romances and sunburn and tantrums, and change – changing faces, languages, allergies – but the mountains, huddled around her and scratched with ski runs, deep with snow or grey with lack of it, these, she wrote, were ever a wall, encircling.
Marsha pinned each letter to the wall – a scripted wallpaper, ceiling to floor, door to corner, encircling. Words surrounded her, parading stories and trip-tripping across the studio like a caravan across the desert. Within this whirl of writing, she ate and slept, suffered and dreamed, and re-read whichever letter best suited her mood. On a hard day, she liked to wander Bormio’s old town in springtime, steeples overhead, cobblestones underfoot, unwinding; a giddy day and she took to the snow, sliding between the conifers on the lonely tracks that had taken perilous tumbles to master. This was what kept her there – in the studio and in Bormio: the quiet, inky drift through another person’s perspective.
She never wrote back. Sometimes, not often, she wondered who the letters were from and for whom they were intended.
Copyright: Denyse Woods