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Introducing the Winner of the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award 2017

Posted on 27th April 2017 by Martha Greengrass
Yesterday saw American author Bret Anthony Johnston win the 2017 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award with his powerfully evocative story ‘Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses’. 

Following the announcement, judge and journalist Mark Lawson commented, “Johnston showed brilliance over the long distance in his novel, Remember Me Like This, and now proves equally adept at brevity... every line has the kick of a horse.”

Here, exclusively for Waterstones, Sunday Times Literary Editor Andrew Holgate introduces this most surprising of writers.

This year’s winner of the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the world’s richest and most prestigious prize for short fiction, is a most surprising writer.

The American author Bret Anthony Johnston, who’s following in the footsteps of Yiyun Li, CK Stead and Pulitzer-winners Junot Diaz, Anthony Doerr and Adam Johnson in picking up the award for his story ‘Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows about Horses’, is creative director of writing at Harvard University. He’s written an acclaimed collection of stories, Corpus Christi, and a novel, Remember Me Like This, that was a New York Times notable book of the year in 2015 and is now being made into a film. He may not be too familiar to British readers yet, but he’s director of creative writing at Harvard and someone, I suspect, we will be hearing a lot more about in the future. One of those American secrets it’s a pleasure to discover.

But Johnston’s roots, he explains, in a working-class community in southern Texas, weren’t at all conducive to literature. Not only was he first in his family to attend high school, let alone college, but he comes from an area, he says, “where reading and writing are anything but a priority”. 

And then there’s the skateboarding, which he’s been passionate about for 30 years (he was even briefly a professional) and which he’s convinced has given him all sorts of advantages in being a writer.

“The quick thing I can say,” he explains, “is that as a skateboarder you view the world differently to everyone else. You look at architecture, you look at landscapes, you look at obstacles differently, just as an artist does. You’re noticing things that other people don’t notice.” 

It’s no coincidence, he’s said in the past, that a lot of professional skateboarders went on to have significant careers in the arts. 

“The other side of it,” he continues, “is resilience. And if you’re someone who has spent years trying to learn a trick, then it doesn’t in any way phase you to spend years on a short story. If you’re someone who’s used to falling down and being physically hurt, then when someone gives you a bad review, it doesn’t feel great, but at least you’re not doing the splits on a handrail. It puts things in perspective!

“So my experience has always been that when I see my peers in graduate school, say, and I see them give up on something, I’m always so struck by that, because the idea of giving up never occurs to me, it absolutely never occurs to me… it just doesn’t make sense to me. If you can get up off the ground, you’re beholden to try the trick again. And why not apply that same resilience to being a writer.”

Who would have thought: lessons from the skateboarding ring that are take homes for the aspiring author. Like I said, Bret Anthony Johnston really is the most surprising writer.

Bret Anthony JohnstonBret Anthony Johnston

You can read Bret Anthony Johnston’s winning story this weekend in The Sunday Times Culture, or at www.shortstoryaward.co.uk, where you’ll also find this year’s shortlist, and all the previous winning stories.


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