Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Monday, March 30, novelist Elizabeth Strout announced the winners of William Plumer Potter Awards, the English Literature Department’s annual student fiction contest. Strout, author of three critically acclaimed novels, “Amy and Isabelle,” “Abide with Me,” and “Olive Kitteredge,” said she judged the entries based on how well they allowed a reader to “enter a world and feel that they can stay there.”
Blanca Gamez ’09 was awarded third prize for her story “Voice of Ghosts.” Strout commended this story for its intriguing opening, “Tell me the story of how we met,” as well as its exploration of issues of grief and hope in the wake of death without entering the realm of melodrama.
Will Glovinsky ’12 received second prize for “Taketh Away.” This story enters the mind of a man who has to kill his dog as well as an autistic character who observes this.
Krystyn McIlraith ’09 was awarded first prize for “Rita Ann Lawrence, You Don’t Know Nothing about Nothing.” Strout described how this story explored complicated issues of a young woman attracted to a man who has been accused of rape while at the same time including intriguing details like the antics of a dog named T-Rex and describing the various uses of the different bathrooms in a high school.
Both Krystyn McIlraith’s and Blanca Gamez’s stories came out of an Advanced Fiction Workshop with Christopher Castellani last fall. McIlraith began working on her story in this class and says she later became obsessed with it and continued working on it.
After presenting the awards, Strout read a selection from “Olive Kitteridge” entitled “Security.” In this passage, 72-year-old Olive leaves her ailing husband to visit her son and his new wife and step children in New York City. This rich passage touched on everything from perspectives on 9/11 and the strains of a distant mother-son relationship to religion and the shuffle of airports. It also involves a Christian tenant whose parrot shouts “Praise Jesus!” whenever one of the characters curses within its earshot and an amusing moment in which Olive is baffled when her son serves her tofu hot dogs with cut up oysters for dinner and she chooses to eat a hot dog roll instead.
Strout then answered some questions about her work. She spoke about the interesting manner in which “Olive Kitteredge” developed from short stories into a novel in stories and the highly emotional process in which she writes. She said she needs to know what it feels like to be another person so that her reader can experience it in the way she wants them to. Strout attributed her desire to write fiction to the fact that people interest her more than anything else and fiction allows her to explore this.