The 42-year-old University of Michigan lecturer was given a check for $20,000 and an engraved silver bowl in front of a large crowd at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium.
The runners-up – Jim Harrison, a veteran master of the novella form, and speculative fiction writer Maureen F. McHugh – both received $5,000.
The Story Prize, which is in its second year, is awarded for an outstanding collection of short fiction published in the United States.
When O’Keeffe’s name was announced by Story Prize founder Julie Lindsey, he said: “I didn’t think this would happen. Thanks a lot.”
O’Keeffe was the least known and established of the three nominees, whose work was chosen from a long-list of 82 volumes. He told the Echo that while he was a little nervous during the reading and interview in the first part of the program, just before the announcement “I was sitting in the audience dissociated from it in some sense.”
Asked if he saw the award as a vindication, the County Limerick author said he did: “There are a lot of doubts, despair and difficulties involved in this thing.” But it was also a vindication, he added, for those who’d supported him.
And of his journey from illegal alien to award-winning author, he said simply: “An interesting life. Yes.”
O’Keeffe, who teaches writing, was chosen by three judges who’d read the short-listed works: Nancy Pearl, formerly of the Seattle Public Library and author of “Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Occasion;” James Wood, the former Guardian literary critic and a visiting lecturer at Harvard; and the novelist Andrea Barrett, a past winner of the National Book Award.
Before the winner was named, O’Keeffe, Harrison (“The Summer He Didn’t Die”) and McHugh (“Mother and Other Monsters”) read from their work, and were individually interviewed on stage by Story Prize director Larry Dark. When asked what direction his writing might take in the immediate future, O’Keeffe said he didn’t know, adding to laughter: “I might never write another word.”
In fact, he told the Echo, he would feel guilty if he didn’t write, “But I feel guilty about a lot of things,” he said, good-humoredly
O’Keeffe said that the distractions of everyday living can prevent the sort of concentration necessary for writing.
Asked if he might take time off his job to complete another book, he said: “I think so. That’s the way I have to do it. I can’t compartmentalize.”
O’Keeffe, who now lives alone, grew up the fifth of 10 children on his family’s dairy farm near Pallas Green on the border with County Tipperary.
He left home at the age of 16 to work in Dublin and came to America in early adulthood. He worked illegally in Boston for 18 months, but went back to Ireland when his mother became ill, and her death was followed not long afterwards by his father’s.
Back in the U.S. legally in 1989, O’Keeffe went with a girlfriend to Kentucky, where he worked in low-paying jobs for several years. It was there that he began to attend college and, with encouragement from teachers, to write fiction.
“The Hill Road” tells stories of secrets, unfulfilled love and tragedy in and around the fictional village of Kilroan.
“My great obsession was getting the language in a way that I thought it was doing what it should be doing,” he told the Echo in an interview in August.
“You’re trying to hear the stories in your head, when you’re writing, trying to get it a way that makes it sound real …the way you want it to sound,” he added.
The volume was published to enthusiastic reviews on both sides of the Atlantic last summer. One critic, Michael Shelden, a biographer of both Graham Greene and George Orwell, likened “The Postman’s Cottage” – the novella from which O’Keeffe read last week at the New School event – to the “The Dead,” James Joyce’s classic short story.