US writer Bret Anthony Johnston, published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton imprint Two Roads, has won this year's £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.
The Harvard University director of creative writing scooped the lucrative prize for his story “Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses.” The story tells of its protagonist’s life-long enthusiasm for horses, and the way he can still recall this passion when his memory falters in old age.
Judge Mark Lawson commented of the winning tale: "Great short stories achieve a breadth of meaning far greater than the length of their telling. In Bret Anthony Johnston's story, a small patch of Texas cattle country opens up long vistas on love, death, memory and the survival instinct, human and equine. Johnston showed brilliance over the long distance in his novel, Remember Me Like This, and now proves equally adept at brevity. Small details from American and animal lives take on vast significance, and every line has the kick of a horse."
A delighted Johnston told The Bookseller the short story was one he had worked on "really for a decade" and in "a process of accrual". "I would be writing on my 'real' novel, I would get frustrated with it, and I would [leave it and] write a little vignette about a horse. I started to have enough of them, and my character became a backbone - I spread the pieces over the floor and looked at what would be the most interesting way for the reader to go through the story. I was trying to understand, where would [my character's] memory go next? The trajectory of memory is not logical, and a lot of time was spent trying to disabuse the story of logic."
Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate, who also judged the award, said: "We began the 2017 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award with over 1,000 entries from five continents, a record for the prize. The shortlist was an immensely strong one, but Bret Antony Johnston's story stood out for the poise, beauty and calm of its writing, the depth of its emotional engagement, and for its deep, deep resonance and humanity. The Sunday Times EFG award has an excellent reputation both for rewarding major writers, and introducing exciting new ones. Bret is already weighed down with accolades in the US, but I'm very excited that British readers can now be introduced properly to this outstanding author."
As well as his novel Remember Me Like This, about the return of a missing child, described by the Observer as a "suspenseful, uplifting portrait of a family in crisis", Two Roads has also published Johnston's short story collection Corpus Christi.
Johnston’s story won out against a shortlist which also comprised stories from Richard Lambert, Sally Rooney, Kathleen Alcott, Victor Lodato and Celeste Ng, who each receive £1,000. Authors Rose Tremain, Neel Mukherjee and Anne Enright, the Laureate for Irish Fiction, also judged the award.
Johnston also took the opportunity of the award win to comment on the life of a writer under the Trump administration, noting: "I think what we do as readers and writers is, we exercise profound depths of empathy. We enter into a story without judgement. It seems as though every thing that comes out of the current administration is short on empathy and long on judgement. The result is that many people in America feel as if they are in a kind of exile... It is deeply alienating and I hope we get to a point where it feels like a call to arms, and not just the defeat of empathy."