Writer Christopher Merkner has a lot going on, one of the more recent events being receipt of an accolade he didn't expect. His short story "Cabins" has been selected for inclusion in the 2015 O. Henry Prize Stories anthology, which will be published this fall.
"I've been teaching this collection for years," marvels the WCU assistant professor of English, "and now one of my stories is included!"
The news came via an email that Merkner read on his phone while standing in his kitchen. He says he felt shock and disbelief. "I had to verbalize it to my wife - then it became real."
The O. Henry Prize Stories is the prestigious collection of the 20 best short stories published in Canadian or American periodicals or magazines, an annual literary tradition since 1919 (minus 1952, 1953 and 2004). Among previous winners are Alice Munro, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner - Merkner is somewhat awestruck.
"Now they're running my story alongside some of the authors who have been so important in my writing life: Lydia Davis [a Man Booker Prize winner]; Russell Banks [member of the International Parliament of Writers and the American Academy of Arts and Letters], Percival Everett [The Washington Post calls Everett "one of the most adventurously experimental of modern American novelists."]."
"Cabins" was first published in Subtropics, the literary journal of the University of Florida, where Merkner studied with its editor, David Leavitt, as he earned his master of fine arts in fiction. It is also part of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic, Merkner's collection of stories that was published in January 2014 by Coffee House Press.
"If the O. Henry means anything at all, it means an enhanced profile for our creative writing program," he emphasizes. "Students have a remarkable range of world-class writers teaching WCU's creative writing classes right now, and I hope this award only underscores and reinforces this."
In his classes and as co-director of the University's creative writing program, Merkner "values the multitude of brains, the promise in each college-age writer.
"My students are a community of writers in 20-person workshops, where the real work happens, where we support the intellectual conversation and collaborative work we do as writers. I think my role is to bring them a greater sense of sympathy, empathy, to encourage them to see the perspectives of others. With the workshops, I help students create a space where they can learn to use the story to better understand the world."
Merkner grew up in a Swedish-American family in lake-studded Wauconda, Ill., northwest of Chicago, where he played athletics through high school and fished frequently in northern Wisconsin. His writing draws in part from his family and their dynamics, "the differing needs of relatives, the emotional complexity of life." He recounts an ironic episode at the time of his first child's birth, when his parents took a trip to Sweden to look for their roots just as he and his wife were establishing deeper roots here. "It frustrated and tormented me at the time," he recalls, but it also feeds his fascination with the histories, motivations and idiosyncrasies of Scandinavian-American immigrants.
That scenario will figure into his next work, a novel he has tentatively titled Cheap Flights to Gothenburg, which he plans to complete by 2016. He's been conducting research in northeast Colorado and southwest Nebraska thanks in part to a grant he received from the WCU College of Arts and Sciences this spring that has helped offset travel costs.
One of the elements driving the novel is a tiny cemetery near Gothenburg on the wide Nebraska plains where the first three children in the Berg family were buried in the 1880s; one was two years old at the time of death, the others only two and four months old. Their Swedish grandfather forged rustically ornate crosses in iron to mark their graves. It's not the crosses as much as their endurance that captures him, Merkner explains. "The three Berg children will fit in somehow to my next work."
Josh Russell, one of his mentors, says Merkner's "Midwestern fabulism makes him the Grant Wood of short fiction. [He's gifted in being able] to mash up domestic and gothic in ways uncanny and heartbreaking. ..."
"Josh Russell helped me to be a student," Merkner says of the professor of English and director of creative writing at Georgia State University and author of the novel Yellow Jack.
Being a student was not foremost on Merkner's mind when he took a hiatus from his studies at St. Olaf College to spend two years at the isolated Holden Village in Washington's Cascade Mountains. A former mining town now undergoing remediation, the Lutheran village has no public phones or cell service and its website warns of the challenges of its remoteness as "one of the most isolated continuously inhabited places in the lower 48 states. ...It takes most of a day to get either in or out to the nearest town (Chelan)."
While at Holden Village, Merkner became increasingly aware that the career he wanted would be writer and teacher. He applied to graduate schools, later resuming his studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville where he met his wife, Molly Kugel Merkner, as she completed her master's in poetry. He then earned his doctorate in English and creative writing at the University of Denver, and taught for 11 years at the University of Colorado, Denver.
Today, he and his family split both their time and their lives between West Chester and Denver, an arrangement he calls "complicated. We've moved four times in three years," and despite a full bookshelf behind his office desk, he says he's had to "seriously cull" his own collection of books. But the O. Henry Prize Stories collections will remain, with the 2015 edition in a special place of honor.
Christopher Merkner joined the WCU English Department faculty in 2012 and published his first collection of short stories, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic, in 2014. Among the publications that have included his work are Black Warrior Review, Gettysburg Review, and Best American Mystery Stories. This summer, he's teaching a research seminar on the forms, theories and applications of the American short story.