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Alumna Elizabeth Genovise earned a spot among the O. Henry short story collection | Courtesy Genovise
Alumna Eliz­abeth Gen­ovise earned a spot among the O. Henry short story col­lection | Courtesy Gen­ovise

“I am eight weeks in the womb and my life is forfeit.”

It is this fragile and pow­erful sen­tence that caught the attention of jurors and earned Eliz­abeth Gen­ovise a place in the 2016 O. Henry Short Story Prize Col­lection. Gen­ovise ’06, Hillsdale alumna and pro­fessor of English at Roane State Com­munity College in Har­riman, Ten­nessee, has pub­lished two pre­vious col­lec­tions of short stories that cul­tivate a deep sense of place and per­sonal growth, just as “Irises” does.

The O. Henry Prize, one of the most pres­ti­gious awards for short story writers, was estab­lished in 1919 in honor of the leg­endary short story writer who wrote “The Gift of the Magi” and more than 250 other short stories in the early 1900s.

Unlike many other lit­erary awards, the O. Henry selects pieces from lit­erary journals instead of accepting appli­ca­tions from the writers them­selves.

“I was really shocked,” Gen­ovise said. “It’s as far as I’ve gone in the pub­lishing industry.”

In Genovise’s “Irises,” orig­i­nally pub­lished in the Cimarron Review, a mother and daughter plant flowers together. The older woman shares her journey to moth­erhood, which almost ended her mar­riage and her unborn daughter’s life. This painful, but hope-filled con­fession is meant as a mys­te­rious gift.

“They’re gar­dening, and they’re about to plant irises,” Gen­ovise said. “The daughter, who is the nar­rator of the story, is looking for her mother to give her this perfect answer for how to live, and she’s ques­tioning her life. When her mother tells her this story, she realizes that’s not going to happen. Human life is more com­pli­cated and mys­te­rious for that, and she’s not going to get that perfect answer.”

It’s a tender story about the uncertain and pre­cious nature of human lives and rela­tion­ships, well worth the 15-minute read.

Though Gen­ovise has quickly found success as a fiction writer, she was orig­i­nally a student of instead of a creator of lit­er­ature.

At Hillsdale College, Gen­ovise studied under pro­fessors Daniel Sundahl, John Somerville, and Justin Jackson, focusing on American and Russian lit­er­ature and com­pleting her senior thesis on Fyodor Dos­to­evsky.

“She loved the grind,” Sundahl said of Gen­ovise. “She loved to study, study, study and appre­ciate the works she was studying.”

Gen­ovise said she orig­i­nally had no plans to write fiction.

“I was just inter­ested in studying lit­er­ature,” Gen­ovise said. “That was my plan, to go get a Ph.D. in lit­er­ature and do the exact same thing my pro­fessors were doing.”

But pro­fessor of English John Somerville saw potential in Genovise’s cre­ative writing, as well.

“She was in my intro­ductory English course, and the first assignment is a piece of cre­ative writing,” Somerville said. “She wrote about walking in the woods by the creek. Some stu­dents show an aptitude for that kind of writing from the beginning, and Eliz­abeth was one of them.”

After grad­u­ating from Hillsdale in three years, Gen­ovise enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the Uni­versity of Iowa, where she lived with Kate Klein ’99, who was also pur­suing graduate studies in English.

While drinking high­balls and making spicy lentil soup to ward off the cold of a Midwest winter, the two dis­cussed school, lit­er­ature, and life, Klein said.

It was these courses and con­ver­sa­tions that turned Gen­ovise from a dis­ap­pointing Ph.D. program toward courses in cre­ative writing.

“[The MFA courses] were incredible,” Gen­ovise said. “It was just like being at Hillsdale again. I was around all these people who were writing fiction, and all of the sudden I was just doing it. I was skipping class, and writing fiction instead of going to my Ph.D. classes.”

Gen­ovise trans­ferred from the Ph.D. program to the MFA program, which allowed her to study cre­ative writing with respected writers at the Iowa Writing Workshop, including the best­selling author and essayist Mar­i­lynne Robinson.

But Gen­ovise didn’t leave her lit­er­ature studies behind when she moved into cre­ative fiction writing.

“My stories are a lot like the lit­er­ature I’ve grown up loving,” Gen­ovise said. “They’re very char­acter-focused. In the ideal sit­u­ation, they’re attempting to reveal some deeper truth about human nature … I’ve had some people occa­sionally read my stuff and say that there were things that reminded them of Russian lit­er­ature. I obvi­ously don’t intend for that, but I think there are ele­ments there because I loved it and spent so much time reading it.”

After grad­u­ation, Gen­ovise taught at McNeese State Uni­versity while con­tinuing to write short stories on the side, and later worked on a goat farm in Ten­nessee, a setting that influ­enced many of her short stories.

“When we were at Iowa, we talked about books and lit­er­ature, but we didn’t start exchanging stories until after grad­u­ation,” Klein said. “There’s an intimate con­nection to the natural world in her early stories … Her char­acters have also grown with her – and even beyond her – into more adult and mature problems.”

Klein said she still reads drafts of Genovise’s stories, but rarely cri­tiques them, “because they’re so good.”

Gen­ovise also recon­nected with her pro­fessors at Hillsdale through her writing.

Sundahl read and reviewed both of Genovise’s short story col­lec­tions in the Southern Lit­erary Review.

“They were very, very fine books,” Sundahl said. “She’s coming along as a fine writer. There’s a sense of mystery in her books … ‘Irises’ is a gem of a story that will persist and make its way into anthologies in years to come.”