“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.”