Issue 123 |
Spring 2014

Alice Hoffman Prize Winner Elise Juska

by Staff

The Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction Ploughshares is pleased to present Elise Juska with the third annual Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction for her short story, “Transfer Station,” which appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Ploughshares, guest-edited by Major Jackson. The $1,000 award, given by acclaimed writer and Ploughshares advisory editor Alice Hoffman, honors the best piece of fiction published in the journal during the previous year.

About Elise Juska and “Transfer Station”

Elise Juska’s new novel, The Blessings, is forthcoming in May from Grand Central Publishing and is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection for Summer 2014. Her short stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Hudson Review, Salmagundi, Black Warrior Review, Harvard Review, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of the Arts.

What inspired “Transfer Station”?

This story grew out of observing a very specific moment: one of my mother’s neighbors had been recently widowed and, several months after his wife died, I noticed he’d put a bunch of old furniture on his lawn. One day, while visiting my mom, I saw a carful of teenagers pull up to look at the furniture and excitedly load a coffee table into their trunk. I was struck by the exchange, the contents of one life transferred into another life: this grieving man—and the coffee table he and his wife had probably had for forty years—and these happy kids who had just scored free furniture for their dorm room. I tucked the moment away, and it was several months later that I began writing the story.

How did the story find its final form? What did you discover or grapple with while writing it?

The process of writing this story was somewhat unusual for me, so I remember it well. I wrote it almost entirely in Maine, on Orr’s Island, where I’ve spent the last nine summers writing in a little cottage in the woods. I start early, around five or six, and write until late afternoon; almost without exception, I never write at night. The first draft of this story kept me up writing well past midnight, feeling tense and surprised and alarmed about what might happen when the kids entered Loring’s house, a feeling I’m sure was only heightened by my solitude and surroundings.

In an early draft, the final scene went further—one of the kids resorted to beating up Loring—but it felt out of character for the kids and, ultimately, might have obscured the story’s point. I wanted the final feeling to be bleak but also hopeful—Loring is losing things he loved deeply, but in so doing, is shocked into caring again about his life.

In creating these characters, my main concern was making sure they weren’t too starkly bad or good; that is, while I certainly saw Loring as a sympathetic figure, I also wanted him to possess a slight sense of smugness or superiority. And the kids, while reckless and thoughtless, were also endearing to me in their insecure posturing.

How does this story fit with the rest of your work?

My writing often deals, in some way, with grief: how we manage it, tend to it, are paralyzed by or move through it. In my new novel, The Blessings, a death in a large family resonates through the lives of multiple characters over the next twenty years.

I’m also interested in the intersections among unlikely people, characters whose lives may seem dissimilar or disconnected; it’s probably why the scene on my mother’s neighbor’s lawn stayed with me so strongly. Several of my recent stories have contained such moments, where a teacher or neighbor or relative stranger—or, here, three teenagers—ends up crossing paths with the main character, sometimes in a small way, and has an unexpectedly profound impact.