January 25, 2006

Irish author Patrick O’Keeffe wins Story Prize

By Mark Egan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Irish newcomer Patrick O'Keeffe won
the Story Prize on Wednesday for short stories -- which carries
the largest cash prize of any annual U.S. fiction award -- for
his book "The Hill Road."

The Irish-born O'Keeffe won the $20,000 first prize and an
engraved silver bowl for his collection of four novellas set in
a fictional Irish dairy-farming village and published by
Penguin's Viking imprint.

"I didn't think this would happen," O'Keeffe, 42, said,
visibly shocked on accepting the award at The New School in
Manhattan. "Thanks a lot."

O'Keeffe was born on a rural Irish dairy farm. He said in
an interview after the ceremony he first came to the United
States in 1986 as an illegal immigrant without a college
education, working in bars, waiting tables and working on
construction sites.

In 1989, he returned to the United States after winning a
green card in a lottery, passed his high school equivalency
exam and enrolled in university in 1990 to study English,
finally graduating at the age of 32.

He then earned a graduate fine arts degree in writing from
the University of Michigan, where he is now a lecturer.

"This is always what I wanted to do. I had nothing to
lose," he said of his desire to be an author, which began with
his first efforts at writing in his late 20s.

"I did not expect my name to come up tonight, I feel really
honored," he said.

O'Keeffe's publisher has compared him to Irish-born
short-story writer and novelist William Trevor, but The
Baltimore Sun in a review went further by likening the newcomer
to Irish literary titan James Joyce.

"If he is following in the footsteps of any of his
countrymen, it's not the genteel craftsman Trevor, but someone
far grander -- James Joyce, whose longest and greatest story
'The Dead,' seems to be the model for O'Keeffe's hauntingly
beautiful tale 'The Postman's Cottage,' the jewel of this
outstanding collection," the Sun wrote.

Asked about the comparison with Joyce, he said, "It's just
too much."

The other two finalists were literary heavyweight Jim
Harrison for "The Summer He Didn't Die," published by Atlantic
Monthly Press, and Maureen F. McHugh, whose "Mothers & Other
Monsters" was published by Small Beer Press.

Harrison, best known for writing the collection of novellas
"Legends of the Fall," which was made into a hit Hollywood
film, and McHugh, the author of four novels including "China
Mountain Zhang," were each awarded $5,000.

The Story Prize was established to honor short fiction and
the first prize was won in 2005 by Haitian-American writer
Edwidge Danticat for "The Dew Breaker."