Courtney Zoffness leads the creative writing program.
April 2018 – As a finalist for the world’s richest prize for a single short story, Drew University’s Courtney Zoffness will travel to London to hear actors read her piece and attend a black tie ceremony.
Her story, “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts,” deftly describes the confusion that Pam, a high school student, feels after her biology tutor, Mr. Peebles, is arrested in a child predator sting operation. While tutoring Pam, he flirts with her but ultimately doesn’t prey upon her, triggering all sorts of questions in her head.
The story is among six short-listed for The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, which will be awarded on April 26. Zoffness, an assistant professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Drew, reflects on the honor and how teaching shapes her work.
What makes this award so prestigious?
There are few prizes with this kind of price tag attached. So on that level, it’s rewarding with a capital R. And for a single short story, no less!
Short story collections are notoriously hard to sell. Publishers are wary of purchasing them. Consumers don’t buy them as readily as they do novels. So, to honor a short story with this kind of award and attention—that, to me, is one of the lovely aspects of this prize. Number two: it’s international in scope. The stories entered this year hailed from 40 different countries.
What does it mean to be a finalist?
Logistically, it means you get a little bit of money, which is always welcome. You go to a black tie event at Stationers’ Hall in the City of London. The night before the ceremony, there’s a reading at Foyles bookstore in central London, where British actors dramatize the finalists’ stories in front of an audience. And there’s a lot of publicity around the prize in the U.K.
Why do you like writing short stories?
I’m a literary writer and I value diction and cadence. I think about the quality and sound of language as much as I do drama, so I like working in a form that embraces such close attention to language and even depends on it.
What was the germ of the idea that led to this story?
When I was in high school I had a biology tutor who was ultimately caught in a pedophilia sting operation. I was fascinated and horrified by the fact that I was cooped up in a small room off my parent’s kitchen with a sexual predator. Much unlike Pam in the story, I did not have a crush on my tutor. But for dramatic potential, I imagined the ways in which this scenario could be higher stakes and more intense.
I’m hopeful that you weren’t attacked in any way.
No, not at all. But I was fascinated by the fact that I wasn’t, and grateful, of course.
Given all that has happened recently, is your story more resonant now than when you wrote it a few years ago?
I hope so. I do think a sexual charge can skew power dynamics. In “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts,” Mr. Peebles is flirtatious, though he doesn’t technically cross a line. Such interactions can be confusing for a young person. I hope my story helps expand the #MeToo conversation to recognized that even when no crime is committed, there are insidious ways in which sexually charged power dynamics can wreak havoc.
How does teaching influence your writing?
Each semester I assign new literature, and I’m forced to scrutinize and dissect it. Having the opportunity to assess as many books as my students and I do together, to read in this close way, inspires and strengthens my craft. Also, my students are wicked smart. They bring their own insights to our discussions and illuminate some of these stories in ways that I hadn’t seen. The best teaching days invigorate my creative production.
When and where do you write?
I weave it in wherever I can. I live in Brooklyn. So, I have a long commute and do a lot of revising and sentence-level polishing on the train. I generate the most pages over the summer for obvious reasons. But I’m not precious about reserving the perfect time and space in which to write. My life is too busy: I can’t afford to be precious!
How does writing shape your teaching?
It informs the lens I train on literature. I read as a writer. I teach my students to deconstruct stories in terms of how they’re made and we look at the effects of different craft choices: an unusual point of view or a segmented narrative or quotation-less dialogue, say. We talk about the effects of each technique, and how these effects coalesce. As a working artist, I can’t help but see texts this way.
What brought you to Drew initially?
Its liberal arts focus, including its mission to simultaneously supply a broad and deep education. I appreciated that the classes were small, and the department was too, so that I might develop relationships with students and colleagues. I also liked that the campus was commutable from Brooklyn, where I’m entrenched!
What would it mean to win this prize?
It would be amazing. There’s only been one female winner in the prize’s eight-year history, Yiyun Li. Clearly, as evidenced in my story, I’m attentive to gender and power imbalances, so I’d be fired up to succeed on this broader level. On a personal level, I am early in my literary career. The other short-listed writers, including Curtis Sittenfeld and Miranda July, have international standing. To have my work considered alongside theirs is flattering in itself, but to “beat” them? That would be head-spinning.