Graduates of the UC Davis English department’s creative writing program have scored back-to-back wins of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Winners have a short story collection published by the University of Georgia Press.
Becky Mandelbaum (M.A., ’16) won the award last year, and her collection Bad Kansas was published last month. In early October, Kirsten Lunstrum (M.A., ’03) was named this year’s winner, and her collection What We Do With the Wreckage will be published next fall. The award, started in 1983, is named for O’Connor, a Georgia writer whose stories are infused with dark humor and her Catholic faith.
Kansas to California in life and story
As the title of her collection implies, Mandelbaum’s stories are connected to Kansas, where she lived most of her life. That’s the case even when they are set elsewhere, like a college town in California.
“Living in Davis definitely affected and shaped the stories,” said Mandelbaum, who has most recently been living and working at North Cascades National Park in Washington. “I was very homesick during my first year of grad school, and the feelings I experienced — a restlessness and a longing for Kansas — provided the emotional impetus I often need to start a story.
“In Kansas, everyone glorified the West Coast as the ultimate destination, so I had a hard time processing why I was unhappy. I spent a lot of time that first year thinking about place, and home, and what it means to leave and return — to a physical state, to a person, to a part of your life that might be over.”
Although Mandelbaum started writing when she was young and was encouraged by teachers, she didn’t consider a career in writing until she attended the University of Kansas. Her professors there were supportive and encouraged her to apply for graduate programs; one specifically steered her toward UC Davis.
“I couldn't have asked for better mentors at Davis,” she said. “The writers I worked with — (faculty members) Pam Houston, Yiyun Li and Lynn Freed — were an ideal fit for my writing.”
At 25, Mandelbaum became the youngest winner of the O’Connor Award.
“Winning this feels pretty enormous”
Lunstrum, who lives near Seattle, Washington, has already had two short story collections published, This Life She’s Chosen (2005) and Swimming With Strangers (2008).
“It’s been so long since my last collection came out it feels almost like a first publication,” she said. “Winning this feels pretty enormous.”
The stories in What We Do With the Wreckage move around in time and space, but are all set just before or just after a disaster.
“Some are intimate and personal disasters, some larger natural disasters, and some are fantastical,” she said.
A native of the Los Angeles area, Lunstrum taught middle school before coming to UC Davis.
“I ended up there largely because of Pam Houston,” said Lunstrum, who went on to teach at a university and now teaches at a high school. “When I met Pam and the cohort of writers there, I had an intuitive feeling it was the right place to be. Davis does a great job of building a community. I felt we were all together learning and rooting for one another."
— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science