Faire Holliday | 2023 PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize Winner
In the coming weeks, we will feature Q&As with the contributors to this year’s Best Debut Short Stories anthology, published by Catapult. These stories were selected for the 2023 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers by judges Venita Blackburn, Richard Chiem, and Dantiel W. Moniz.
Faire Holliday is a writer with roots in Oregon and Washington. She draws inspiration from the varied experiences she’s been able to have, from working at a free restaurant for people experiencing homelessness to interning at the World Health Organization. She is the 2022 winner of the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for fiction and is currently finishing her first novel. She can be found at faireholliday.com.
“Standing Still” was originally published in Cincinnati Review.
Here is an excerpt:
And yet I’m aware of the liminal space I exist in. I lurk on the edges of poverty. I’m a visitor on those gritty shores. I’ve got a college degree and parents with connections. Upward mobility is not an impossibility if I’m willing to compromise for it. If there’s one thing Luis has taught me, it’s that poverty is a different ball game when you know you’ll never escape. All those things that give me a sense of freedom are crushing weights to him.
“I will never work in a cubicle,” I said one day, as we watched people coming out of downtown offices at the beginning of the lunch hour.
“Me either,” he said, studying the calluses on his hands.
A statement of rebellion for me. A statement of fact for him.
What inspired you to write this story? Where did the idea come from?
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with selfishness. On one hand, I feel that it’s a critical tool for living the life you want to live. On the other hand, it can be such a destructive force in the life of those around you. I wanted to take that perspective to an extreme and see how it played out. In my mid-twenties, I briefly dated a man who had a young son. I quickly realized I wasn’t ready for the level of responsibility, but the experience stayed with me. Somewhere along the line, those two pieces locked into place and the story grew from there.
Your main character is unsure of where she belongs in every sector of her life, but rejects vulnerability and responsibility. Can you tell me a bit more about that gray area she finds herself in, between evasion and stagnancy?
One of the things I find most fascinating is people’s ability to delude themselves. Seneca (the main character) is so focused on this concept of living freely—of not standing still—that she doesn’t recognize that her decisions keep bringing her back to the same place. In trying so hard to avoid stagnancy, she’s creating a different sort of holding pattern for herself. I’d also say that she’s someone who sees herself as brutally self-aware, and because she holds that belief she misses the larger ways she’s deluding herself. I think many of the gray areas that we find ourselves in come from the disconnect between how we think we’re living and how we actually are.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
Just how complicated we all are. Reading and writing are such great tools for self-reflection. I find myself particularly drawn to characters that are simultaneously dislikeable and relatable. I’d love for readers to walk away feeling like they learned something about their own complex way of moving through the world.
How has the PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
It’s such an honor to be a recipient of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize. Writing, for me, is a constant process of wading through self-doubt. This prize has been an amazing port in the storm, a safe place I can return to when I’m wondering whether I’m good enough to keep going. I am so grateful to the Robert J. Dau Foundation and PEN for that validation. My hope is that the prize will help open future writing doors, as well.
On another note, I’ve loved being able to connect with other PEN/Dau winners. Writing has been a solitary act for a long time, and I’d forgotten how inspiring and motivating it is to feel like I’m part of a community.
What advice would you share with aspiring writers?
I would say don’t focus on the statistics. For years, I put off submitting my work because I kept reading about how hard it was to get published. And it is hard; that’s the truth of it. But the statistics can’t tell you how good of a writer you are and it can be easy to psych yourself out before you even get started.