Eavesdropping at an airport gate before a flight, Australian author Fiona McFarlane overheard a middle-aged couple nervously admit to each other they were terrified of the holiday they were about to embark on.
“It was so deeply touching and vulnerable but so silly at the same time,” McFarlane said.
The incident spawned a story in McFarlane’s latest book, a short story collection titled “The High Places.” The award-winning Australian writer and 2012 graduate of UT’s Michener Center for Writers gave a reading from the collection Monday night. The event was sponsored by Plan II and College of Liberal Arts Joynes Reading Series.
McFarlane said the book took her 10 years to write and was inspired by moments of inexplicable human behavior or oddities she observed around her.
“None of the stories in this book were written with the other stories in mind,” McFarlane said. “I hope that each story creates a different world. It’s about just the interesting or strange ways we engage in the artificial, that’s the thread that sort of binds the book together.”
The book won the Dylan Thomas Prize, an accomplishment that comes with $50,000 and is only given to authors under 40. McFarlane’s 2014 debut novel, “The Night Guest,” was also well-received by critics, chosen for the Voss Literary Prize and shortlisted for Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin.
When citing the accomplishments of McFarlane, who was born in 1978, English professor Kurt Heinzelman pointed out McFarlane’s youth.
“She’s one of our local prizes, but she’s also a global prize,” Heinzelman said. “Not bad for a kid.”
“Buttony,” one of two stories McFarlane read from the collection, was an O. Henry Award winner, a distinction given annually to 20 short stories published in American and Canadian magazines.
“I think ‘Buttony’ fits into the undercurrents of strangeness that I hope are in the book, of people behaving in ways that are sort of mysterious to them and the people around them,” McFarlane said.
Madison Schulz, a Plan II and business freshman, said she was almost transported by the stories McFarlane shared.
“The stories were really beautiful and poignant,” Schulz said. “The feel of the characters and of the situations going on were thrust on the listener. It’s something where each story is distinctive, but you feel like you’re there in each one.”