World award is no fantasy for Westerly author Claire Cooney

World award is no fantasy for Westerly author Claire Cooney

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — When she was in third grade, Claire Cooney wrote her first musical. When she was in sixth grade, she wrote her first novel.

When she was 33, she was nominated for a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America-sponsored Nebula Award for her first novella, “The Bone Swans of Amandale.”

In October the soon-to-be 35-year-old Westerly resident earned another feather for her colorful cap. She won the 2016 World Fantasy Award for “Bone Swans: Stories,” in the Best Short Story Collection category.

“I had no expectation of winning so I didn’t prepare any comments,” said Cooney, whose stories take readers on fantastical journeys through reimagined fairy tales and myths. “I just sat there saying ‘No way’ ... until my friends started screaming.”

Cooney describes her writing as secondary world fantasy, similar in genre to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Her writing features flying carpets, strange clowns and pied pipers, she said, with strong female characters and people who turn into things.

“Swords and sorcery,” said the writer who has been influenced by such fairy tales as the The Pied Piper and Rumpelstilskin.

“Fairy tales are so ancient,” she said, “and tell us so much about ourselves.”

In a starred review of “Bone Swans: Stories,” Publishers Weekly wrote: “Cooney’s brilliantly executed collection of five stories is a delicious stew of science fiction, horror, and fantasy, marked by unforgettable characters who plumb the depths of pathos and triumph.”

A starred review in Library Journal noted that “each tale packs in enough plot for a novel, with adventurous characters who brim with wit.”

Warm, bright-eyed and expressive, Cooney laughed as she told of the 13-hour-plus car trip she and two friends took from Westerly to Columbus, Ohio, last month to be at the awards ceremony.

Although she said she has mixed feelings about awards, and is somewhat suspicious of their meaning, she feels it is a big honor nonetheless.

“I felt a little like I had stepped into an alternate universe,” she continued. “I was the underdog. It was enough to be nominated.”

Mostly, she said, she was happy for her mentor, Gene Wolf, the acclaimed Science Fiction Hall of Fame author who wrote the introduction to “Bone Swans: Stories.”

“My dad introduced us,” said Cooney. Rory Cooney is a noted songwriter and liturgical musician, and the director of liturgy and music at the St. Anne Catholic Community in Barrington, Ill.

“There is a select type of student, rare but invaluable, who will certainly succeed if not run down by a truck,” writes Wolfe, a recipient of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Grand Master Award, in the introduction. “You help yourself instead of helping them, putting an arm around their shoulders and making them promise to say you taught them all they know.”

Cooney’s father said he was thrilled to be able to introduce his daughter and Wolfe, a longtime friend from the parish where he works.

“You know how it is with your kids. You see their gifts, you see what delights them, but truthfully, you never know what they’re going to end up doing in life,” said Cooney’s dad. “You want them to do something that makes them happy. As it turns out, Claire is the happiest person I know. She’s written volumes since she was a little girl, and been completely dedicated to the genre.

“I didn’t always understand why she wrote what she wrote,” he added, “but she was always willing to try anything, and always believed in what she was doing.”

“Claire is very clever with words, in fact, I think she loved words so much that she didn’t speak as a child until she was able to speak in paragraphs,” he said. “Since then, she hasn’t stopped. Thank goodness.”

The World Fantasy Award is one of the three big awards given in her fantasy genre, and Cooney faced stiff competition in a category that included a Pulitzer Prize finalist and two career retrospectives from well-established international writers.

Jo Fletcher, one of the administrators of the World Fantasy Awards, said the awards program was started in 1975 “by a small group of luminaries in the fields of fantasy and horror literature and art.”

The group included the field’s most prominent agent at the time, Kirby McCauley, who represented writers Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dennis Etchison and Karl Edward Wagner; cartoonist Gahan Wilson, who designed the first statuette for the award; and the writer David Hartwell.

The first World Fantasy Convention was held in Providence in 1975, Fletcher said, and has been held every year since, each time in a different location.

The awards are rare, she said, “in that the shortlists are agreed by both popular vote and a panel of judges.”

Roughly 700 members attended this year’s banquet and conference, Fletcher said.

Cooney, who uses the name C.S.E. Cooney as a pen name, is a Phoenix, Ariz., native who spent time between her mother’s home in Arizona and her father’s in Chicago. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago and moved to Westerly several years ago.

“I gave myself Westerly for my 30th birthday,” said Cooney, who made her first visit to the area as a 9-year-old and always wanted to return.

“I really love it here,” she added, praising the library, the ocean, Wilcox Park, the Savoy Bookshop and Café and the United Theatre.

Cooney, who combines her love of theater and writing with her career as an audiobook narrator, said she’s planning an event called Medusa Mia at the United on Dec. 17 at 7 p.m.

Part concert, part variety show, the evening will feature a lineup of poets, actors, dancers, and musicians who are planning to “remember and reinvent myth and legend” in a wild parade of monologues, verse, and short plays by writers contemporary and ancient, and songs by Cooney’s band, Brimstone Rhine. There will be a suggested donation of $10, she said, but any donation is welcome and acceptable.

“Even pocket change,” said Cooney, adding that all proceeds will benefit The Jonnycake Center of Westerly. “It’s a pay what you can event.”

When she was young, people used to tell her that she could never make a living in the arts, Cooney said.

“I want to tell them you can and I do,” she said. “This is my biggest dream come true.”


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