Holland Perryman

Beloved best-selling author Pat Conroy described Beaufort-born writer Ann Head as his “first novelist.” Indeed, she was his first creative writing teacher as well. As creators and sponsors of the Ann Head Literary Prize for Short Story, the family of Ann Head is pleased to announce that, by the unanimous and enthusiastic vote of the competition’s six judges, Beaufort High School junior Holland Perryman has been selected as winner of the second annual Ann Head Literary Prize for her story “Our Toothpick House.”

From the judges’ perspectives, Perryman’s story speaks with empathy to the anxieties of this peculiar year and, at the same time, presents a fresh and ultimately life-affirming take on a mother-daughter relationship. Using just the short timeframe between when a mother drops off her daughter for her weekly therapy appointment until she must pick up her daughter afterwards, Perryman delves deeply into the mother’s feelings of failure, her concerns for her daughter’s wellbeing, and her own fears of what their future holds. Such was the accuracy and insight of Perryman’s depiction of a mother’s thoughts that the judges all felt they knew and loved this woman. To create a character whose authenticity feels so genuine that a reader truly comes to care about the character is at the heart of every fiction writer’s craft. In her prize-winning story, Perryman achieved that with astounding grace and absolute assurance. The family of Ann Head applaud her.

Holland Perryman photos by Susan DeLoach

A Beaufort High School junior and the newly elected student body president, Perryman was a finalist for the inaugural Ann Head Literary Prize in 2020 and the recipient of the creative writing award for a competition inspired by the Pat Conroy Literary Center’s March Forth partnership at Beaufort High in 2019. She was selected for the Creative Writing Academy Program at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in 2019. Perryman is also the first writer, of any age, to be twice featured in the Lowcountry Poets Corner segment of the Telly Award-winning ETV series By the River. Her book reviews and author interviews have been published in the Charleston Post and Courier, Lowcountry Weekly, and the Southern Review of Books. She is in her second year as the first intern of the nonprofit Pat Conroy Literary Center. Perryman is also an accomplished musical theatre actress, a member of the Beaufort High Voices auditioned choir, and captain of the Beaufort High School Girls Varsity Lacrosse Team.

Perryman will receive a cash prize of $500 and her name will be engraved on the Ann Head Literary Prize plaque to be permanently displayed at Beaufort High School. She will also be honored at the Pat Conroy Literary Festival this fall, where she will have the opportunity to read from her story.

The winning story was chosen from short stories written by students at Beaufort High School and submitted for consideration. The high caliber of the stories made the decision of the judges, all family members of Ann Head, extremely difficult, although highly enjoyable. The family is grateful for the enthusiastic support of the Beaufort High School English Department and its chair, Wendy LaCombe, as well as for the support and partnership in this endeavor of Jonathan Haupt, executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center.

The family of Ann Head congratulates each of the students who submitted a story for the competition this year. They are writers all, and they have proved that they can each craft an original short story. Says one of Ann Head’s daughters, Nancy Thode, “Keep it up, writers of Beaufort High School! Who knows how many more future Pat Conroys Beaufort High might foster?”

Ann Head

About Ann Head: Writer Ann Head, the pen name of Anne Wales Christensen Head Morse (1915–1968), was the granddaughter of Abbie Holmes Christensen, who came to Beaufort during the Civil War to educate the recently freed enslaved populations of the Sea Islands. Moving back and forth between Boston and Beaufort, Ann carried on the family tradition of bucking traditions and creating new literary forms. Ann was Pat Conroy’s first creative writing teacher at Beaufort High School and became Conroy’s mentor, confidante, and friend. She was a central figure in Beaufort’s midcentury literary scene, befriending many of the famous authors who wintered in Beaufort, including Samuel Hopkins Adams (whom she considered her mentor), Somerset Maugham, John Marquand, and Katherine and E. B. White among others.

Ann published dozens of short stories and serials in the major national magazines of her day, with many of her stories set in a small town just like Beaufort. She wrote of divorce, snobbery, affairs both emotional and sexual, prejudice, death, and out-of-wedlock childbirth, championing the non-typical heroines of the magazines that eagerly accepted her work. In addition, she authored four novels which were published internationally, most notably Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, a compelling story of teen pregnancy which was on school reading lists for 50 years and is credited with helping create the Young Adult novel genre.

Ann died suddenly in 1968, at the age of 52, cutting short a vibrant life and promising literary career. The Life of Ann Head was chronicled by her daughter, Nancy Thode, in a lecture originally presented at the Beaufort County Library and now available on YouTube at https://tinyurl.com/annheadpresentation. To learn more about Ann Head, please visit her entry on Wikipedia. Her stories and books are available locally at the main branch of the Beaufort County Library, and she is the revered subject of the essay “My First Novelist” in the Pat Conroy Cookbook.

Excerpt from “Our Toothpick House” by Holland Perryman

Winner of the 2021 Ann Head Literary Prize for Short Story

I hate Thursdays. From when I get up to brush my teeth to when I put on my eyemask, the day is shot and limping and dragging itself toward a quiet sundown-death. The event of the day is always the same and never better than I think it’s going to be. It’s often worse. Thursdays have been Eve’s therapy days for two months now. All day I work myself up for the forty minutes spent driving to and from Dr. Sharon’s. It feels like being a child again because no one gives you the rulebook for this. No one tells you to brace yourself, and it’s hard to see warning signs when you can’t even see the road in front of you….

Eve doesn’t say much about what she and Dr. Sharon discuss. I was promised that if it was about me, Dr. Sharon would help me to work on it. But I can’t help but wonder.

I’ve spent the last thirty years taking deep breaths. I’ve been stuffing my lungs with air until my insides ache. In and out. Full and empty. Bursting and hungering. Now I felt that tugging behind my stomach. The waves inside the center of me began to gain strength and momentum and threatened to crash onto my toothpick world. This happens sometimes. I think I was in junior high when I first felt this feeling, like all of a sudden my world was fragile and all of my life was on the precipice of collapsing. I pinched the bridge of my nose and began to breathe. I’d been diagnosed with anxiety years ago, but there’s a chasm of difference between diagnosis and a fix. The only time it had been this bad, this encompassing, had been when I was pregnant with Jacob. I was so afraid that the tiniest thing would go wrong and that the life I had coaxed into existence would be extinguished.

That is what I feared now. While the world was spinning all around us, Eve’s flame had gotten so small. All it would take is a breath, a breeze, a sigh, and she would be gone. What are you supposed to do when you thought you’d done everything right? I hadn’t taken my eye off of her once. I’d held her as often as I could. I’d sung her to sleep. I’d given her everything within me. What do you do when your everything isn’t enough?

I forced my breathing to slow and looked at the time. The hour and a half had nearly passed. I wiped my wet cheeks and pulled out of the dirty parking lot. The sky was a perfect blue and the clouds were cotton balls. Birds danced across the sky, twirling on the breeze. I tried on a smile but it fell right off. Eve walked out of the house just as I pulled into the driveway. I didn’t plan on having so little time to compose myself. Eve opened the car door.

She didn’t meet my eye, strapping herself in without so much as a “hello.” The quiet pressed down on me. Breathe. Just breathe. But I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. Eve finally looked at me and her face cracked open.

“Mom, what’s wrong?” she said.

My mouth tried to move but nothing came out. She took my hand and waited. I balanced out my breathing and let some truth out, saying, “I’m scared.” Eve’s eyes pooled. I brought her into a hug.

Eve burrowed herself in my arms and whispered, “Me too.”

I held onto her, feeling the weight around me lift a little. We stayed like that, still and quiet, until my arms were sore, but I didn’t let go. This quiet was different.

“It’s so much to feel like this,” Eve said, lifting her head to look at me. She looked exhausted. “I don’t want to feel like this.”

The center of me ached. There’s no rulebook for this. I searched for what to say to make her understand what I was feeling. “You are not alone. I will be here every day, fighting for you. I don’t have all the answers, but I will be here. I will always love you. All we need to do is live one day at a time.” I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I felt Eve’s arms tighten around me. She began to cry. I rocked her there and did my best to keep my own tears quiet. I kissed her head.

Her voice was thick as she said, “I want to stay.” A cry slipped out of me and I leaned back to look in her face.

“One day at a time.”