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Winners: Bath Short Story Award, 2016

We’re thrilled to announce the winners and the commended writers of the international Bath Short Story Award, 2016. This year, 1439 writers entered from around the globe, 64 stories were longlisted and 20 stories made the shortlist. Congratulations to all our long and shortlisted writers and special congratulations to the five winners and three commended writers. An anthology of  winning and shortlisted stories will be published this Autumn.

BBC Radio 4 producer Mair Bosworth judged the shortlist and, after much consideration, chose the 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize winners and three commended stories. The BSSA team selected the stories for the Local Prize and the Acorn Award for an unpublished writer of fiction. Read the judges’ comments on the winning and commended stories here and find out more about the authors and link to their stories.

1st prize of £1000  ‘Feather Your Nest’  by Anne O’Brien

2nd prize of £200  ‘Almost Home’  by Barry McKinley

3rd prize of £100  ‘Say you’ by Sara Collins

The Acorn Award for an unpublished writer of fiction:  £50  ‘Braces’ by Nick Werber

Local Prize:  £50 in vouchers donated by Mr B’s Emporium of Books, Bath ‘Who said the river was red’ by Alison Powell.

Commended story: ‘The Earth on the Way Down’ by Margaret Dolley

Commended story: ‘Blessing’ by Bunmi Ogunsiji

Commended story: ‘A Marriage of Convenience’ by Kathy Stevens

Judge’s Comments


Mair Bosworth

Comments on the BSSA 2016 shortlist,1st, 2nd and 3rd prize winners and commended pieces from our shortlist judge, BBC Radio 4 Producer, Mair Bosworth

When I agreed to be the shortlist judge for this year’s Bath Short Story Award, I didn’t know what a hard task I was taking on. I have been really impressed with the shortlisted stories and would like to congratulate everyone who got this far in the competition.

Picking a top three has not been easy. Reading these stories I have been transported to Brooklyn, Tangier, Dublin, Appalachia, Bangor. I have encountered some startling, imaginative storytelling and some brilliantly drawn characters who have really stuck with me. There is great energy and originality in these stories, matched with control and craft. Thank you to everyone who sent in their stories – it’s been an honour to read them all.

 First Prize

 Feather Your Nest 

Impressive in its clarity and control of tone and language, this is a quiet, poised story that holds great emotion just beneath the surface. Apparently simple and unadorned, I relished the startling shift that happens midway through this story, when the reader is taken somewhere else entirely. The egg symbolism could have felt clunky in another writer’s hands, but here it was used sensitively and effectively to speak about fertility, loss and hope. I loved the sparing use of painful details: the quiet kitchen, the baby clothes in the attic, the claustrophobia of daytime TV and the pines casting their shadow across the garden. This story hooked me right away and charmed, moved and surprised me. It is a worthy winner.

Second Prize

 Almost Home

Of all the stories I read, this is perhaps the one that has stuck with me most vividly. I loved its humour, set against the dark reality of its subject matter. I loved its relentless pace and action, driving the narrative towards the emotional kick of its inevitable conclusion. I felt instantly attached to the characters (who are drawn with skill and affection) and there is some great, cinematic, imagery (Ali, for example, watching the cars pass on the motorway as the ‘burnt scrub of southern Spain was slowly lost to the night’). I was impressed by the sense of intimacy created between the three men at the heart of the story: uneasy travelling companions locked together in fulfilment of the unpleasant task at hand; an unlikely trio, framed in the tight spaces of a ferry cabin, a car, a doorway. Almost Home is an impassioned story of great warmth and humanity that manages to stay the right side of sugary. It puts a human face to one of the great challenges of our present time and is a good read to boot.

Third Prize

Say you

Brilliant. Refreshing and bold; a story with a swagger to match that of its characters. Great storytelling; alive with colour, pulsing with the energy of precocious teenage girl desire. I loved the way that the (apparent) invincibility of youth is set against details which unsettle the reader and hint at something more sinister behind this carefree summer: the indifferent cruise ships ‘clean and white as jawbones’, the ‘shark coloured rafts’, eyes ‘glinting like knife-blades’. Some standout lines too: “The story of any island is basically the story of men, arriving”. The story deftly handles the complex power dynamics between the young women and their Cubano Cinderellos. I was left wanting more: as in the story, this is a summer that sticks forever.


The Earth on the Way Down

A great beginning and an even better ending in this story of a museum volunteer’s fascination with the Iron Age bog body under her care. I loved how this story placed something very strange and dark against something apparently mundane. It unsettled me and stayed with me long after reading.

A Marriage of Convenience

I could see everything in this story, so clearly. And perhaps even smell it too! Which is all credit to the author’s powers of description. I liked the slow reveal of the nature of this marriage of convenience and the warmth between the central characters.

I was impressed by this story, which worked with themes seen in other stories – dementia, ageing, immigration – but in a fresh, surprising, effective way. Moving storytelling of great empathy and insight.

Comments on Acorn Award winning story and the Local Prize winning story by the Bath Short Story Award Team, Anna, Jane and Jude

The Acorn Award for an Unpublished Writer – Braces

‘Braces’ is a well-judged story about father/son relationships and the pressure to conform to family expectations or to go your own way. The further layer about the narrator being drawn into the conflict between his father and grandfather adds complexity, while vivid details and a strong sense of character and place combine to create a satisfying and rich read that appealed to all the BSSA team. We agreed that this is a worthy winner of the Acorn Award for an Unpublished Writer of Fiction.

The Local Prize, sponsored by Mr B’s Emporium of Books, Bath – Who said the river was red

The BSSA team were intrigued by the unresolved mysteries in ‘Who said the river runs red’ and the shift between the narrator accepting responsibility and denying any real wrong doing. Did the children cause a boy to die all those years ago? The unusual questioning structure builds tension, as does the exact details of the escalating nature of the bullying. We end up being uncertain too with many questions to ponder, the hallmark of a good short story. We awarded it the Local Prize, sponsored by Mr B’s Emporium, Bath.

Read the biographies of all prize winning and commended writers here

Winners’ Biographies



Anne O’Brien


First prize:  Anne O’Brien

Five years ago, Anne O’Brien left her job in the European Commission in Brussels to pursue her passion in creative writing. Since then, she has gained a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and is currently working towards her PhD. Her stories have been shortlisted in many competitions including the Sunday Business Post/Penguin Ireland Short Story competition, the Bridport Prize, the BBC’s Opening Lines and the Fish Short Story Prize. Anne’s work has appeared in several anthologies and magazines as well as been translated and published in Vietnamese.


Second prize: Barry Mckinley

Barry pic

Barry McKinley


Barry McKinley was nominated in 2010 for Best New Play, Irish Theatre Awards (for Elysium Nevada).  He has written plays for BBC Radio 4 and RTE. His stories were twice shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Award. His forthcoming memoir, It Ends With Blood, will be published in 2017.




Third prize: Sara Collins

(Sara’s story ‘Light like you’ was also shortlisted)

Sara Collins

Sara Collins

Sara Collins studied law at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years. She is a final year student for the Master of Studies in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, where she was the recipient of the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize for Re-creative Writing. Her work has been published in the 2015 Bath Short Story Award Anthology and in The Caribbean Writer. She is working on her debut novel, Frannie Langton, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. Twitter: @mrsjaneymac

Local prize; Alison Powell from Bristol

Novel Nights at The Strawberry Thief bar, Bristol January, 2016

Alison Powell

Alison Powell is a recent graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University where she developed her novel When the Mountain Swallowed the Morning, a story set against the backdrop of the Aberfan disaster. She won runner-up prize in the 2015 Bridport First Novel Award, was longlisted for the 2016 Mslexia New Novelist competition and shortlisted for the 2016 Janklow & Nesbit Bath Spa Award. Her short story, ‘Sparrow and Finch’ featured in the December 2015 edition of Mslexia magazine. She is a co-founder of the Bristol based WriteClub and also runs yoga and creativity retreats www.alisonpowell.co.uk Twitter @alisonjpowell 


Acorn Award for an unpublished author of fiction: Nick Werber

nick looking fab

f Nick Werber

Nick Werber was born in South London and studied creative writing at the Open University. He spent some years working as a Journalist and filmmaker in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest and now works as a freelance creative. Nick loves to travel and spends as much time as he can going to different countries and making documentary films. Among other creative ambitions Nick would like to write novels and children books as well as do some travel writing. 


Commended: Margaret Dolley

Margaret Dolley

Margaret Dolley

Growing up in Belfast, Margaret Dolley spent a lot of time in the mummy gallery in the Ulster Museum – which may have helped to inspire her story for this competition. She studied Swahili at university and lived in Tanzania, New Zealand and London before moving to Luxembourg, where she now works as an editor. She began writing short stories in her head doing laps in her local pool, as part of a yet-to-be-realized attempt to swim the English Channel.   She is currently putting the finishing touches to a novel, set on an imaginary island off the west coast of Ireland.


Commended: Bunmi Ogunsiji

Bunmi pic

Bunmi Ogunsiji

Bunmi Ogunsiji  is a Nigerian-British London-based writer, mother of a bright, sardonic teenager and blogger (finally!)  (based on absurd conversations with a certain bright, sardonic someone). Performance poet in a former lifetime, her script for children was shortlisted in the BBC Scriptroom competition ‘Get A Squiggle On’ and in 2016 (momentous for a number of reasons, including turning 50 with a smile and finally honouring her feet with a pair of comfortable shoes) she was delighted to have been longlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award and shortlisted in the Mslexia Women’s Short Story competition – a very good year so far…

Commended: Kathy Stevens

Kathy Stevens Picture

Kathy Stevens


Kathy Stevens first decided to try her hand at writing fiction when she was sacked from a terrible job in the summer of 2014; she’d always assumed she wasn’t clever enough to write something people would want to read, but suddenly had the time to try. Since then, she’s won Ad Hoc Fiction, Faber Academy QuickFic, been shortlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award, been published in magazines including Prole and The Cadaverine, been accepted to study a Creative Writing Masters at UEA, and had a serious increase in self-confidence. She has a BA (Hons) English Literature from Bath Spa University.


Shortlisted authors BSSA 2016



Thomas Atkinson (photo by Melissa Breetz Barton)

Thomas M. Atkinson  is an American author and playwright. His story ‘Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills’ will appear in New Stories from the Midwest 2015 and received two 2013 Pushcart Prize nominations. ‘Me & Mr. Tinkles’ will appear in the Fish Anthology 2016. Standing Deadwood: Collected Stories, was a finalist in the 2014 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and a finalist in the 2014 St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction, and his new novel TIKI MAN was a finalist in the 2014 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest. He has received five Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards. Shortlisted story: ‘Dancing Turtle’

rbull portrait

Rhiannon Bull



Rhiannon Bull is a writer and illustrator currently based in the muddy, marshy Essex countryside. She is interested in the relationship between people and place, and in exploring the landscapes, languages and mythologies that form these relationships. She is still enjoying just starting out as a fiction writer, the freedom to experiment that this allows, and seeing her first few publications come to be.  More information can be found at www.rhiannonbull.com  Shortlisted story: ‘Though the Waves Toss’


Fflur Dafydd

Fflur Dafydd is a bilingual Welsh/English fiction writer, screenwriter and singer-songwriter. She recently wrote and co-produced a film adaptation of her Welsh-language novel Y Llyfrgell (The Library Suicides) which premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where it was nominated for Best British Feature. She has an MA in Creative Writing from UEA, and a PhD on the work of the poet R.S. Thomas. She considers the short story to be her ‘first love’ and, following the publication of her Welsh-language collection, Awr y Locustiaid (Hour of the Locust) in 2010, she is now working on her first collection in English. Shortlisted story: ‘The Azalea Tree’

Rupert-Dastur pic

Rupert Dastur


Rupert Dastur is a writer and freelance editor. He is director of The Short Story, an online platform for short fiction news, views and competitions. His most recent work is forthcoming in A3 Review, New Flash Fiction Review, and Bath Flash Fiction Anthology 2016. Shortlisted story: ‘White Flags’

Kerry Hood

Kerry Hood

Kerry Hood’s plays include Meeting Myself Coming Back (Soho Theatre. Sunday Times Critics’ Choice, British Theatre Guide Highlight of the Year, shortlisted Meyer-Whitworth Award, Evening Standard Awards); Caution! Trousers (for Alan Ayckbourn, Stephen Joseph Theatre); Talking for England (Ustinov). Stories: (BBC Radio 4): ‘Of All The Whole Wild World’, ‘Two Ticks’. Cinnamon Press Prize; Frome Festival Award; Bridport Prize 2013 (2nd); Ink Tears; JBWB Award; Mathew Prichard Award; Writers’ Bureau. Shortlisted, Bridport Prize (x4); Mslexia (x3); Flash500; The New Writer Prize.Title story, Patria and Other Stories (Cinnamon Press); Bristol Prize Anthology; Bridport Prize Anthology. Currently writing two plays supported by ACE. Shortlisted story: ‘The Purple File’

ingrid pic

Ingrid Jendrzejewski

Ingrid Jendrzejewski grew up in Vincennes, Indiana, studied creative writing at the University of Evansville, then physics at the University of Cambridge. Her work has found homes in places like The Los Angeles Review, The Conium Review, Litro, Inktears, Neutrons/Protons, Flash Frontier, Vine Leaves, The Liars’ League London, concīs and The Mainichi. Last year, she won Gigantic Sequins’ Flash Non-fiction Contest and the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize for Flash Fiction; recently, she received the Bath Flash Fiction Award. Links to Ingrid’s work can be found at www.ingridj.com and she occasionally tweets @LunchOnTuesday. Shortlisted story: ‘We Were Curious About Boys’

Eileen pic

Eileen Merriman

Eileen Merriman’s awards include second in the 2015 Bath Flash Fiction Award, commended in the 2015 Bath Short Story Competition, and third in the 2014 & 2015 Sunday Star Times Short Story competitions. Her work has previously appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Smokelong Quarterly, The Island Review, Literary Orphans, the 2015 Bath Short Story Anthology, the Sunday Star Times, F(r)iction, Takahe, Headland and Flash Frontier. Her young adult novel, Pieces of You, will be published in 2017 (Penguin Random House). More information can be found at her website: eileenmerriman.co.nz Twitter @MerrimanEileen. Shortlisted story ‘I Dare You’

Christine SAnders pic

Christina Sanders

Christina Sanders Christina has had short stories and flash fiction published in Litro, TFM magazine, Toasted Cheese and Rattletales, and has performed at Live Lit Events in Sussex.
Dandelions and Roses was written after overhearing a conversation about a repentant ex-husband. After several attempts at trying to turn it into a ‘story’, she consigned it to her laptop’s trash bin, but couldn’t quite bring herself to press delete. She is currently working on a collection of short stories on the theme of Compromise.

 Shortlisted story: ‘Dandelion and Roses’

Cherise Saywell pic

Cherise Saywell

Cherise Saywell was born and brought up in Australia and lives in Scotland. She has published two novels, Desert Fish (2011) and Twitcher (2013) (both Vintage). Her short stories have won the Mslexia Short Story Prize and the VS Pritchett Prize and been shortlisted for the Asham Award and the Salt Prize. Last year she had a story selected for BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines. Cherise’s stories have been published in Mslexia, The London Magazine and New Writing Scotland, as well as several anthologies. She lives in Edinburgh with her family and is working on her third novel. Shortlisted story: ‘Comfort’

William, pic

William Pei Shih

William Pei Shih is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His stories have been recognized by the John Steinbeck Fiction Award, the Bridport Prize, The Masters Review Short Story Award, the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, The Alice Munro Short Story Competition, the AAWW/Hyphen Asian American Short Story Award, The Hemingway Short Story Competition, Writers’ Digest, Narrative Magazine and Glimmer Train. A Pushcart Prize Nominee, his stories have been published by The Masters Review, Carve Magazine, the Bridport Prize Anthology. The Des Moines Register, Reed Magazine and Hyphen. He is a 2016 Sun Valley Writers’ Conference Fellow. Shortlisted story: ‘Mrs. Li’

Jacky Taylor

Jacky Taylor

Jacky Taylor has a background in Arts Education and has worked in school, university and community settings. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Chichester and her work has won prizes at Bridport, the Asham Award, the Ilkley Literature Festival, the Momaya Short Story Award and has been shortlisted/longlisted in numerous places as well as published online. She is a member of the Fiction Forge writing collective and a reader/co-editor of their online literary magazine. She finds living by the sea both inspiring and full of surprises. Shortlisted story: ‘Searching for Silver Darlings’


Shortlist Announcement – BSSA 2016

Huge congratulations to all writers whose stories made the shortlist. They were some very strong contenders and this year twenty stories have been selected.

If you are on the shortlist, to preserve anonymity, please do not identify yourself with your story title, until all the results are posted. All shortlisted writers have now been contacted via email. Let us know if your story is shortlisted and you haven’t heard from us. Thank you and good luck.

Anna, Jane and Jude, BSSA team.

2016 Bath Short Story Award Shortlist
Story Title Author
A Marriage of Convenience Kathy Stevens
Almost Home Barry McKinley
Blessing Bunmi Ogunsiji
Braces Nick Werber
Comfort Cherise Saywell
Dancing Turtle Thomas Atkinson
Dandelion and Roses Christina Sanders
Feather Your Nest Anne O’Brien
I Dare You Eileen Merriman
Light like you Sara Collins
Mrs. Li William Pei Shih
Say you Sara Collins
Searching for Silver Darlings Jacky Taylor
The Azalea Tree Fflur Dafydd
The Earth on the Way Down Margaret Dolley
The Purple File Kerry Hood
Though the Waves Toss Rhiannon Bull
We Were Curious About Boys Ingrid Jendzrejewski
White Flags Rupert Dastur
Who said the river was red Alison Powell

BSSA 2016 Longlist

Congratulations to everyone who reached the long list of this year’s award and a big thank you to all the  writers who entered from around the globe. We received 1439 entries this year – stories from 45 different countries, covering most of the letters of the alphabet!

We appreciated all the wonderful story telling in this far-ranging cultural mix – traditionally structured stories, experimental ones, poetic pieces, unusual points of view and many stories with interesting settings. Coming-of-age themes featured strongly, as did stories about current world issues, including conflict and loss in all its forms.

In our reading team we have thirteen people of different ages, all experienced writers who are  passionate about the short story form. It was challenging to choose the final selection from some strong contenders and at 64 stories, the list is longer than usual.

2016 Bath Short Story Award Longlist
Story Title Author
A Balcony of Birds Keeley Mansfield
A Different Self 0livia Kiernan
A hesitating heart feels the touch of a gentleman Charlotte Seymour
A Marriage of Convenience Kathy Stevens
Almost Home Barry McKinley
An Excellent Panoply  Ann Rowlands
Ash Miranda Luby
Avocet Clare Reddaway
Being Here Jude Cook
Blessing Bunmi Ogunsiji
Boom! Sorted Anne Heath
Braces Nick Werber
But Beautiful Sophie Wellstood
Cake Marilyn Messenger
Comfort Cherise Saywell
Curators Philippa Found
Cut Kelly Hallam
Dancing Turtle Thomas Atkinson
Dandelion and Roses Christina Sanders
Dragonflies Barney Walsh
Eva’s Eden Katy Wimhurst
Feather Your Nest Anne O’Brien
Fish Fingers Amy  J. Kiirkwood
Forbidden Fruit Janis Lane
Generally Accepted Accounting Practice Anne Kilminster
Gull Harriet Kline
Hedgehopping Mark Johnson
Here Come The Empties Pauline Rooney
Honeycomb City Katie Hall-May
House of Flowers Josie Turner
I Dare You Eileen Merriman
Light like you Sara Collins
Little red jacket  Jenny Morris
Lolly Edna Axelrod
Loved Locked Emma Murray
Me and Malachi Rachel Huxley
Mr Artist Kate Jefford
Mrs. Li William Pei Shih
Nighthawks Molia Dumbleton
Paradoxes of Zeno John Langan
Say you Sara Collins
Searching for Silver Darlings Jacky Taylor
Smoke Alys Conran
Statement Vanessa Brooks
Still Roaring Wendy Stedman
Stop all the Clocks Emma Staughton
Sundown  Tom Bryan
The Azalea Tree Fflur Dafydd
The Bridge Jennifer Harvey
The Death of Garcia Gabriel Marquez Jude Box
The Earth on the Way Down Margaret Dolley
The Edges of Sound Teresa Stenson
The Green Heart Dave Swann
The Last Toast Cafe Becca Langton
The Mountain Mark Pederson
The Nor’wester Zoe Owens
The Purple File Kerry Hood
The Right Thing to Do Peter Burns
The Tiny Lies Mandy Huggins
Though the Waves Toss Rhiannon Bull
Tribal Marks Marie Gethins
We Were Curious About Boys Ingrid Jendzrejewski
White Flags Rupert Dastur
Who said the river was red Alison Powell

Announcement dates for 2016 Award

After a busy reading period, we’ve finalised dates for this year’s Award announcements –

  • Long listed story titles will be published on this site and via social media on –

Friday 24th June

  • Short listed story titles will be  published on this site and via social media on –

Friday 1st July

  • The five  winning (1st, 2nd 3rd, local prize and Acorn Award for an unpublished writer) and the two commended stories selected by our judge, Mair Bosworth plus the author names for all listed stories will be  published on this site and via social media on –

Wednesday  13th July

Please note: All long listed, short listed, winning and commended authors will be informed by email (or phone, in the case of the winners) shortly before the public announcements are made.

Best wishes to all and thank you for your entries. We’ve been enjoying reading them.



Philip Hensher

Photograph by Eamonn McCabe

Philip Hensher is a man who likes lists and appears on many. These  include the 2003 Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists; the 2008 Man Booker and 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlists for The Northern Clemency, his ‘shameless page-turner ‘ of a novel, which also won Best Book in the CWP’s Eurasia Region; the IoS Pink List of the most influential LBGT people.

Influential. He’s certainly that. The current Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University (previously, he taught at the University of Exeter) describes himself as a novelist and journalist. As a journalist, writing for the Independent, Mail on Sunday, Spectator, Telegraph and Guardian, his articles have explored a wealth of political, historical and, as one would expect, cultural subjects. In 2007 he won the Stonewall Prize for Journalist of the Year. As a critic, reviewer and Booker judge in 2001, his thoughts, at times controversial, on a range of literary and philosophical issues, have established him as a Big Name.  His nine novels have garnered literary prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award (Kitchen Venomand the Oondatje Prize (Scenes from an Early Life  which was also shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize).  His entertaining book The Missing Ink  postulates the case of pen v. keyboard while the libretto for Thomas Adès opera is another of his accomplishments.

And then there are the short stories. I met Philip Hensher at ‘The Importance of the Short Story’, a Bath Literature Festival event chaired by Alex Clark, where he, Clark and Georgina Hammick spent a comfortable hour on the podium sharing revelations,  juicy anecdotes about the genre and writing in general  – and a passion for lists. He’s just edited the mammoth two-volume Penguin History of the British Short Story, starting with Defoe (Vol.1) and ending with Zadie Smith (Vol 2). This was a two-year project and, although the final result is highly acclaimed, the choices have attracted controversy.  But, with 20,000 stories to consider for circa 100 places and 160 authors culled to 70, it’s obvious some firm favourites would be omitted.  I’ve not seen the first volume but I do have the second which does have an eclectic flavour:  canonical greats such as Graham Greene and Zadie Smith share spine space with Adam Marek and Jack Common, an author I’d never heard of.  In fact, there were several writers I first experienced through the anthology, which was Hensher’s intent. He deliberately chose to focus on the writing itself, so that a single wonderful story, even if it was the sole representation of the author, took precedence over  the search for the best story written by an acclaimed writer, hence no Hilary Mantel . Rather than working his way through collections and anthologies, Hensher’s reference point was the medium in which each story first appeared and, for the earlier stories, this was the magazine, periodical or journal.  Much of the excellent introduction highlights the glorious past of the short story writer who could make a decent living from the genre.  The Strand was especially generous, paying W.W. Jacobs £350 for one story in 1914 which would be c. £36,000 in today’s money according to an historic inflation calculator – just topping the EFG Sunday Times Award, self-proclaimed as the world’s richest story prize. For Hensher that’s the problem and his exasperation is evident when he argues the prestigious £30,000 prize could be better used to develop the talents of many more writers.

At the Bath Literature Festival event Hensher claimed he began his massive undertaking from a ‘position of not knowing short stories.’ It’s true that novels constitute the main body of his work but it’s evident he has an attraction to and considerable talent for the short story form. ‘Dead Languages’ from his 1999 collection The Bedroom of the Mister’s Wife was selected by A. S. Byatt for The Oxford Book of English Short Stories while The Emperor’s Waltz, his novel from 2014, follows in the tradition of  Gaskell and Faulkner in its structure of unconnected or parallel narratives but is, in many ways, a series of inter-woven stories  – or so it appeared to me. The writing emerges from wry observation with an opening line: ‘You will have brought your own towels, and bed linen,’ Frau Scherbatsky said in her lowered, attractive, half humming voice, ‘as I instructed, as I suggested, Herr Vogt, in my telegram’, echoing the rhythms and syntax not just of Weimar Germany  but of the country I know today. So, it’s not surprising that with several years of flirting with the form he has returned to short stories and now has a collection to tempt, tease and entice. Tales of Persuasion will be out on April 21st.

Interview by Jane, April 18th, 2016

  • Published 21st April

    The blurb for ‘Tales of Persuasion’  reads, ‘Backdrops vary …from turmoil in Sudan following the death of a politician in a plane crash, to southern India where a Soho hedonist starts to envisage the crump and soar of munitions’.  Is this, in some way, a connection to the short stories of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that were written as an immediate response to current events? Please would you tell us more about ‘Tales of Persuasion’, how it came about and your thoughts on the collection?

 I write short stories as they occur to me, so occasionally, intermittently, and set off by some particular idea. Sometimes I see somebody in the street, and wonder about their life – a pair of people who probably didn’t belong together, for instance, set off the story “Under the Canopy” about a seriously ill man and his irresponsible carer. Sometimes a piece of interesting information will come my way. When I discovered that Silvio Berlusconi was serving out some community service working in a home for Alzheimer’s patients, I wondered about how one of the patients might regard the interesting fact that the Prime Minister was now looking after her – “A Lemon Tree”. Or sometimes I wanted to perform a variation on a classic short story, bringing my experience of a first day at work to meet a short story on a similar theme by the great Malachi Whitaker (“A Change in the Weather”). I didn’t have a plan for the collection – it was written here and there over 17 years, but at the end I brought all the short stories I could find together and chose the ones I thought worked, and worked together. (I dropped about 7 that would have looked odd, or that I didn’t much like any more – one of those, embarrassingly, is the story about Sudan which was published a few years ago). In the end I was struck by how many of the stories were about somebody changing, or being changed by influences or by things going on around them. So there did seem to be an idea about persuasion. I chose the cover. It’s sometimes hard to work out whether the one doing the persuading is being met by strong resistance, and is carrying on anyway.

  • You’ve been quoted as saying that the short story is in a state of crisis. This is contrary to perceived opinion that the genre is enjoying something of a renaissance. Please could you expand on this.

Well, I don’t know what the renaissance is, considering that it’s almost impossible to get anyone to pay you to write a short story. The outlets that used to exist, even twenty years ago when I was starting out, have more or less disappeared. They’ve been replaced by short story competitions. Competitions are fine, so long as they come along with a marketplace. If that’s all there is – no. For me, literary competitions are the equivalent of overseas aid. They act as a paternalistic view by outsiders of what the target ought to be doing, rather than where the real opportunities lie. They encourage corruption, in the sense that they direct writers to choose a particular sort of subject rather than another. No-one serious about winning a short story would indulge in broad comedy or irresponsible violence (two of the strengths of the British short story in the past). And they drive out ordinary market forces. A newspaper which is paying a large sum to reward a short story, once a year, doesn’t see any reason to encourage the publication of short stories as an ordinary part of its endeavour. I know people say that the short story is undergoing a renaissance. Most of these people are the people who run short story competitions.

  • Do we value the great stories of 50 years ago or do they seem old-fashioned?  Please would you talk about the cultural and stylistic shifts of the short story?

 Durr. Literature isn’t old-fashioned. Literature is a living thing and goes on being a living thing. Is Homer old-fashioned? The crappy short stories of 50 years ago are old-fashioned – I would name H.E.Bates. The great ones, like V.S. Pritchett or Elizabeth Taylor, are never going to seem quaint. I think one stylistic shift of the short story has been an unfortunate one. The great short stories of the past are really interested in the connections between people and can be pretty crowded with characters. A very peculiar notion that’s sprung up recently is that the short story is predominantly about a single person’s reflections. I judged a short story competition recently and about 90% of the entrants were mostly about someone on their own, walking down a street or sitting in a room, thinking about the past. Every single one of them was terrible. If they’d been told to write a short story about seven women on a bus having an argument or a fight in a pub, they might have got somewhere.

  • Stories written in the first person, present tense – your reaction?

 Some are fine and some are not very good. It’s a fashion which arrived fifteen years ago. It rules out any kind of action, because of course it’s idiotic to write, “I am getting up out of the chair. A madman is running at me! He has a knife! I am holding up that place mat of Whitstable as a temporary shield! Oh no! It is falling to pieces!” I think it’s popular because it’s the easiest way to write. Everyone knows how to talk in the first person. So it serves the inexperienced author, who has forgotten that the thing is to please a reader. Lots of readers can’t stand it. I think if I ever met a reader who claimed that they couldn’t stand the third person past tense, I would wonder about them – well, let’s face it, it never happens.

  • At the Bath Lit Fest event you talked about your fondness for the ghost story and indicated that as most authors write them, you probably could have filled ‘The Penguin Book of the British Short Story’ just with ghost stories. What is about the ghost story that lends itself to the genre?

 The ghost story works best when it hints at stuff, when the implications are still resonating when the story ends. It’s a great opportunity for the short story – a novel is going to have to go into detail. Many of the best and most terrifying of M.R.James’s short stories finish with the narrator saying that he can’t go on telling what he knows, since it’s too horrible to recount.

  • At the same event you and Georgie Hammick shared an enthusiasm for lists in fiction.  Lists are often seen as unimaginative, ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ and possibly a bit of a ‘cop out’ – how would you counter this perception?

I think you mean “showing” rather than “telling”. Lists of objects are brilliant in suggesting the world around a character – we shape the world in our own image, and if you could look inside a stranger’s handbag or on their bedside table, you could make a neutral list of what you found and still have a pretty good idea of what sort of person they were. One of the errors of beginning writers is often to think that you need to set out the emotions of characters, to explore the inside of their heads, and only to talk about the solid facts of the world when emotions happen to play upon them. I don’t know why you would think it’s a cop-out – I think the patient collection of physical facts is exhausting labour. Anyone can go on about Oh God I Feel Terrible I Want To Die. It takes some investment to write a list which accounts for everything in the fridge of a seriously depressive individual. (Three bottles of milk, half finished, one clotted with mould, seven bars of chocolate, three different ready-meal lasagnes, three left-over spoonfuls of a lamb curry on a plate, insulin, a bottle of vodka and a jar of foie gras that somebody gave as a present last Christmas, eight months ago).

  • You have received many awards and honours. Which gave you the most joy and why?

I think perhaps the award of an honorary doctorate by Sheffield University in 2015. It was such a joy because it was so unexpected.  I had no idea they held me in any esteem, or knew who I was. I grew up in Sheffield, and the university was a wonderful presence, a place of thought and inquiry that I could sneak into from the age of 14 onwards – the library, the concert hall, the drama studio, even the swimming pool and the Students’ Union bar…I don’t know what people do who grow up miles from a good university, but Sheffield University made me realize very early on that there was such a thing as being serious and thinking independently. I went somewhere else to do my degree, but Sheffield University did the spadework. So it was really nice of them to give me anything at all. Prizes are nice and they come or mostly they don’t come and you never give them a moment’s thought, but the honorary degree made me almost tearful with gratitude.

  • You’ve been nominated for a Booker and, in 2001, were on the judging panel for the prize where there was a very strong shortlist and longlist. How difficult was it to reach a consensus and, in your view, did the best novel win?

Yes, we did a good job, I reckon, in identifying the talent. Some years the Booker panel has done a totally lamentable job and shortlisted people who haven’t done anything good and who aren’t going to do anything. But the novelists we shortlisted either had a substantial reputation and had done something excellent – Peter Carey and Ian McEwan – or were at the beginning of what would be a stellar career – Ali Smith with her first novel, David Mitchell with his second, Andrew Miller with his third. I actually don’t think the winner of these prizes matters all that much – it’s the longlist and (especially) the shortlist that matters and that writers can take advantage of. I was pretty pleased to give the prize to Peter Carey’s Kelly Gang – it’s an astonishing novel. We didn’t reach a consensus, we reached a point of pleasant disagreement and produced a winner. I hold much the same view about consensus that Mrs Thatcher did, that it tends to reward everyone’s second or third choice.

  • What is the most useful piece of advice you would give a novice writer hoping to be published?

Write about the world and not about the inside of people’s heads, and don’t let your characters be alone for more than three lines. Scenes with three characters are easier and more productive than scenes with two characters. Something should always follow from the end of each scene. Remember what Browning said – we are interested in the dangerous edge of things, the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist. No-one cares about a dishonest City banker who loves money more than his wife and children.

  • Which 3 pieces of reading material would you take to Radio 4’s Desert Island?

Buddenbrooks, Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” and Proust. I love the way that after a while you can play with all the minor characters, even the ones (like Johnson’s friend Edwards) who come in for a moment and go out again, never to be seen again. (Edwards is the one who said to Johnson that he tried philosophy when he was young, but he always found cheerfulness coming in).

  • What do you think is the best short story ever written?

Ha ha ha. Unanswerable question. One I absolutely love is Chekhov’s “Ionitch”, which is basically the same events happening twice, first hilariously and then heartbreakingly. Or Thomas Mann’s “First Love and Other Sorrows”. Or John Cheever’s “The Day the Pig Fell Down the Well”. Or Elizabeth Taylor’s “A Dedicated Man”. Or V.S.Pritchett’s “The Day My Girl Came Home”. Or Conrad’s “Typhoon” – I can’t think of any more shattering stretch of prose than the approach to the climax in that. Or Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does A Man Need.” Or Katherine Mansfield’s “Daughters of the Late Colonel”. It’s a bit like asking who the best human being who ever lived was, different answers on different days.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and Happy Publication Day for ‘Tales of Persuasion‘ on Apriil 21st.

Interview by Jane Riekemann

Follow Philip Hensher on Twitter @PhilipHensher 


Review: ‘TASTES LIKE FEAR’ by Sarah Hilary

‘Tastes Like Fear’, the third book in the D.I. Marnie Rome series, will not disappoint fans of award-winning author Sarah Hilary or those passionate about crime fiction.

Set against the louring presence of Battersea Power Station, ‘Tastes Like Fear’ is about ‘getting under the city’s skin’:  the Garrett Estate with its brutal, concrete tower blocks, a graffitied subway  strewn with the lost and abandoned and an unfinished luxury penthouse  – all metaphors for a city in crisis. From the beginning we, as readers, are unsettled and, as the story progresses, are propelled into a world where nothing adds up and all assumptions are challenged. A fatal car crash is not as it seems. Girls running away from families, who may or may not be damaged, seek shelter and find it – with Harm. Who or what is Harm? And what is his motivation? As the story strands mesh together in a tapestry of loss, grief and terror, it is up to D.I Marnie Rome, suffering from her own personal tragedy,  to unpick the threads and make sense of it all. And only then can we breathe a sigh of relief and relax.

This is a riveting read. Sarah Hilary admits she doesn’t plot her novels before writing the first draft, yet there’s a complexity and deftness to the narrative with tension mounting as we are drawn through a labyrinth of dark spaces and dead ends. The revelations are unpredictable but not forced – completely true to the characters but we don’t see them coming. All the characters – victims, perpetrators and the police protagonists, Marnie and her sidekick D.S. Noah Jake, are drawn with skill and subtlety. We know these people – and people like them. That is what makes Sarah Hilary’s novels transcend the genre. The writing is superb: voices (and the story is told through a range of perspectives) ring true.  Description is nuanced but alive and the story pacy and completely unputdownable.

Tastes Like Fear  will be out in print on Thursday, April 7th.  Come along to the launch at Toppings, Bath to hear Sarah read and discuss her latest thriller. Tickets here . Or  you could write off the week and read the two equally compelling books preceding it: Someone Else’s Skin  winner of the Theakston’s Old Peculier 2015 Crime Novel of the Year and No Other Darkness , shortlisted for Best Paperback Original in the Barry Awards

Follow Sarah on Twitter @sarah_hilary


Sarah Hilary portrait. Photo by Linda Nylind.

Sarah Hilary portrait.
Photo by Linda Nylind.

‘I do have a dark mind,’ admitted award-winning crime writer Sarah Hilary in an interview with The Guardian, explaining how a friend pushed her into the genre, telling her to stop mucking about. ‘Your mind is in a dark place already, you should make some money from it.’ Her debut novel ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ is a startling exploration of abuse from an unusual perspective. Pacy, thrilling, often brutal yet deeply moral, it received brilliant reviews in all the broadsheets and praise from authors such as Helen Dunmore who found it ‘very disturbing and builds up to a terrific climax’.

Picked as a Richard and Judy Book Club read in 2014, it was The Observer’s Book of the Month, on The Guardian’s list of top thrillers of 2014 as well as a Silver Falchion and Macavity Award finalist in the US. In 2015, it won the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and Sarah joined the ranks of Val McDermid and Lee Child, past winners of the award. Whew! Where do you go from there?

‘No Other Darkness’ published in July 2015 is a harrowing tale that starts with two small boys trapped in an underground bunker. Five years later they’re found. Dead. A chilling plot and 5 stars for ‘unputdownability’ so no surprises that it’s just been nominated for Best Paperback Original in the U.S. Barry Awards. And now Tastes Like Fear will be out on 7th April 2016. This is the third in the series, all featuring D.I. Marnie Rome, a complex and attractive protagonist who has suffered an unthinkable tragedy and now has to make sense of the darkest of family secrets. Another winner with its ingenious twist (which I didn’t spot) and, in Harm, one of the creepiest perpetrators ever. I was lucky enough to have an uncorrected proof copy and you can read my review here

You’ve probably guessed I’m a fan of Sarah’s writing and I’m not alone. In WH Smith’s Best Crime Authors of All Time Sarah was voted in at 33, one below Grisham and just topping JK Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith. Ha! Is there no limit to her talents? She’s certainly prolific.

Climb into her Crawl Space , the most brilliant of blogs and you’re in for a treat. I began at the beginning on February 1 2008 and found a stash of writers’ gems. She generously shares the successes of other writers and details some of the critical advice she’s been given, including an agent’s debriefing of her work as well as offering her thoughts on point of view ; how  to get a literary agent  or not and so much more – just take the afternoon off and read right through. Enjoy the interviews, especially the ‘biggie’ with Ian Rankin which reads like a cosy conversation between two great crime writers playing, ‘Show me your technique and I’ll show you mine.’

Sarah’s short stories are also highly acclaimed and she won the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize in 2008, the 2010 Sense Creative Award and The Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2012. She’s been shortlisted for several awards including the Seán Ó Faoláin competition in 2010 and published in too many anthologies and magazines to list here. A firm fan of Flash, she runs CrimeFest’s annual Flashbang. Bang Bang You’re Read contest where for a tiny fee and the lure of passes to CrimeFest weekend, entrants are invited to ‘commit a crime story in 150 words’. Sarah’s Flashes are widely published and you can enjoy a taste here

Other facts about Sarah. She’s often spotted on the panel at festivals or chairing events; she’s a member of  Killer Women – go Google it – and she writes copy for a well-known travel company. She lives in Bath and we’ve met a couple of times, first at our Evening of Readings in October and later in The Chelsea Café, where I found the writer with the dark mind has a light side and is as witty in the flesh as in the Tweets to her 7K+ followers @sarah_hilary . She introduced me to Fred Vargas in our local charity shop, offering to buy me Fred’s The Chalk Circle Man. We both like gin. Enough said.


  • ‘Tastes Like Fear’, the third novel in the Marnie Rome series, is out on April 7. Please tell us something about the process of writing it and what’s next for you – and Marnie?

 It was an exciting story to tell, partly because the voices were so strong in my head; a couple of characters in particular, who are unique to this story, gripped me and didn’t let go. The twists came very organically. I was still guessing right until the end as to who the killer was and why. I hope it’s as exciting to read as it was to write. I’m working on book four now, which is very different—still exciting, of course, but in an entirely different way. A big part of the story is about Marnie’s relationship with her foster brother, Stephen, who killed her parents when he was fourteen. It feels as if it’s time to tell that story now.

  • How did you get started on your writing career and when did you feel confident to list writer as your ‘profession’ on a document?

I’d called myself a writer since I was quite small in fact, but my confidence grew as I started to get short stories published. When I won the Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2012 that felt like a turning point. I was signed by an agent at around the same time, and after that everything happened quite quickly.

  • What is the essence of good crime writing and are there current trends you approve/disapprove of?

 Good crime writing is subversive. It asks the awkward questions and looks into the murkiest corners. And it’s psychological—people as puzzles, rather than ‘plot as puzzle’. I don’t pay a lot of attention to trends. A good book – good writing – will transcend all that.

  • You and Ian Rankin both confessed to not being plotters but how much research (e.g. accuracy of police details) do you do before you begin to write?

I read a lot of first person accounts, and I do an amount of research as I write, to pin down any niggling inaccuracies. I retrofit the rest of the research, because the momentum and the story always come first. I’m not writing a textbook. Most readers want credible characters, first and foremost.

  • What are the themes you find yourself drawn to and are keen to explore in your writing?

 Captivity. The idea of what imprisons us, and how we can imprison ourselves. Guilt, and redemption. The challenge of forgiveness. And legacies—of pain, of survival, of hope.

Do you have a writing routine? Favourite time, place and a specific writing process – journals, notebooks etc.? SH: I try and write every day. Straight into my Macbook Air. I keep notebooks of questions, but mostly it’s straight to work, typing the first draft, getting black on white.

  • If I say ‘Patricia Highsmith’ what would your reaction be? Please would you tell us about your latest project.

Highsmith is one of my writing heroes. Everything she wrote was different, odd, off-kilter. I was thrilled and honoured to be asked to write a special introduction to three of her novels which are being republished in special editions by Virago in June.

 Novels, short stories, flash and even poetry – are there any other forms you enjoy writing (e.g. screenplays – as surely Marnie would make perfect Sunday night viewing)?

My earliest writing ambition was to be a screenwriter. The Marnie Rome series has been optioned for television, and I’m delighted that a talented screenwriter is working on a pilot script. I’m happiest writing novels, but I do like short stories and flash fiction too. Poetry eludes me, as anyone who read my recent ‘Ode to the Ankles of Hugh Laurie’ will attest.

  • What do you think are the essential ingredients of a good short story?

Crystal clear setting and characters. Forward momentum. An ending that resonates. No wasted words.

  • Beginnings and endings – your thoughts on these? How do you decide when a short story should end?

I like an ending that echoes back to the beginning. My favourite short stories have this circularity. When the reader knows what will happen next—that’s where the story should end. The reader finishes it, in his or her imagination.

  • The Bath Short Story Award closes at the end of this month. What tips would you give entrants to help their stories stand out from the crowd?

A memorable and unusual first line that sets the tone and makes the reader curious to know more. If you can raise a question in that opening line, the reader will want to keep going, to find the answer.

  • How important is it for a writer to be involved in social media? How do you handle it?

Publishers like it, I find. More than that it helps to make the writing process less lonely and brings you closer to your readers—which is where all writers want to be.

  • Which writers, dead or alive, would you take to the Canary Gin Bar in Bath?

Great question. I’d have Dorothy Parker, Max Beerbohm, Georgette Heyer, Fred Vargas, Oliver Sachs and yes, Patricia Highsmith.

  • Which novels or short story collections would you take to Radio 4’s Desert Island?

Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, Graham Greene’s short stories, and everything ever written by Helen Dunmore.

  • What is the single most useful piece of advice someone else has given you about writing?

 Be patient. Fail better.

Thank you Sarah and good luck for the launch at Toppings , Bath of Tastes like Fear on April 7th