We are thrilled to welcome Mair Bosworth as our shortlist judge for 2016. Mair is a producer for BBC Radio 4, based in Bristol where she makes Book at Bedtime, short stories, poetry programmes and arts documentaries. She has broadcast work by Kazuo Ishiguro, William Boyd, Owen Sheers, Kate Clanchy and AL Kennedy. She also runs the Bristol branch of ‘In the Dark’, a collective of radio producers and enthusiasts, which brings people together for listening events celebrating the best of radio storytelling. She tweets under @heyheymaimai
- It’s been said radio is the ideal medium for the short story? What are your thoughts on this?
I’m not sure that there needs to be an ‘ideal’ medium for the short story. I like that short stories can find us in different places; that they can come to us over the air, in an anthology, in a book or in a magazine. I think some stories work particularly well on the radio, but others work better for me on the page. And when judging the BSSA short list I won’t be reading with only a story’s suitability for radio in mind.
Having said that, I do think there is a great fit between radio and short form prose (and poetry too of course). With short stories on the radio we have the pleasure of being told a story, of being read to. This seems to me to be a very primal pleasure; a pleasure set down in childhood. I love that with radio I can get lost in a story while I’m doing the washing up or stuck in a traffic jam. There is something moving and immediate in the intimacy of one human speaking a story into the ear of another.
- What outlets are there on radio, the BBC or otherwise, for the short story?
Across the BBC’s radio stations we broadcast almost 200 short stories each year, with two a week going out on Radio 4 alone. The vast majority of these stories are brand new commissions for radio or are from newly published collections. Championing new writing and bringing new voices to our audience is really important to us. Radio 4 runs the Opening Lines competition annually, specifically for writers new to radio, and the BBC National Short Story Award for more established writers.
The Book Trust website and the BBC Writers Room are great sources of information on competitions and opportunities for writers.
- Does the BBC have a submissions policy? What’s the best way to get a story to the top of the radio submissions’ slush pile?
While individual competitions such as Opening Lines will have quite specific submission guidelines, I think it’s important to understand that – in terms of production – ‘the BBC’ is not one monolithic entity. There are currently four different BBC teams and four independent production companies making short readings productions for Radio 4. And within each of those teams are individual producers, with their individual interests and tastes and workloads. For any writers wanting to get their work on radio I would advise listening to as many Radio 4 stories as possible. Work out who is producing the stories you like and approach them.
The other advice I would give is to try to raise your profile. Sometimes BBC producers may put out an open call for submissions, but that is fairly rare. More typically, we will proactively approach writers we admire to invite them to write something for radio. So we need to be able to find you!
I am constantly looking around for writers who are producing exciting work but who have not yet had their first broadcast opportunity on Radio 4. I read short story anthologies, literary magazines and journals. I look at the winners (and runners up) of short story awards around the UK. And I rely heavily on the expert knowledge and opinions of the wonderful people in the short story world – the publishers, agents, critics, teachers and award-givers – who read far more stories than I would ever be able to and have been generous with their advice and recommendations.
I recently commissioned a story from Danielle McLaughlin for example – whose work was first brought to my attention by the amazing Tania Hershman. Thanks to Tania I read a (very) short story of Danielle’s, which appeared in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology and then I tracked down more of Danielle’s pieces in The New Yorker and The Stinging Fly. I loved Danielle’s work and could see that it would work well for radio, so when we had a slot available for a new commission I approached Danielle to ask if she would write for us. Similarly, I was delighted to record one of Kit de Waal’s short stories for radio, after the team behind the Bath Short Story Award told me about her beautiful work.
I am also interested in writers from other fields – poets, screenwriters, journalists, comedians and playwrights – who might bring a fresh take to the short story slots on Radio 4.
- What do you look for in a story you’re considering broadcasting?
I have to be able to hear the story; to feel it can lift off the page. It also helps if I can ‘see’ the story. (Radio is a strangely visual medium and for me the stories that work best on radio often have a cinematic tendency). I love stories that create a strong sense of atmosphere. I like the economy of what is sometimes called ‘poetic prose’. But most of all I like to laugh and to be moved. I want a story to work on me – to both surprise and connect with me.
- Could you give us any info on word length, subject matter, voice?
Most of the broadcast slots available for short stories on Radio 4 are around 14 minutes in length, which equates to 1,800-2,200 words depending on pace and delivery. I don’t put any restrictions on subject matter but very strong language or particularly bleak subject matter can cause us editorial challenges.
Stories with a lot of dialogue, lots of different characters or with frequent jumps in time and place can be confusing for the ear to follow. Our budget for short story productions is limited, which can make stories with more than one voice/narrator tricky for us to commission.
- Which writers inspire you? Whose literary works would be your ‘desert island ‘ companions?
In short story I always go back to Chekhov, and to Raymond Carver. (Sorry to be so unoriginal but it’s true!) I also love Annie Proulx, Kate Clanchy, Lorrie Moore, and Lydia Davis of course.
The books from the last couple of years which have really stuck with me have been Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which I only read for the first time recently.
I read a lot of poetry and particularly love Jean Sprackland, Don Paterson, Michael Donaghy, Alice Oswald, Czeslaw Milosz, Kathleen Jamie. I like books that you can’t easily categorise in terms of genre – like Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, or Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. And for comfort reading I turn to John Wyndham, William Boyd, Sarah Waters and Henning Mankell.
- And finally, any advice to someone entering the Bath short Story Award for the first time?
Read and re-read. Edit, edit, edit. Trust your gut. I’m really looking forward to reading your stories.