Monthly Archives: January 2016

Interview with novelist and short story writer, Kit de Waal

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We are re-posting Jude’s interview from early 2015 with novelist and short story writer, Kit de Waal. Since that time, for the second year in a row, Kit won the Bridport Flash Fiction Award in 2015. Her second prize winning story in BSSA 2014, ‘The Beautiful Thing.’ was produced and broadcast for BBC Radio 4 in March 2015 by our 2016 shortlist judge, BBC Radio 4 producer, Mair Bosworth and Kit has recently been named as one of the Guardian New Faces for Fiction,2016 in advance of her hotly anticipated debut novel, My Name is Leon, which is published in June, 2016. We can’t wait to read it!

We also urge you to apply for, or tell people about the creative writing scholarship Kit has generously created and funded for Birkbeck College. The closing date for applications is 15th February, 2016. Read a full description of the scholarship on the link above. Here’s a summary:

“The first Kit de Waal Scholarship will be launched in October at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. This new scholarship will provide a fully funded place for one student to study on the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA (part-time) over two years, from 2016–2018.It is intended to support a talented student who would not otherwise be able to afford to do the course, targeting students from disadvantaged backgrounds — including but not confined to care leavers, ex-prisoners, members of BAME communities, people with a disability and those from socio-economically deprived and marginalized groups.”

Biography

Kit De Waal spent fifteen years in criminal and family law before becoming a writer. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and longer form prose. She is published in various anthologies (Fish Prize 2011 & 2012; ‘The Sea in Birmingham’ 2013; ‘Final Chapters’ 2013’) and works as an editor of non-fiction. In 2014 she gained second place in the Costa Short Story Award with ‘The Old Man & The Suit’.

In 2014 she was also longlisted for the Bristol Prize, won first prize in the  Bridport Flash Fiction competition with her story ‘Romans Chapter 1, Verse 29’. Her fiction, ‘Blue in Green’, won the Reader’s Choice Prize in the Sl Leeds Literary Prize 2014, and BBC Radio 4 broadcast her story ‘Adrift at the Athena’, which was commissioned for the anthology, ‘A Midlands Odyssey’ by Nine Arches Press. In December, 2014, after  a six way bidding auction, Viking secured rights to publish  her debut novel,  My Name Is Leon,  Venetia Butterfield, Publishing Director of Viking, said ‘My Name is Leon is a truly extraordinary novel; heart-wrenching and powerful, its characters leap off the page. I’m thrilled to be publishing a major new talent.’

Interview by Jude, January 2015.

  • In 2014 you won second prize in the Bath Short Story Award competition, first prize in the Bridport Flash Fiction, the readers’ choice in Sl Leeds Literary Prize for your work, Blue in Green, and after a six-way auction, your debut novel My Name is Leon was secured by Viking. Can you tell us more about your novel?

My Name is Leon is the story of two brothers separated by adoption and is published on 2nd June this year. The story follows Leon, the older brother and a single summer of his life while he struggles to adapt to life on his own. I set the story in 1981 when a number of momentous things were happening in the UK; IRA bombs, hunger strikes, the riots and the Royal Wedding of Diana to Charles. wanted to illustrate that while all these big things were happening, one little boy is lost and grieving and going unnoticed . I hear it keeps making people cry although that wasn’t my intention!

  • You write very short fiction, longer stories and full length novels successfully. We loved your second prize story, ‘The Beautiful Thing’ and totally agree with the comments of our 2014 shortlist judge, literary agent Lucy Luck who said it “involved very strong story telling” and “the ending was extremely well done” Have you always written stories in several different fictional modes? Do you have phases focusing on one form, or move regularly between them all?

I like all forms of prose, flash, shorts and novels.I don’t think I’ve ever read a novella though and certainly never tried to write one. They are very different animals and need different story telling skills. For flash, you have to choose your moment – chose the moment – one that illustrates a beginning and an end without actually writing it. It’s the moment in all the best films where the tiny gesture – the arm on the shoulder, the shake of the head, the door left open – when you say ‘yes’ that’s what the story is about.

In short stories you have more scope but the narration is everything.  I find if I have the voice of the story teller – not me – and I stay rigidly in that voice and in that point of view, it’s easier to move back and forwards in time and in depth.There are conventions though – I do try and stay in one place or not move about too much as I think it breaks the spell.

And for novels, well the sky is the limit. My Name is Leon is written in close third person almost but not quite in the voice of the child and it was a real challenge remaining with Leon throughout and not letting myself intrude too much. While I was writing the novel, I cut out a picture of a ten year old boy and stuck it on my computer and I would look at it and say ‘This is you speaking, not me’, or ‘What do you see in this scene? What do you notice?’ I think it worked. Novels give the writer the most freedom but also the most challenges and carry the most risks.  It’s devastating when you think something doesn’t work because it can effect the rest of the manuscript, maybe 30,000 words.

  • Is Blue in Green, your prize winning entry for the Sl Leeds Literary Prize, another novel in progress?

My next novel is nearing final draft stage. My usual process is for there to be a lot of research and thinking – staring out of windows and scrubbing.It takes a good while for me to start writing.  I’m a real plotter and like to have everything lined up –the end, the twists, the characters’ back stories – then I can let loose.

  • Can you say more about your journey as a writer?

I started writing seriously maybe ten years ago and three years ago decided to do an MA in Creative Writing. Doing the MA was as much so that I could tell myself I was taking seriously as wanting to learn about the craft. I read a lot of books, met some great people and did learn but overwhelmingly I decided during that year that I would write for the rest of my life, that I would get published and that was that. I had to make it work. I helped to set up two writing groups, Oxford Narrative Group and Leather Lane Writers. The people in those groups are my support network, my friends and genuine critics.

  • Which short story writers and novelists do you admire and why?

I am training myself to spend more time reading contemporary fiction. My first loves were the classics – Arnold Bennett, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, Graham Greene, Patrick Hamilton, Somerset Maugham. All of those writers – and I’ve read all of their works – managed to get under my skin. I would read them and I was there, not on the page but in the page, in the story.More recently I’ve read Kevin Barry who has a way of describing the ordinary that I dream of being able to do. I also like Cormac McCarthy.

  • Do you have some tips on honing a short story ready for a competition?

If you’re entering something for a competition, work it and then pull back. By that I mean, work over every line, work the tale, work the character, work the paragraph, work the ending and beginning, work the jokes and then look at what you can edit to leave only the essence. I suppose it would be like Coco Chanel says about getting dressed. She said that you should get all dressed up and then just before you leave the house take one thing off. Less is more.

Q & A with novelist and short story writer, Tessa Hadley

 

The past book jacket

Over six novels and two collections of stories Tessa Hadley has earned a reputation as a fiction writer of remarkable gifts, and been compared with Elizabeth Bowen and Alice Munro.

Jude did a short email Q & A with the wonderful short story writer and novelist, Tessa Hadley, Professor in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, in March 2013 and the BSSA team loved her pithy comments about writing, which we have now re-posted below.

Biography. Tessa Hadley has written six novels, Accidents in the Home, published by Jonathan Cape in February 2002, and by Holt in the US (this was longlisted for the Guardian First Book award); Everything Will Be All Right, Holt 2003, Cape 2004 (shortlisted for the Encore Award); The Master Bedroom, Cape and Holt, 2007 (longlisted for the Orange Prize and the Welsh Book of the Year award); The London Train, Cape and Harper Collins in the US, 2011 (longlisted for the Orange Prize); Clever Girl, Cape and Harper Collins, 2013. Her latest novel, The Past was published in 2015. She has stories published regularly in The New Yorker, and also in Granta and the Guardian; a collection, Sunstroke and other stories, was published in January 2007. (This was shortlisted for The Story Award in the US.) A second collection, Married Love, came out in January 2012 (longlisted for the Frank O’Connor prize).

Her story ‘Bad Dreams’ was shortlisted for the BBC short story prize in 2014.

Q & A with Jude, from March 2013

  • You are well known for writing both novels and short stories. Can you tell us a little about your life as a writer in both genres and whether you have a preference?

Stories seem like a delicious interval of irresponsibility alongside the serious commitment of writing a novel. This isn’t because stories are anything less than a novel.

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

I don’t know until I see it. Each story comes entangled in its own requirements, its own laws. It has to have something to tell which is worth hearing, I suppose – at the minimum

  • What traps do you think short short story writers should avoid?

Cliched language, tired perceptions, moralising.

  • Do you have any advice for writers on entering short story competitions?

Keep doing it – once you feel your stories are saying something and have some power and traction. It’s a really useful way to push yourself on, give yourself a deadline. And wonderfully rewarding if you win something too.

  • Who are your favourite short story writers?

Kipling, Checkhov, Joyce, Beckett, Borges, Mansfield, Eudora Welty, Heinrich Boll, John McGahern, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, many others.

  • Do you think a good title is important for a short story, or doesn’t it matter?

Yes, a title clinches something, it crisps the story up and seals it like a top on a bottle.

Opportunities to work with and listen to Tessa Hadley in March at the Bath Literature Festival.

We recommend you take the opportunity of working with Tessa, who is leading a workshop, ‘Bringing Words to Life.’ at the Bath Literature Festival on Wednesday 2nd March from 2.30 pm-5.30 pm. She is a wonderful teacher and speaker.

Booking is now open at the ticket office or online Here’s the description of the event: “Somewhere in the heart of fiction writing, there’s the desire to capture the sensations of experience in words. In this workshop, Bath Spa University’s Tessa Hadley will be concentrating on that effort, working to find fresh words to make the world come alive on the page.”

Tessa is also talking about her latest novel, The Past, alongside Deborah Moggach who is sharing her new novel, Something to Hide at an hour long event chaired by  The Independent newspaper’s Arifa Akbar on Tuesday 1st March

Interview with short-story writer and novelist, Anthony Doerr

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Jude interviewed Anthony Doerr in March 2013 and we’re re-posting his interview here for 2016 entrants to read. He’s written some great tips on writing short stories and we highly recommend reading his wonderful prize-winning novel and his story collection,

Anthony Doerr is the author The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, Memory Wall,  He spent ten years writing his most recent book, ‘All the Light We Cannot See’  which was  published by Scribner in early 2014 and became an instant New York Times bestseller.  It was one of four finalists in the US National Book Awards, in November 2014 and went on to win the Pullitzer prize for fiction in the US in April, 2015.

Doerr’s short fiction has won four O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, three Ohioana Book Awards, the 2010 Story Prize, which is considered the most prestigious prize in the U.S. for a collection of short stories, and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, which is the largest prize in the world for a single short story.  His books have twice been a New York Times Notable Book, an American Library Association Book of the Year, and made lots of other year end “Best Of” lists. In 2007, the British literary magazine Granta placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.

Interview

  •  I was bowled over by your short story collection ‘Memory Wall’, which was recommended to me by UK short story writer Tania Hershman. Your stories range over a wide span of history and give the point of view of  characters of different ages, genders and cultures. They  focus on profound human dilemmas and experiences. Can you say more about how you came to write these stories?

When I was in high school, my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s disease and came to live with us.  Over the course of months, we watched her mind disintegrate; she forgot who we were, where she was, where her bedroom was, even how to bathe herself.  But she remembered curious things, too: her childhood telephone number, the date of her wedding, etc.  She got to the point where she had no idea who I was, but could beat the pants off of me at gin rummy.  So the readiest answer I have is that my own memories of my grandmother informed my work on the stories in Memory Wall—I had learned, at a young age, just how fragile our personal histories are.  And I suppose, in a way, I was trying to rectify my own self-absorption when I was seventeen and eighteen, watching my grandmother lose her identity, and failing to understand the pain my parents were enduring.

As for imagining different places, histories, and individuals, I’d argue we write to learn what we don’t know; we write toward the mysteries, the things we can’t articulate but believe are there, feel are there.  Maybe we start with what we know, but then we work in the opposite direction, away from the things that are comfortable, familiar known.  Otherwise we’re not learning, and if we’re not learning, why bother?  So that’s why I often choose subjects and characters whose experiences, on the surface at least, are quite different from my own.

  • Your  stories in ‘Memory Wall’ are long – the title story is 85 pages and still  works very well as a short story, in my view. Do you think important themes can be developed in a much shorter text and do you have any thoughts or advice about writing to a word limit? The Bath Short Story Award is limited to 2200 words.

I love working on short stories for a lot of reasons, but one stands out: they’re short.  When I’m working on a story, even an inordinately long one like “Memory Wall,” there are usually about 10,000 words I have to comb through before I start adding new material. So it’s short enough that I can read through the entire piece, make some revisions, and add new material in a single day.  Here’s an easy metaphor: I’m able to keep the paint wet in all the corners of the canvasI really think that helps make a narrative feel whole to a reader. A novel, on the other hand, quickly gets too large and unwieldy.  Sometimes there will be passages in your novel that you haven’t reread in a year. The canvas is so large that you are never able to visit all of it in one day (or several weeks) of work.

As for a word limit, I tend to prefer reading and writing stories that are longer than 2,200 words, but yes, of course, I think stories of that length can achieve a great deal.  Look at Peter Orner’s work in Esther Stories, or many of Stuart Dybek’s short stories, or Jamaica Kinkaid’s “Girl” or Isaac Babel’s “My First Goose” or Joyce’s “Araby.”  Look at Tobias Wolff’s “Say Yes.”

  • Which other short story writers have influenced your writing? Can you say why?

Maybe two more than any others: Amy Hempel, because of her compression and playfulness with language.  And Alice Munro because of what she can do with time.  Munro can skim through a decade in a paragraph, or trawl through a single decision for several pages.

I also love story writers who pay attention to the natural world: Annie Dillard, Nadine Gordimer, Andrea Barrett, Sarah Orne Jewett…  I’m an amateur naturalist at heart, a person who is most comfortable outdoors looking for creatures, looking for beauty, weather, light, water.  And I love to render the things I see into language–only by writing it out, I think, can I make it real to myself.

  • What editing advice would you give to writers who are considering entering our competition?

Reward the generosity of your reader! Try to examine every single word in your story and ask yourself: Is it a lazy choice? Does this adjective/article/noun/verb absolutely need to be there?  If someone is nice enough to spend a half-hour reading something you’ve written, try to make your prose absolutely worthy of his or her time. Make the dream that unfolds inside your sentences so persuasive, seamless and compelling, that your reader won’t put it down.

Interview with Danielle McLaughlin

Danielle McLaughlin

 

Danielle McLaughlin’s stories have appeared in newspapers and magazines such as The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, The South Circular, Southword, The Penny Dreadful, Long Story,Short and The New Yorker.  She is currently Editor for Short Stories in English at Southword Journal.

Her debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs on other Planets Dinosaurs Janwas published in Ireland in September 2015 by The Stinging Fly Press, and is now published and available to buy in the UK  ( John Murray).  The US publication is scheduled for August 2016 (Random House). A German edition (Luchterhand) is also planned for this year and a Slovak edition is upcoming from Inaque.

 

 

Interview by Jude, updated from April 2015.

  • We met at the West Cork Literary Festival on a short story workshop led by short story writer and novelist,  Tessa Hadley in July 2012 and it’s been exciting seeing your progress since that time. 

That was a really great workshop! One of the stories in my collection grew out of a writing exercise we did that week at the West Cork Literary Festival, and I read from the story at last year’s festival at Bantry Library on Wednesday July 15th with Claire-Louise Bennett whose stunning debut collection, Pond, is also published by the The Stinging Fly Press.

  • It’s a standard question – but always fascinating to other writers – can you tell us how you structure your writing day?

The work that I think of as the rawer, rougher work usually happens in the mornings. That’s when I do the early draft stuff. I work on a number of stories at the same time, so there’s always something at the early draft stage. I take the kids to school and then drive to a café in the nearest village and write there. I’ll write for a couple of hours, longhand, and when I get home I’ll transcribe what I’ve written onto computer. As well as working longhand on early drafts, I also work longhand on paragraphs or sections of a story that made it onto the computer but need to be re-written. I write in a notebook, preferably one with a cover image that connects with the story in some way. Sometimes, depending on what stage a story is at, I’ll print out a copy of the story and write on that. In the afternoons there are school runs to be done, and the kids have various activities that I take them to, but I’ll often get to do some re-writing in the afternoons, and I’ll write for a couple of hours after dinner in the evenings. Lately, I’ve been thinking that I could do with a more formal structuring of my writing time ie having particular time slots for the short stories, the novel, admin things, but I haven’t got around to that yet

  • I find the images in your stories linger – the skull in The Dinosaurs on Other Planets  with the grub floating out of the eye, the shock of the seal cull at the end of A Different Country  Do images events from the natural world often prompt your stories?

It’s strange, the things that can prompt a story. A Different Country started off when I read a TV review in a newspaper that mentioned a kids’ cookery programme, one of those competitive ones where terrible things happen, like a small child forgets to switch on the oven, for example. It might have been Junior Masterchef. The reviewer said that it was ‘like watching a seal cull’. And I thought: ‘watching a seal cull. I wonder what that would be like.’ My husband is from a fishing family on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal so I knew immediately where I would set the story and after that, there were various autobiographical elements that I drew on. ‘The Dinosaurs on Other Planets’ had its beginnings in a question asked by my youngest child, and in a skull brought home from a nearby forest. Creatures, birds, fish, insects, do tend to feature in my stories, and, sadly, when they do, they are often dead or, if they are alive at the beginning of the story, they meet a bad end. I don’t know why that is, though I can remember having a bit of a fixation with dead things since I was very young.

  • In your interview with Clare Savage  in the Incubator Magazine , you say that you always begin your stories in longhand. Can you tell us more about why you do this?

If I could write directly onto computer, I would. It would save me a lot of time. I find that I can’t ‘think’ onto a computer screen, the thoughts first have to be put down on paper. I need the freedom of paper, the ability to mess around with the words, and yes, I suppose I could mess around with them on a screen, couldn’t I, but it just doesn’t work for me. I like to be able to scribble bits here and there and doodle on the margins, and draw arrows and squiggles and shapes.

  • In the same interview, Clare Savage points out that also redraft your stories 40 to 50 times, which I find very interesting and encouraging as it shows that such intense work  pays off. Do you use a particular method in your re-drafting process?

No, is the short answer, it’s usually quite a haphazard affair. I’ve heard of people focusing on a particular aspect of the story during each re-write eg fixing characterisation in one re-write, dialogue in the next, etc. It sounds like a very efficient process, but I couldn’t imagine working like that. I can get to a stage with a story where I think I have it sorted and I’m fine-tuning language, and then, in the next draft, I could lose a character, or gain a new one, or the story might change from first person to third person. Sometimes, I’ll think a story is finished, but feedback from my writing group, or my editor or agent, might send it off in a new and better direction, cue lots more drafts! I think whatever system I put in place, I would still end up with a large number of drafts, it’s just the way I am, the way that I work. But I’m comfortable with the repetitive nature of the re-writing process, I don’t mind it.

  • You write both longer short stories and shorter ‘flash’ fiction.  Your flash fiction, Shaping Air,  from The Stinging Fly magazine, Summer 2014, was selected for Queen’s Ferry Press Best Small Fictions Anthology 2015 and your story Beached approx 250 words was shortlisted for 2014 Bristol Prize short story competition  and is published  in their 2014 anthology.  Can you say what you enjoy about writing to different lengths? Do you think different skills are required?

When I started writing, most of my stories were around 2000-3000 words long. Then I wrote a story that I liked, but which ended up longer than anything I’d written before, over 5000 words. I sent it to The Stinging Fly, who published it. I liked that story better than I liked my earlier, shorter, short stories and from then on, I wrote without regard to word length. I have a lot of stories now that are between 5000 -10,000 words. As the stories were getting longer, I noticed that my flash fiction was getting shorter. It was also changing in a way that I’m not sure I can accurately explain, except to say that the voice of my flash fiction now seems to be different to that of my longer stories, and my flash also seems to use language in a way that differs from the language of the longer stories. It may be that the flashes are moving closer to poetry; I think that they use rhythms or cadences in a more pronounced way, for example. There are a couple of things rattling around in my head at the moment that don’t seem to be either short stories or flash, but poems, and I’m toying with the idea of having a go at writing them.

  • Three writers in the BSSA anthology 2014, Annemarie Neary, Kit de Waal and Anne Corlett are formerly lawyers like yourself. In the current 2015 anthology, we have a shortlisted story by Sara Collins, also a lawyer. I imagine that you have all become successful in your new profession as writers because as well as hearing so many different stories from people in crisis, as lawyers you must have continually worked hard on new cases and to tight deadlines? Is this true for you?

I see a lot of similarities between the skill sets of lawyers and writers. Both jobs involve working with words very precisely and being tuned in to things like nuance and tone, being aware that words and phrases may be open to a number of different interpretations. Both jobs require a lot of creativity and both bring a lot of stories to your desk, a lot of drama. I used to love the Law Reports, yearly collections of important legal judgements published in book form. So many wonderful stories! Recently, in the offices of another solicitor, I spotted some volumes on a shelf and experienced a rush of nostalgia; I had a yearning to take one down and start reading. There’s no doubt that years of drafting very precisely to tight deadlines has helped me as a writer. If a client requires the contracts for 2pm, it’s not acceptable to say that you’re waiting on the Muse, you just have to get on with it. On the other hand, I do like the freedom I have now, to write whatever I want at my own pace, to take whatever time is needed to get it right (within reason, of course). And it was a relief when I began writing fiction to realise that I could delete a paragraph, perhaps even a whole page, without worrying about whether I might accidentally cost a client a couple of million and might get sued.

  • In what ways have writing competitions helped you as a writer? Can you give a few tips for writers entering The Bath Short Story Award, 2016

I used to enter a lot of competitions and they were a great encouragement, not just the competitions where I was fortunate to be one of the winners, but also the ones where I made longlists or shortlists. Most of us seem to spend a lot of time combating enormous levels of self doubt, so it’s good to get these boosts now and again. And I’ve also made new writing friends through competitions, because if there’s an event, you get to meet the organisers and the other writers.

In terms of writing tips, I’m going to say firstly, read, read, read, read. I’m with Stephen King when he says that ‘if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.’ I tend to read more short stories than novels and I dip in and out of different collections, a story here, a story there. Collections I’m reading/re-reading at the moment include Aiden O’Reilly’s superb debut collection ‘Greetings, Hero’, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh and I’m looking forward to starting Avril Joy’s Millie and Bird which has just arrived in my post and has the most beautiful cover!

The best tip I’ve read about short story beginnings is this Colin Barrett advice here: And yes, I know that’s on your blog but it just happens to be the most useful tip I’ve encountered about the beginning of a short story.

As for endings: stop in the right place. Easier said than done, I know, but a short story can be ruined if the writer insists on carrying on past the ending. ‘ … already in that space the light begins to fade into the calm gray even light of the novelist.’ That quote is from a paragraph in The Lonely Voice where Frank O’ Connor is discussing an aspect of the work of Mary Lavin, and whether or not you agree with his assessment of Lavin’s work, I think the analogy of the fading of light is a good way of explaining the loss of intensity, the loss of explosiveness, that can occur when a short story continues on further than it should.

Interview by Jude  originally published on this site, April, 2015. Want to catch a workshop with Danielle? She’s leading one in  lovely Bantry at the West Cork Literary Festival this July.