Monthly Archives: January 2017

Interview with Anne O’Brien – winner, BSSA 2016

Anne O’Brien left her job in the European Commission in Brussels to pursue her passion for creative writing. Since then, she has gained a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Lancaster university and is currently working towards her PhD. In 2016, she won the Bath Short Story Award and came second in the London Magazine Short Story Competition. Her short stories have also been shortlisted/placed in many competitions including the Sunday Business Post/Penguin Ireland Short Story competition, the Bridport Prize, BBC’s Opening Lines and the Fish Short Story Prize. Anne’s work has appeared in several anthologies and magazines and has been translated and published in Vietnamese

  • Can you tell us how your wonderful BSSA 2016 first prize winning story, Feather Your Nest came into being

It all started with a chance remark from my daughter bemoaning the fact that women had to go through so much in life: ‘Why can’t we just lay eggs like hens?’ A wonderful image came to mind and I knew I had the germ of a story. I got the main story line down pretty quickly but then the re-writing and the editing started. At each round, I tried to go deeper into the heart of the story and, at the same time, pare back any non-essential words. I worked at it until I got the story as taut as I could.

  • You recently won second prize in the prestigious London Magazine short story contest, a marvellous start to the New Year. Are you mainly writing short fiction at the moment?

I write short stories and the odd journalistic piece. I have a ‘morning pages’ habit and try to start each day (as near as possible to the time I wake up) by covering three pages with handwriting. I’m experimenting with form – inspired by writers like Claire Louise Bennet. My London Magazine story ‘ I Have Called You By Your Name is very different to the BSSA story and is more closely associated with my free writing.

  • Do you have a collection in mind? Will your PhD study result in a book we can look forward to?

Yes, my aim is to bring my stories together in a collection. I’ve been working hard and have a good range, many of which have been successful in prestigious competitions.

It’s only when you look back over what you’ve written that you see common themes emerging. Many of my stories are about longing, belonging or indeed not belonging. As an Irish emigrant, longing for home is something I know about. The surreal  – when the familiar or the homely becomes strange – is a reoccurring theme for me and I’m exploring this in my PhD. I think I manage to deal with tough subjects with a light touch.

  • Some of your stories are translated into Vietnamese and we’re thrilled that Feather Your Nest is going to be translated later this year. Can you tell us more about this?

One of the reasons I decided to study creative writing was to be part of a community of writers with whom I could exchange work and discuss writing. Through my study at Lancaster University I met Nguyen Phan Que Mai. She is a prolific and well-known author in Vietnam and is now writing in English. She also translates English language fiction and poetry into Vietnamese. I was thrilled when she asked if she could translate my first published story, Taking Flight. It subsequently appeared in the 2015 New Year’s edition of Vietnam’s Tuoi Tre Weekend Magazine. This story has also been selected as the title story for the forthcoming publication: Taking Flight, a Collection of International Short Stories, edited by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. The collection will also include stories by Amy Tan and Junot Diaz.

  • Which current short story writers do you admire? And why?

At the moment, I’m rediscovering Alice Munro’s stories – sheer wonderful storytelling. Though I am excited about how the short story form is evolving, you can’t beat a good story with a great beginning, middle and end and Alice Munro delivers every time. There are so many writers I could mention. I know that the second I send this off I’ll think, ‘Oh why didn’t I say…?’

Though sadly no longer with us, there are two writers whose stories always get me going again when my writing falters. The first is William Trevor. There is not a single story of his that disappointed me and I’ve read them all. The second is Roald Dahl – I’ve always loved stories that hover on the edge of the surreal and sometimes tip over. He was the master spinner of such tales.

  • Was there a particular writer who inspired you to begin writing fiction?

No – not really. As the second child of a large family, books were my escape, a refuge in an overcrowded house. I read my way through the children’s section of all the libraries within cycling distance. It makes me both sad and mad when I hear of libraries closing. I was also lucky that my dad understood what books were to me and often slipped me a new paperback.

I always hoped that one day that I’d write stories. As a teenager, I even had a title for my first novel – it was going to be called ‘A Nun In My Bed.’ I had to give up my bed when my aunt, a missionary nun, came to stay. I reckoned with a title like that I’d sell a few books! I do wish I’d come to writing fiction earlier. I spent too many years writing everything but stories.

  • What top tips would you give anyone who is planning to enter BSSA 2017

Don’t hesitate. Pick your best story. Read it aloud. Pare away every single word that is not needed, no matter how beautiful. Then submit.

Shortlisting or being placed in the BSSA really means something. You know your work has been carefully read and considered by a team of great readers and impressive judges. A listing, long or short or a placing is valuable feedback that you are on the right track. Finally, the annual BSSA Anthology is such a lovely book and provides a fantastic opportunity to have your work published.

You can buy our anthology containing Feather Your Nest by Anne O’Brien and nineteen other marvellous short stories on this site. Also available from Amazon and locally at Mr B’s Bookshop, Bath and Visit Bath, the tourist information centre.

Q & A with Euan Thorneycroft, BSSA Judge, 2017

Euan Thorneycroft has been at AM Heath since 2005, and is one of the senior agents there. Before that, he was an agent at Curtis Brown. He has always loved finding new authors and working with them. He represents a range of different kinds of fiction, from the very literary to the more commercial. He’s looking for strong prose, unique voices and a compelling narrative. In terms of genre, he’s most interested in crime, thrillers, and historical fiction. He is also open to well-written speculative fiction in the vein of STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel or UNDER THE SKIN by Michel Faber. His non-fiction tastes are for memoir, new nature writing (think Robert Macfarlane), “Smart Thinking” books, and current affairs. He has been a committee member of the Association of Authors’ Agents as well as serving as the external examiner on one of the country’s leading creative writing courses. He has also recently been a judge for the Bridport First Novel Award

  • You represent a wide range of prose writers, including authors who also are well-known for their short stories including Vanessa Gebbie, Ruby Cowling and Fflur Dafydd, who was short listed in our 2016 Award. Do you accept submissions of short story collections? If so, can you say what you would be looking for in such a submission?

I do. But they need to really stand out. I’m looking for collections that have some unifying factor – be that a theme, an idea, a setting, or a collection of characters. This can often help sway a publisher’s decision. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule so if something is simply brilliant, I want to see it!

  • You have recently been a judge for the Bridport First Novel Award. Can you tell us what, for you, makes a stand-out story in both long and shorter fiction?

Originality – this could be a totally original plot or it could be something that on the surface sounds pretty ordinary, but which the writer approaches from a fresh angle.

Authenticity – do I completely believe in the world and characters the author has created?

Confidence – I’m looking for writing that feels so natural that I forget I’m reading a story.

  • Do you think that the popularity of short story is still gaining ascendancy in this country? Short Story writer and novelist, Sarah Hall thought it was back in 2013. Perhaps publishers are more interested?

I do. And technology has played its part. Short Stories are the perfect fit for our hectic modern life and tablets and Smart phones have enabled people to read on the go. There are also more competitions and prizes for short stories, and you can see authors who are often associated with the longer form, turning their hand to them. I’m thinking of Hilary Mantel, Lionel Shriver and Jon McGregor.

  • Which current short story writers do you admire and what do you like about their writing?

Lots but the one that stands out is Colin Barrett and his collection Young Skins. Of course, his language is brilliant – there’s a poetry to it but it is also very exact – and the stories are unexpected in terms of where they start and where they end up. But overall, I think it’s the emotional intelligence that he shows as a writer. His characters seem utterly believable to the reader.

  • Our award is for stories of 2200 words or under. Have you some top tips for writers writing short stories to this length?

Find your voice, make every word count, commit totally to your character, setting and story. The latter is particularly important – if you can do this, you stand a chance of writing something that isn’t merely technically competent, even brilliant, but something that is memorable and long-lasting.

 

Your Plans for Burns’ Night?

The 25th January or Burns’ Night is a key event in Scottish calendars. Not quite a Hallmark holiday, though embraced by lovers of Scottish culture and possibly partygoers worldwide, it’s essentially a celebration of the life and works of Robert Burns. Born in 1759, around the 25th, the Scottish bard filled his short life (dying at the age of 37) with glorious explosions of verse, mainly in his own language/dialect. His poems were expressions that sprang from the heart, influencing the great Romantic poets Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, and are still celebrated today.

I was introduced to the perils of drink through Tam O’Shanter, a poem I had to learn for O’ Level. Oh, the joy of practising it in front of the mirror until I could recite it word perfect to the class. Even though my accent could be defined as Southern English/RP the writing transports you to the highlands and I was there with Tam’s wife Kate calling him ‘a skellum, a blethering, blustering, drunken, blellum.’ And certainly, at a Burns’ Night party while munching on your haggis and knocking back the ‘usquabae’, Tam’s is a tale worth telling.

I tweeted some great Scottish writers to give their top writing tips (in 140 characters) for a short story on a Burns’ Night theme. Almost immediately a reply pinged back from award-winning Louise Welsh @louisewelsh00 Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow @UofGWriting  known mainly for her short stories and psychological thrillers (such as the Orange-nominated and CWA winner The Cutting Room; The Girl on the Stairs and Plague Times Trilogy).

She’s right. Read the poetry and find a starting point. The tale of a night when ‘The Deil had business on his hand’? Or the wife who sits at home ‘gathering her brows like a gathering storm’?  Or whatever piques your fancy or fantasy? A quick google will transport you to the world of Rabbie Burns or you could start with Tam O’Shanter.

Write your story (up to 2200 words) and send it to us by May 1st.  ‘Good luck to all your Means!’

Latest Author News

Fourteen weeks to go now until BSSA 2017 ends on May 1st, 2017. To inspire you to enter this year, here are some recent further success stories from our  BSSA 2016 award winners and other authors whose stories you can read in our 2016 short story award anthology

Anne O’Brien reading at the BSSA 2016 anthology launch at Mr B’s Emporium of Books Bath, with our cover designer and BSSA 2014 winner, Elinor Nash, in the background

We were delighted to learn that Anne 0’Brien, our first prize winner, BSSA 2016, has just won second prize in the prestigious The London Magazine’s short story competition and her story, I Have Called You By Your Name will be published alongside the winner, writer Emma Hughes and Dan Powell, our BSSA 2015 second prize winner, who won third prize in the contest with his story The Ideal Husband Exhibition. William Pei Shih, shortlisted for BSSA 2016 with his story Mrs Li was also shortlisted in The London Magazine competition as was one of our BSSA 2016 longlisted writers, Marie Gethins. Congratulations to all!

Ingrid Jendzrejewski ,shortlisted for BSSA 2016 with her story We Were Curious About Boys was successful in many different competitions in 2016 and has started off 2017 in great style by winning the flash fiction competition in the long-established literary journal Tears in the Fence.  Her story, Many a Pearl is Still Hidden in the Oyster will be published in their next issue due out in February.

US writer, Thomas M Atkinson, shortlisted for BSSA 2016  with his story Dancing Turtle, has, among several other 2016 successes, had his story ‘Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills’ selected for New Stories from the Midwest 2016  (New American Press) along with such writing luminaries as Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Baxter, and Laura van den Berg. The publication is due out soon. The guest editor was author and Pulitzer finalist Lee Martin. Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills first appeared in The Sun magazine and received two Pushcart Prize nominations.

Clare Reddaway’s  story Avocet which you can read in the BSSA 2016 anthology is also going to be published in the lovely Project Calm magazine’s third issue out in the late Spring. We’re sure it will be illustrated beautifully there.

We hope we’ve included all recent successes. Do let us know your news, authors!