To inspire you to write for the 2018 Bath Short Story Award, with a first prize of £1200 this year, we’ve interviewed some of our winning and short listed writers in the 2017 competition. Here, BSSA team members, Anna and Jude talk to Mary Griese, our 2017 second prize winner, who lives locally to Bath. You can read Mary’s story Perfomance in the Hills, in the BSSA 2017 Anthology which is available to buy here on the website, in Mr B’s Bookshop Bath and via Amazon
Jude:Euan Thorneycroft our BSSA 2017 judge said ‘Performance in the Hills’, your second prize winning story, was one of the most individual of all he read, with a totally authentic depiction of life in rural Mid Wales. Can you tell us how the story came into being?
Mary: I often begin stories with an incident from my life, however small and then embellish it. On this occasion, a man at the 2016 Royal Welsh Agricultural Show asked if I remembered him. He was the boy in the story – the ‘misguided’ child who almost killed the baby birds, and in the past I took him to task for such an incident on the farm where I lived. I also incorporated the ‘golden horse’, which belongs to my neighbour into the story. My neighbour is an incredible and courageous horsewoman. Her golden horse was unmanageable and she rescued him from slaughter and re-broke him, Monty Roberts style. We were talking one morning, with him dancing politely around me and she was telling me about his wonderfully kind character/changing coat/golden eyes etc. I had been walking my dog trying to come up with a story-line to go alongside my misguided small boy and the baby birds. And there it was, the spark for the rest of the story – a magical five minutes. Today, I just met my friend in the lane riding that same beautiful horse. He looked absolutely amazing in the morning sunshine. She said he’s the most spiritual creature, born a thousand years ago! I expect there’s another story in there too.
Anna:What was the first short story you wrote?
Mary: I remember the title even now – ‘Fire on the Moor’. I was about 12, on a remote farm in Cornwall. The traditional burning of the gorse got out of control – a little girl saved the day!
Anna: Do you find there are particular themes running through your stories?
Mary: Certainly. Farming/dark country matters/sheep/nuns/eccentrics.
Jude: Does your completed novel, which is with your agent Jane Conway Gordan,who is seeking publication for it, contain these themes? Can you give us a brief synopsis of the plot?
Mary:Yes, my novel, Man in Sheep’s Clothing, does contains these elements. It’s a darkly themed coming-of-age story set in the 1960s in the Black Mountains in Wales. Bethan, the young protagonist, the only child of a bohemian family who have moved to the area, becomes mesmerised by the dysfunctional Williams family who rent Cwmgwrach (valley of the witches), an isolated sheep farm. Bethan is particularly drawn to Morgan, the wild son who both frightens and fascinates her. She’s a rebel too, and after she is expelled from the local convent school for standing up to the sadistic nuns, her love of animals and farming grows. When the Williams’ lose their tenancy of Cwmgwarch a few years later, Bethan’s father buys the farm and he and Bethan begin sheep farming themselves. Morgan, now a loner, with delusional tendencies, helps when they struggle with lambing, but his intentions are much darker, and eventually Bethan, alone and friendless after her father dies, has to find a way to get rid of him.
Jude: That’s a very intriguing summary, with echoes I think of the entanglements in Wuthering Heights – a wild remote setting, a rebellious female protagonist, dangerous obsessions with unstable men, and brooding revenge. A great mix. We wish you all the best for publication and hope to see it in print soon.
Anna: You are a successful artist, writer and farmer – how do these three important parts of your life interact?
Mary:Today I wrote, walked the dog, helped turn the cows out, wrote and began a commission of a painting of a labrador. Farming is very important to me and no doubt inspires my writing. I’ve always thought my painting comes automatically, but as I can’t ‘get into’ my current writing projects while I’m wielding my paintbrush, maybe not!
Anna: Who is your favourite short story writer and why?
It’s difficult to choose just one. Alice Munro and Katherine Mansfield hold my attention with their beautiful, clever subtle prose and (seemingly) little plot. They always provide good examples of ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘less is more’.
Anna: Have you any tips on entering a competition for prospective writers?
As I said earlier, I recommend beginning with an event however small from your own life and then fictionalising it with more details. Entering writing competitions is exciting and an excellent discipline. Many people work well with a deadline. Keep trying.