Sophie Haydock is a journalist (Sunday Times, Financial Times, Guardian), editor and author, based in Folkestone, Kent. Her debut novel, The Flames, was longlisted for the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown Award and won the Impress Prize for New Writers. The Flames has been translated into seven languages and named by The Times as one of the Best Historical Fiction Books of 2022.
Sophie has interviewed leading authors, including Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell, Bernardine Evaristo, Sally Rooney and Amy Tan. Passionate about short stories, Sophie worked for the Sunday Times Short Story Award and is associate director of the Word Factory. She is a judge for short story awards and her own story, Mudlarks, is available to listen to on BBC Radio 4.
Sophie’s second novel, Madame Matisse, about the women who were integral to the life of the French artist Henri Matisse, will be published by Doubleday in 2025.
Her Instagram account @egonschieleswomen has a community of over 110,000 followers. For more information, visit: sophie-haydock.com
Interview with BSSA team member, Alison Woodhouse
- We first met (many years ago!) at the Word Factory and I think I’m right in saying you set up the short story discussion group Strike!
- Yes, about a decade ago, I co-founded the Strike! Short Story Club – a monthly meeting to discuss stories by authors including Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison and Sally Rooney – with fellow writer Zoe Gilbert, at the encouragement of the Word Factory founder Cathy Galvin. It was like a book club, but much easier for our participants – because you’re only reading one story, of say up to 4,000 words, so it’s not as time consuming as reading a whole novel. I worried at the start that people wouldn’t have enough to say to fill an hour, but it’s incredible how much can be picked over in a short story – every sentence has meaning, and there are many interpretations and opinions, which was enlightening and fun. Zoe and I don’t run the club anymore, but we continue to be huge fans of the short story and love reading as many of them as possible.
- Can you tell us a bit more about how your love of the short form began? And your involvement with the Word Factory?
- In 2012, Cathy Galvin launched the Word Factory, which is a fantastic organisation that champions everything to do with the short story. Cathy and I first worked together at the Sunday Times, where she was the deputy editor of the Magazine. She co-founded the Sunday Times Short Story Award at that time, and as a young journalist, I was excited to get involved in the process, read amazing stories that were being published weekly and get to know incredible writers (as well as go to the glam awards ceremonies). When she left the Sunday Times and began thinking about creating this incredible community that became the Word Factory, I knew I wanted to be part of it.
Word Factory began with intimate monthly salons in Soho, which felt magical, and expanded to Waterstones Piccadilly, where we enjoyed live readings from world-renowned authors such as Tobias Wolff, Neil Gaiman, Tessa Hadley, Ben Okri, Yiyun Li, AS Byatt and more. It’s there that I’ve met some incredible people (including you, Alison!) and discovered a network of writers. We co-helped and encouraged each other in our bids to be published.
- You have been a ‘first reader’ and judge on various competitions. Could you tell us about these experiences?
- Yes, I’ve been (and continue to be) a first reader, or ‘sifter’, for amazing short story prizes – including the Sunday Times Short Story Award, Bridport Prize and the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Short Story Prize. It’s a wonderful and enlightening experience, one I hope to do more of. For the past three years I’ve been a judge (alongside three other writers) for the Society of Authors’ ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award, and will do so again this year; whilst also judging the wonderful Bath Short Story Award, which is a very exciting prospect
It’s such a rare experience and a great privilege to read potentially hundreds of stories in one stretch. In doing so, you learn very quickly what makes one shine – that opening sentence has to be confident enough to carry the reader on to the next and the next. I’m always looking for an assured tone that isn’t working itself out as it goes – it’s already established. The best stories are those that offer a sharp and skilful glimpse, like a dagger, into another’s perspective.
It’s all subjective, and what I love can be different to what other judges admire. Sometimes, with these prizes, I can find that my favourite stories are those that don’t go on to win. I mourn the fact that writers may think their work wasn’t impressive enough to be noticed. But there can be people like me behind the scenes who are falling in love with your writing.
- Congratulations on the huge success of your wonderful debut novel, The Flames. Do you think your passion for the short form influenced your decision to structure the novel in four distinct parts?
- That’s a very astute question. I’m sure it did. The Flames is structured so that we get interlocking stories from the perspectives of four different women, each of whom posed for the scandalous Austrian artist Egon Schiele (in the nude) in Vienna more than 100 years ago.
I was certainly influenced by Naomi Wood’s novel Mrs Hemingway, which I heard about when she came to read one of her stories at the Word Factory. She wrote with a similar structure – showing the action through each woman’s eyes. The readers’ loyalties shift as we get to know the next woman to become Ernest’s wife. I also love novels of interlinked short stories, such as Zoe Gilbert’s Folk, where the same characters come up again and again.
So it seemed a natural fit when I came to write The Flames. Each of the women deserved a voice. I couldn’t choose to just centre one of them, so it was the obvious way to do things.
- The short story is capable of brilliance but we all know how hard that is to achieve. Our word limit is 2,200. Any advice for writers out there?
With short stories, I sometimes think writers forget how important some gentle humour can be. Readers want to laugh, we want to be surprised, and even a little titillated. That works best if it happens around succinct writing (seriously, cut out as much as you can bear). I also look for poignancy in a short story – words or phrases or emotion that will stay with me.
My best advice in general, in relation to competitions, is to embrace rejection – enter as many as is feasible, and move onto the next without thinking too much about it. Aim for as many “knocks” as possible (I read this interesting LitHub article about aiming for 100 rejections in a year), and you may be surprised which doors open for you.
I took this strategy a few years ago, entering first chapter competitions for the novel I was working on. The year before, I’d entered the one I really wanted to win, and waited with anticipation to see if my opening chapters would be noticed. But when I entered as many as I could, my writing improved and I made leaps in terms of progress. In the end, I was longlisted for a handful of competitions, shortlisted for a few and won one, the Impress Prize for New Writers, which led to an agent and book deal with Doubleday for The Flames.
And finally, could you share with us a few of your favourite short stories?
Oh, there are so many incredible stories to choose from. Some that spring to mind, include:
James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues
Roald Dahl’s Parson’s Pleasure
Zora Neale Hurston’s Sweat
Miranda July’s The Metal Bowl
Guadalupe Nettel’s Fungus
Mark Jude Poirier’s This is Not How Good People Die
Tobias Wolff’s Bullet in the Brain
Sophie Haydock’s short story, Mudlarks, will be broadcast on BBC Sounds on December 15