Congratulations again on your wonderful story, In Bed With My Sister, which was awarded a very well deserved first place in our 2021 competition. Could you tell us a little about the story’s journey; how it started out, whether it changed much along the way?
Thank-you. This story is very important to me and I’m overwhelmed that it won first prize in this wonderful competition, and proud to be in such talented company in the anthology.
In Bed With My Sister is a fictional narrative that was seeded in scrawled notes I made at a time when someone close to me was in crisis. I’ve always been curious about the roles we take up in families and other relationships – who looks after who – and the tensions between personal and professional, especially what happens when those in the so-called ‘caring professions’ become patients.
Returning to these notes months later, I began to imagine and sketch out ‘scenes’ which formed the basis of the narrative. I always take drafts of stories to my writing workshops – I’m part of two with writers I met on the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck – and use their feedback to inform the editing process. The story struck a chord in the workshops immediately, described as both ‘painful’ and ‘compelling’. Editing involved much re-shaping and tweaking, improving specificity of detail, pruning back prose to facilitate emotional impact, and paying attention to the balance of humour and darkness. Time management and chronology have always been big challenges for me and much of my editing involves chopping up and moving scenes around.
I worked on the story – alongside other stories-in-progress – for around a year before considering it ready to submit to competitions.
The story uses time jumps and white space to great effect. Are you a writer who likes to experiment with narrative structure? Do you think the story leads you towards a particular form or vice versa?
As I’ve become more experienced and confident, I’ve begun to experiment more with narrative structure. I think the relationship between form and story is a dynamic that moves both ways. My natural instinct as a writer is to write episodes or scenes that build into an over-arching coherent narrative, with spaces in between.
In In Bed With My Sister the fragmented scenes embody the fractured thought processes in a psychotic state of mind, with the breakdown of boundaries between memory, fantasy and reality, with the white spaces represent movement of time – back or forth – as well as a pause for breath and reflection.
In other stories the space has included a parallel theme that aims to resonate through metaphor and meaning with the main narrative, thereby adding nuance and depth – I hope. For example, I used the etymology of key words in the story as a parallel strand in a narrative about a bereaved teenager unable to find words for his grief. In a story about a mother and son struggling with tragic loss, a interspersed description of how avalanches form tunes into the emotional strand of the narrative.
I try to make space for readers to engage with the material imaginatively, to have their own unique thoughts and associations to the stories, and make up their own minds.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes I always wanted to be a writer, but it was more a fantasy of being someone who lived in a world where people actually were or became writers, not the world I lived in. I grew up in a large working class family in Cardiff, a family – incidentally – brimming with born storytellers, but not writers. They weren’t people like us, we thought. If you were considered bright at school you became a teacher, otherwise girls worked in retail or trained as nurses, boys took up apprenticeships or joined the army. My teachers were positive about my ‘compositions’ and poems in English classes, including one who suggested I get a job at the South Wales Echo and train as a reporter, but in the end I went to medical school and eventually trained as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. (Another story!)
I started to take myself as a writer ‘seriously’ ten years ago when I enrolled for an evening short story course at City University, the same place – incidentally – as where I attended a writing course in my 20s in an attempt to write fiction alongside my work as a doctor. The on-call rota soon put an end to that.
There was a lovely moment at a family party a couple of years back when my cousin Julie – who I’d not seen for decades – remembered the novel I was writing at the age of nine, about a boy called Peter living in Scotland.
You’ve had great success with short stories in competitions ( I loved Picasso’s Face, the 2021 V.S. Pritchett first prize winner). Do you write a new story with a competition in mind?
Thanks. I really enjoyed writing Picasso’s Face. No, I rarely write a new story with a specific competition in mind, though I have done sometimes where there has been a particular theme. I wrote one story intended for a competition with a circus theme, but didn’t get it finished in time and it ended up being shortlisted and published in this year’s Fish Anthology. I tend to submit the stories that fit the word-count and often more than one – if I have them. I find competition deadlines useful to assist focus, and to gauge the appeal and quality of the stories, although I’m aware of how highly subjective this is.
Getting long or short listed in competitions can be a real boost to confidence, especially for less experienced writers, and a connection ‘out there’ when so much of writing is solitary. My favourite competitions are organised, reliable, accessible, friendly, and supportive of writers. Bath of course, but also VS Pritchett, Bristol, Brick Lane Bookshop, Fish, Wasafiri, the London Magazine, Cambridge, and the Rhys Davies Short Story Award – relaunched last year and for Welsh writers – are, in my experience, some of the best.
I think it’s really important that many competitions now offer free entries to those otherwise unable to afford the fees, including many working class writers. This is essential to the survival of a truly diverse fiction of many, many voices, and long, long overdue.
Would you like to tell us what you’re working on at the moment? A collection ? A novel? We’re excited to read more words by you!
I’m currently working on my first collection of stories. Winning the VS Pritchett prize gave me the confidence to apply – successfully – for an Arts Council England DYCP (developing your creative practice) grant. I’m using it to support writing the collection, including mentoring through the TLC (the Literary Consultancy) scheme. My writing workshops remain key to my writing process. I have never come away from a workshop without something new to think about to enrich my writing.
The collection will be 13 stories – a significant number for me – and I’m currently finishing initial drafts of the 12th story. The diverse range of characters in the stories are linked by the theme of loss, real or imagined, and how feelings that cannot be faced or put into words are enacted in a range of behaviours – abduction, stalking, addiction etc., The collection is also an exploration of how innovations in structure may add layers and nuance to a story. I’m aiming to have a manuscript ready by summer 2022.
Then I might return to the novel in the drawer…
Finally, any advice for writers thinking of entering the 2022 Bath Short Story Award?!
I don’t think I’d be bold enough to give ‘advice’ – we’re all so different in terms of what gets us going – but I’ll share some thoughts from what I’ve learned. Read lots of short stories. Read more. Go for a walk. Get on a bus. Carry a note-book everywhere.
Anyone reading the Bath Short Story Award anthologies – and those planning to enter BSSA should – will see that Bath is a competition that really takes short fiction and what can be achieved in 2200 words very seriously, and appreciates a diverse range of styles and genres. Write a story that has to be told and only you can tell it. Think about what fires you up. Think about the depicted events of the story as distinct to what the story is ‘about’ which may reside in subtext. Think about what you want your reader to feel, to understand. Think about balance of what is told and what’s left to your reader to work out. Be specific in detail, original in metaphor and simile. Trust your instincts. Take risks. Take more. Show drafts to writers and readers you trust. Edit, edit, edit. Read, read, read. Keep going. Reward yourself with treats. Good luck.