Intervews

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.