Interview with Kathy Stevens — BSSA 2017 1st Prize Winner

We’ve more inspiration for would-be entrants to BSSA 2018 in Jude’s interview here with our first prize winner from the 2017 Award, Kathy Stevens, who was also commended in BSSA 2016 with her story, ‘A Marriage of Convenience’. Kathy is currently writing a series of linked short-stories and we hope the recent announcement from The Bookseller, that there is a boom in short-story collection sales, will mean that we get to read a published collection of her work soon. Judge Euan Thorneycroft from A M Heath. who is also this year’s judge, said of Kathy’s story:

I loved this story from the word go. Both funny and heart-breaking. We are immediately grabbed by the unique voice of Elsie, a teenager with unspecified personal problems (although this point is never laboured), and who reveals her acerbic family dynamics through frank observations.”

Please also take note of Kathy’s writing tip about biting the bullet and submitting your work. It certainly worked for her.


Jude: Can you tell us how your wonderful first prize winning Story  ‘This is All Mostly True’ came into being? 

Kathy at the our 2017 launch in November at Mr B’s Emporium of Books, Bath

Kathy: One of my tutors at UEA had spoken about how giving young characters a ‘fixation’ – music, sport, anything  — can help to bring them to life. I’ve never been very good at plots. I prefer to let character control story, which works well in the shorter fiction forms but explains why I’ve never finished a novel. I started with the zombie film idea, and Elsie grew from that. It seemed natural for Elsie to have inherited the zombie film interest from someone else, and it made sense to use the movies to bridge the gap between her and her father. Elsie’s mother has her own ways to relax; she has friends and a social life and enjoys alcohol. Of course, none of this really involves her daughter.

People’s fixations can often be a way to anchor themselves. Obsessing about something apparently trivial can help to quieten a world which doesn’t make sense

Jude: You have recently completed an MA in Creative Writing  at the prestigious University of East Anglia, as the inaugural recipient of a Kowitz scholarship. Can you tell us what is was like studying creative writing there?

Kathy: It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’d strongly recommend studying Creative Writing, and UEA. The course was only a few months long, but I’ve met some friends for life there, and become a far better writer than I was when I started.

Kathy reading an extract from her story, ‘This is All Mostly True’ at our November 2017 anthology launch

It’s quite bizarre, going from a soul-destroying minimum-wage job, to a classroom full of adults who write their own fiction and take yours seriously. The tutors were all brilliant and all very different. The students came from every continent, age group, and possible walk of life. I’m certainly less ignorant for having attended UEA, and abolishing your ignorance is an important part of becoming a better writer.

To be awarded a full scholarship was life-altering. I’m extremely grateful to Sarah and David Kowitz for selecting my application.


Jude:.In your bio on our winners’ post  you said you are currently working on a literary novel about a dysfunctional family. We’d love to hear more about it and if it’s nearing completion.

Kathy: Nearing completion? I wish! I’m horrendous at finishing anything longer than 5,000 words. The ‘novel’ has been shelved for now. I’m trying to get a linked collection together at the moment. Working in retail over Christmas hasn’t left much time for writing, but I’m scribbling away a couple of days a week. I hope to make serious headway with the collection in the new year.

Jude: Your beautifully written and memorable  story ‘A Marriage  of Convenience’ was commended in our 2016 Award and is published in our 2016 anthology.  Are you putting a collection of short stories together?

I’ve heard that collections are far more appealing to agents and publishers when they’re linked. I’m not putting any of my old material into the collection. I’m starting again from scratch

Jude: We also know from your bio that you are a keen guitarist. Do you write songs as well?

Kathy: I don’t write songs, no. I wasn’t blessed with that skill. I played classical guitar from the age of six. These days I’ll pick up somebody’s guitar at a party and play half of ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’, before I forget the words and give it to somebody more talented.

Jude: Who are your favourite short story writers and why do you like them?

Kathy: Roald Dahl’s adult writing is wonderful. He gets straight to the point and doesn’t waste any words on long-winded description. The profundity of his work can be found in what he leaves out. I also like Hemingway, for similar reasons. I recently read Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ on a friend’s suggestion, having never seen the film, and was profoundly moved.

I read a lot of collections, The Best British Short Stories series is a favourite, which comes out every year and is edited by Nicholas Royle, creative writing professor at Manchester and judge of the Manchester Short Story Prize. I also really enjoy Philip Langeskov’s short fiction. Joe Dunthorne’s novel Submarine was one of the most entertaining books I’ve read for years. My coursemates were a very talented bunch. I expect great things (short story wise) from John Steciuk, Cara Marks, Senica Maltese and Tithi Mukherjee in particular. Kelleigh GreenbergJephcott’s first novel, Swan Song, is coming out later this year, and it’s going to be brilliant.

Jude:Finally, your top tip for anyone wanting to enter our short story competition?

Get a calendar, fill it with deadlines, keep to it. Write, write, write. Read a lot. Enjoy it, but be focused. You’ll be rejected and for a while, and you’ll feel you’re getting nowhere. But if you stick to it and keep becoming a better writer, there’s no reason at all why you can’t get there. I wrote and sent work out for almost 2 years before anything was published at all. After than, it became a steady trickle of acceptance. There’s a lot of talent in the Bath Short Story Award anthology, and all the writers have something in common – they bit the bullet, they finished the work and they sent it out into the world. Good luck

Interview with Mary Griese, BSSA 2017 2nd Prize Winner

Mary seeing her story in print for the first time at our anthology launch at Mr B’s Bookshop Bath in November, 2017


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 reading ‘Performance in the Hills’ at the BSSA 2017 anthology launch

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?

A card of one of Mary’s paintings of sheep.

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.

December, 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.



Philip Hensher

Photograph by Eamonn McCabe

Philip Hensher is a man who likes lists and appears on many. These  include the 2003 Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists; the 2008 Man Booker and 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlists for The Northern Clemency, his ‘shameless page-turner ‘ of a novel, which also won Best Book in the CWP’s Eurasia Region; the IoS Pink List of the most influential LBGT people.

Influential. He’s certainly that. The current Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University (previously, he taught at the University of Exeter) describes himself as a novelist and journalist. As a journalist, writing for the Independent, Mail on Sunday, Spectator, Telegraph and Guardian, his articles have explored a wealth of political, historical and, as one would expect, cultural subjects. In 2007 he won the Stonewall Prize for Journalist of the Year. As a critic, reviewer and Booker judge in 2001, his thoughts, at times controversial, on a range of literary and philosophical issues, have established him as a Big Name.  His nine novels have garnered literary prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award (Kitchen Venomand the Oondatje Prize (Scenes from an Early Life  which was also shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize).  His entertaining book The Missing Ink  postulates the case of pen v. keyboard while the libretto for Thomas Adès opera is another of his accomplishments.

And then there are the short stories. I met Philip Hensher at ‘The Importance of the Short Story’, a Bath Literature Festival event chaired by Alex Clark, where he, Clark and Georgina Hammick spent a comfortable hour on the podium sharing revelations,  juicy anecdotes about the genre and writing in general  – and a passion for lists. He’s just edited the mammoth two-volume Penguin History of the British Short Story, starting with Defoe (Vol.1) and ending with Zadie Smith (Vol 2). This was a two-year project and, although the final result is highly acclaimed, the choices have attracted controversy.  But, with 20,000 stories to consider for circa 100 places and 160 authors culled to 70, it’s obvious some firm favourites would be omitted.  I’ve not seen the first volume but I do have the second which does have an eclectic flavour:  canonical greats such as Graham Greene and Zadie Smith share spine space with Adam Marek and Jack Common, an author I’d never heard of.  In fact, there were several writers I first experienced through the anthology, which was Hensher’s intent. He deliberately chose to focus on the writing itself, so that a single wonderful story, even if it was the sole representation of the author, took precedence over  the search for the best story written by an acclaimed writer, hence no Hilary Mantel . Rather than working his way through collections and anthologies, Hensher’s reference point was the medium in which each story first appeared and, for the earlier stories, this was the magazine, periodical or journal.  Much of the excellent introduction highlights the glorious past of the short story writer who could make a decent living from the genre.  The Strand was especially generous, paying W.W. Jacobs £350 for one story in 1914 which would be c. £36,000 in today’s money according to an historic inflation calculator – just topping the EFG Sunday Times Award, self-proclaimed as the world’s richest story prize. For Hensher that’s the problem and his exasperation is evident when he argues the prestigious £30,000 prize could be better used to develop the talents of many more writers.

At the Bath Literature Festival event Hensher claimed he began his massive undertaking from a ‘position of not knowing short stories.’ It’s true that novels constitute the main body of his work but it’s evident he has an attraction to and considerable talent for the short story form. ‘Dead Languages’ from his 1999 collection The Bedroom of the Mister’s Wife was selected by A. S. Byatt for The Oxford Book of English Short Stories while The Emperor’s Waltz, his novel from 2014, follows in the tradition of  Gaskell and Faulkner in its structure of unconnected or parallel narratives but is, in many ways, a series of inter-woven stories  – or so it appeared to me. The writing emerges from wry observation with an opening line: ‘You will have brought your own towels, and bed linen,’ Frau Scherbatsky said in her lowered, attractive, half humming voice, ‘as I instructed, as I suggested, Herr Vogt, in my telegram’, echoing the rhythms and syntax not just of Weimar Germany  but of the country I know today. So, it’s not surprising that with several years of flirting with the form he has returned to short stories and now has a collection to tempt, tease and entice. Tales of Persuasion will be out on April 21st.

Interview by Jane, April 18th, 2016

  • Published 21st April

    The blurb for ‘Tales of Persuasion’  reads, ‘Backdrops vary …from turmoil in Sudan following the death of a politician in a plane crash, to southern India where a Soho hedonist starts to envisage the crump and soar of munitions’.  Is this, in some way, a connection to the short stories of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that were written as an immediate response to current events? Please would you tell us more about ‘Tales of Persuasion’, how it came about and your thoughts on the collection?

 I write short stories as they occur to me, so occasionally, intermittently, and set off by some particular idea. Sometimes I see somebody in the street, and wonder about their life – a pair of people who probably didn’t belong together, for instance, set off the story “Under the Canopy” about a seriously ill man and his irresponsible carer. Sometimes a piece of interesting information will come my way. When I discovered that Silvio Berlusconi was serving out some community service working in a home for Alzheimer’s patients, I wondered about how one of the patients might regard the interesting fact that the Prime Minister was now looking after her – “A Lemon Tree”. Or sometimes I wanted to perform a variation on a classic short story, bringing my experience of a first day at work to meet a short story on a similar theme by the great Malachi Whitaker (“A Change in the Weather”). I didn’t have a plan for the collection – it was written here and there over 17 years, but at the end I brought all the short stories I could find together and chose the ones I thought worked, and worked together. (I dropped about 7 that would have looked odd, or that I didn’t much like any more – one of those, embarrassingly, is the story about Sudan which was published a few years ago). In the end I was struck by how many of the stories were about somebody changing, or being changed by influences or by things going on around them. So there did seem to be an idea about persuasion. I chose the cover. It’s sometimes hard to work out whether the one doing the persuading is being met by strong resistance, and is carrying on anyway.

  • You’ve been quoted as saying that the short story is in a state of crisis. This is contrary to perceived opinion that the genre is enjoying something of a renaissance. Please could you expand on this.

Well, I don’t know what the renaissance is, considering that it’s almost impossible to get anyone to pay you to write a short story. The outlets that used to exist, even twenty years ago when I was starting out, have more or less disappeared. They’ve been replaced by short story competitions. Competitions are fine, so long as they come along with a marketplace. If that’s all there is – no. For me, literary competitions are the equivalent of overseas aid. They act as a paternalistic view by outsiders of what the target ought to be doing, rather than where the real opportunities lie. They encourage corruption, in the sense that they direct writers to choose a particular sort of subject rather than another. No-one serious about winning a short story would indulge in broad comedy or irresponsible violence (two of the strengths of the British short story in the past). And they drive out ordinary market forces. A newspaper which is paying a large sum to reward a short story, once a year, doesn’t see any reason to encourage the publication of short stories as an ordinary part of its endeavour. I know people say that the short story is undergoing a renaissance. Most of these people are the people who run short story competitions.

  • Do we value the great stories of 50 years ago or do they seem old-fashioned?  Please would you talk about the cultural and stylistic shifts of the short story?

 Durr. Literature isn’t old-fashioned. Literature is a living thing and goes on being a living thing. Is Homer old-fashioned? The crappy short stories of 50 years ago are old-fashioned – I would name H.E.Bates. The great ones, like V.S. Pritchett or Elizabeth Taylor, are never going to seem quaint. I think one stylistic shift of the short story has been an unfortunate one. The great short stories of the past are really interested in the connections between people and can be pretty crowded with characters. A very peculiar notion that’s sprung up recently is that the short story is predominantly about a single person’s reflections. I judged a short story competition recently and about 90% of the entrants were mostly about someone on their own, walking down a street or sitting in a room, thinking about the past. Every single one of them was terrible. If they’d been told to write a short story about seven women on a bus having an argument or a fight in a pub, they might have got somewhere.

  • Stories written in the first person, present tense – your reaction?

 Some are fine and some are not very good. It’s a fashion which arrived fifteen years ago. It rules out any kind of action, because of course it’s idiotic to write, “I am getting up out of the chair. A madman is running at me! He has a knife! I am holding up that place mat of Whitstable as a temporary shield! Oh no! It is falling to pieces!” I think it’s popular because it’s the easiest way to write. Everyone knows how to talk in the first person. So it serves the inexperienced author, who has forgotten that the thing is to please a reader. Lots of readers can’t stand it. I think if I ever met a reader who claimed that they couldn’t stand the third person past tense, I would wonder about them – well, let’s face it, it never happens.

  • At the Bath Lit Fest event you talked about your fondness for the ghost story and indicated that as most authors write them, you probably could have filled ‘The Penguin Book of the British Short Story’ just with ghost stories. What is about the ghost story that lends itself to the genre?

 The ghost story works best when it hints at stuff, when the implications are still resonating when the story ends. It’s a great opportunity for the short story – a novel is going to have to go into detail. Many of the best and most terrifying of M.R.James’s short stories finish with the narrator saying that he can’t go on telling what he knows, since it’s too horrible to recount.

  • At the same event you and Georgie Hammick shared an enthusiasm for lists in fiction.  Lists are often seen as unimaginative, ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ and possibly a bit of a ‘cop out’ – how would you counter this perception?

I think you mean “showing” rather than “telling”. Lists of objects are brilliant in suggesting the world around a character – we shape the world in our own image, and if you could look inside a stranger’s handbag or on their bedside table, you could make a neutral list of what you found and still have a pretty good idea of what sort of person they were. One of the errors of beginning writers is often to think that you need to set out the emotions of characters, to explore the inside of their heads, and only to talk about the solid facts of the world when emotions happen to play upon them. I don’t know why you would think it’s a cop-out – I think the patient collection of physical facts is exhausting labour. Anyone can go on about Oh God I Feel Terrible I Want To Die. It takes some investment to write a list which accounts for everything in the fridge of a seriously depressive individual. (Three bottles of milk, half finished, one clotted with mould, seven bars of chocolate, three different ready-meal lasagnes, three left-over spoonfuls of a lamb curry on a plate, insulin, a bottle of vodka and a jar of foie gras that somebody gave as a present last Christmas, eight months ago).

  • You have received many awards and honours. Which gave you the most joy and why?

I think perhaps the award of an honorary doctorate by Sheffield University in 2015. It was such a joy because it was so unexpected.  I had no idea they held me in any esteem, or knew who I was. I grew up in Sheffield, and the university was a wonderful presence, a place of thought and inquiry that I could sneak into from the age of 14 onwards – the library, the concert hall, the drama studio, even the swimming pool and the Students’ Union bar…I don’t know what people do who grow up miles from a good university, but Sheffield University made me realize very early on that there was such a thing as being serious and thinking independently. I went somewhere else to do my degree, but Sheffield University did the spadework. So it was really nice of them to give me anything at all. Prizes are nice and they come or mostly they don’t come and you never give them a moment’s thought, but the honorary degree made me almost tearful with gratitude.

  • You’ve been nominated for a Booker and, in 2001, were on the judging panel for the prize where there was a very strong shortlist and longlist. How difficult was it to reach a consensus and, in your view, did the best novel win?

Yes, we did a good job, I reckon, in identifying the talent. Some years the Booker panel has done a totally lamentable job and shortlisted people who haven’t done anything good and who aren’t going to do anything. But the novelists we shortlisted either had a substantial reputation and had done something excellent – Peter Carey and Ian McEwan – or were at the beginning of what would be a stellar career – Ali Smith with her first novel, David Mitchell with his second, Andrew Miller with his third. I actually don’t think the winner of these prizes matters all that much – it’s the longlist and (especially) the shortlist that matters and that writers can take advantage of. I was pretty pleased to give the prize to Peter Carey’s Kelly Gang – it’s an astonishing novel. We didn’t reach a consensus, we reached a point of pleasant disagreement and produced a winner. I hold much the same view about consensus that Mrs Thatcher did, that it tends to reward everyone’s second or third choice.

  • What is the most useful piece of advice you would give a novice writer hoping to be published?

Write about the world and not about the inside of people’s heads, and don’t let your characters be alone for more than three lines. Scenes with three characters are easier and more productive than scenes with two characters. Something should always follow from the end of each scene. Remember what Browning said – we are interested in the dangerous edge of things, the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist. No-one cares about a dishonest City banker who loves money more than his wife and children.

  • Which 3 pieces of reading material would you take to Radio 4’s Desert Island?

Buddenbrooks, Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” and Proust. I love the way that after a while you can play with all the minor characters, even the ones (like Johnson’s friend Edwards) who come in for a moment and go out again, never to be seen again. (Edwards is the one who said to Johnson that he tried philosophy when he was young, but he always found cheerfulness coming in).

  • What do you think is the best short story ever written?

Ha ha ha. Unanswerable question. One I absolutely love is Chekhov’s “Ionitch”, which is basically the same events happening twice, first hilariously and then heartbreakingly. Or Thomas Mann’s “First Love and Other Sorrows”. Or John Cheever’s “The Day the Pig Fell Down the Well”. Or Elizabeth Taylor’s “A Dedicated Man”. Or V.S.Pritchett’s “The Day My Girl Came Home”. Or Conrad’s “Typhoon” – I can’t think of any more shattering stretch of prose than the approach to the climax in that. Or Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does A Man Need.” Or Katherine Mansfield’s “Daughters of the Late Colonel”. It’s a bit like asking who the best human being who ever lived was, different answers on different days.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and Happy Publication Day for ‘Tales of Persuasion‘ on Apriil 21st.

Interview by Jane Riekemann

Follow Philip Hensher on Twitter @PhilipHensher 



Sarah Hilary portrait. Photo by Linda Nylind.

Sarah Hilary portrait.
Photo by Linda Nylind.

‘I do have a dark mind,’ admitted award-winning crime writer Sarah Hilary in an interview with The Guardian, explaining how a friend pushed her into the genre, telling her to stop mucking about. ‘Your mind is in a dark place already, you should make some money from it.’ Her debut novel ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ is a startling exploration of abuse from an unusual perspective. Pacy, thrilling, often brutal yet deeply moral, it received brilliant reviews in all the broadsheets and praise from authors such as Helen Dunmore who found it ‘very disturbing and builds up to a terrific climax’.

Picked as a Richard and Judy Book Club read in 2014, it was The Observer’s Book of the Month, on The Guardian’s list of top thrillers of 2014 as well as a Silver Falchion and Macavity Award finalist in the US. In 2015, it won the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and Sarah joined the ranks of Val McDermid and Lee Child, past winners of the award. Whew! Where do you go from there?

‘No Other Darkness’ published in July 2015 is a harrowing tale that starts with two small boys trapped in an underground bunker. Five years later they’re found. Dead. A chilling plot and 5 stars for ‘unputdownability’ so no surprises that it’s just been nominated for Best Paperback Original in the U.S. Barry Awards. And now Tastes Like Fear will be out on 7th April 2016. This is the third in the series, all featuring D.I. Marnie Rome, a complex and attractive protagonist who has suffered an unthinkable tragedy and now has to make sense of the darkest of family secrets. Another winner with its ingenious twist (which I didn’t spot) and, in Harm, one of the creepiest perpetrators ever. I was lucky enough to have an uncorrected proof copy and you can read my review here

You’ve probably guessed I’m a fan of Sarah’s writing and I’m not alone. In WH Smith’s Best Crime Authors of All Time Sarah was voted in at 33, one below Grisham and just topping JK Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith. Ha! Is there no limit to her talents? She’s certainly prolific.

Climb into her Crawl Space , the most brilliant of blogs and you’re in for a treat. I began at the beginning on February 1 2008 and found a stash of writers’ gems. She generously shares the successes of other writers and details some of the critical advice she’s been given, including an agent’s debriefing of her work as well as offering her thoughts on point of view ; how  to get a literary agent  or not and so much more – just take the afternoon off and read right through. Enjoy the interviews, especially the ‘biggie’ with Ian Rankin which reads like a cosy conversation between two great crime writers playing, ‘Show me your technique and I’ll show you mine.’

Sarah’s short stories are also highly acclaimed and she won the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize in 2008, the 2010 Sense Creative Award and The Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2012. She’s been shortlisted for several awards including the Seán Ó Faoláin competition in 2010 and published in too many anthologies and magazines to list here. A firm fan of Flash, she runs CrimeFest’s annual Flashbang. Bang Bang You’re Read contest where for a tiny fee and the lure of passes to CrimeFest weekend, entrants are invited to ‘commit a crime story in 150 words’. Sarah’s Flashes are widely published and you can enjoy a taste here

Other facts about Sarah. She’s often spotted on the panel at festivals or chairing events; she’s a member of  Killer Women – go Google it – and she writes copy for a well-known travel company. She lives in Bath and we’ve met a couple of times, first at our Evening of Readings in October and later in The Chelsea Café, where I found the writer with the dark mind has a light side and is as witty in the flesh as in the Tweets to her 7K+ followers @sarah_hilary . She introduced me to Fred Vargas in our local charity shop, offering to buy me Fred’s The Chalk Circle Man. We both like gin. Enough said.


  • ‘Tastes Like Fear’, the third novel in the Marnie Rome series, is out on April 7. Please tell us something about the process of writing it and what’s next for you – and Marnie?

 It was an exciting story to tell, partly because the voices were so strong in my head; a couple of characters in particular, who are unique to this story, gripped me and didn’t let go. The twists came very organically. I was still guessing right until the end as to who the killer was and why. I hope it’s as exciting to read as it was to write. I’m working on book four now, which is very different—still exciting, of course, but in an entirely different way. A big part of the story is about Marnie’s relationship with her foster brother, Stephen, who killed her parents when he was fourteen. It feels as if it’s time to tell that story now.

  • How did you get started on your writing career and when did you feel confident to list writer as your ‘profession’ on a document?

I’d called myself a writer since I was quite small in fact, but my confidence grew as I started to get short stories published. When I won the Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2012 that felt like a turning point. I was signed by an agent at around the same time, and after that everything happened quite quickly.

  • What is the essence of good crime writing and are there current trends you approve/disapprove of?

 Good crime writing is subversive. It asks the awkward questions and looks into the murkiest corners. And it’s psychological—people as puzzles, rather than ‘plot as puzzle’. I don’t pay a lot of attention to trends. A good book – good writing – will transcend all that.

  • You and Ian Rankin both confessed to not being plotters but how much research (e.g. accuracy of police details) do you do before you begin to write?

I read a lot of first person accounts, and I do an amount of research as I write, to pin down any niggling inaccuracies. I retrofit the rest of the research, because the momentum and the story always come first. I’m not writing a textbook. Most readers want credible characters, first and foremost.

  • What are the themes you find yourself drawn to and are keen to explore in your writing?

 Captivity. The idea of what imprisons us, and how we can imprison ourselves. Guilt, and redemption. The challenge of forgiveness. And legacies—of pain, of survival, of hope.

Do you have a writing routine? Favourite time, place and a specific writing process – journals, notebooks etc.? SH: I try and write every day. Straight into my Macbook Air. I keep notebooks of questions, but mostly it’s straight to work, typing the first draft, getting black on white.

  • If I say ‘Patricia Highsmith’ what would your reaction be? Please would you tell us about your latest project.

Highsmith is one of my writing heroes. Everything she wrote was different, odd, off-kilter. I was thrilled and honoured to be asked to write a special introduction to three of her novels which are being republished in special editions by Virago in June.

 Novels, short stories, flash and even poetry – are there any other forms you enjoy writing (e.g. screenplays – as surely Marnie would make perfect Sunday night viewing)?

My earliest writing ambition was to be a screenwriter. The Marnie Rome series has been optioned for television, and I’m delighted that a talented screenwriter is working on a pilot script. I’m happiest writing novels, but I do like short stories and flash fiction too. Poetry eludes me, as anyone who read my recent ‘Ode to the Ankles of Hugh Laurie’ will attest.

  • What do you think are the essential ingredients of a good short story?

Crystal clear setting and characters. Forward momentum. An ending that resonates. No wasted words.

  • Beginnings and endings – your thoughts on these? How do you decide when a short story should end?

I like an ending that echoes back to the beginning. My favourite short stories have this circularity. When the reader knows what will happen next—that’s where the story should end. The reader finishes it, in his or her imagination.

  • The Bath Short Story Award closes at the end of this month. What tips would you give entrants to help their stories stand out from the crowd?

A memorable and unusual first line that sets the tone and makes the reader curious to know more. If you can raise a question in that opening line, the reader will want to keep going, to find the answer.

  • How important is it for a writer to be involved in social media? How do you handle it?

Publishers like it, I find. More than that it helps to make the writing process less lonely and brings you closer to your readers—which is where all writers want to be.

  • Which writers, dead or alive, would you take to the Canary Gin Bar in Bath?

Great question. I’d have Dorothy Parker, Max Beerbohm, Georgette Heyer, Fred Vargas, Oliver Sachs and yes, Patricia Highsmith.

  • Which novels or short story collections would you take to Radio 4’s Desert Island?

Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, Graham Greene’s short stories, and everything ever written by Helen Dunmore.

  • What is the single most useful piece of advice someone else has given you about writing?

 Be patient. Fail better.

Thank you Sarah and good luck for the launch at Toppings , Bath of Tastes like Fear on April 7th 


Interview with Paul McVeigh

Paul McVeigh

Photo by Roelof Bakker.

We originally published Jane’s interview with Paul in March 2015 and have now updated and reposted it this year for more of you to read and learn from before submitting stories for our 2016 Award. Since our interview, Paul’s debut novel The Good Son has achieved massive success, has been translated into French and German and chosen for Brighton City Reads 2016. We’re excited that an audio book of the novel, narrated by Paul, is now available. Paul is a brilliant reader. The Good Son is also up for another award – The People’s Book Prize  so if you’ve read it and loved it, do vote for Paul. Voting ends in May. If you haven’t read the book yet, buy it, read, then vote. We guarantee you’ll  fall in love with Mickey Donnelly the ten-year old protagonist.

Jane’s updated interview

About Paul

Google Paul McVeigh and a canary shirted 1st Division footballer pops up and you think, are there no limits to this man’s talents? No it’s not the same Paul – but writer, blogger, playwright, teacher and festival director Paul McVeigh has created such a powerful presence on the literary and, especially, short story scene it seems he’s everywhere . His Twitter account @paul_mc_veigh has over 10,000 followers and his blog, which has had over 1 million hits, is one of the best sources of reference for any writer

Paul’s a Belfast boy and The Troubles in 80s Northern Ireland create a dramatic context for his debut novel The Good Son (Salt) which was published in April 2015, is now in its second edition, is currently nominated for The People’s Book Prize It was also shortlisted in The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize, 2015 Longlisted: Waverton Good Read Award.ELLE Magazine Best Books of 2015.The Irish Independent Top Reads of 2015.One of The Reading Agency Staff Picks Best of 2015.Wales Arts Review – Fiction of the Year.Number 1 Beach Read The PoolA Gransnet Best Christmas Read for 2015. Savidge Reads and Pam Reader Blogs Books of the Year

Paul’s also a playwright and co-founded the Armada Theatre Festival and Scarecrow Theatre Company. His plays have toured the UK and Ireland, been nominated for a BBC Entertainment and Media award and his comedy shows performed in London’s West End. His masterclasses on a range of subjects from writing to social media sell out and create an enthusiastic buzz on Twitter and Facebook from London to Melbourne. He ran a very successful workshop for us in Bath last autumn and entertained us, along with novelists Sarah Hilary and Rachel Heath at a wonderful evening of readings afterwards

Paul was the co-founder and Director of the highly successful London Short Story Festival, is Associate Director of short story salon The Word Factory and has had short stories published in Flash Flood Journal, New Century New Writing, Rattle Tales 2, Harrington’s Fiction Journal, Unbraiding the Short Story,The Stinging Fly and upcoming The London Magazine. Listen to his story Tickles, originally broadcast on Radio 4

Interview with Jane Riekemann,

  • You are such a presence in many areas of the literary world with your blog, masterclasses, multi-festival involvement etc. so when and how do you find the time and impetus to write? Can you jump in where you left off or do you need space for ideas and stories to develop? Do you have a routine –a special place to write? And what about journals etc.?

When I am writing I find I work on a short story in my head for a long time, sometimes years, then when I sit down to write it comes out pretty much fully formed. I tend to leave that first draft for a few months between edits. At the next stage I can nibble at time and tinker with the text. With the novel I needed long stretches. I had to read the novel from the beginning to get into the flow and be in the moment of where I’d started back. The Good Son is written in the voice of a little boy and I needed to get into character, like an actor, then I could just play. Now I can get there really easily with him. If you asked what would happen if Mickey went to the cinema, I could write a chapter in an afternoon. Such a pity you have to leave a character when they are finally alive and part of you.

I keep a journal when I travel. When I kept one in the routine of my life I found I bored myself senseless. It became like a schoolboy’s homework project. Lists of things I did that day or had to remember. When travelling, the stimulus seems to shake my brain, I become detached from my world and new connections are made. I become inspired to explore and what I find internally and externally I record.

  • Tania Hershman, in a guest post for Aerogramme Writers’ Studio, says: ‘writing has no borders, that good stories are good stories’, adding, ‘I don’t need to write “like an American” for an American reader to connect with my work…’. Any thoughts on this?

I agree. I also think the more you reduce a story, an action, an intention, down to its basic human driving force the more universal the story becomes. I haven’t read the article but there is this outside pressure when considering publication, markets and readership and it can play with your mind.

When I write, it comes from the desire to get into an emotional need or truth and I connect with that via some other place, without considering the market for the work. In fact, I think that is why I have become stuck with my writing. Having dealt with the business of getting my novel published, the compromises and the worry of ‘will anyone publish this after years of work?’ have made me shy of starting something new. This is turning into a therapy session. Do you charge?

  • What is the essence of a brilliant short story?

I’m still relatively new to short stories. I don’t feel in any position to say what that essence is. As a reader, there are certain types of story I’m more likely to connect with, that will stay with me, and others that don’t engage me. I can tell you how things work for me as a reader. I like to be moved. I like to laugh. I like to come away enriched from the experience. If I think about brilliance I think about the author’s voice. And their eyes. What is it they see? How do they turn the world on its axis so the sun hits it at a new angle and things that were in the shadows become exposed and things I thought I knew now look different? I love it when a story makes the ideas I have about the world become more three dimensional.

  • Beginnings and endings – how important are they to a short story? Does the title really matter?

Beginnings are very important. Talking specifically from the point of view of judging competitions and reading stories in an endless feast with a view of festivals etc., I find beginnings are crucial to keep me reading. For these platforms (which I don’t think have to apply to stories in a collection), one way to get my attention is to see the first page as pulling the ring from the grenade. I will read to see if it goes off – I will assume it will and cause the maximum amount of damage possible. If that grenade doesn’t go off and you’ve written an end I believe in and welcome, then I will tip my hat to you. I will also be a bit jealous.

The great Australian short story writer Cate Kennedy said to me recently that at the beginning of a short story the writer makes a promise to the reader and that promise has to be fulfilled or the reader will feel cheated. Endings can be neat but they can also be open, more symbolic, a space for the reader to take a breath so that the story is still alive afterwards and not shut down.

Titles tend to have an after-effect with me. I don’t often remember the title of a story, perhaps because I’m reading a lot. However, I think a good title enters my head subliminally, like someone hitting a tuning fork before the music begins: it sets the key, the tone. It can also resonate for a while after. With stories I love, I go back, look at the title and think about it. A title can be a Rosetta Stone, unlocking the author’s intention.

  • Word limits? How short can a short story be? Your thoughts on flash fiction, prose poetry or any of the new trends?

I have written some ‘shorter than short story’ pieces and felt they were as complete as any longer story I’ve written. So, as a writer, I say write what you want and let it finish when you/it’s done. For competitions and journals the word limits seem to be getting shorter, averaging around 3,000 (not in the USA). Around 2,000 for radio and live readings (if you want to read a complete story). As a reader I prefer around 3,000 words but will happily read more if the writing carries me.

  • Do you have any advice for new writers finding their way? The best ways to access a wider readership?

Dig deep. Ask yourself why you are writing? What do you want to say? If your foundations are strong then you’ll endure the inevitable knocks a writer can’t avoid. Social media can be useful in getting people interested in you and your work, building a readership as you grow.

  • Your debut novel The Good Son, published by Salt, was out last April, 2015. What have you been up to since?

It’s been a wild year. I’ve been to Mexico and Turkey with The British Council. I met inspiring writers and seen wonderful places. It’s been fascinating to look at wildly different cultures and see similarities, especially coming from Northern Ireland, I found deep stirrings in the history and current dilemmas these countries find themselves in. The London Short Story had an amazing second year and Word Factory continues to regularly hit that level of quality that if you look over is history, is pretty mind boggling.

The novel has kept me busy; launches, festivals, interviews, promotion… it’s a part time job. I’ve been writing some essays, tinkering with some stories and dancing around a novel.

  • Which writers have influenced and inspired you the most? And which short story collections would you take to BBC Radio 4’s desert island?

It’s hard to say who have influenced me the most. When I first fell in love with writing it was with Hemingway, Henry Miller, Carson McCullers, Anaїs Nin, James Baldwin, Tennessee Willliams, Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez… I’m not sure who has replaced them. I read so much for work now, that reading hasn’t brought as much joy as it used to. Some switch clicks in my head and activates the technical part of my brain and that gets in the way of inspiration. The same happened to me in theatre after a few years. My mind would pick apart the mechanics of the production rather than the flow of the words accessing something deeper.

I’d take George Saunders’ Tenth of December to laugh, and marvel at his imagination and the brilliance of his ideas. Anything by Claire Keegan for nourishment of the soul.

Thank you so much Paul for sharing your thoughts with us.

Jane Riekemann, (orginal interview, March 2015)

More about Paul, his writing, interviews and the courses he teaches here

Interview with novelist and short story writer, Annemarie Neary

Anne marie pic

Annemarie is an Irish-born, London-based novelist and short story writer. Her novel, Siren, forthcoming from Hutchinson (Penguin Random House UK) on 24 March 2016, is one the Independent’s ’10 best book club reads for 2016′. Annemarie’s stories have been published in Ireland, the UK and the US and broadcast on RTE radio.Her short fiction awards include the Bryan MacMahon and Michael McLaverty short story competitions (Ireland), the Columbia Journal fiction prize (US), the Posara prize (Italy) and prizes in the Bridport, Fish, UPP Short FICTION, KWS Hilary Mantel, WOW! and Sean O Faolain awards. A Parachute in the Lime Tree, set in neutral Ireland in 1941, was published by The History Press Ireland in 2012. 


 You can read Annemarie’s story, ‘Gon-do-la’, in our 2014 Bath Short Story Award Anthology, still available from Amazon in  the digital edition. We’re really looking forward to reading her novel, ‘Siren’, published later this month.

Interview by Jude, March, 2016.

  • Siren, your forthcoming novel is described by Random House as a “dark and suspenseful

    Pre-order Siren from Amazon. Published 24th March

    psychological thriller” Can you tell us more about the novel and what inspired the story?

Róisín Burns has spent the last 20 years becoming someone else. When her new life in New York starts to unravel she learns that Brian Lonergan, the man who blighted her Belfast childhood, has also reinvented himself. He is now a rising politician with a wipe-clean past and a sharp suit. But scandal is brewing in Ireland, and Róisín knows the truth. When she travels back to the remote island where Lonergan has a holiday home, she means to confront him with a demand of her own. But Lonergan is one step ahead. When she arrives on Lamb Island, someone else is waiting for her.

The story was sparked off by a notorious incident that took place in Belfast in the Seventies, and by more recent stories of personal trauma pitted against political reality. I’m interested in outsiders, and both my point of view characters are people who, for very different reasons, have been left behind. As for Lamb Island, it is strongly influenced by various islands in Roaringwater Bay in West Cork, one of my favourite places. Aspects of the geography are taken from Cape Clear, the most beautiful island of them all, but Lamb is a place of its own.

  •  You have another novel coming out next year with Penguin Random House. Is that novel also a psychological thriller?

It is, but with a very different setting and theme. The next novel is set in the present day, in and around a South London common. I’m still working on the first draft, but reluctant motherhood is an important element, as is sibling conflict and self-delusion.

  • You have won or been placed in many prestigious short story awards in recent years. Can you tell us what you enjoy about writing short stories and how you know when one of your stories feels ready to enter a competition?

I love when a story evolves from a fleck of detail into something I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered. That’s the joy of short stories for me. There is no responsibility to rein them in, at least not in that first draft.  As for when they’re ready, that’s one of the hardest things to decide. One thing is for sure, though — it’s never ‘probably fine’. I have quite a few stories that still aren’t ready, and might never be. The experience of writing those ‘failed’ stories is not waste of time, though. The act of expression crystallizes fictional elements and fixes them in the imagination. It’s surprising how often they find their place elsewhere. Having worked exclusively on novels for the past while, I feel a bit out of practice when it comes to short stories. I’m trying to write one at the moment, as it happens, but I have a good deal of chipping away to do yet.

 You’ve also judged several short story competitions, including the inaugural round of Bath Flash Fiction Award last year, and most recently the WOW! award in Ireland. What makes a winning story stand out for you?

In each case, I’ve been beguiled by a voice. That’s not to say that my winner is necessarily the ‘best’ story, whatever that it. There are usually about three or four very good stories. It’s the one that feels the most fresh and surprising and engaging to me. I think longevity is important, too. I read and re-read and leave them aside, though I rarely change my mind. I’ve judged about five competitions now, and I remember each winner vividly.

  •  In another interview on this site, I asked short story writer Danielle McLaughlin  how she thought being a lawyer had influenced her fiction. She said the skill sets of lawyers and writers are similar.  “Both jobs involve working with words very precisely and being tuned in to things like nuance and tone…Both jobs require a lot of creativity and both bring a lot of stories to your desk, a lot of drama...” Would you agree with this from your long career as a lawyer?

I agree with what Danielle says about precision and an awareness of nuance and tone. In fact, those qualities are very evident in her own work, which is sublimely nuanced. As for the drama of life as a lawyer, I think she might have had more thrilling subject matter than I did!  I worked with commercial contracts most of the time and didn’t find the job terribly creative or dramatic. However, I did find the ability to cut to the chase, to get to the nub of the matter, really helpful when I started to write fiction. Ironically, the story I’m trying to write at present is the first one that has any connection at all to my former career. During the first Gulf War, I travelled to Algiers to negotiate a contract and the story deals with the power play of the negotiations, the self-conscious Orientalism of the hotel and an unadvised solo trip to the Casbah. I think there’s a story in there somewhere. I hope so! 

  • Which short story writers would you recommend others to read? And why would you recommend them?

Since you mention Danielle McLaughlin, I’d recommend ‘Dinosaurs on Other Planets’ to any aspiring short story writer. Her work is so subtle and fine-tuned and emotionally precise. As a collection, it’s also a masterclass in the suppression of writerly ego — full of remarkable phrases, but without unnecessary showiness. People talk about how sad the stories are. Well, yes and no. There’s also a wry humour at play in many of them. In terms of the canon, I could read William Trevor forever. He is a master of restraint and empathy, and perhaps that’s the kind of story for which he’s best known. But he also has immense range. There is a jaded worldliness in many of his stories, particularly those set in Italy, that appeals to me.

  •  Finally, can you give us your top tip for anyone planning to enter a short story for our 2016 competition?

Delete that first paragraph (probably). In any case, take us right into your world before we have a chance to back out. And voice your story. Breathe it. Make sure you’ve read it aloud before submitting. I think that’s probably two tips, really!  Immediacy and voice. 

Interview with Vanessa Gebbie


Commission No May0035846: Author Vanessa Gebbie, of Ringmer, East Sussex.

Interview by Jude from 2013. Updated here for you to read again. Top tip:  Vanessa has recently created three short story writing workshops for Mslexia magazine. Essential reading if you are entering competitions.


Vanessa Gebbie is a novelist, prize-winning short story writer, poet, editor and creative writing tutor. Her novels are The Coward’s Tale (Bloomsbury) – a Financial Times Novel of the Year) Storm Warning and Words from a Glass Bubble. She has a short story collection, Echoes of Conflict (Salt) and edited Short Circuit – guide to the art of the short story ,eds 1 and 2 (Salt), Her poetry collection The Half-life of Fathers is published by Pig Hog press and her collection of very short fiction, Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures is published by Cinnamon Press. Vanessa’s awards include an Arts Council Grant for the Arts, a Hawthornden Fellowship, a Gladstone’s Library residency, a Bridport Prize, two Fish prizes, the Troubadour poetry prize and the Daily Telegraph Novel in a year prize. Find out more about Vanessa on her blog

  • You have written two collections of short stories, a novel, a poetry collection and a book of very short fiction. Your themes are often about how people deal with loss. Do you find aspects of these themes emerge more readily in the different forms?

Maybe the focus of the theme becomes more concentrated as the length decreases – but the aspects don’t shift, for this writer – just become brighter with less words. 

Having now written a couple of novels, in which I thought loss was going to be the uppermost theme, I found the focus changed during each project. Maybe it’s a function of the length of time taken (at least three years for each, double that for the first)?  I looked back on both, almost at the end of the writing process and thought, ‘Oh. So that’s what it’s about…’ Loss yes, but loss was a jumping-off place. The rest slid in in the night. 

The same thing happens in short stories, if I’m honest, but in a smaller space of course – I’m drawn to images or characters that illustrate loss somehow, as my short story starters, but once I start writing the pieces flower into something more complex and they certainly surprise me.

With poetry, the whole process is focused and intense – a bit like a magnifying glass can set fire to a spot on a piece of paper. But there will always be the moment when the poem becomes itself, not ‘of me’.

  • Your latest collection is a book of micro- fictions, Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures, illustrated by artist and poet Lynn Roberts. Can you tell us more about this book?Ed's wife

Ed’s Wife is made up of tiny flashes, some no more than a line or two, in which Suze, the eponymous wife, behaves like one of seventy weird little creatures. Poor Ed never knows what she is going to do next. Beetle, corn snake, slow loris, silverfish, worm, flea, dust mite… it’s been great fun to do. And Lynn’s illustrations are terrific, funny and brilliant. I’ve been working on this collection for a few years on and off – some pieces have won prizes, others have been published all over the place: USA, Ireland, New Zealand. Time to hit the UK… (!)

  • On your website, you give a timeline of your progress as a writer from 2002 to the present day. I found this inspiring as it suggests that if you work hard and consistently at the craft of writing, success and publication can come. Would you agree.

Yes – because I was advised to work like that, and sure enough, it worked for me – I’m a bit of an obsessive as my family will tell you.  Although it has to be said, luck comes into it. And stubbornness – bloody-mindedness – a refusal to give up. But it is hard work, all this. I am eternally grateful that the boom in self-publishing hadn’t got going when I was starting out. It’s such an attractive looking option, at the stage when we all think we are geniuses, when all we are doing is tipping out stuff that is hackneyed, and not well written for other reasons. I know it works for a few, but far more sink without trace. Although thinking about it, that’s about the same with being published anyway!! 

  • The second edition of Short Circuit, the book of essays on short story writing was published in 2012. I have included an extract from the ‘blurb’, as I think the book would be so useful to anybody entering competitions or wanting to improve their stories.” Short Circuit is a unique and indespensable guide to writing the short story —24 specially commissioned essays from well-published short story writers, many of them prize winners in some of the toughest short story competitions in the English language. The writers are also experienced and successful teachers of their craft.” Can you tell us what is different about the second edition?

When Salt commissioned the book (in 2009), I was able to pull together the text book I’d have really loved as a companion when I was starting out as a ‘young’ writer – and make it into a book full of interest and inspiration for jaded ‘older’ writers too.

Firstly – it is NOT written by me. Somewhere along the line in most ‘how-to’ books on writing, I  lose contact with the author who does not give me a range of possibilities, but expects me to be just like him/her. I was lucky enough to know a wonderful team of writers, all prizewinners, most of them experienced teachers of writing – and they all contributed a chapter. Add one myself, and Bingo! Everything you could possibly want to know about writing short stories – given to you in engaging essays from some of the most gifted writers about. 

Fast forward four years, and nothing stands still.  Short stories certainly don’t – new things happen all the time – so neither should a text book. So I added eight sparkling new chapters by fantastic writers such as Tom Vowler whose collection The Method won the Scott Prize, and who teaches  writing at Plymouth. There’s Stuart Evers, author of Ten Stories About Smoking – and Professor Patty McNair from Columbia College Chicago whose collection has won all sorts of awards over in the USA. There’s an interview with a publisher –  the indomitable Scott Pack from The Friday Project – well known for his honesty! And more. Salt have published it in a wonderful BIG format – I am so proud of my baby…(can you tell?)

  • Who are your favourite short story writers currently?

That’s SO hard to answer – it changes every time I think about it, and I always feel guilty for leaving people out whose work is brilliant. However. Adam Marek is usually up there somewhere, as is Kevin Barry. There’s A L Kennedy, Ali Smith, David Constantine – and have you read Posthumous Stories by David Rose? Fantastic.

  • Do you have an all time favourite short story or shortstory writer?

Yes – I do love The Ledge by Lawrence Sargent Hall. Written in the 1960’s, it is very moving, tough, beautiful, thought provoking and timeless. 

You may (or may not) like these links, I read the story in two parts, with the odd break for a chat  – for Steve Wasserman’s ‘Read Me Something You Love’. Part one and part two.

  • What tip can you give our 2016 competition entrants to help their stories stand out from the crowd?

This can’t be answered simply, and there are no quick fixes, I’m afraid. If you are a reader for a competition and have a few hundred stories to read, there has to be a potent mix of craft skills working in synch for you to notice a story for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

All a writer can really do is learn the craft well, then forget it, and just tell a brilliant story. It does not have to be the ‘bells and whistles’ sort – quiet will do – but write your heart out onto the page, write the story you can’t not write – and keep your fingers crossed. 

And if, as happened to mine many times, your stories don’t make it – roll with the punches. Writing is not an exact science. Learn to accept the knocks along the way, and never, ever give up. 

Having given a sermon – for this reader, a distinctive voice combined with great characterisation makes a piece stand out fast…

Interview with novelist, poet and short story writer, Gerard Woodward



Gerard Woodward is a novelist, poet and short story writer. He studied fine art at Falmouth School of Art, and Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, later carrying out postgraduate research in the same subject at Manchester University. His trilogy of novels concerning the Jones Family (August, I’ll Go To Bed at Noon and A Curious Earth) have won widespread critical acclaim, including shortlistings for the Man-Booker Prize and Whitbread First Novel Award. His five poetry collections (Householder, After The Deafening, Island to Island, We Were Pedestrians and The Seacunny) have earned him a Somerset Maugham Award and two T.S.Eliot Prize shortlistings. His most recent publications are the novel, Vanishing, which is set partly in the village of Heathrow (before the airport was built) and partly in Egypt and Libya during World War Two, and Legoland a collection of short stories. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, Independent and TLS and is currently working on a new novel.

(Gerard Woodward is appearing at the Bath Literature Festival which begins next weekend, 27th February 2016. His workshop on March 3rd on writing Short Stories is sold out, but you can hear him reading his poetry alongside poet Greta Stoddart on 29th February, 8.00 pm – 9.00 pm at the Guildhall Bath. Book at Festival box office.)

Interview by Jude, February, 2016

  • I’m re-reading your short story collection, Caravan Thieves, which I like very much. The stories manage to be both unsettling and funny. Several make me laugh out loud. I think this combination is also a great feature of your novels. Can you say more about your new collection Legoland?  Is it infused with a similar dark humour? 

    Legoland cover

    Available on-line and in bookshops now and also from the Bath Festival bookshop next week

Yes, I think so. I like to unsettle, certainly, and this is part of the attraction of humour. I especially like the type of humour where you suddenly wonder if you should be laughing at all. Humour and comedy operate in much more subtle ways than we usually imagine, partly because we tend to divide works into ‘humorous’ and ‘serious’, when the best writing is very often a combination of both. I’m currently rereading the classic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House – it is a very frightening novel, but it is also (intentionally) very funny as well.

  • I  interviewed A L Kennedy for the  Bath short story website in 2014 and because humour is also a feature of her stories, I asked her about writing humour  She said ” it’s hard – you have to be quite confident before you deploy it and then it’s about timing and observational skills being really tested.” Would you agree with that? 

Yes, timing is very important. It is also very instinctive – you follow a particular line of thought because it appeals to you in a certain way, and for me that is often because it makes me laugh, and the thought of being able to share that emotion with a reader becomes very exciting. The comedy is often about surprise, and in order for the surprise to be effective, the context in which it happens has to feel very real. It is like the set up of a joke – the punchline is only funny if the story that leads up to it is well told.

  •  In a recent interview with Bath Life Magazine, you said you’ve been working on Legoland since Caravan Thieves was published eight years ago and you’ve also had a couple of novels and a poetry collection published within this time. Do you move in between genres as the mood takes you. Or do you have periods where you concentrate on one form?

I tend to work on one particular form at a time, but keep in touch with the other forms during that time, and don’t abandon them completely. The writing of novels is by far the most time consuming, so stories and poems tend to get written mostly in the quieter spells between novels.

  • At a workshop on suspense you gave for Writing Events Bath several years ago you said if you get stuck, you choose random words from books to further the writing. Your example at the time,  was finding the word ‘blackberry’, and as this was a novel set pre-technology rather than a mobile phone incident you had a pot of blackberry jam tip into a character’s hand bag. Can you say more about your short story  writing methods? 

The random word trick is just a way of using the world that is immediately to hand as a way of breaking through an impasse. When the writing is going well you tend to be doing that all the time, using things that happened yesterday to fill in the blank spaces in the writing, the person at the bus stop provides the face for a minor character, something that happened at the dentist’s provides the detail for a scene in the novel. Sometimes your head is empty (or feels like it is) so you reach for a prompt by looking for a random word, or a picture or anything. Most often you pick up a novel or other book by someone you love reading, and that very quickly gets the ideas and the words flowing.

  • Which short story writers do you admire and return to? Do you have any contemporary favourites?

I enjoy reading most of the names that are familiar in the canon of great modern short story writers from Chekov onwards – Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, James Salter. Our own Tessa Hadley is one of my favourite contemporaries

  • Finally, what short story writing  tip would you give writers who want to enter Bath Short Story Award this year?

Make use of the limitations the form imposes on you. You can’t get everything into a short story, so don’t try to.

Interview with novelist and short story writer, Kit de Waal


We are re-posting Jude’s interview from early 2015 with novelist and short story writer, Kit de Waal. Since that time, for the second year in a row, Kit won the Bridport Flash Fiction Award in 2015. Her second prize winning story in BSSA 2014, ‘The Beautiful Thing.’ was produced and broadcast for BBC Radio 4 in March 2015 by our 2016 shortlist judge, BBC Radio 4 producer, Mair Bosworth and Kit has recently been named as one of the Guardian New Faces for Fiction,2016 in advance of her hotly anticipated debut novel, My Name is Leon, which is published in June, 2016. We can’t wait to read it!

We also urge you to apply for, or tell people about the creative writing scholarship Kit has generously created and funded for Birkbeck College. The closing date for applications is 15th February, 2016. Read a full description of the scholarship on the link above. Here’s a summary:

“The first Kit de Waal Scholarship will be launched in October at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. This new scholarship will provide a fully funded place for one student to study on the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA (part-time) over two years, from 2016–2018.It is intended to support a talented student who would not otherwise be able to afford to do the course, targeting students from disadvantaged backgrounds — including but not confined to care leavers, ex-prisoners, members of BAME communities, people with a disability and those from socio-economically deprived and marginalized groups.”


Kit De Waal spent fifteen years in criminal and family law before becoming a writer. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and longer form prose. She is published in various anthologies (Fish Prize 2011 & 2012; ‘The Sea in Birmingham’ 2013; ‘Final Chapters’ 2013’) and works as an editor of non-fiction. In 2014 she gained second place in the Costa Short Story Award with ‘The Old Man & The Suit’.

In 2014 she was also longlisted for the Bristol Prize, won first prize in the  Bridport Flash Fiction competition with her story ‘Romans Chapter 1, Verse 29’. Her fiction, ‘Blue in Green’, won the Reader’s Choice Prize in the Sl Leeds Literary Prize 2014, and BBC Radio 4 broadcast her story ‘Adrift at the Athena’, which was commissioned for the anthology, ‘A Midlands Odyssey’ by Nine Arches Press. In December, 2014, after  a six way bidding auction, Viking secured rights to publish  her debut novel,  My Name Is Leon,  Venetia Butterfield, Publishing Director of Viking, said ‘My Name is Leon is a truly extraordinary novel; heart-wrenching and powerful, its characters leap off the page. I’m thrilled to be publishing a major new talent.’

Interview by Jude, January 2015.

  • In 2014 you won second prize in the Bath Short Story Award competition, first prize in the Bridport Flash Fiction, the readers’ choice in Sl Leeds Literary Prize for your work, Blue in Green, and after a six-way auction, your debut novel My Name is Leon was secured by Viking. Can you tell us more about your novel?

My Name is Leon is the story of two brothers separated by adoption and is published on 2nd June this year. The story follows Leon, the older brother and a single summer of his life while he struggles to adapt to life on his own. I set the story in 1981 when a number of momentous things were happening in the UK; IRA bombs, hunger strikes, the riots and the Royal Wedding of Diana to Charles. wanted to illustrate that while all these big things were happening, one little boy is lost and grieving and going unnoticed . I hear it keeps making people cry although that wasn’t my intention!

  • You write very short fiction, longer stories and full length novels successfully. We loved your second prize story, ‘The Beautiful Thing’ and totally agree with the comments of our 2014 shortlist judge, literary agent Lucy Luck who said it “involved very strong story telling” and “the ending was extremely well done” Have you always written stories in several different fictional modes? Do you have phases focusing on one form, or move regularly between them all?

I like all forms of prose, flash, shorts and novels.I don’t think I’ve ever read a novella though and certainly never tried to write one. They are very different animals and need different story telling skills. For flash, you have to choose your moment – chose the moment – one that illustrates a beginning and an end without actually writing it. It’s the moment in all the best films where the tiny gesture – the arm on the shoulder, the shake of the head, the door left open – when you say ‘yes’ that’s what the story is about.

In short stories you have more scope but the narration is everything.  I find if I have the voice of the story teller – not me – and I stay rigidly in that voice and in that point of view, it’s easier to move back and forwards in time and in depth.There are conventions though – I do try and stay in one place or not move about too much as I think it breaks the spell.

And for novels, well the sky is the limit. My Name is Leon is written in close third person almost but not quite in the voice of the child and it was a real challenge remaining with Leon throughout and not letting myself intrude too much. While I was writing the novel, I cut out a picture of a ten year old boy and stuck it on my computer and I would look at it and say ‘This is you speaking, not me’, or ‘What do you see in this scene? What do you notice?’ I think it worked. Novels give the writer the most freedom but also the most challenges and carry the most risks.  It’s devastating when you think something doesn’t work because it can effect the rest of the manuscript, maybe 30,000 words.

  • Is Blue in Green, your prize winning entry for the Sl Leeds Literary Prize, another novel in progress?

My next novel is nearing final draft stage. My usual process is for there to be a lot of research and thinking – staring out of windows and scrubbing.It takes a good while for me to start writing.  I’m a real plotter and like to have everything lined up –the end, the twists, the characters’ back stories – then I can let loose.

  • Can you say more about your journey as a writer?

I started writing seriously maybe ten years ago and three years ago decided to do an MA in Creative Writing. Doing the MA was as much so that I could tell myself I was taking seriously as wanting to learn about the craft. I read a lot of books, met some great people and did learn but overwhelmingly I decided during that year that I would write for the rest of my life, that I would get published and that was that. I had to make it work. I helped to set up two writing groups, Oxford Narrative Group and Leather Lane Writers. The people in those groups are my support network, my friends and genuine critics.

  • Which short story writers and novelists do you admire and why?

I am training myself to spend more time reading contemporary fiction. My first loves were the classics – Arnold Bennett, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, Graham Greene, Patrick Hamilton, Somerset Maugham. All of those writers – and I’ve read all of their works – managed to get under my skin. I would read them and I was there, not on the page but in the page, in the story.More recently I’ve read Kevin Barry who has a way of describing the ordinary that I dream of being able to do. I also like Cormac McCarthy.

  • Do you have some tips on honing a short story ready for a competition?

If you’re entering something for a competition, work it and then pull back. By that I mean, work over every line, work the tale, work the character, work the paragraph, work the ending and beginning, work the jokes and then look at what you can edit to leave only the essence. I suppose it would be like Coco Chanel says about getting dressed. She said that you should get all dressed up and then just before you leave the house take one thing off. Less is more.