Q & A with novelist and short story writer, Tessa Hadley


The past book jacket

Over six novels and two collections of stories Tessa Hadley has earned a reputation as a fiction writer of remarkable gifts, and been compared with Elizabeth Bowen and Alice Munro.

Jude did a short email Q & A with the wonderful short story writer and novelist, Tessa Hadley, Professor in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, in March 2013 and the BSSA team loved her pithy comments about writing, which we have now re-posted below.

Biography. Tessa Hadley has written six novels, Accidents in the Home, published by Jonathan Cape in February 2002, and by Holt in the US (this was longlisted for the Guardian First Book award); Everything Will Be All Right, Holt 2003, Cape 2004 (shortlisted for the Encore Award); The Master Bedroom, Cape and Holt, 2007 (longlisted for the Orange Prize and the Welsh Book of the Year award); The London Train, Cape and Harper Collins in the US, 2011 (longlisted for the Orange Prize); Clever Girl, Cape and Harper Collins, 2013. Her latest novel, The Past was published in 2015. She has stories published regularly in The New Yorker, and also in Granta and the Guardian; a collection, Sunstroke and other stories, was published in January 2007. (This was shortlisted for The Story Award in the US.) A second collection, Married Love, came out in January 2012 (longlisted for the Frank O’Connor prize).

Her story ‘Bad Dreams’ was shortlisted for the BBC short story prize in 2014.

Q & A with Jude, from March 2013

  • You are well known for writing both novels and short stories. Can you tell us a little about your life as a writer in both genres and whether you have a preference?

Stories seem like a delicious interval of irresponsibility alongside the serious commitment of writing a novel. This isn’t because stories are anything less than a novel.

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

I don’t know until I see it. Each story comes entangled in its own requirements, its own laws. It has to have something to tell which is worth hearing, I suppose – at the minimum

  • What traps do you think short short story writers should avoid?

Cliched language, tired perceptions, moralising.

  • Do you have any advice for writers on entering short story competitions?

Keep doing it – once you feel your stories are saying something and have some power and traction. It’s a really useful way to push yourself on, give yourself a deadline. And wonderfully rewarding if you win something too.

  • Who are your favourite short story writers?

Kipling, Checkhov, Joyce, Beckett, Borges, Mansfield, Eudora Welty, Heinrich Boll, John McGahern, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, many others.

  • Do you think a good title is important for a short story, or doesn’t it matter?

Yes, a title clinches something, it crisps the story up and seals it like a top on a bottle.

Opportunities to work with and listen to Tessa Hadley in March at the Bath Literature Festival.

We recommend you take the opportunity of working with Tessa, who is leading a workshop, ‘Bringing Words to Life.’ at the Bath Literature Festival on Wednesday 2nd March from 2.30 pm-5.30 pm. She is a wonderful teacher and speaker.

Booking is now open at the ticket office or online Here’s the description of the event: “Somewhere in the heart of fiction writing, there’s the desire to capture the sensations of experience in words. In this workshop, Bath Spa University’s Tessa Hadley will be concentrating on that effort, working to find fresh words to make the world come alive on the page.”

Tessa is also talking about her latest novel, The Past, alongside Deborah Moggach who is sharing her new novel, Something to Hide at an hour long event chaired by  The Independent newspaper’s Arifa Akbar on Tuesday 1st March

Interview with short-story writer and novelist, Anthony Doerr


Jude interviewed Anthony Doerr in March 2013 and we’re re-posting his interview here for 2016 entrants to read. He’s written some great tips on writing short stories and we highly recommend reading his wonderful prize-winning novel and his story collection,

Anthony Doerr is the author The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, Memory Wall,  He spent ten years writing his most recent book, ‘All the Light We Cannot See’  which was  published by Scribner in early 2014 and became an instant New York Times bestseller.  It was one of four finalists in the US National Book Awards, in November 2014 and went on to win the Pullitzer prize for fiction in the US in April, 2015.

Doerr’s short fiction has won four O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, three Ohioana Book Awards, the 2010 Story Prize, which is considered the most prestigious prize in the U.S. for a collection of short stories, and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, which is the largest prize in the world for a single short story.  His books have twice been a New York Times Notable Book, an American Library Association Book of the Year, and made lots of other year end “Best Of” lists. In 2007, the British literary magazine Granta placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.


  •  I was bowled over by your short story collection ‘Memory Wall’, which was recommended to me by UK short story writer Tania Hershman. Your stories range over a wide span of history and give the point of view of  characters of different ages, genders and cultures. They  focus on profound human dilemmas and experiences. Can you say more about how you came to write these stories?

When I was in high school, my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s disease and came to live with us.  Over the course of months, we watched her mind disintegrate; she forgot who we were, where she was, where her bedroom was, even how to bathe herself.  But she remembered curious things, too: her childhood telephone number, the date of her wedding, etc.  She got to the point where she had no idea who I was, but could beat the pants off of me at gin rummy.  So the readiest answer I have is that my own memories of my grandmother informed my work on the stories in Memory Wall—I had learned, at a young age, just how fragile our personal histories are.  And I suppose, in a way, I was trying to rectify my own self-absorption when I was seventeen and eighteen, watching my grandmother lose her identity, and failing to understand the pain my parents were enduring.

As for imagining different places, histories, and individuals, I’d argue we write to learn what we don’t know; we write toward the mysteries, the things we can’t articulate but believe are there, feel are there.  Maybe we start with what we know, but then we work in the opposite direction, away from the things that are comfortable, familiar known.  Otherwise we’re not learning, and if we’re not learning, why bother?  So that’s why I often choose subjects and characters whose experiences, on the surface at least, are quite different from my own.

  • Your  stories in ‘Memory Wall’ are long – the title story is 85 pages and still  works very well as a short story, in my view. Do you think important themes can be developed in a much shorter text and do you have any thoughts or advice about writing to a word limit? The Bath Short Story Award is limited to 2200 words.

I love working on short stories for a lot of reasons, but one stands out: they’re short.  When I’m working on a story, even an inordinately long one like “Memory Wall,” there are usually about 10,000 words I have to comb through before I start adding new material. So it’s short enough that I can read through the entire piece, make some revisions, and add new material in a single day.  Here’s an easy metaphor: I’m able to keep the paint wet in all the corners of the canvasI really think that helps make a narrative feel whole to a reader. A novel, on the other hand, quickly gets too large and unwieldy.  Sometimes there will be passages in your novel that you haven’t reread in a year. The canvas is so large that you are never able to visit all of it in one day (or several weeks) of work.

As for a word limit, I tend to prefer reading and writing stories that are longer than 2,200 words, but yes, of course, I think stories of that length can achieve a great deal.  Look at Peter Orner’s work in Esther Stories, or many of Stuart Dybek’s short stories, or Jamaica Kinkaid’s “Girl” or Isaac Babel’s “My First Goose” or Joyce’s “Araby.”  Look at Tobias Wolff’s “Say Yes.”

  • Which other short story writers have influenced your writing? Can you say why?

Maybe two more than any others: Amy Hempel, because of her compression and playfulness with language.  And Alice Munro because of what she can do with time.  Munro can skim through a decade in a paragraph, or trawl through a single decision for several pages.

I also love story writers who pay attention to the natural world: Annie Dillard, Nadine Gordimer, Andrea Barrett, Sarah Orne Jewett…  I’m an amateur naturalist at heart, a person who is most comfortable outdoors looking for creatures, looking for beauty, weather, light, water.  And I love to render the things I see into language–only by writing it out, I think, can I make it real to myself.

  • What editing advice would you give to writers who are considering entering our competition?

Reward the generosity of your reader! Try to examine every single word in your story and ask yourself: Is it a lazy choice? Does this adjective/article/noun/verb absolutely need to be there?  If someone is nice enough to spend a half-hour reading something you’ve written, try to make your prose absolutely worthy of his or her time. Make the dream that unfolds inside your sentences so persuasive, seamless and compelling, that your reader won’t put it down.

Interview with 2015 1st prize winner, Safia Moore

Safia-Moore-PhotoNow that the 2016 Short Story Award is underway, we thought it would be good to hear from Safia Moore, our BSSA 2015 first prize winner. She’s had more successes since her win in our contest back in July and has some great advice for prospective entrants to this year’s competition. You can read Safia’s winning story ‘That Summer’ in our BSSA 2015 anthology which officially launches in Bath on 19th November. Available from Mr B’s Emporium of Books in Bath or via Amazon

Safia Moore is a writer, editor, and creative writing tutor from Northern Ireland. Her work has been published in various journals including The Incubator, Haverthorn Magazine, Severine, and The Honest Ulsterman.   In 2015 Safia won the Bath Short Story Award, came second in the Allingham Arts Flash Fiction competition and was twice shortlisted for Flash500.

Blog: Twitter: @SafiaMoore


  • On your blog, you posted a great account of the history of your winning story,’That Summer’. Can you give us a summary of it again here? I am sure  prospective entrants would be interested in how the story came to us.

The essence of my ‘history of a winning story’ blog was that no one should believe there is some kind of magic recipe or even genius involved in writing a great short story, one that could win, be placed, or shortlisted in a major competition like the Bath Short Story Award. Accepting this and realising that all stories, if they are intended for submission to journals or competitions, must be scrupulously edited, re-read, worked on again and again, is of paramount importance. Likewise, if you believe in the merit of your story, you shouldn’t give up. My winning story, ‘That Summer’, had been submitted to two other competitions and had not been successful, so when it came back to me on those two occasions, I re-edited it, worked particularly closely on my choice of vocabulary, and generally made it leaner and meaner. I felt the voice and the overall structure of the story were sound, so it was a case of honing in on the details, the images, and cutting whatever was superfluous, especially in the dialogue. But if you read the full blog, you’ll discover that a little bit of luck in the form of a slow-moving post office queue, also played a part in how ‘That Summer’ came into the hands of BSSA

‘Viennese Whirls and Pineapple Creams’ is based on a few scant details my mother gave me about my maternal grandmother, Maggie Wright, a woman who raised a tribe of children (not all her own), married several times and was widowed for the last time when my mother, her youngest child, was about twelve. I was pleased that the Allingham judge picked up on the social/historical vibes of the piece as they were important to me, but when I initially sat down to write it, I had no idea exactly how I was going to incorporate those elements. As usual, it sorted itself out in the edits and revisions, of which there were many. You can read it on my blog via the link in the title above.

  • Do you write short fiction with a finished length in mind? Or does it just emerge as flash or a longer story?

I definitely sort my ideas into ‘Flash’ or ‘Short Story’ at a very early stage and I can’t think of any that have crossed over during the writing. I think that’s obviously got to do with the scope and depth of the idea, flash fiction being more like a trailer to the short story’s full feature. I wouldn’t write a flash piece or a short story with a particular word count in mind however, although I have occasionally cut a longer piece down in order to satisfy the word limit of a competition or journal. Stretching to fit is something I’d never do to a story.

  • Which short story writers do you return to for inspiration?

I’m tempted to say, none as I think returning to the same writers for inspiration can be quite inhibiting. I’d say it’s much better to spread your net far and wide when it comes to reading material and to keep one eye on what and who is new. Likewise, I feel that if you need to consciously seek out inspiration as a writer, you’re in trouble. Having said that, if I had to name short story writers I would automatically return to for reading pleasure and enjoyment of the craft well-executed, my top three would be Lorrie Moore, Carol Shields, and James Joyce. I rarely read a novel or a short story more than once, because there’s always something waiting in the TBR pile, but Dubliners is a collection I have returned to time and time again as a reader and a teacher. Which brings me on to anthologies. What better way to be inspired than reading a wide range of styles, ideas and techniques such as those found in the BSSA 2015 Anthology?

  • What are your current writing ambitions?

Currently I’m working on two projects and my ambition is to have them both completed by Spring 2016 at the latest. The first is a collection of short stories thematically linked by their Northern Irish setting (as per ‘That Summer’). I’ve planned 3 new stories which will bring it up to around the 40,000 word mark. At the same time, I’m working on what was my first completed novel and re-forming it into a series of free-standing but integrated episodes along the lines of ‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout or ‘Starlings’ by Erinna Mettler. This novel is set in Abu Dhabi and Dubai so has a much more diverse flavour than the short story collection. There’s a second novel which is about one-third of the way in, but it’ll have to wait. Finding an agent who loves my work is another ambition, but that’s for after I’m satisfied I can make no further improvements to my short story collection and novel.

  • Can you give us your top tips for writing competition short stories?

My top tips: get the voice right, plan the structure, begin in the middle of the story, keep writing until you get to the end of the first draft, then start working. There is no such thing as too much editing – you must be prepared to constantly read your own work, re-read it, make changes every time, cut anything that adds nothing to the storyline or characterisation, tighten up dialogue and enhance your descriptions with details that sound fresh, not clichéd. And finally, if you’re thinking about entering Bath 2016, start now. All the above takes time.

Interview with Jude, November 2015.

Interview with BSSA 2015 2nd prize winner, Dan Powell

Dan-Powell_headshotDan Powell is a prize winning author of short fiction whose stories have appeared in the pages of Carve, New Short Stories, Unthology and The Best British Short Stories. His debut collection of short fiction Looking Out Broken Windows was shortlisted for the 2013 Scott Prize, long listed for the Edge Hill Prize and is published by Salt. He teaches part-time and is a First Story writer-in-residence. He procrastinates at and on Twitter as @danpowfiction


Dan wasn’t able to attend our  BSSA 2015 anthology launch on 19th November, in Bath and we are delighted to interview him here. In Jude’s interview with him below, he tells us more about his second prize-winning story Dancing to the Shipping Forecast, his influences, current projects and tips on writing short stories. You can read his story in our BSSA 2015 anthology available from this site, Mr B’s Bookshop in Bath, The BigGreen Bookshop in London and from Amazon (print and digital versions).


  • Your 2nd prize winning story for the Bath Short Story Award, 2015, Dancing to the Shipping Forecast was very powerful  and evocative.  Our short list judge, literary agent, Carrie Kania said “what I admired the most was the building tension and the aching timestamp of a relationship reminding us that every second counts” I agree wholeheartedly with this comment. Can you tell us what inspired you to write it?

The first draft of the story was written during December 2013 and January 2014, a winter of fierce storms and heavy rainfall. Lots of areas flooded and coastal surges destroyed large areas of the coast, damaging both property and the landscape. As the time my family and I were living in an old farmhouse in Lincolnshire and it rained for so long and so hard that water began permeating the brick work. Patches of damp began appearing in the walls, much like those I describe in the story, and it is these patches of damp that the story grew from. This initial setting of an old property, the plaster patched with dark wet stains where the rain seeping in through the drenched brickwork, merged with the images on the TV of coastal waters sweeping up and devouring coastline in seconds. From there I had the coastal location for the story and that was enough to start writing. The voice of my female narrator appeared in the first few lines I drafted and this was one of those rare occasions that the voice took over and led me through the story. Once I knew that this woman had lost someone she had only recently become involved with, the tone and shape of the story became apparent. It’s four part structure mirrored that of the shipping forecast and once I began tying that in by using a forecast for the area in which the story is set on a particularly bad day during that winter, the story came together quickly. It was a quick first draft and slow edit though, hence the twelve months or so spent refining it before I submitted it to the Bath Short Story Award.

  • You have recently been awarded the RSL Brookleaze Grant. Can you tell us more about it, and what it means to  have received it for your life as a writer?

The RSL Brookleaze grants are intended to provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their writing, whether it be funding a sabbatical from work or a research trip that would otherwise be impossible. My award will enable me to remain in part time work for the next few months, effectively buying me three days a week in which to write. I have been enjoying that privilege for the last few weeks, and I am loving being able to focus on my current works in progress in this way. I have also kept a small portion of the funds aside to help pay for a research trip to London in support of my novel. I plan to undertake this trip during Easter, visiting some of London’s Victorian cemeteries and, amongst other locations, the Hunterian Museum. Receiving this award from such a respected institution is fantastic validation of my writing and a great motivator as I make my way through the final third of my novel.

  • You also work as a writing tutor and were recently writer in residence for First Story writer. What do you enjoy about this work?  Have you any up and coming workshops that writers could attend?

I work with writers of all ages I am always in awe of the way both students and adults throw themselves into the writing tasks I set in my workshops. In every session there will be so many moments when a phrase or piece of description the share will have me wishing I wrote it. Writing is usually a solitary pursuit and being able to share the creative experience with like minded people is a genuine pleasure and one that energises me for the return to my own work. Working with First Story is a particular privilege as writers-in-residence get to work for a year with a group of young writers. It’s a pleasure to watch them grow in confidence in their work as the year progresses. At the end of the process an anthology of the students work is published and they attend a book launch. What a great opportunity for a young person, to be a published author while still at school. It’s the sort of thing I would have loved to have done when I was at school.

As for up and coming workshops, unfortunately I don’t have anything lined up for the next month or two as I am busy completing an application to study for a PhD in Creative Writing. Hopefully I will have a few later in the new year that people can come along to.

  • You are successful as a short story, flash fiction and essay writer.  I believe you are also working on a novel. Do you readily move between all forms in your day to day writing and can you tell us more about the novel?

I tend to stick to writing in a particular form rather than jumping between tasks, so I will focus on short stories for a few weeks at a time, rather than move back and forth. With something as long as a novel, I will take breaks from the text to dip back into writing a short story or essay. Though overlaps exist between the different types of writing, I find that each form demands a slightly different mindset and I need to immerse myself in order to produce something of value. Currently I am neck deep in my novel draft. It’s about an undertaker who wakes one day to find that his body has died but he is still conscious within it and somehow able to move. Its part literary existential novel, part body-horror novel. Researching this book has traumatised my web browser.

  • You received a runner up prize for your essay on Norwegian short story writer Kjell Askilden  for last year’s Threshold Essay Contest. Is he a writer whose work has influenced your own prose? Who are the other short story writers that you currently admire and would recommend reading?

Minimalists like Kjell Askildsen, Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel have definitely influenced my work, particularly my more straight-ahead literary fiction stories. Anton Chekhov is a big influence, particularly how he manages to merge the higher emotions and the base in a single story, even a single scene. That level of control is still something I aspire to pull off. My more surreal or weird stories, like ‘Storm in a Teacup’ or ‘Free Hardcore’, also owe something to writers like Adam Marek, George Saunders and Aimee Bender. As for who I would currently recommend, I am savouring the short stories of William Gay at the moment. His collection, I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down, is consistently, story by story, sentence by sentence, one of the most affecting and compelling collections I have ever read. Right now, I am busy being blown away by how good his work is. Soon, I need to start working out how to get that good at this writing thing.

  • How do you think entering short story competitions helps writers?

First and foremost they give you a deadline and force you to finish. If you want to enter you have to finish your story and you have to do it within a time frame. Making commended lists and longlists and shortlist can provide validation to what you are doing but getting there takes time for most writers. First of all you need to write and competitions provide motivation and a goal, not necessarily the goal of winning, but the goal of writing the best story you can and submitting it. If you do that, and keep writing better stories each time, success becomes a matter of time.

  • What  tips would you give writers who are planning to enter the Bath Short Story Award this year?

Read the very best examples of the short story you can get your hands on. Look closely at how good stories work. Then write the story only you can write. Write the story you want to read that no one else is writing. Make it a bold and unique vision which can’t help but stand out when the judges make their selections. Oh, and edit, edit, edit; polish it until it shines

Interview by Jude, December 2015