Last year’s judge, Samuel Hodder said this about Caroline’s winning story ‘A Gap Shaped Like the Missing’:
“A wonderfully vivid and arresting story of community, trauma and healing that seizes the reader’s attention from its opening lines and doesn’t let go. Lucy Mae’s voice is brilliantly achieved – lyrical but direct, wry but warm, full of life as well as loss – and the story builds a powerful sense of both character and place. The writing is gorgeous, rich with allusion, full of striking imagery and metaphor, with beautiful turns of phrase on every page. It reminded me of the very best of dystopian fiction but is all the more affecting since it is about our own time.”
In our interview Caroline tells us how the story came into being and more about her other successes and writing process.
- Can you tell us how your marvellous winning story ‘A Gap Shaped Like The Missing’ came into being? And how did you arrive at the title?
It began as a fragment of description, written a few months after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. At the time, I sang with a community gospel choir; everyone had their place to stand, according to the part they sang. I was thinking about music in the aftermath of disaster and had the idea of a choir, gaps yawning in the rows where people had been lost. The image haunted me, but it took ten years to discover the story it was meant to be. Bizarrely, I struggled to find the right title; I tried several. It was only as I was giving the story a last read-through before submitting that the words jumped out at me from the text. I had described ‘gaps, shaped like the missing’ in the fragment I had first written. I now can’t imagine the story being called anything else.
- In 2018, you also won the Costa Short Story prize and were shortlisted for other major prizes. What is it that you most enjoy about writing short stores?
I love the precision of the short story: its clean lines. The way in which a single phrase or image can capture a whole world. I have a natural tendency to waffle and always have to edit massively, so when I manage to chip away all that’s unnecessary and reveal that gem of simplicity, it gives me real joy. Short stories are also a wonderful way for a writer to try walking in the shoes of others; to inhabit worlds, points of view that might be difficult to sustain across a novel
- Our judge Samuel Hodder said your character, ‘Lucy Mae’s voice is brilliantly achieved – lyrical but direct, wry but warm, full of life as well as loss – and the story builds a powerful sense of both character and place.’ Do you think creating a strong voice and sense of place is a characteristic of your writing style?
I think perhaps it is. Voice, certainly. Until that’s right, for me the story isn’t, and it’s often a strong voice that inspires the story itself. The point about place is interesting. I rarely describe characters in great detail, or even have more than a vague sense myself of what they look like, which probably flies in the face of most ‘how to write character’ tutorials. But I know exactly what space they occupy; what they see, even if the location is anonymous and less intrinsic to the story than in A Gap Shaped Like the Missing. So that may be right!
- I know you are also writing a novel. Can you tell us how that is progressing and what it is about? (If that’s not under wraps).
I’ve just finished the first draft. True to form, I’ve written long and now have tens of thousands of words to cut, but there I’m back in familiar territory. I’d rather not say too much about it at this early stage, but it has dual narratives, one in contemporary London, the other set in the Second World War, in the Far East.
- Any other writing projects on the go this year?
- I’m planning a novel woven from interlinked short stories, set in a seaside town. There will no doubt be other short stories, as and when inspiration hits.
- There are still three months before the 2020 BSSA Award closes in mid April. What advice would you give a prospective entrant at this stage?
First of all, start soon if you can. In my experience, the more time you can give a new story to settle, the better. As you live with it, what is important and what less so becomes clear. You can play with the dials: turn up the volume here, tone down the jarring, cut the superfluous. If, like me, you naturally write longer than the 2200 limit, why not try a ruthless edit of that 3-4000 word story? You may just find the lean, pared-down core is a thing of beauty.
Above all, be brave, go for it, and good luck!
Q & A with BSSA team member, Jude, January, 2020.