Tag Archives: short stories

Winners, BSSA 2017

Huge congratulations to all our winners in the International Bath Short Story Award 2017. The shortlist was judged by Senior Literary Agent Euan Thorneycroft from A M Heath. Of the winning pieces he said, “I was looking for three things – originality, authenticity and confidence – and in the stories here, all three of these were in ample evidence.” Read about our shortlisted writers and his general comments on the shortlist here and his specific comments on the winners and commended below.

First Prize, £1000, This is All Almost True by Kathy Stevens.

Euan comments: “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.

It leaves its emotional mark by offsetting the casual, frank tone of the narrator with the obvious severity of her episodes, the frictions of her family home and the sad sense of her isolation. Elsie’s absorption with storytelling is, on the surface, an inventive, amusing lens, but it becomes a desperately sad force for the reader as her difficulties show through behind that drive for escapism. It finishes with a gut-punch as her fascination with writing has equipped her with a language to articulate the distance between her and the rest of the world. A writer of huge confidence.”

 

Kathy Stevens  was born near Stratford-upon-Avon in 1991. She has a BA English Literature from Bath Spa University, and is the recipient of the Kowitz Scholarship at UEA, where she’s near to completing her MA in  Creative Writing. Her short stories have appeared in Litro, Prole, the Bath Short Story Award 2016 and Bath Flash Fiction Award anthologies, Supernatural Tales Magazine, The Literateur, The Cadaverine, Patrician Press and Firefly.Besides writing, Kathy is a keen guitarist and music fanatic, who enjoys 1950’s fashion, rock’n’roll dancing and anything involving boats. She’s working on a literary novel about a dysfunctional family.

Second prize, £200 Performance in the Hills by Mary Griese.

Euan comments:”I thought this story was one of the most individual of all that I read. A recently bereaved woman, alone on her farm, dealing with her grief. There’s a heavy, heady atmosphere to this piece, the tone being set from the captivating first line, with an almost dreamlike quality in places. But the author doesn’t overstep here. The story is also grounded in the reality of rural Wales. The depiction of this rural landscape feels totally authentic. I loved the seemingly small, but keen-eyed observations that appear along the way – a blue tit’s frantic descent through the branches, the young boy changing direction to take the gate rather than the bent down fence. I think the emotional tone is handled incredibly well. We don’t dare feel hopeful at the close, but the vision of the young boy working with the horse – in the dark – and the widow unseen and ignored is a beautiful and haunting ending. I found this to be a story that got better and better with each read.”

Mary Griese is a novelist, short-story writer and artist with an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. She is currently seeking publication for her debut novel Man in Sheep’s Clothing and is represented by literary agent, Jane Conway Gordon. Her memoir, Sand on the Mountain won third prize in the Fish Memoir Prize, 2017. She has written articles for the Guardian and farming magazines. Thirty years ago, whilst running a sheep farm on the Black Mountain, she formed her arty business: ‘Slightly Sheepish’. She recently published and illustrated a picture book: An Alphabet of Farm Animals.

Third prize, £100, Forget me not by Sarah Mackey.

Euan comments:” A beautiful, sad study of a family buckling under the weight of memory loss. Virginia’s memory has been fading out for two years, forcing her into retirement and pulling away many of her relationships. Her beloved garden is the last sanctum of peace and stability, and through Virginia’s husband Henry, we feel the pain of its loss, and the conflict as their well-meaning daughter repeatedly gets the tone wrong in her attempts to help. The husband’s love for his wife and his desolation at the end of the story –after a brief moment of hope– are extremely moving. As is the strained relationship between mother and daughter. This is a well-constructed story.”

 

Sarah Mackey grew up in the West Midlands and lives in London. Over the past year she has attended creative writing courses at City Lit, which has inspired her to write short fiction. Sarah was long-listed for the 2016 Words and Women prose competition and has been selected for inclusion in the Between the Lines Anthology, 2017.

 

 

Commended and recipient of the BSSA Local Prize£50 in book vouchers from Mr B’s Emporium of Books, Bath,

Breaking the Glass-Blower’s Heart by Chloe Turner.

Euan comments: “This is a very confident story of a young Spanish au-pair finding herself working for a middle-class family in England. The breaking of a vase ripples out so that we see the strained dynamics of this tense little pocketed family, with its suggestion of infidelity and lovelessness. This is a very well-written story, full of fantastic descriptive detail.”

Chloe Turner’s stories have been published in online and print journals including The Mechanics’ Institute Review, The Nottingham Review, For Book’s Sake Weekend Read, Kindred, Halo, The Woven Tale Press and Hark. Long-gone Mary was published by InShort Publishing (Australia) as a standalone chapbook in 2015, and Waiting for the Runners is one of a series of six chapbooks available this autumn from TSS Publishing. Chloe won the short story category of the Fresher Prize 2017, and received a Special Commendation in the Elbow Room Prize 2016. She tweets at @turnerpen2paper, and blogs about books and writing at www.turnerpen2paper.com.

Commended, £30 in book tokens,  North Ridge by Fiona Rintoul.

Euan comments: “A short story with a brilliant, powerful conceit which packs a real emotional punch as we near the inevitable ending. We are sucked into the claustrophobic wait as a woman minds her child in a car, coming to terms with what she knew from the day’s outset: that her husband did not intend to return from his mountain climb.

The decision to tell the story from the husband’s point of view is a brave one. Are these the real-time thoughts of a man dying of exposure, his only comforts, the clammy car below, where he knows his wife waits, bracing herself against the agony of accepting her loss?”

Fiona Rintoul is a writer, journalist and translator. She is author of The Leipzig Affair  and translator of Outside Verdun by Arnold Zweig. The Leipzig Affair was short-listed for the 2015 Saltire first book of the year award and serialised on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. Fiona’s most recent book, Whisky Island, a non-fiction title about the Isle of Islay and its whiskies, was shortlisted in the 2017 Fortnum & Mason food and drink awards. Fiona lives in Glasgow and on the Isle of Harris.

 

The Acorn Award for an unpublished writer of fiction, £50 Everything Must Go by Sandra Marslund. Selected from the shortlist by the BSSA team. Click on the title to read her story.

The BSSA team loved the suspense and structure in this story, which builds,  as the seasons unfold, over one year. A woman whose husband has died in a roof accident, is troubled by a persistent knocking in the attic. But she can’t bring herself to climb up and look. As time passes, the complex relationship between husband and wife is slowly revealed. We very much liked that nothing is completely spelled out. Eventually, the woman, with the support of her teenage daughter, is able to visit the roof space to find out what is there. The striking last line says it all.

Sandra Marslund is a translator of Danish and Norwegian books and commercial texts and also contributes book reviews and literary articles to national and local publications such as the Guardian, Mslexia and Manor Magazine. She has always written, but only started writing ‘seriously’ after completing an MA in Creative Writing from Exeter University in 2016, for which she received a Distinction. She recently began entering her short stories to competitions where she has been both long and shortlisted. She now dreams of getting published and is working on her first novel. She lives in Devon with her two teenage daughters..

 

Time is running out

We close at midnight Monday 1st  May. Give yourself the chance of hitting the bull’s eye and winning £1000 first prize, second prize of £200, third prize of £100, £50 prize for an unpublished writer or  £50 local prize by checking —

  • The rules — there are  always a number of writers who  submit stories way over the word limit of 2200 words. Or put their names on stories.  Don’t risk getting disqualified for those reasons.
  •  Give our readers a pleasant reading experience by writing in a clear font. Bold fonts are not easy.  Or any fancy italics or Comic Sans. Times New Roman is a safe bet.
  • If you are entering online, please be sure to  send your stories and paypal receipts to the correct email address which is on the entry page.
  • Put the correct postage on your hard copy stories.

Finally give your story a final once over for typos etc. We’re not too strict here, but a beautifully presented story, is a bonus. Zap a few adjectives and adverbs maybe,. Check the beginning paragraph. Does it hook the reader in? Check the final paragraph. Does it feel satisfying, not too cosy, not too obscure? What about the title? Does it add something to the story

Good luck!  Our readers are already on the case and results will be out in mid or late July.

Jude,

BSSA team April 28th.

 

 

 

 

Road trips

In most short story contests,  filter judges say they see a lot of stories on similar subjects – relationship break downs feature strongly in their many different forms. Affairs, death of a hated partner by nefarious means, abuse.  I don’t think we’ve seen many road -trip stories at Bath Short Story Award.  These feature strongly in films of course. Thelma and Louise is a famous example. You can’t fit too many road-trip events into a short story of 2200 words or less, but you could include a vehicle as a setting and see where that takes you. Colin Barrett, a short story writer our judge Euan Thorneycroft likes very much, writes a great description of the inside of a car at the beginning of  Calm With Horses, a wonderful story from his prize winning debut collection Young Skins (Vintage Books, 2014). This car doesn’t feature as a major player in the story, but it does show much about some of the characters.

“The car was orginally Dympna’s Uncle Hector’s, a battered cranberry Corolla Dympna labelled the shit box, its interior upholstered in tan vinyl that stank of motor oil, cigarette ash and dog. Recessed into the dash was a dead radio, its cassette tape slot jammed with calcified gobs of blue-tack, butt-ends and pre-euro-era Irish coins. The dash smelled of fused electricals. Above Arm’s head, a row of memorial cards, their laminate covers wilted by age and light, were tucked into a sun visor and a red-beaded rosary chain was tangled around the inverted T of the rear-view mirror.”

So why not write about a car of your acquaintance past or present. Create a fiction around it.  Remember its smells and its quirks. That car could take your story on a road trip you never expected.

Jude. March, 2017.

Q & A with Euan Thorneycroft, BSSA Judge,2018

Euan Thorneycroft has been at AM Heath since 2005, and is one of the senior agents there. Before that, he was an agent at Curtis Brown. He has always loved finding new authors and working with them. He represents a range of different kinds of fiction, from the very literary to the more commercial. He’s looking for strong prose, unique voices and a compelling narrative. In terms of genre, he’s most interested in crime, thrillers, and historical fiction. He is also open to well-written speculative fiction in the vein of STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel or UNDER THE SKIN by Michel Faber. His non-fiction tastes are for memoir, new nature writing (think Robert Macfarlane), “Smart Thinking” books, and current affairs. He has been a committee member of the Association of Authors’ Agents as well as serving as the external examiner on one of the country’s leading creative writing courses. He has also recently been a judge for the Bridport First Novel Award

  • You represent a wide range of prose writers, including authors who also are well-known for their short stories including Vanessa Gebbie, Ruby Cowling and Fflur Dafydd, who was short listed in our 2016 Award. Do you accept submissions of short story collections? If so, can you say what you would be looking for in such a submission?

I do. But they need to really stand out. I’m looking for collections that have some unifying factor – be that a theme, an idea, a setting, or a collection of characters. This can often help sway a publisher’s decision. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule so if something is simply brilliant, I want to see it!

  • You have recently been a judge for the Bridport First Novel Award. Can you tell us what, for you, makes a stand-out story in both long and shorter fiction?

Originality – this could be a totally original plot or it could be something that on the surface sounds pretty ordinary, but which the writer approaches from a fresh angle.

Authenticity – do I completely believe in the world and characters the author has created?

Confidence – I’m looking for writing that feels so natural that I forget I’m reading a story.

  • Do you think that the popularity of short story is still gaining ascendancy in this country? Short Story writer and novelist, Sarah Hall thought it was back in 2013. Perhaps publishers are more interested?

I do. And technology has played its part. Short Stories are the perfect fit for our hectic modern life and tablets and Smart phones have enabled people to read on the go. There are also more competitions and prizes for short stories, and you can see authors who are often associated with the longer form, turning their hand to them. I’m thinking of Hilary Mantel, Lionel Shriver and Jon McGregor.

  • Which current short story writers do you admire and what do you like about their writing?

Lots but the one that stands out is Colin Barrett and his collection Young Skins. Of course, his language is brilliant – there’s a poetry to it but it is also very exact – and the stories are unexpected in terms of where they start and where they end up. But overall, I think it’s the emotional intelligence that he shows as a writer. His characters seem utterly believable to the reader.

  • Our award is for stories of 2200 words or under. Have you some top tips for writers writing short stories to this length?

Find your voice, make every word count, commit totally to your character, setting and story. The latter is particularly important – if you can do this, you stand a chance of writing something that isn’t merely technically competent, even brilliant, but something that is memorable and long-lasting.

 

Latest Author News

Fourteen weeks to go now until BSSA 2017 ends on May 1st, 2017. To inspire you to enter this year, here are some recent further success stories from our  BSSA 2016 award winners and other authors whose stories you can read in our 2016 short story award anthology

Anne O’Brien reading at the BSSA 2016 anthology launch at Mr B’s Emporium of Books Bath, with our cover designer and BSSA 2014 winner, Elinor Nash, in the background

We were delighted to learn that Anne 0’Brien, our first prize winner, BSSA 2016, has just won second prize in the prestigious The London Magazine’s short story competition and her story, I Have Called You By Your Name will be published alongside the winner, writer Emma Hughes and Dan Powell, our BSSA 2015 second prize winner, who won third prize in the contest with his story The Ideal Husband Exhibition. William Pei Shih, shortlisted for BSSA 2016 with his story Mrs Li was also shortlisted in The London Magazine competition as was one of our BSSA 2016 longlisted writers, Marie Gethins. Congratulations to all!

Ingrid Jendzrejewski ,shortlisted for BSSA 2016 with her story We Were Curious About Boys was successful in many different competitions in 2016 and has started off 2017 in great style by winning the flash fiction competition in the long-established literary journal Tears in the Fence.  Her story, Many a Pearl is Still Hidden in the Oyster will be published in their next issue due out in February.

US writer, Thomas M Atkinson, shortlisted for BSSA 2016  with his story Dancing Turtle, has, among several other 2016 successes, had his story ‘Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills’ selected for New Stories from the Midwest 2016  (New American Press) along with such writing luminaries as Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Baxter, and Laura van den Berg. The publication is due out soon. The guest editor was author and Pulitzer finalist Lee Martin. Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills first appeared in The Sun magazine and received two Pushcart Prize nominations.

Clare Reddaway’s  story Avocet which you can read in the BSSA 2016 anthology is also going to be published in the lovely Project Calm magazine’s third issue out in the late Spring. We’re sure it will be illustrated beautifully there.

We hope we’ve included all recent successes. Do let us know your news, authors!

Bath Short Story Award 2017. Now closed.

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The fifth international Bath Short Story Award closed  for entries on Monday May 1st, 2017, midnight BST.  Judging is underway.

Shortlist  judge is Euan Thorneycroft, Senior Literary Agent at A M Heath

Prizes £1400 prize fund:

£1000 first prize, £200 second prize, £100 third prize, £50  for the local prize in vouchers –  donated by Mr B’s Emporium of Books, Bath. £50 for the Acorn Award for an unpublished writer. Results out July 2017.

Winning and shortlisted stories will be published in a print and digital anthology launched in October or November 2017 in Bath..

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Our 2016 anthology containing last years’ winners and shortlisted writers is  now available to buy on this site for £7.99 plus postage and packing for UK buyers or from Amazon if you are buying from other countries. Digital copies available from Amazon for £3.79

 

BSSA 2016 Longlist

Congratulations to everyone who reached the long list of this year’s award and a big thank you to all the  writers who entered from around the globe. We received 1439 entries this year – stories from 45 different countries, covering most of the letters of the alphabet! Continue reading

INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP HENSHER

 

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 

 

Our compilation of writing advice

To help you do that final shaping and editing of your short story, we’ve compiled a selection of tips from the  writers we’ve interviewed since our first competition was launched in  2012. Advice on beginnings, endings, themes, creating a stand-out story, titles and that all-important fine-editing.

Jude, March 2016

On Beginnings,Paul McVeigh says:

  • 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 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.

In 2014, we interviewed Colin Barrett, winner of the Guardian First Book prize 2014  for his brilliant short story collection, Young Skins. He has more to say about beginnings-

  • Try to make something interesting happen as near to the opening as you can. Now this doesn’t have to be some showy eruption of plot or an aphoristic nugget of an opening line, though it may well be; it might just be the deployment of an unobvious adjective or unexpected detail seamed somewhere into your opening paragraphs. A nuanced little observation or moment, carefully placed. If you can get a small moment right near the start it sends a signal to the reader that you can trust me, you can keep reading. There’s nowhere to hide with short stories, if its five or ten pages long it’s got to start well, do well in the middle, and end well. No point saying it gets good half way through.

Short story writer and novelist Annemarie Neary adds this:

  • 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.

On Standing out from the crowd Vanessa Gebbie has this to say:

  • 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.

Novelist and short story writer, A L Kennedy, who we interviewed in 2013, adds this

  • Just try to say something you really care about as well as possible – as if you were writing for someone you love and respect. That will help.

Novelist, short story writer and poet Gerard Woodward says:

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

Second-prize winner BSSA 2015 Dan Powell has this to say:

  • 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.

On themes and subject matter:

Short story writer and poet Tania Hershman has this to say:

  • When I’ve judged competitions in the past we’ve seen certain topics that tend to be popular – elderly parents with dementia is one, for example. I’m not saying avoid these, but do think about whether you have something new to say about it, a different take. I think anything can be a great story, it can be a moment in time or a whole life in a few pages. A short story competition can only be won by one person, but if the deadline has inspired you to write something new, then you’re already a winner. Being longlisted and shortlisted are huge achievements, it means your story stood out to the judges and it should give you a real boost.

On endings, acclaimed short story writer Danielle McGaughlin says this:

  • As for endings: stop in the right place. Easier said than done, I know, but a short story can be ruined if the writer insists on carrying on past the ending. “… already in that space the light begins to fade into the calm gray even light of the novelist.”That quote is from a paragraph in The Lonely Voice where Frank O’ Connor is discussing an aspect of the work of Mary Lavin, and whether or not you agree with his assessment of Lavin’s work, I think the analogy of the fading of light is a good way of explaining the loss of intensity, the loss of explosiveness, that can occur when a short story continues on further than it should.

On editing, Antony Doerr says this:

  • 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.

And our first prize winner BSSA 2015,, Safia Moore adds this:

  • 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.

Novelist, short story writer and winner of our second prize in 2014, Kit de Waal comments:

  • 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.

On finding the right title

Short story writer and poet, Tania Hershman has this important advice on titles:

You want your work to stand out from the beginning in the huge pile that the judge has in front of him or her, and a good title will do that better than a quirky font or odd layout (avoid those). If a judge has ten stories called “The Visit” or “The Day it All Changed”, he or she might be rather jaded by the time it comes to the 10th. But don’t make your title too interesting or creative if your story can’t live up to it – make sure it does!

And finally, we love this comment by Tessa Hadley who we interviewed in 2013 –

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