So enjoyed being interviewed by Grab the Lapels this week:
It was my second time at the Bristol Short Story Prize awards ceremony last night. I was hopeful; I was in with a chance after all, among 20 other writers chosen from almost 2,500 entries.
There they were, faces I recognized from last year, organiser Joe Melia, judges Sara Davies and Sanjida O’Connell, and wasn’t that 2013 winner Paul McMichael over there? He’d made the shortlist again. I made a beeline for him and we began laughing in a slightly hysterical, scared kind of way. Still the fear was nothing on last year when – gulp – I could barely speak my mouth was that dry.
Us shortlistees sat in the front row in the glass-topped Reading Room at Bristol Central Library. And judge Sara Davies read out the names of the runners-up. Mine was among them.
I hadn’t won.
But so what – my story is in a book again – words that I’ve fussed over, changed and rearranged. A story that the early readers and the judges must have connected with somehow. It gets a mention in Sara Davies’ foreword.
‘We all liked….the restrained and powerful exploration of an illegal immigrant’s emotional trauma at the heart of Black Lines,’ she writes.
It was a good feeling reading that. I hope other readers connect with my story too.
Massive congratulations to Brent van Staalduinen whose story A Week on the Water won first prize, and to the other prizewinners too.
After the ceremony, I spoke to the other shortlisted writers, smiles stretched across their faces, bags bulging with anthologies. (They make very good Christmas presents, let me tell you.) Wine was drunk, woes were shared and successes were well and truly celebrated. I even signed a few books.
It was great to bend Joe Melia’s ear again. His encouragement last year helped steer me through a bout of writing self-doubt. When that strikes again, all I need to do is open up my brand new anthology and remind myself of the rewards for not being a quitter.
Joe also told me that no one in the history of the Bristol Short Story Prize has ever managed a hat trick, so maybe, just maybe I’ll throw my hat into the ring again next year.
I started the year with a writing wish list. There were just two things on it: Win a writing competition and find a literary agent to represent my work.
The year’s gone pretty well so far; I’ve had several requests for the full manuscript of my first book, but still no offer. Yet. (I am manically rewriting.)
And then Frome happened – the Frome Short Story Competition. This year, lauded author Samantha Harvey was judging. Oh my, imagine that. I went into full-on dream mode. After much rejigging and rewriting, I entered my story about a migrant worker in Singapore called Plenty More Where You Came From.
Then I carried on redrafting my first novel. Weeks later, an email arrived saying I was in the Frome shortlist. I hadn’t even realised I was in the longlist. Fantastic – something else to say in a query letter to a literary agent.
On Sunday, I headed down the motorway to Frome. Then there it was, the library where the awards ceremony for the competition was going to take place. Other writers, other shortlisted entrants – there were 13 of us – would be there. Samantha Harvey would be there too, and the organisers Brenda Bannister and Alison Clink. There was a fair going on in the car park. A bloke in a mask was poking a rod at a metal head spouting fire, its ears belching steam. I wasn’t sure what that was all about, but my head felt furnace-hot too. God, I wanted to win.
Inside the library, the ceremony kicked off with Samantha Harvey talking about how much she’d enjoyed this year’s shortlist. Choosing first, second and third place hadn’t been easy at all, she said, the stories were that strong. She talked about how writing competitions have become increasingly important in publishing, but that really just writing is the most important thing. Don’t be distracted by not making a shortlist, by not winning, or even by winning – just write.
Liz Gwinnell took third place with Under the Mango Tree. It was great to put a face to the name – I’d read Liz’s story, Where Hummingbirds Fly, which won third place in Frome back in 2013. That story helped to inspire me to enter Frome this year. I so loved its rich, distinct, voice. Kath Grimshaw won second place with Hotel Room.
Then Samantha described the winning story. An ugly story written with such beauty. Could it be mine? Set in Singapore. Hell, it was mine. Not knowing the names of any of the entrants – the whole thing is judged anonymously – Samantha said the title of my story.
‘It’s me!’ I squeaked and stood up.
I shook hands with Samantha and she handed me my 300 pound prize. And then I read my story out, all 15 minutes of it. And people clapped (thanks for that, people). I walked back to my seat and Samantha’s mum, who was sitting behind me, pumped her fists and said, ‘Well done.’
I’d done it, finally a winner.
We spent the next hour in an art gallery next door to the library where many chocolate brownies were chomped and much talk about writing was had. What happens to you when you write? When do you write? Have you written a book? And thanks Liz Gwinnell for wrapping me another brownie for the journey home. I got lost, so that brownie ended up being my tea.
So on winning: Well, it feels brilliant, it really does because someone who’s rated reckons I wrote something beautiful. And now back to the business of writing.
I had no idea what I’d let myself in for when I accepted my invitation to the Bristol Prize Awards Ceremony. What would the atmosphere be like? Would we have to stand on a stage with shining spotlights turned off one by one until the winner was announced?
Inside the vast space of Bristol’s Spike Island gallery last night, the air was fat with nerves – or maybe that was just me. I picked up a glass of wine from the table and hand aquiver, I just about baptized myself with Sauvignon Blanc.
Sip. Slurp. Gulp.
Bristol Prize co-ordinator Joe Melia talked us writers through what was about to happen.
‘This is all about celebrating your writing,’ he said. Some of the tension fell away.
Here was a bunch of writers at different stages in their careers – a published novelist, a creative writing tutor and others who, like me, are just at the beginning.
So much to talk about. Do you ask friends to read your work? Have you got an agent? And, and, and….
And then it was time for the show.
Images of the stunning designs submitted for the anthology cover flashed onto the wall. The Mayor of Bristol stood up to speak, followed by novelist Patricia Ferguson.
And then came the moment of judgement. Would my name be in the winning three? Hands white-tight on the side of the chair, breath held, the names of the runners up were read out. Three, four, five. I heard my name. I hadn’t won. Was I upset? Disappointed? No way – at last I could breathe again, high on my prize – my first ever piece of published fiction – The Colour of Mud.
Big congratulations to winner Mahsuda Snaith and to all the other writers in the anthology. Didn’t we have some party?!
The evening was a highlight of my year – inspiring chats with authors, an agent, and all the lovely people at the Bristol Prize.