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Winner of the LoveReading Very Short Story Award 2019 - People's Choice: Jan Stannard

By Liz Robinson on 23rd February 2019

We are thrilled to announce that the People’s Choice Winner for the LoveReading Very Short Story Award is: The Undiscovered Tribe by Jan Stannard.

It was really important to us at LoveReading to have the two separate awards as we felt, as a book loving community, that we wanted to include our members in the award process. The fact that the judges chose a separate winner to our members proves how diverse and inclusive the book loving community can be. Both of the winning entries, while very different in content, are truly beautiful and reach out to our emotions.

We asked both of our winners some questions, and I loved finding out more about them and how their stories came into being… we have also included their winning stories.

Who was the first person you told when you heard you’d won and how did you feel?

I told my husband, or rather he deduced it from all the whooping and hollering I did when the news arrived. This is the first short story I’ve ever written, so I’m still finding the news hard to take in. But I’m over the moon. Winning has made me feel that I’m someone who really can write.  

Have you always loved the written word, when did you first start to write? 

Books were the mainstay of my childhood. My mum or dad would take me and my brother to Enfield library every Saturday and I would always borrow as many books as my ticket allowed. I read everything Enid Blyton ever wrote, lots of Monica Edwards, especially her Punchbowl Farm series, and I adored the Moomin books by Tove Jansson, The Borrowers series by Mary Norton, C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Both my parents read all the time; my father loved sci-fi and so I had an Isaac Asimov and John Wyndham phase; my mum enjoys books about families and relationships and through her I became a fan of authors like Daphne du Maurier, Tessa Hadley and Maggie O’Farrell. I read a lot of poetry as a teenager and began writing rather bad poems in my twenties. I had my first idea for a novel in my thirties, but our first daughter was very young and I had a high-pressure, full-time job running a PR consultancy so I only got a short way into a first draft.  Now that our two daughters have grown and flown, I’ve finally been able to complete my first novel, Meadow, a story of loss, mystery and love set in a Dorset village in the summer of 1920. 

Who are your booky inspirations? 

Writers who have inspired me are a real mixture. I’d include Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Iris Murdoch, Kent Haruf, Marilynne Robinson, Hannah Kent, John Steinbeck, Isabel Allende, Hilary Mantel, Donna Tartt, Jessie Burton, Elena Ferrante, Nancy Mitford, Sarah Winman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Margaret Atwood.

How and where do you like to write? 

I can only write in silence with the door shut. I now have the study to myself; I used to share with my husband but he couldn’t bear how untidy I was. In the picture is the place I write, but the tidiness is a small and temporary work of fiction. Always two screens, writing in Scrivener on the left and usually the timeline or research notes on the right. Under the left screen is a Mesolithic flint hand axe from Suffolk, which is at least 5,000 years old. I hold it in my hand and imagine the person who made it doing the same. Next to it is a hazelnut from our garden; the women who were my ancestors in the Mesolithic will have eaten hazelnuts often and I find that connection amazing to contemplate. The card about trusting the process was a present from one of our daughters. The pile of books on the left are for research for my second novel, The Book of Weeds for Joy and Sorrow, set in Dorset in 1908: generations of de’Ath woman have been herbalists but Jane de’Ath’s only child is mortally ill and the town’s new doctor may have the only cure.

How did your Very Short Story arrive on the page? Was it something already in your mind or did it say hello when you decided to enter?

I was on an Arvon creative writing course at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire in 2017 and our tutors Adam Foulds and James Scudamore asked us to produce a short story and to challenge ourselves when doing so. I’d never written one, a challenge in itself, but I thought I’d try using the first-person-plural point of view just to see how easy or difficult that might be. Using ‘we’ meant having a group of people in the story, perhaps a tribe; the view from Lumb Bank spans the most beautiful valley, heavily cloaked in woodlands, almost like Amazon rainforest; I’m a fan of National Geographic and I began to think about Neolithic tribes that are still being ‘discovered’ deep in such forests; and then I thought of how, if we carry on as we are environmentally, humankind may end up back where it started. In the alchemic way that a creative leap happens, the idea of setting the story in an imagined future and flipping the notion of ‘discovering a tribe’ just came to me. It went through multiple revisions before I submitted it for this competition. The only sentence I’ve never changed is the last one and it always makes me choke with tears when I read it out loud. Somewhat embarrassingly, I first discovered this the night I stood up and read it to my group at Arvon! It makes me realise how deep my sorrow goes for the natural world we’ve lost and how much I want it back. 

Are you excited to hear your story read by a professional actor on the podcast? Are you going to listen to it for the first time by yourself or with anyone else? 

I can’t wait – I’ve read it to myself in a particular way so often that it will be fascinating to hear the pitch and rhythm of another voice. I’d only thought of listening by myself, but now you’ve planted the idea of a podcast party!

What is your favourite book from childhood, do you still have it and what was it about that book that you adored?

I can’t choose between Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie and Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. I must have read them both a dozen times. I recently bought a new copy of Little House on the Prairie and can see its influence on my novel Meadow. I don’t have Faraway Tree at my house but I’m hoping it’s in the loft of my parents’ home where I last read it. These two books are both about escaping and adventures, even though I had the most wonderful, happy childhood. 

Can we have a peek at your favourite bookshelf or shelves please...

These are my favourite shelves, next to my side of the bed. I didn’t move any of the books for this photo; Ulysses isn’t me being showy – it was a recent choice for our book group. I first listened to the audio book (best option I think) and then bought the print version. It veered from completely incomprehensible to completely sublime for me. My TBR books are mixed in with finished books in the piles at the front of the lower shelf. For the book group, I have to stop myself reading them too early, as you lose the detail of the book for the discussion. There’s Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, for instance. So hard not to start on that. Not just novels here, also books on the craft of writing and non-fiction, a couple of children’s books…a right mish-mash but that’s how I like it.

Which is your most beloved and well-read book?

That’s easy: Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. I read it for English ‘O’ level (1973) and it was the first book that became more special with every lesson, the setting, the characters, the tragedy of Tess. I wanted a rural setting for my first two novels and it had to be Dorset. Tess even has a cameo role in the first one. 

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of entering next year?

Be bold. Try something new, like a different point of view you haven’t used before. Let something you feel strongly about drive you but find a way of not making it overt. Don’t feel you have to write to the maximum word count; The Undiscovered Tribe could have been several hundred words longer but there’s something very satisfying about compelling brevity. Be prepared to spend dozens of hours revising it. 

Where are you planning to go next on your writing journey?

I want to find an agent for Meadow and finish The Book of Weeds for Joy and Sorrow. I have an outline for a third novel, which is contemporary so I may use a pen name for that. And I’ve started two new short stories, inspired by having been a winner in this competition. Thank you very much to the LoveReading team and to your members and Podcast listeners.  

Keep up to date with Jan Stannard:

Website: www.janstannard.co.uk

Twitter: @janstannard

Facebook: Jan Stannard

Listen to The Undiscovered Tribe on the LoveReading Podcast by clicking here.

The Undiscovered Tribe

We were children when we first saw them.

We had been deep in the forest that day, in lands we did not know, and we came home bursting with a story to tell our mothers and fathers.

Listen, we said, you must listen. We went far away today, further than we have ever been, and we found a strange place. You have never taken us there and it was not like any place in the legends.

Our mothers and fathers looked at each other. Go on, they said.

We were pretending to hunt deer, we told them. We were good hunters; we avoided every twig and made no sound. We found paths made by animals and went along with our bows and arrows at the ready, like you taught us. After a while, we came to a place where the trees stopped and beyond them was a huge plain. We dropped down flat and wriggled forward, to see what lay ahead.

We did not understand what we were seeing. All the forest had been cut down and from the ground rose tall, grey things like towers of rock.

We went nearer until we could see big holes in the sides of the towers. We went closer still and through the holes, we could make out people just like us, sitting and watching shapes flicker on a flat thing in front of them.

Between the towers were wide tracks of hard, black stuff. Along these tracks went moving objects with people in them. There were puffs of grey like small clouds coming out from behind them and a smell came into our noses like smoke from a fire, but not as good. Grey paths ran each side of the black and on them were stony-eyed walkers, holding something odd in one hand. Some bent their heads to gaze at it, while touching it with their other hand; others raised it to one ear and seemed to be speaking into it. They did not talk to each other though; people went past as if they were invisible. No-one smiled. We looked about for other creatures, but there were none, not even birds.

We felt frightened and we jumped up and ran home to tell you.

Our parents had listened attentively, then they looked at one another again. We waited for their fear to erupt, or their astonishment, and their insistence that we take them back to the place right away. Instead, they applauded us. They congratulated us on our tall tale and our vivid imaginations.

Our resentment at not being believed softened as we basked in such high praise. They knew that would be the effect; nothing was more important to our people than being able to tell stories and we were youngsters learning our craft. Tales did not come more fantastical than this. Our parents banked on that, too. They wanted to protect us; we know that now. They did not want us to tread those grey paths.

In our huts that night, we began to doubt ourselves in the face of their disbelief. We went over every legend for clues, even the one about the old civilisation that nearly spoiled the earth until it heated up in vengeance. Nothing explained what we had seen.

We are parents now and we tell our children the story of how we once found an undiscovered tribe, and went back to make contact when we had grown up. It was sad that so many of them died from our diseases. But those who survived returned to the forest in the end; they abandoned their traditions of watching screens and being lonely.

Our children smile when they hear this. They say they cannot imagine living like that. Then they go outside to play.

The black stuff and the grey paths? They have long since crumbled. Birds fly over the place, calling. And our children pretend to hunt for deer in the forest that grows there again.

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