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Catch-up with our two 2019 LoveReading Very Short Story Award Winners.

Liz Robinson

By Liz Robinson on 26th September 2019

Our second LoveReading Very Short Story Award submissions are already well underway, and we thought it an ideal time to catch up with our two 2019 winners. Susanna won the Judges’ Choice, and Jan the People’s Choice Award. Winning the award appears to have given both huge confidence, and their love for writing bounds off of the page. Their answers are absolutely fascinating and prove that if you write, you have to find your own way, the way that works for you.

Our Managing Director Deborah Maclaren says “We are delighted to have found such very worthy winners in our inaugural year, with such very different backgrounds and writing journeys. The blind judging process is one that wholeheartedly enthuses us as we never know who we are selecting, who we’ll find and that is incredibly exciting when it’s just the writing that speaks for itself. Good luck to all contributors for 2020. We’re waiting for you!”

Thank you to both Susanna and Jan for letting us into your writing world, and giving such great advice for anyone who hasn’t yet entered our 2020 LoveReading Very Short Story Award. I will now hand you over to Susanna and Jan.

What would you say to those thinking of entering our Very Short Story Award? What should they consider, and think about before entering?

Susanna: Read as much short fiction as possible, read as widely as possible. Write as much as possible. Then, I think, once a first draft of a story is written, nothing beats either leaving the manuscript in a drawer for a while or finding trusted fresh eyes to read and edit your work. Toni Morrison wrote, ”All great art is knowing when to stop.” The spaces in between writing are as important as those spent writing. Let the work lay fallow.

Jan: First, believe that your story is good and stands a chance of making the shortlist or even winning. From that comes the courage to press ‘submit’. It’s easy to fall into thinking traps about your writing – this won’t be good enough, there’s no way this could shortlisted, what’s the likelihood of mine making the cut because there will be so many entries… Those were all thoughts I had before entering mine. 

Be different. I’d written something unusual because it was told in the first-person plural (‘we’). That boldness worked for me.  

Read the shortlisted entries from last year and work out what it was about them that appealed to the judges. Don’t submit a first, second or third draft - I think the text I submitted was probably the tenth or eleventh draft and I put dozens of hours into it. Hone it, hone it, hone it. Make every word count. Try to stand outside the story, in the head of someone who is reading it for the first time. Does all the content make sense? Does brevity mean a key element of the story is lost on the reader? 

Finally, don’t just think about entering – enter!

What inspired you to write your winning story?

Susanna: In this story 'Oh I do love a Banana', I wanted to explore the main character, Stanley’s, experiences of solitude and inner life, how he relates to his home, what Bachelard describes as our shelter to daydreaming. I chose the supermarket setting, as I am fascinated by dystopian contemporary social spaces, where we gather in the C21st: supermarkets, shopping centres, motorway service stations…

Jan: Three things came together: a view, a word and a cause. 

The view was the one from the sun-trap terrace at Lumb Bank, the Arvon creative writing centre. The beautiful, rambling house is perched high above a forest-covered valley, reminiscent of the Amazon. 

The word was ‘we’. That day’s homework was a short story, to be read out on the final night. I’d never written one before and I didn’t start in the easiest place, having decided to write in first person plural. But ‘we’ triggered an imaginative sequence; I thought of what the collective word meant - a group, a tribe – and how, deep in forests in remote places, there are stone-age people still living in ways that are 10,000 years old. 

As for the cause, it’s one I care deeply about, which is the environmental crisis. If it plays out as some predict, humankind may end up back where it started. That gave me an imagined future with a speculative/dystopian twist.

What for you, makes a short story really shine?

Susanna: Being caught by the story, like a fish on a hook, held by the words and then being unsettled by the time I reach the end.

Jan: One which puts me into an unfamiliar place. That could be a future, a setting, a group of characters which come from a different background, a train of thought that I’ve never before considered. It must have a shape, a satisfying ending and not just trail off. 

What is your favourite short story, and why does that particular one really speak to you?

Susanna: For Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore, a story of a young woman’s relationship with a man called Lucca. It is sparse and lyrical, a sensual evocation of the ambivalence of love and attraction.

Jan: Wow, this was hard. I’ve chosen ‘Elliott Spencer’ by George Saunders, for two reasons: first, it’s utterly brilliant and unforgettable; and second, I almost missed it because it begins in such a weird way that I initially abandoned it. It featured in the ‘Writer’s Voice’ podcast from the New Yorker on 19th August, 2019. I knew of Saunders as the author of the reputedly ‘difficult’ Booker Prize-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo (which I haven’t yet read). That put my head in completely the wrong place, so when the story opened with weird, fragmented-sentence dialogue, I immediately turned it off, not in the mood for a challenge. But a couple of weeks later I went back to it, curious. I’m so glad I did. What a story. It is clever and thought-provoking on so many levels. If you’re a fan of Black Mirror, this one is for you. The context initially isn’t clear and gradually becomes clear in some ‘aha’ moments. You think you know what’s happening, then you realise it’s not what you thought. So skilful. The main character, ‘Greg’, is a masterpiece in characterisation and dialogue. The quotes around the name – that’s the heart of the narrative. The reason this story speaks to me is that Saunders conveys huge issues, around identity, power and how we treat others, in the subtlest, most indirect way. He also makes it poignant and moving. A masterpiece. Please do listen to it. I’m now really looking forward to Bardo!

What is your favourite short story anthology, and why is that?

Susanna: Difficult to choose, I really like anthologies by Lucia Berlin, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Eley Williams… However, Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore, is an old favourite.  Every time I return to re-read the pages of this book, it is as though I am entering the rooms of a house and I notice something different on the walls, the arrangement of the furniture. There are stories about bridge builders, pregnant women, teenage girls… The tales (all set in Northern Europe) are disquieting, bleak and visceral.

Jan: I’m going to cheat a bit here. The ‘anthology’ I’d recommend is the ever-expanding content in the two short story podcasts from the New Yorker, both completely free. As well as the Writer’s Voice podcast, of stories read by their authors (like the George Saunders example above), there is the Fiction Podcast, short stories from the magazine’s archive chosen and read by another author and then discussed with the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman (who published ‘Cat Person’, the short story phenomenon of 2017). Some discussions can be a creative writing class and plot analysis in one hit. 

My favourite print collection (so not strictly an anthology) is Heart Songs by E. Annie Proulx. These stories were published in 1994 and the collection remains my all-time favourite. Her evocation of life in remote, rural America is so vivid on the page. Her physical descriptions of characters and places are extraordinary: original, lyrical and affecting, like this: ‘Her white hair was rumpled like a cloud torn by wind, her eyes the common pastel of greeting-card rabbits’. 

What have you been up to in the last year, and what have you written since you heard you had won the award?

Susanna: This year has been very exciting. In January I won the Very Short Story Award, since I’ve had stories and essays published by Repeater Books in the anthology “We’ll Never Have Paris” (edited by Andrew Gallix), and in the prestigious German literary journal Neue Rundschau (S.Fischer) alongside John Berger, Anne Carson and more. This was my first time being translated and working with a translator. I also have new work in the great Welsh literary review The Lonely Crowd. Currently, I am working on an essay about my drama-therapy work as a clown in child psychiatric units for a new book coming out with Dodo Ink in 2020. 

Finally, I’ve just completed my new novel, which my agent, Jessica Craig, will be pitching at Frankfurt Book Fair. It is about three couples spending a weekend on a British island that you can walk to when the tide is out and cannot leave when the tide is in.

On October 12th, I’ll be reading new stories at the Bloomsbury Festival in London. Do come and say hi!

Jan: No fireworks, just steadily moving towards getting a novel published. The fulcrum of the last 12 months was our daughter’s wedding in March. Not much writing done leading up to that! Afterwards, a long period of time on antibiotics and having tests while medics were trying to diagnose an odd pain, which has now completely gone and they still have no idea what caused it. But those two events chopped out months of any ability to focus on writing. 

Meanwhile, my first novel (provisionally titled Meadow, historical fiction) has had about a dozen rejections, almost all of the ‘not right for me but I love the writing’ variety. One huge agency said, ‘not this one, but send your next one’, which was really encouraging. I took the decision to send the manuscript to The Literary Consultancy (along with the agents’ feedback) for a review and guidance. I’m both excited and daunted because the editor assigned to it has worked on some of the most successful historical fiction around. The report should arrive in the next couple of months – I decided the editor was worth the wait. And nothing happens quickly in fiction. 

One highlight was doing Jericho Writers’ online self-edit course with Debi Alper and Emma Darwin. The teaching is world-class. Each person in the group critiques the writing of all the others and then Debi follows up. I learned so much and would thoroughly recommend it.  

I also met and had a lovely conversation with Elizabeth Macneal, whose acclaimed book The Doll Factory is not her first but her third. That was very heartening. 

I signed up for the Festival of Writing (which just took place in York earlier this month). One reason writers go is for the chance to have one-to-ones with agents. I submitted the synopsis and first 3,000 words of my second novel, The Book of Weeds for Joy and Sorrow. The agent I saw loved the writing and the plot. She isn’t someone who represents historical fiction (she was a stand-in for a cancellation) but I took heart nevertheless as all agents have a sense of what might fly. I am more confident that this story will secure me an agent – I just have to finish it… I’m about 50,000 words in. The preparation for the Festival served to clarify aspects of the plot and I found that really helpful. 

I’ve done more listening to short stories than writing them, for reasons given above, but I now feel even better prepared when the inspiration comes for the next one. 

Has winning the award changed anything for you, in terms of the way you write?

Susanna: The story for the award had to be fewer than 1000 words, which meant thorough editing. When I met one of the judges, the brilliant Elena Lappin, we talked about this and whether the story could have been longer. After that conversation I realised it is as important what you leave in a piece of writing as what gets left out. There is an echo and a suggestion made by something’s absence.

Jan: I’m writing with much more confidence and I won’t lose that. I know that finding an agent, and being published (since one does not automatically lead to the other) is a brutal process, and winning the award is a kind of armour.

Where do you love to write (and do you have a photo)?

Susanna: I have two favourite places to write. The first is in my studio at home on my grandfather’s desk (often with my youngest five-year-old daughter drawing beside me) and secondly, I adore writing in any library I can find. Libraries are books nests and democratic places where people from all walks of life can freely experience books and reading. I love libraries. Also, I just remembered I wrote an essay, This is Not my Writing Desk, about where I write, published by the culture review Queens Mob. You can read it here

Jan: My writing place is my untidy study.  I’m definitely never distracted from writing by tidying up, more’s the pity. So the photograph is real but the tidiness is a small and temporary work of fiction. I always work on two screens when I write. I have the writing software programme Scrivener open on the left screen 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 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. I am so excited by this story – I just have to do it justice and that’s the hard part.

How would you describe yourself as a writer?

Susanna: I write fiction and non-fiction, and am interested in work that explores language, story-telling, the intimate and the social, attempting to articulate the extraordinary and strange gift of being alive.

Jan: Intermittent. Prone to over-writing. A grammar pedant. Capable of intense concentration. Conscious of how much practice I still need to become better at it. 

When I’m writing, the world falls away. It’s called ‘flow’ – where you look at the clock and hours have passed unnoticed. I’m always wishing I had the self-discipline to write every day. 

I’m halfway between being a plotter and a ‘pantster’ (allowing a story to emerge). I’ve listened to many authors talk at literary events about the evolution of their writing, and a common theme seems to be a journey from pantster towards more plotting. The risk of seat-of-the-pants is that valuable creative effort is spent in cul-de-sacs.

Keep up to date with Susanna Crossman and Jan Stannard:

Susanna's Website: https://susanna-crossman.squarespace.com

Susanna's Twitter: @crossmansusanna

Jan's Website: www.janstannard.co.uk

Jan's Twitter: @janstannard

Jan's Facebook: Jan Stannard

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