So, the other day I reviewed the Bristol Short Story Prize’s latest anthology. And what do I have for you today, folks? Why, only an interview with its winner, the lovely Valerie O’Riordan. Golly, anyone would think I actually planned these posts…
Valerie, hello! Welcome to the blog. I’m thrilled to have you on. So, first things first – CONGRATULATIONS on winning the Bristol Short Story Prize. Could you tell us a little about that?
Thank you, Nik! I’m delighted to be here. I still can’t quite believe I won the Bristol Prize; I was so thrilled to be on the shortlist, but I never thought I’d actually place, never mind win. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience – from the ceremony itself, to all the lovely messages I’ve had from people who’ve read the anthology and liked my story, to the magazine and radio interviews I’ve done. And of course it’s really encouraging, because writing is, as you know, a massively tricky and solitary activity, and I haven’t been at it that long, so it’s a huge relief to get that kind of external validation.
Your winning story, the very short, ‘Mum’s The Word’ I loved. Could you tell us a little about that too?
I’m glad you liked it! It’s a very bleak tale about child abuse and teen pregnancy. People have tentatively asked me if it’s autobiographical and I’ve had to reassure them that I’ve got no such skeletons in my closet. I think I gave an Australian friend bad dreams by emailing it to her just before she went to sleep, and I read it the other night at a magazine launch and everybody looked rather morose afterwards! On the other hand, one reader told me her teenage daughter was very moved by it, and that was really gratifying. That’s what we’re after, isn’t it? An emotional connection. The story itself came about from a writing exercise – a prompt that gave rise to one of the images I subsequently used (the girl holding onto a piece of melting chocolate). Once I had the tone of the piece in mind, I tried to find a situation that would match that emotion. I ran it past a couple of writing colleagues before I subbed it, and their feedback was very helpful. The length (350 words) is what most people have commented upon, but in a positive way; it’s great to have had such a warm reception for a piece of flash fiction.
What was it like going to an awards ceremony of that stature? A cool experience, I’d have thought? Was it?
Oh, it was fantastic! They laid on cakes and fizzy pop beforehand and made us all feel really welcome. Joe was an amazing host, even considering I ate twice my fair share of cake. The actual ceremony was in the cinema of the Arnolfini Centre in Bristol, so it was very dark with spotlights and tiered seating and the officials and the Lord Mayor addressing the crowd, and all of us shortlistees sitting down the front chewing our nails. Very nerve-wracking. And they they called out the runners up, and then the winners, and I thought there’d been a terrible mistake until I actually saw my name on the cheque! Then there was a wine reception in the bookshop afterwards. The whole night was superb – it was a real initiation into feeling like a proper writer!
You’re currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Could you tell us a little about that and how you think it’s helped? (And please use simple terms – I don’t even have A levels!)
One of my tutors described the MA process as accelerating the writer’s apprenticeship period, and I think that’s spot on. It also gives you a peer-group and one or more mentor-like figures, and psychologically, it allows you to officially consider yourself a writer for that year. I think that’s a real boon; it stops you skulking about with your secret writing in your bedroom. Too many people think their writing isn’t something that can be discussed in polite society and the MA gives you a solid excuse to knock that on the head. My course was a mixture of writing workshops and literature classes, and the contact hours were very low, so it’s up to you to keep yourself motivated – I know other courses are more demanding week-on-week, so I guess it’s a question of finding a course that suits how you operate. I blogged quite a lot about my experiences, because I think the course descriptions don’t always reveal much about that you actually do when you get there. As for me, I’ve found the MA to be really beneficial – both in terms of the actual craft, because I think my writing’s definitely improved since last year, and in terms of having time to evaluate my priorities and goals. I’m more determined than ever to succeed as a writer.
Do you write anything other than short stories? Might there, perhaps, be a novel on the go?
Funny you should ask! As a matter of fact, there is a novel on the go; it’s a little under halfway done by now, and I’m currently polishing up 15,000 words of it for my MA dissertation. It’s set in Dublin in the mid-1990s, and it’s about a teenage girl’s obsessive relationship with her mother. The provisional title is ‘Pure Dirt’ – you’ve got the exclusive scoop on that, Nik! It’s got murders and tattoos and seedy bars and ferries and fancy dress and all sorts in it. It’s a black comedy and I’m very excited about it. It’s been difficult, moving from short fiction to a novel – a whole new set of challenges. I’m still writing short stories, just less of them at the moment, as my head’s taken up with this longer story, but I do love them and I’m not letting them slip by the wayside.
Who is Valerie O’Riordan?
A fairly introverted bookish geeky type who worries a lot about money and boring things like central heating. She likes nothing more than a giant bowl of popcorn and a good book and a cup of tea. She dreams of having more shelf-space so she won’t keep tripping over teetering piles of paperbacks on the living room floor. She can’t drive so she’s usually to be found in her flat, most probably still in her pyjamas, eating cornflakes out of the packet.
What short story collection would you recommend?
I like a good anthology – the Best American Short Stories series is great – because you get the variety of voices and styles, but as far as an individual collection goes, I love David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. If I had a vocabulary half as good as his, I’d be laughing. Or certainly intimidating more people with my wordy ways. I also loved Rob Shearman’s Love Songs For the Shy And Cynical, and I’d really recommend that one for people who are new to short stories and might be afraid they wouldn’t ‘get’ them. Rob’s stories are funny and endearing and poignant, and very accessible.
What’s next for you?
I‘ll be concentrating on the novel for the next while and when it feels shipshape, I’ll be looking for an agent – setting off on the submissions roller-coaster. And I’ll keep writing flash fiction and short stories and sending them out there. My MA will be over in a few weeks, so it’ll be back to the real world of job-hunting and working routines, but as long as I can grab a couple of hours each day to keep writing, I’ll be happy. I’ve got a tiny little piece in the forthcoming Cinnamon Press microfiction anthology, so I’m looking forward to getting my mits on that.
Anything you’d like to add?
Just thanks again to the Bristol Prize judges, and thanks to you Nik, for having me!
Valerie O’Riordan was the 2010 recipient of the Bristol Short Story Prize. Her short stories and flash fiction have been published widely online and in print, most recently in Bewilderbliss, Litro and elimae, as well as the latest Bristol Prize anthology. She’s just about to to finish her MA in creative writing at the University of Manchester, where she’s been working on her first novel. She writes book reviews for Bookmunch and arts events listings for Go See This, and she blogs at www.not-exactly-true.com. She’d love to be a full-time writer.