Interview with The Bristol Short Story Prize

I’m delighted to welcome Joe Melia, the main coordinator of The Bristol Short Story Prize, to the blog for a chat about the prize and short stories. What a treat. Enjoy!

Welcome to the blog, Joe. So, tell us about The Bristol Short Story Prize.
Many thanks the invite, it’s a real pleasure to be here. The BSSP is an annual international short story competition that publishes an anthology of 20 previously unpublished stories and awards cash prizes to the 20 authors featured in the anthology. We’re in our 3rd year. We’re based in Bristol, hence the name, and try to involve lots of different facets of the city in what we do: for instance, the photos on our website are taken by a couple of photography students from Filton College, we invite journalism students at Bath Spa university to do interviews for our site and we invite designs for our anthology covers from final year illustration students at University of the West of England. These initiatives all take place annually.
How and why did it start?
The BSSP was founded by the editors of Bristol Review of Books magazine in 2007.  The magazine is a free quarterly that has features on the local arts and culture scene as well as lots of book reviews. The mag. has always published poetry and the idea for the short story competition came from the desire to support and publish new and exciting short stories and also to raise some money for the magazine to ensure it remained a free publication rather than filling it with advertising. The winning story in the BSSP also gets published in the magazine. The central idea from the start remains – to publish great short stories and reward the writers.
What do you look for when you select the judges? (Click to see this year’s.)
We’ve been very lucky with the judges we have approached so far, they have nearly all said ‘yes please’ straight away. Up to now we have stuck with the Bristol theme in selection- everyone on the judging panels we have selected has a strong connection with the city, this may well change in future years. The most important thing for us is that the judges have enthusiasm for the project and the short story in particular. Our chair Bertel Martin is one of the editors of Bristol Review of Books and heavily involved in the setting up and direction that BSSP takes, he also, writes, publishes and performs which brings an awful lot to the compiling of the shortlist. As well as Bertel, we have a couple of people who have some standing in the publishing/book industry, something we look to feature every year. We’re very lucky to have Maia Bristol (yes, that is her name!) UK sales manager at Faber & Faber and a big short story and new writing fan, and also Bristol publisher Helen Hart who has worked previously for Harpercollins- this kind of experience is invaluable in the judging process. We look for people who bring other things to the process, too: Joe Berger tells stories in many ways as a cartoonist, children’s writer and animator and he will bring a unique angle to the judging process. It was a great day for the city when Tania Hershman moved here last summer, as well as being a superb writer her enthusiasm for the world of short fiction (although she doesn’t like that term much!) is such an inspiration. I was reading ‘Go Away’ from her fantastic debut collection ‘The White Road and other stories’ for about the fiftieth time when she revealed on her blog that she was moving here- let the bells ring out, I thought!
What do you think of the state of the short story in the UK at the moment?
There are so many exciting things happening that it’s difficult to get to sleep at night thinking about future possibilities! Just off the top of my head, if you go outside the major publishers, some of whom consistently publish great collections- Atlantic, Faber etc. look at what Roast Books are doing, for instance- phenomenal stuff. ‘A-Z of Possible Worlds’ is one of the most courageous, groundbreaking acts of publishing it’s possible to imagine, it’s also a wonderful collection. And Comma Press, Salt Publishing– we look on in awe at what these guys are doing. Then there’s Short Fuse , Story Slam Live, short story cafe, Word Soup, Year Zero Writers live projects- such an active scene. And look at that list of magazines Tania put together the other day and the latest prizes to appear- Manchester and the Sunday Times (I think!), £25,000 first prize.
Here’s a scoop for you, Nik. We’ve been developing something for the last 18 months which will be piloted this year on a small scale and then, hopefully, if we get the funding, will be up and running in a big way for our 2011 Prize. In the next month or so Henbury school in Bristol will choose a story from our previous anthologies and a year 10 art class will produce pictures/images, in response to the story. The author of the story will visit the school to chat to the children about their writing, short stories, their story etc. and the pictures/images/works will be displayed in a gallery at the Arnolfini arts centre in Bristol during the day of our awards ceremony in July. Next year, we’ll open it out to 5 or 6 schools, who will all work on different stories and on different types of adaptations- drama, film, music, dance whatever they choose to do. These performances/exhibitions will be a major part of a day-long short story jamboree culminating in our awards ceremony in the evening. We’ve got lots of other stuff planned including a short story dj. It will be a big fiesta celebrating the vibrant and dynamic world of the short story and with it we hope to be contributing in our own small way to all the exciting things mentioned earlier. This has turned out to be a very long answer-sorry! Long term we hope to expand this to a weekend and then a few days but it’s early days and we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.
Can you tell us a little about the prize’s anthologies?
They’re full of variety and different styles and great writing. There’s some historical fiction in there, humour, verse, stories that score highly on the quirkometre- some from experienced writers and some from those just starting out. One of the joys of the competition is finding out about the authors of the stories. All the stories are read anonymously and you always have a picture of the author when you read a story and quite often it turns out to be wrong, particularly the gender of the writer, get caught out by that a lot. And interestingly, knowing about the author can really alter the reading experience a great deal.
What, in your opinion, makes a short story great?
A really difficult question because there are so many different kinds of short story and different aspects of a short story that I really like and that are very effective. I do enjoy stories that really go to town on inviting the reader to ‘come to the aid’ of the writer, as Harold Bloom puts it, because it highlights one of the distinctive aspects of the short story ie the reader is often much more involved than in say, lots of novels, for instance.
Take Hemingway’s legendary six worder ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ – it’s entirely up to the reader to fill in the gaps. Is this an unbearable tragedy with a baby dying or given up for adoption , or a domestic dispute over the colour of the shoes, is the baby alive and well but with unusually large feet, have the shoes been stolen and subsequently turn out to be extremely sought-after with a high market value, have they been sent to the wrong address and the occupants happen to be desperate for money? The possibilities are endless.
But I also think that great short stories have numerous other qualities-they leave an indelible mark, make you gasp, make you want to read them again and again, create an entirely convincing universe within a few lines, describe an episode or encounter or moment of realisation that not only effects some kind of change or eureka moment in a character but also the reader.
What do you think the future holds for the short form?
Nothing but brightness!  Short stories are one of the most basic and common forms of human interaction. Think about how many times stories are told- meeting someone in the street,  arriving at work,  having a haircut, visiting friends/family, a lengthy evening at the public house, a phone conversation. All of these occasions and more are full of stories. How are you? Did you have a nice weekend? How was your holiday? Did you hear about…? Wassup? – these prompts are everywhere, every second of every day all over the world and nearly always lead to a short story of some kind. I’d love a clever clogs somewhere to estimate the number of short stories that are related worldwide in a 24hr period – how many millions of pieces of short fiction would that be??
Also, having 2 small children makes you realise that short stories dominate pre-school reading- there are so many examples of Joycean epiphanies and Chekhov’s ‘note of interrogation’, it’s astounding-.The climax to ‘I’ll Show You, Blue Kangaroo?’ is a great example of the elusive Chekhov ending.  Short stories are everywhere and will continue to be. So the idea that gets banged around in some circles that no one wants to read or write them or buy books of them and that the short story is something that needs ‘saving’ is way beyond outright absurdamundo that it deserves no more airtime from this day forward. As Douglas Coupland says in his latest novel Generation A : ‘Without stories, our universe is merely rocks and clouds and lava and blackness. It’s a village scraped raw by warm waters leaving not a trace of what existed before.’
What would you say about flash fiction and short, short stories?
A great form and really powerful. They are unbeatable at delivering sensational knock-out blows- Lydia Davis is excellent at the art, for instance.  I’m still reeling from having read ‘Fear’ a week or so ago- it contains about 100 words and has a strength , intensity and resonance that defies belief. This is what flash fiction can do.
Do you think there’s anything more us short story writers (and readers) could and should be doing?
Just keep writing and reading stories. And write what you want, really want. Not what you think other people will want to read or something you think might be like another writer- just write your truth and stick to it. It’s wonderful the way in which writers support and encourage each other- it really is an act of courage writing something and letting other people see it. I have nothing but the utmost admiration for writers.
As a short story lover yourself, which five collections would you say are required reading?
Required reading is a tricky one. This is Earth’s toughest question!
If I may, perhaps I’ll give you 5 collections that immediately shivered my timbers and I return to ever such a lot (there are a lot more than 5):
          The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories’ Anton Chekhov
          Drinking Coffee Elsewhere and other stories’ ZZ Packer
          Burned Children of America’ ed. Zadie Smith
          My Oedipus Complex and other stories’ Frank O’Connor
          Not Her Real Name’ Emily Perkins
It would be a different 5 tomorrow and again the next day. Just thought of loads of others
Anything you’d like to add?
I’m looking forward to reading collections by these people very soon: Padrika Tarrant, Laura Van Den Berg, Sarah Salway, Gwendoline Riley, Panos Karnezis, about a zillion others and reading everything Lydia Davis has ever written.
Thanks once again for your kind invite, Nik.

13 Comments on “Interview with The Bristol Short Story Prize

  1.  by  TOM J VOWLER

    Great interview, Nik.As someone who reads stories submitted to a literary journal and its competition, I would say there's no shortage of people writing stories. (It's often said if only the same number of people bought collections of stories as write them…) We get around 600 stories in a reading cycle.I have a quiet optimism that collections / antologies are going to gain popularity here that rivals other parts of the world.Short stories are, well, sexy.

  2.  by  Nik Perring

    Great to see you here, Tom.Of course short stories are sexy (just like those who write them? Well, I like to think so).I think you make an excellent point about people (not) buying collections (and I'd probably extend that to lit journals as well); writers need to support their market.Nik

  3.  by  Vanessa Gebbie

    Great interview both, thank you! i think too, that we as w riters must listen to why readers dont enjoy short stories. Something has taken them away from them. Maybe (debate???) it is the 'academicisation' of writing? Our attempts to make it all awfully clever and wonderful – forgetting that unless a reader wants to read it, we are stuffed.I am not saying that there ought to be those thoughts as we write, far from it. But we must be aware that there is writing for ourselves and only ourselves – then wondering why no one buys… and writing for ourselves and at the same time being in tune, writing something engaging, different, interesting to others – or something!

  4.  by  Lost Wanderer

    Really enjoyed this interview, and I am also glad you did this Nik because even though I live in Bristol, I have never heard of Bristol Short Story. But now off to check it out.

  5.  by  Julia Bohanna

    Unsexy? Moi? Seriously though I think the short story is a very sexy little beast, slippery to get right though. Great interview that one, lots to chew over and I shall be searching out the books on the that list that I haven't already read. Chekhov is so exquisite…you can't beat a Russian for that melancholic detail.

  6.  by  Tania Hershman

    What a fabulous interview, not just because I got a bell-ringing mention (Joe, I'm blushing…) but because it's all about celebrating the short story! Yay, yay and thrice times yay!. Lost Wanderer, get your story into the BSSP pronto. Joe, we'll be making Bristol the World Centre for Short Stories, eh? (And cake…)

  7.  by  Joe

    thanks all for lovely remarks and interesting comments.Something I didn't mention is the eBook- think that this will bring new readers to short stories and it will be a great way in for newcomers and will lead to more sales of print books and magazines.Tania, yes we shall indeed !

  8.  by  Nik Perring

    Thanks for your comments one and all, and to Joe for such brilliant and interesting (and inspiring!) answers.Vanessa – I think that's a VERY good point. What I'd like is some way in which the average readers are exposed to short stories; it's got to be accessible in availability as well as content… Err, I think!

  9.  by  Joe

    Great point about accessibility, Nik. It's crucial and one of reasons behind our schools' project and one day fiesta idea- showing the great world of short stories to people who may not have been fully aware of it before (and also those who are fully aware of it, of course!)

  10.  by  Rachel Fenton

    This is a very good interview and particularly as is raises so much debate about why short stories are generally thought to be maligned and yet no one really thinks they are! Strange! Anyway, I am really impressed by the schools/Arnolfini collaboration…all this from short stories – who'd have thought?

  11.  by  A M Howcroft

    Really enjoyed this interview Nik / Joe. Also thought Vanessa's comments were spot on about why readers don't enjoy short stories. I've been blogging on exactly the same theme recently (InkTears Thoughts) following a bruising conversation with a family member who wasn't happy with one of my stories.

  12.  by  Nik Perring

    Thanks for commenting A MI read your post with interest (but couldn't figure out how to post my thoughts to it).This stood out for me: "What really struck me about the discussion was that the requirements of a small community (the literary writers and their judges) was dictating the fashion for short stories in a way that was turning off the reading habits of the majority" because I think you're 99% right, and that SHOULDN'T be the case, at all.It's very easy for cliques to build up and to try to protect what they're doing and to stop anything different (a threat?) coming along. But I do think that that can only last for a certain period of time until something else comes along – and also, people DO still publish different types of stories. I've had to learn how to address that because my stories aren't the kind that win comps. And that's fine, I'm just happy to be read and, mostly, enjoyed.So, don't stop doing what you're doing! Nik

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