TagBBC National Short Story Award

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that, don’t you think’ by Helen Oyeyemi

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

This story was first published in Helen Oyeyemi’s 2016 collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a book that I found quite difficult to grasp as a whole, even though I’ve enjoyed Oyeyemi’s work in the past. It has been good to come to ‘if a book is locked’ afresh as part of the NSSA shortlist.

Oyeyemi’s protagonist (the “you” of her second-person narration) works analysing anonymised data on other organisations’ employees. A new colleague joins the company: Eva is subtly chic in a way that leads her female co-workers to try to compete. That’s until her lover’s wife visits the office to denounce her. At that point, the protagonist is the closest Eva has to a friend in her workplace. But the protagonist is preoccupied with what might be in Eva’s mysterious locked diary.

Oyeyemi always creates her own distinctive world with her words, even when she’s writing about somewhere ostensibly as mundane as an office. There are some neat parallels between the way Eva is treated by her colleagues; the protagonist’s family background; and the work that the company does. More, the ending blossoms into the beautiful strangeness typical of Helen Oyeyemi.

Listen to a reading of ‘if a book is locked’. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Collector’ by Benjamin Markovits

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

Somewhere near the border with Canada, Robin Bright’s wife Amy dies when she is swept off the road in a storm. Robin struggles to accept what has happened, and retreats to his big house and hobby of collecting. The story switches between the past and the present, in which Robin discovers that Amy may not be the person he thought he knew.

‘The Collector’ is written in a more conventional literary style than the previous three stories. This is less to my personal taste (I find Markovits’ technique of anonymising places, such as “H___”, particularly irritating in a contemporary story); nevertheless, there are aspects of this story that work well. There’s some effective use of metaphor, playing all of Robin’s material possessions against what little knowledge he has of Amy. And I found the ending of ‘The Collector’ especially powerful.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Collector’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ by Cynan Jones

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

loved Cynan Jones’s 2014 novel The Dig, found it vivid and unflinching. I was hoping for something similar from ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ (a story drawn from Jones’s most recent novel, Cove). I wasn’t disappointed.

The unnamed protagonist of Jones’s tale is in a kayak off the coast, catching fish and about to scatter his father’s ashes, when something goes terribly wrong. After that, his goal is to reach land. It can be summarised succinctly, but the experience of it is so much richer, thanks to Jones’s pin-sharp description and a prose that breaks apart and re-forms like waves on the sea.

What I’ve written there feels at once inadequate and just enough to capture it. ‘The Edge of the Shoal’ is simply that kind of story. 

Listen to a reading of ‘The Edge of the Shoal’. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: Q&A with Will Eaves 

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a Q&A with one of the authors shortlisted for the NSSA, Will Eaves. (Read my review of his story ‘Murmur’ here.) 

How does it feel to have been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017?

It’s an honour, of course. I like in particular the NSSA’s relationship with radio, which is an intimate medium. A radio voice speaks to listeners one by one, in their rooms, in their cars, in the bath. One hears that voice with a dramatic sense of others caught in the act of listening.

Can you give us a bit of background information to your shortlisted story? What inspired you to write it?

It’s a story that comes at the beginning of something longer – a chain of linked stories about a scientist struggling to maintain physical and emotional equilibrium in the wake of his conviction for Gross Indecency. Alan Turing is an obvious inspiration; but equally clearly the story spins away – far away – from his recorded circumstances. “Murmur” and its companion pieces are collectively a fantasia on the life of the mind, logical paradox, loyalty, and love.

The unique element of the BBC NSSA is that your story will be read by an actor and broadcast to Radio 4 listeners. Have you thought about what your characters’ voices might sound like, or do you have a particular voice in your head?

The speaker is a man in his forties. His voice might have an edge; he’s sharp but not severe; careful; quick to notice things, sad; occasionally vexed, not short-tempered.

What do you enjoy most about writing in the short story form, as opposed to longer-form or novels?

I’ve submitted to the NSSA before, always in the knowledge that I don’t write conventional short-form fiction. (I have a high regard for those who do: see reading suggestions below.) The truth is that I’m never sure what form I’m writing in. One has some idea of the material, the scale and shape, but these are rather different things. I’m not the sort of person who decides to write a poem or a novel or a story. The whole process is extremely uncertain. I tend to follow the voice. Form and content must grow together.

Which short story or collection by another author would you recommend to readers and why?

“Regret” by Guy de Maupassant. An old man confronts the woman he has always loved – the wife of a friend. Would she indeed have given herself to him, that sunny day years ago when they walked together by the riverside after lunch? A masterpiece of concision and tension, the whole story is strung upon the agony of a simple, devastating “what if?”

Also: “Millennium Blues” by Helen Simpson, from Hey Yeah Right Get A Life – an unimprovably great title that her US publisher wanted to change to: Getting A Life

Which short story writer would you recommend to readers and why?

Flaubert (Trois Contes, and “Herodias”, in particular), Maupassant, Chekhov. Among contemporaries: Alice Munro, for her handling of time, and brilliant voicing. The thought and the said run together effortlessly. Her best collection is probably Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage (2001), but they are all good.

What are you reading at the moment?

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, by Barbara W. Tuchman. A historian friend introduced me to this. It’s a vivid commentary on the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism, and the economic and tactical disaster of chivalric combat. You can only read a few pages at a time because the violence and suffering are so disgusting.

What was your favourite book as a child? 

I’m not sure. It changed from week to week, I think. My first great emotional experience was reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, late into the night, under my covers, and feeling distraught. I cried myself to sleep – I’ve loved spiders ever since. I liked Conan Doyle and Saki as a young teen (“Tobermory”), and still do. Then Persuasion and Jane Austen. As an uncertain gay adolescent, I found Graham Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography uplifting, and very funny.

Was there one writer that inspired you to start writing?

No, because I didn’t think very much about who had written what. I liked reading on my own and the feeling of liberation and retreat that came with scribbling in exercise books. Music was as important to me as literature when I was growing up, and songs and piano and 60s/70s R&B and funk (Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder) still matter. Musical composition makes sense to me. When I started acting, I found myself drawn to Shakespeare’s late plays (The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale) for the transformations and magic. I’ve never set out to write anything in a particular style, although I do absorb the work of other writers and think about it over a long period of time. That’s essential. I try to notice and remember solutions to different technical problems. There’s a chapter in Beryl Bainbridge’s Injury Time (the whole book is lovely) that taught me how to move from one centre of consciousness to another. She makes it look so easy. Dickens helps one to be brave about changes in register and address.  

Will Eaves was born in Bath in 1967 and educated at Beechen Cliff Comprehensive and King’s College, Cambridge. He worked for twenty years as a journalist and was the Arts Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1995 to 2011. He teaches in the Writing Programme at the University of Warwick. He is the author of four novels: The Oversight (Picador, 2001; shortlisted for the Whitbread – now Costa – First Novel Award), Nothing To Be Afraid Of (Picador, 2005; shortlisted for the Encore Award), This Is Paradise (Picador, 2012), and The Absent Therapist (CB Editions, 2014; shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize); and two collections of poetry: Sound Houses (Carcanet, 2011) and The Inevitable Gift Shop (CB Editions, 2016; shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry). He lives in Brixton, London.

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘The Waken’ by Jenni Fagan 

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

It fascinates me how vastly different styles of writing can draw me in equally effectively. Will Eaves’s piece was fragmented and formal; Jenni Fagan’s is rolling, with a gossamer touch. Both embody what they want to tell superbly.

We join Fagan’s protagonist, Jessie, as she makes precautions to ensure that her newly-deceased father’s soul will not return to the house. This is an old tradition carried on into the present day; contemporary details puncture the narrative, destabilising its folktale-like tone.

All the women on Jessie’s Hebridean island, except her, became selkies at the age of twelve; but she is about to undergo a transformation of her own. None of this feels in any way out of place: Fagan maintains that measured tone, and the story unfurls as she goes.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Waken’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘Murmur’ by Will Eaves

It’s BBC National Short Story Award time again. This is an award that I’ve covered quite a lot over the years; and I’m pleased to be able to run a story-by-story review of this year’s shortlist. Thanks to Comma Press and ED Public Relations for providing an advance copy of the anthology. 

I was excited about this year’s shortlist when I first saw it, because it’s a mixture of favourite authors (such as Cynan Jones and Helen Oyeyemi) and writers of whom I’ve heard great things. Today, we start with a former Goldsmiths Prize nominee: Will Eaves, and his story ‘Murmur’… 

***

The narrator of Will Eaves’s story is a mid-20th century gay academic named Alec, who is arrested for gross indecency and made to undergo a course of hormone injections, as well as attending sessions with a psychoanalyst. The scattered notes of Alec’s journal comprise the story that we read. 

Alec contemplates the nature of mind and, as a materialist, is troubled by the possibility that there is a final ‘leap’ he cannot explain, that mind may not be able to encompass itself. At the level of narrative, Alec considers that we can describe our actions and conscious thoughts; but then there is what he calls the “inner murmur” beneath, the deeper thinking which may be hidden from us.

‘Murmur’ is a strong start to this year’s shortlist. I appreciate the way that it works in harmony across multiple levels, from day-to-day living to the fundamentals of the universe; and that it interrogates the limits of its own form. The ending carries a frisson of dread as the standard tools of narrative fiction are turned against themselves.

Listen to a reading of ‘Murmur’. 

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: the result

The 2015 BBC National Short Story Award has gone to Jonathan Buckley for his story ‘Briar Road’. Mark Haddon was the runner-up, for ‘Bunny’.

Well, what can I say? That result is almost the exact opposite of my own personal preference. It never ceases to amaze me how different opinions on fiction can be.  Still, congratulations to all.

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: my pick of the shortlist

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Okay, I’ve read through the shortlist, so it’s time to choose my personal winner…

If the BBC National Short Story Award were mine to give, I’d hand it to Jeremy Page. ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’ is the story that I enjoyed the most, but I think it’s also the most successful.

My runner-up would either be Hilary Mantel or Frances Leviston. There are aspects of both their stories that work well for me, but I don’t think they quite have the unity of Page’s.

We’ll find out the winning story on Tuesday night.

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’ by Jeremy Page

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Thom goes to visit his girlfriend Susan’s parents in rural Wales. On the way there, he remembers Susan’s warnings about them sometimes walking around the house with little (if anything) to cover their modesty, and being free about touching each other. These colour the way Thom approaches the meeting, making an already awkward situation even more so. But Thom finds his feet with time – or at least he thinks he does…

I really enjoyed this story. Page’s humour really hits the mark, and I don’t mind admitting that this went a long way. There’s also a lightness of touch here which I don’t really find in the other stories, and it works well. But the heart of Page’s tale is the sense of Thom entering unfamiliar territory – a household and family whose conventions and codes he does not understand – and trying to find his way. It’s sharp and funny… good stuff.

Listen to a reading of ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

BBC National Short Story Award 2015: ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ by Hilary Mantel

This is part of a series of posts about the shortlist for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award.

Perhaps the single best-known short story that would have been eligible for this year’s award, purely on account of its being the title story of a collection by such a high-profile author (oh, and perhaps the storm-in-a-teacup that went on in the media over the subject matter, I suppose). Mantel imagines the occasion in August 1983 when Margaret Thatcher went into hospital in Windsor for eye surgery. Her narrator lives within sight of the hospital, and receives a visitor who is at first assumed to be a photographer – though it soon becomes apparent that he’s after a different kind of shot.

It’s been a recurring theme of my engagement with the shortlisted stories that I’ve found the tone of the narration a little jarring (at least to begin with) in the context of what the stories were doing. It’s the same here: Mantel’s protagonist looks back on these events calmly, with a certain sense of being above it all (“Picture first the street where she breathed her last. It is a quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees…”). This seems to work as something of a wink to the reader: you know that Thatcher wasn’t assassinated in real life, but this is fiction, so all bets are off, okay? But I also find that it takes me out of the moment a little. All the same, the interplay between narrator and (would-be?) sniper brings humour, then tension.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’

Anthology details (Foyles affiliate link)

The BBC National Short Story Award 2015, Comma Press paperback

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