TagBBC National Short Story Award

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Ever since I first saw the cover of this year’s BBCNSSA anthology, I wondered: what are the walruses about? Well, here they are in Eley Williams’ story – specifically, this webcam feed of walruses in Alaska.

Williams’ narrator is messaging a – friend? lover? partner? – online when that other person admits to being unhappy. The narrator is unsure how to respond, then decides to send a link to the walrus live-stream, because it’s a favourite of theirs. But the other person doesn’t reply, and the narrator is concerned that their message may not have been taken as intended.

‘Scrimshaw’ is the shortest story on this year’s list, and the densest with language. It has the same fascination with words and exuberant expressiveness that I found in Williams’ novel The Liar’s Dictionary:

A whole town stretched between us, and I considered the surface of our separate skins blued or bluewn or bluesed by pixel-light as we typed against our own private darkness.

This is a story very much concerned with the nature of contemporary communication: the way it can be intensely solitary if you’re typing away, but can also permeate our lives. ‘Scrimshaw’ is a fine end to a strong shortlist.

Listen to a reading of ‘Scrimshaw’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Come Down Heavy’ by Jack Houston

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Of all the stories I’ve read so far on this year’s shortlist, this one has the most obviously unconventional style:

& what happened was Simone said she wasn’t sure she was really in the mood so Jackie walked the small & darkening park alone, the tower behind her, the fizzed glow of the thin-strung lamplight guiding her along the narrow concrete path to The Birdcage…

Simone and Jackie are friends, addicts who move in together in the hope of finding some stability. Their lives are fundamentally precarious, which is reflected in Houston’s writing, that tumble of words and occasionally-awkward phrasing – saying what you want to say in any way possible, because you don’t know when there will be another chance to say it.

‘Come Down Heavy’ is harrowing to read, but that prose is unstoppable. You’re right there with Jackie and Simone, feeling what they feel.

Listen to a reading of ‘Come Down Heavy’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘The Grotesques’ by Sarah Hall

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

With this story, Sarah Hall becomes the first author to be shortlisted for the BBCNSSA four times. ‘The Grotesques’ is as fine a story as I’ve come to expect from her.

Like Jan Carson’s story, ‘The Grotesques’ focuses on a family with its own rules and hierarchies, though Hall’s fictional family seems rather more oppressive. The narration leaves no doubt as to who’s in charge:

Perhaps she could say she had done something. Mummy would. Mummy could change a story or revise history with astonishing audacity, and seemed to instantly believe the new version.

The person thinking this is Dilly, on her thirtieth birthday. At the start of the story she is shaken by the sight of a homeless man whose face has been covered with fruit – probably a student prank. This brings a note of disorder into Dilly’s strictured world.

Dilly returns home to a party: her mother’s tea party, that is, rather than a celebration of her own special day. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Dilly’s mother is controlling her relationship with food, and there are hints of other dark secrets in the family as well.

The tone of Hall’s narration gives a feeling of being at a remove from reality. I’m not going to give away the ending, but there’s cause to wonder whether it describes something that has happened, might happen, or is just about to happen – or perhaps even all three.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Grotesques’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’ by Jan Carson

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Nine members of an Irish family head out for a picnic to celebrate William’s birthday. Right from the start, there are power games to play:

There’s a stand-off in the front yard. No significant progress can be made until the men decide who’s driving. It’s the same every time we go anywhere together.

William’s younger son, Buff, tends to be overlooked, never having quite achieved as much in his parents’ eyes as his brother. But Buff’s wife Victoria (our narrator) hopes to change that: she plans to announce today that she’s pregnant, and is sure that this news will alter the balance of favour within the family. But the weather won’t play along with what Victoria has in mind…

Jan Carson’s story revolves around the subtly shifting dynamics of this family. She packs a lot into an essentially mundane situation, and you really get a sense of the currents and hierarchies at work.

Listen to a reading of ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Pray’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson

It’s that time of year again for the BBC National Short Story Award. It was one of the first literary awards I discovered through blogging (way back in 2010!), so I’ve always had a soft spot for it. This year’s shortlist was announced earlier in the month:

  • ‘Pray’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson
  • ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’ by Jan Carson
  • ‘The Grotesques’ by Sarah Hall
  • ‘Come Down Heavy’ by Jack Houston
  • ‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams

That’s two authors who are familiar to me, and three who aren’t – a nicely eclectic mix, which is the sort of thing I like from this prize. I’ve been offered a copy of the anthology published by Comma Press, so I’m doing one of my occasional story-by-story reviews of the shortlist (see previous ones here).

The plan is to post a review about one story every other day from now until 6 October, when the winner will be announced. Today, the shortlist gets off to a strong start with Caleb Azumah Nelson’s story…

***

‘Pray’ is the story of two teenage boys from South East London: the unnamed narrator, and his older brother Christopher. Their parents have both passed away, and now they’re struggling to find their footing in life.

The brothers are at an age when they feel they don’t fit in, but other people are only too happy to jump to their own conclusions about where they should fit: “too young to be adults, too old to be children, but stuck in bodies which implicate us either way”. There’s also the issue of racism: as the narrator puts it, “the world we frequented wasn’t built with us in mind.”

What strikes me most about ‘Pray’ is how the brothers’ world comes to them in pieces. Over here is the club, where everything makes sense when you can lose yourself in the beat, take the mic and the words flow out. But over there is the unknown place where things get too much, and you just pray for protection “from what we can’t see but know lurks in the air.”

The boys aren’t in a position to inhabit the world in a way that lets them see it as a whole, and thereby navigate through. Instead, they are shunted from piece to piece, and have to hope they can hold on.

Listen to a reading of ‘Pray’.

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’.

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