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2016 Award now closed

Thank you to everyone who entered BSSA 2016.  Initial judging is now underway. Subscribe to receive news of longlist announcements

Shortlist Judge: BBC Radio 4 producer Mair Bosworth

Prizes:

  • 1st £1000
  • 2nd £200
  • 3rd £100
  • Local prize: £50 voucher
  • The Acorn Award for unpublished writers of fiction : £50

With thanks to Mr B’s Emporium of Books, Bath for sponsoring the local prize.

A selection of twenty winning, shortlisted and longlisted stories will be published in the 2016 anthology  in digital and print format. (publication likely in October, 2016).

Follow us on Twitter @bathstoryaward and subscribe to our email list and posts to receive the latest news and competition updates.

2015 anthology

To read the winning, shortlisted and a selection of the longlisted stories from last year’s award,  buy the 2015 anthology officially launched 19th November 2015 in Bath, on this site  for £6 (inc p & p). (UK residents only). If you live overseas, the anthology is available digitally and in print from Amazon.

 

INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP HENSHER

 

Philip Hensher

Photograph by Eamonn McCabe

Philip Hensher is a man who likes lists and appears on many. These  include the 2003 Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists; the 2008 Man Booker and 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlists for The Northern Clemency, his ‘shameless page-turner ‘ of a novel, which also won Best Book in the CWP’s Eurasia Region; the IoS Pink List of the most influential LBGT people.

Influential. He’s certainly that. The current Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University (previously, he taught at the University of Exeter) describes himself as a novelist and journalist. As a journalist, writing for the Independent, Mail on Sunday, Spectator, Telegraph and Guardian, his articles have explored a wealth of political, historical and, as one would expect, cultural subjects. In 2007 he won the Stonewall Prize for Journalist of the Year. As a critic, reviewer and Booker judge in 2001, his thoughts, at times controversial, on a range of literary and philosophical issues, have established him as a Big Name.  His nine novels have garnered literary prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award (Kitchen Venomand the Oondatje Prize (Scenes from an Early Life  which was also shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize).  His entertaining book The Missing Ink  postulates the case of pen v. keyboard while the libretto for Thomas Adès opera is another of his accomplishments.

And then there are the short stories. I met Philip Hensher at ‘The Importance of the Short Story’, a Bath Literature Festival event chaired by Alex Clark, where he, Clark and Georgina Hammick spent a comfortable hour on the podium sharing revelations,  juicy anecdotes about the genre and writing in general  – and a passion for lists. He’s just edited the mammoth two-volume Penguin History of the British Short Story, starting with Defoe (Vol.1) and ending with Zadie Smith (Vol 2). This was a two-year project and, although the final result is highly acclaimed, the choices have attracted controversy.  But, with 20,000 stories to consider for circa 100 places and 160 authors culled to 70, it’s obvious some firm favourites would be omitted.  I’ve not seen the first volume but I do have the second which does have an eclectic flavour:  canonical greats such as Graham Greene and Zadie Smith share spine space with Adam Marek and Jack Common, an author I’d never heard of.  In fact, there were several writers I first experienced through the anthology, which was Hensher’s intent. He deliberately chose to focus on the writing itself, so that a single wonderful story, even if it was the sole representation of the author, took precedence over  the search for the best story written by an acclaimed writer, hence no Hilary Mantel . Rather than working his way through collections and anthologies, Hensher’s reference point was the medium in which each story first appeared and, for the earlier stories, this was the magazine, periodical or journal.  Much of the excellent introduction highlights the glorious past of the short story writer who could make a decent living from the genre.  The Strand was especially generous, paying W.W. Jacobs £350 for one story in 1914 which would be c. £36,000 in today’s money according to an historic inflation calculator – just topping the EFG Sunday Times Award, self-proclaimed as the world’s richest story prize. For Hensher that’s the problem and his exasperation is evident when he argues the prestigious £30,000 prize could be better used to develop the talents of many more writers.

At the Bath Literature Festival event Hensher claimed he began his massive undertaking from a ‘position of not knowing short stories.’ It’s true that novels constitute the main body of his work but it’s evident he has an attraction to and considerable talent for the short story form. ‘Dead Languages’ from his 1999 collection The Bedroom of the Mister’s Wife was selected by A. S. Byatt for The Oxford Book of English Short Stories while The Emperor’s Waltz, his novel from 2014, follows in the tradition of  Gaskell and Faulkner in its structure of unconnected or parallel narratives but is, in many ways, a series of inter-woven stories  – or so it appeared to me. The writing emerges from wry observation with an opening line: ‘You will have brought your own towels, and bed linen,’ Frau Scherbatsky said in her lowered, attractive, half humming voice, ‘as I instructed, as I suggested, Herr Vogt, in my telegram’, echoing the rhythms and syntax not just of Weimar Germany  but of the country I know today. So, it’s not surprising that with several years of flirting with the form he has returned to short stories and now has a collection to tempt, tease and entice. Tales of Persuasion will be out on April 21st.

Interview by Jane, April 18th, 2016

  • Published 21st April

    The blurb for ‘Tales of Persuasion’  reads, ‘Backdrops vary …from turmoil in Sudan following the death of a politician in a plane crash, to southern India where a Soho hedonist starts to envisage the crump and soar of munitions’.  Is this, in some way, a connection to the short stories of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that were written as an immediate response to current events? Please would you tell us more about ‘Tales of Persuasion’, how it came about and your thoughts on the collection?

 I write short stories as they occur to me, so occasionally, intermittently, and set off by some particular idea. Sometimes I see somebody in the street, and wonder about their life – a pair of people who probably didn’t belong together, for instance, set off the story “Under the Canopy” about a seriously ill man and his irresponsible carer. Sometimes a piece of interesting information will come my way. When I discovered that Silvio Berlusconi was serving out some community service working in a home for Alzheimer’s patients, I wondered about how one of the patients might regard the interesting fact that the Prime Minister was now looking after her – “A Lemon Tree”. Or sometimes I wanted to perform a variation on a classic short story, bringing my experience of a first day at work to meet a short story on a similar theme by the great Malachi Whitaker (“A Change in the Weather”). I didn’t have a plan for the collection – it was written here and there over 17 years, but at the end I brought all the short stories I could find together and chose the ones I thought worked, and worked together. (I dropped about 7 that would have looked odd, or that I didn’t much like any more – one of those, embarrassingly, is the story about Sudan which was published a few years ago). In the end I was struck by how many of the stories were about somebody changing, or being changed by influences or by things going on around them. So there did seem to be an idea about persuasion. I chose the cover. It’s sometimes hard to work out whether the one doing the persuading is being met by strong resistance, and is carrying on anyway.

  • You’ve been quoted as saying that the short story is in a state of crisis. This is contrary to perceived opinion that the genre is enjoying something of a renaissance. Please could you expand on this.

Well, I don’t know what the renaissance is, considering that it’s almost impossible to get anyone to pay you to write a short story. The outlets that used to exist, even twenty years ago when I was starting out, have more or less disappeared. They’ve been replaced by short story competitions. Competitions are fine, so long as they come along with a marketplace. If that’s all there is – no. For me, literary competitions are the equivalent of overseas aid. They act as a paternalistic view by outsiders of what the target ought to be doing, rather than where the real opportunities lie. They encourage corruption, in the sense that they direct writers to choose a particular sort of subject rather than another. No-one serious about winning a short story would indulge in broad comedy or irresponsible violence (two of the strengths of the British short story in the past). And they drive out ordinary market forces. A newspaper which is paying a large sum to reward a short story, once a year, doesn’t see any reason to encourage the publication of short stories as an ordinary part of its endeavour. I know people say that the short story is undergoing a renaissance. Most of these people are the people who run short story competitions.

  • Do we value the great stories of 50 years ago or do they seem old-fashioned?  Please would you talk about the cultural and stylistic shifts of the short story?

 Durr. Literature isn’t old-fashioned. Literature is a living thing and goes on being a living thing. Is Homer old-fashioned? The crappy short stories of 50 years ago are old-fashioned – I would name H.E.Bates. The great ones, like V.S. Pritchett or Elizabeth Taylor, are never going to seem quaint. I think one stylistic shift of the short story has been an unfortunate one. The great short stories of the past are really interested in the connections between people and can be pretty crowded with characters. A very peculiar notion that’s sprung up recently is that the short story is predominantly about a single person’s reflections. I judged a short story competition recently and about 90% of the entrants were mostly about someone on their own, walking down a street or sitting in a room, thinking about the past. Every single one of them was terrible. If they’d been told to write a short story about seven women on a bus having an argument or a fight in a pub, they might have got somewhere.

  • Stories written in the first person, present tense – your reaction?

 Some are fine and some are not very good. It’s a fashion which arrived fifteen years ago. It rules out any kind of action, because of course it’s idiotic to write, “I am getting up out of the chair. A madman is running at me! He has a knife! I am holding up that place mat of Whitstable as a temporary shield! Oh no! It is falling to pieces!” I think it’s popular because it’s the easiest way to write. Everyone knows how to talk in the first person. So it serves the inexperienced author, who has forgotten that the thing is to please a reader. Lots of readers can’t stand it. I think if I ever met a reader who claimed that they couldn’t stand the third person past tense, I would wonder about them – well, let’s face it, it never happens.

  • At the Bath Lit Fest event you talked about your fondness for the ghost story and indicated that as most authors write them, you probably could have filled ‘The Penguin Book of the British Short Story’ just with ghost stories. What is about the ghost story that lends itself to the genre?

 The ghost story works best when it hints at stuff, when the implications are still resonating when the story ends. It’s a great opportunity for the short story – a novel is going to have to go into detail. Many of the best and most terrifying of M.R.James’s short stories finish with the narrator saying that he can’t go on telling what he knows, since it’s too horrible to recount.

  • At the same event you and Georgie Hammick shared an enthusiasm for lists in fiction.  Lists are often seen as unimaginative, ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ and possibly a bit of a ‘cop out’ – how would you counter this perception?

I think you mean “showing” rather than “telling”. Lists of objects are brilliant in suggesting the world around a character – we shape the world in our own image, and if you could look inside a stranger’s handbag or on their bedside table, you could make a neutral list of what you found and still have a pretty good idea of what sort of person they were. One of the errors of beginning writers is often to think that you need to set out the emotions of characters, to explore the inside of their heads, and only to talk about the solid facts of the world when emotions happen to play upon them. I don’t know why you would think it’s a cop-out – I think the patient collection of physical facts is exhausting labour. Anyone can go on about Oh God I Feel Terrible I Want To Die. It takes some investment to write a list which accounts for everything in the fridge of a seriously depressive individual. (Three bottles of milk, half finished, one clotted with mould, seven bars of chocolate, three different ready-meal lasagnes, three left-over spoonfuls of a lamb curry on a plate, insulin, a bottle of vodka and a jar of foie gras that somebody gave as a present last Christmas, eight months ago).

  • You have received many awards and honours. Which gave you the most joy and why?

I think perhaps the award of an honorary doctorate by Sheffield University in 2015. It was such a joy because it was so unexpected.  I had no idea they held me in any esteem, or knew who I was. I grew up in Sheffield, and the university was a wonderful presence, a place of thought and inquiry that I could sneak into from the age of 14 onwards – the library, the concert hall, the drama studio, even the swimming pool and the Students’ Union bar…I don’t know what people do who grow up miles from a good university, but Sheffield University made me realize very early on that there was such a thing as being serious and thinking independently. I went somewhere else to do my degree, but Sheffield University did the spadework. So it was really nice of them to give me anything at all. Prizes are nice and they come or mostly they don’t come and you never give them a moment’s thought, but the honorary degree made me almost tearful with gratitude.

  • You’ve been nominated for a Booker and, in 2001, were on the judging panel for the prize where there was a very strong shortlist and longlist. How difficult was it to reach a consensus and, in your view, did the best novel win?

Yes, we did a good job, I reckon, in identifying the talent. Some years the Booker panel has done a totally lamentable job and shortlisted people who haven’t done anything good and who aren’t going to do anything. But the novelists we shortlisted either had a substantial reputation and had done something excellent – Peter Carey and Ian McEwan – or were at the beginning of what would be a stellar career – Ali Smith with her first novel, David Mitchell with his second, Andrew Miller with his third. I actually don’t think the winner of these prizes matters all that much – it’s the longlist and (especially) the shortlist that matters and that writers can take advantage of. I was pretty pleased to give the prize to Peter Carey’s Kelly Gang – it’s an astonishing novel. We didn’t reach a consensus, we reached a point of pleasant disagreement and produced a winner. I hold much the same view about consensus that Mrs Thatcher did, that it tends to reward everyone’s second or third choice.

  • What is the most useful piece of advice you would give a novice writer hoping to be published?

Write about the world and not about the inside of people’s heads, and don’t let your characters be alone for more than three lines. Scenes with three characters are easier and more productive than scenes with two characters. Something should always follow from the end of each scene. Remember what Browning said – we are interested in the dangerous edge of things, the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist. No-one cares about a dishonest City banker who loves money more than his wife and children.

  • Which 3 pieces of reading material would you take to Radio 4’s Desert Island?

Buddenbrooks, Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” and Proust. I love the way that after a while you can play with all the minor characters, even the ones (like Johnson’s friend Edwards) who come in for a moment and go out again, never to be seen again. (Edwards is the one who said to Johnson that he tried philosophy when he was young, but he always found cheerfulness coming in).

  • What do you think is the best short story ever written?

Ha ha ha. Unanswerable question. One I absolutely love is Chekhov’s “Ionitch”, which is basically the same events happening twice, first hilariously and then heartbreakingly. Or Thomas Mann’s “First Love and Other Sorrows”. Or John Cheever’s “The Day the Pig Fell Down the Well”. Or Elizabeth Taylor’s “A Dedicated Man”. Or V.S.Pritchett’s “The Day My Girl Came Home”. Or Conrad’s “Typhoon” – I can’t think of any more shattering stretch of prose than the approach to the climax in that. Or Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does A Man Need.” Or Katherine Mansfield’s “Daughters of the Late Colonel”. It’s a bit like asking who the best human being who ever lived was, different answers on different days.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and Happy Publication Day for ‘Tales of Persuasion‘ on Apriil 21st.

Interview by Jane Riekemann

Follow Philip Hensher on Twitter @PhilipHensher 

 

Review: ‘TASTES LIKE FEAR’ by Sarah Hilary

‘Tastes Like Fear’, the third book in the D.I. Marnie Rome series, will not disappoint fans of award-winning author Sarah Hilary or those passionate about crime fiction.

Set against the louring presence of Battersea Power Station, ‘Tastes Like Fear’ is about ‘getting under the city’s skin’:  the Garrett Estate with its brutal, concrete tower blocks, a graffitied subway  strewn with the lost and abandoned and an unfinished luxury penthouse  – all metaphors for a city in crisis. From the beginning we, as readers, are unsettled and, as the story progresses, are propelled into a world where nothing adds up and all assumptions are challenged. A fatal car crash is not as it seems. Girls running away from families, who may or may not be damaged, seek shelter and find it – with Harm. Who or what is Harm? And what is his motivation? As the story strands mesh together in a tapestry of loss, grief and terror, it is up to D.I Marnie Rome, suffering from her own personal tragedy,  to unpick the threads and make sense of it all. And only then can we breathe a sigh of relief and relax.

This is a riveting read. Sarah Hilary admits she doesn’t plot her novels before writing the first draft, yet there’s a complexity and deftness to the narrative with tension mounting as we are drawn through a labyrinth of dark spaces and dead ends. The revelations are unpredictable but not forced – completely true to the characters but we don’t see them coming. All the characters – victims, perpetrators and the police protagonists, Marnie and her sidekick D.S. Noah Jake, are drawn with skill and subtlety. We know these people – and people like them. That is what makes Sarah Hilary’s novels transcend the genre. The writing is superb: voices (and the story is told through a range of perspectives) ring true.  Description is nuanced but alive and the story pacy and completely unputdownable.

Tastes Like Fear  will be out in print on Thursday, April 7th.  Come along to the launch at Toppings, Bath to hear Sarah read and discuss her latest thriller. Tickets here . Or  you could write off the week and read the two equally compelling books preceding it: Someone Else’s Skin  winner of the Theakston’s Old Peculier 2015 Crime Novel of the Year and No Other Darkness , shortlisted for Best Paperback Original in the Barry Awards

Follow Sarah on Twitter @sarah_hilary

INTERVIEW WITH SARAH HILARY

Sarah Hilary portrait. Photo by Linda Nylind.

Sarah Hilary portrait.
Photo by Linda Nylind.

‘I do have a dark mind,’ admitted award-winning crime writer Sarah Hilary in an interview with The Guardian, explaining how a friend pushed her into the genre, telling her to stop mucking about. ‘Your mind is in a dark place already, you should make some money from it.’ Her debut novel ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ is a startling exploration of abuse from an unusual perspective. Pacy, thrilling, often brutal yet deeply moral, it received brilliant reviews in all the broadsheets and praise from authors such as Helen Dunmore who found it ‘very disturbing and builds up to a terrific climax’.

Picked as a Richard and Judy Book Club read in 2014, it was The Observer’s Book of the Month, on The Guardian’s list of top thrillers of 2014 as well as a Silver Falchion and Macavity Award finalist in the US. In 2015, it won the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and Sarah joined the ranks of Val McDermid and Lee Child, past winners of the award. Whew! Where do you go from there?

‘No Other Darkness’ published in July 2015 is a harrowing tale that starts with two small boys trapped in an underground bunker. Five years later they’re found. Dead. A chilling plot and 5 stars for ‘unputdownability’ so no surprises that it’s just been nominated for Best Paperback Original in the U.S. Barry Awards. And now Tastes Like Fear will be out on 7th April 2016. This is the third in the series, all featuring D.I. Marnie Rome, a complex and attractive protagonist who has suffered an unthinkable tragedy and now has to make sense of the darkest of family secrets. Another winner with its ingenious twist (which I didn’t spot) and, in Harm, one of the creepiest perpetrators ever. I was lucky enough to have an uncorrected proof copy and you can read my review here

You’ve probably guessed I’m a fan of Sarah’s writing and I’m not alone. In WH Smith’s Best Crime Authors of All Time Sarah was voted in at 33, one below Grisham and just topping JK Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith. Ha! Is there no limit to her talents? She’s certainly prolific.

Climb into her Crawl Space , the most brilliant of blogs and you’re in for a treat. I began at the beginning on February 1 2008 and found a stash of writers’ gems. She generously shares the successes of other writers and details some of the critical advice she’s been given, including an agent’s debriefing of her work as well as offering her thoughts on point of view ; how  to get a literary agent  or not and so much more – just take the afternoon off and read right through. Enjoy the interviews, especially the ‘biggie’ with Ian Rankin which reads like a cosy conversation between two great crime writers playing, ‘Show me your technique and I’ll show you mine.’

Sarah’s short stories are also highly acclaimed and she won the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize in 2008, the 2010 Sense Creative Award and The Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2012. She’s been shortlisted for several awards including the Seán Ó Faoláin competition in 2010 and published in too many anthologies and magazines to list here. A firm fan of Flash, she runs CrimeFest’s annual Flashbang. Bang Bang You’re Read contest where for a tiny fee and the lure of passes to CrimeFest weekend, entrants are invited to ‘commit a crime story in 150 words’. Sarah’s Flashes are widely published and you can enjoy a taste here

Other facts about Sarah. She’s often spotted on the panel at festivals or chairing events; she’s a member of  Killer Women – go Google it – and she writes copy for a well-known travel company. She lives in Bath and we’ve met a couple of times, first at our Evening of Readings in October and later in The Chelsea Café, where I found the writer with the dark mind has a light side and is as witty in the flesh as in the Tweets to her 7K+ followers @sarah_hilary . She introduced me to Fred Vargas in our local charity shop, offering to buy me Fred’s The Chalk Circle Man. We both like gin. Enough said.

 

  • ‘Tastes Like Fear’, the third novel in the Marnie Rome series, is out on April 7. Please tell us something about the process of writing it and what’s next for you – and Marnie?

 It was an exciting story to tell, partly because the voices were so strong in my head; a couple of characters in particular, who are unique to this story, gripped me and didn’t let go. The twists came very organically. I was still guessing right until the end as to who the killer was and why. I hope it’s as exciting to read as it was to write. I’m working on book four now, which is very different—still exciting, of course, but in an entirely different way. A big part of the story is about Marnie’s relationship with her foster brother, Stephen, who killed her parents when he was fourteen. It feels as if it’s time to tell that story now.

  • How did you get started on your writing career and when did you feel confident to list writer as your ‘profession’ on a document?

I’d called myself a writer since I was quite small in fact, but my confidence grew as I started to get short stories published. When I won the Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2012 that felt like a turning point. I was signed by an agent at around the same time, and after that everything happened quite quickly.

  • What is the essence of good crime writing and are there current trends you approve/disapprove of?

 Good crime writing is subversive. It asks the awkward questions and looks into the murkiest corners. And it’s psychological—people as puzzles, rather than ‘plot as puzzle’. I don’t pay a lot of attention to trends. A good book – good writing – will transcend all that.

  • You and Ian Rankin both confessed to not being plotters but how much research (e.g. accuracy of police details) do you do before you begin to write?

I read a lot of first person accounts, and I do an amount of research as I write, to pin down any niggling inaccuracies. I retrofit the rest of the research, because the momentum and the story always come first. I’m not writing a textbook. Most readers want credible characters, first and foremost.

  • What are the themes you find yourself drawn to and are keen to explore in your writing?

 Captivity. The idea of what imprisons us, and how we can imprison ourselves. Guilt, and redemption. The challenge of forgiveness. And legacies—of pain, of survival, of hope.

Do you have a writing routine? Favourite time, place and a specific writing process – journals, notebooks etc.? SH: I try and write every day. Straight into my Macbook Air. I keep notebooks of questions, but mostly it’s straight to work, typing the first draft, getting black on white.

  • If I say ‘Patricia Highsmith’ what would your reaction be? Please would you tell us about your latest project.

Highsmith is one of my writing heroes. Everything she wrote was different, odd, off-kilter. I was thrilled and honoured to be asked to write a special introduction to three of her novels which are being republished in special editions by Virago in June.

 Novels, short stories, flash and even poetry – are there any other forms you enjoy writing (e.g. screenplays – as surely Marnie would make perfect Sunday night viewing)?

My earliest writing ambition was to be a screenwriter. The Marnie Rome series has been optioned for television, and I’m delighted that a talented screenwriter is working on a pilot script. I’m happiest writing novels, but I do like short stories and flash fiction too. Poetry eludes me, as anyone who read my recent ‘Ode to the Ankles of Hugh Laurie’ will attest.

  • What do you think are the essential ingredients of a good short story?

Crystal clear setting and characters. Forward momentum. An ending that resonates. No wasted words.

  • Beginnings and endings – your thoughts on these? How do you decide when a short story should end?

I like an ending that echoes back to the beginning. My favourite short stories have this circularity. When the reader knows what will happen next—that’s where the story should end. The reader finishes it, in his or her imagination.

  • The Bath Short Story Award closes at the end of this month. What tips would you give entrants to help their stories stand out from the crowd?

A memorable and unusual first line that sets the tone and makes the reader curious to know more. If you can raise a question in that opening line, the reader will want to keep going, to find the answer.

  • How important is it for a writer to be involved in social media? How do you handle it?

Publishers like it, I find. More than that it helps to make the writing process less lonely and brings you closer to your readers—which is where all writers want to be.

  • Which writers, dead or alive, would you take to the Canary Gin Bar in Bath?

Great question. I’d have Dorothy Parker, Max Beerbohm, Georgette Heyer, Fred Vargas, Oliver Sachs and yes, Patricia Highsmith.

  • Which novels or short story collections would you take to Radio 4’s Desert Island?

Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, Graham Greene’s short stories, and everything ever written by Helen Dunmore.

  • What is the single most useful piece of advice someone else has given you about writing?

 Be patient. Fail better.

Thank you Sarah and good luck for the launch at Toppings , Bath of Tastes like Fear on April 7th