We’re delighted to welcome the winner of this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize, Valerie O’Riordan (left), to the website.
Valerie grew up in Dublin and studied English and Philosophy at the city’s Trinity College. She moved to the UK in 2004 and spent several years working as a video editor for the BBC in Birmingham before throwing in the televisual towel in 2009 to head north to Manchester and get her MA in Creative Writing. She’s been writing seriously since 2008 and she’s a member of the Fiction Forge writing group. Her recent publication credits include elimae and Litro, and in 2009 she was a finalist in Flatmancrooked‘s inaugural Fiction Prize. She’s currently working on her first novel.
Valerie was interviewed for BSSP by Ellen Grant, a 2nd year English Lit and Creative Writing student at Bath Spa University.
(Right. The judging panel pictured moments after the final judging meeting, looking at ‘Mum’s the Word’, Valerie’s winning story).
Congratulations on being this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize winner. ‘Mum’s the Word’ is stunning, especially the way you managed to convey such poignancy and impact in so short a piece. Where did the story originate from? Was its form clear to you from the beginning?
Thank you very much. It’s a real honour to be chosen for this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize – I’m still recovering from the shock! ‘Mum’s The Word’ actually originated from a flash-fiction exercise I did with my online writing group. I started with the phrase ‘three positions’ and the image of a young girl clutching a piece of melting chocolate and crying. I’d set out to write a piece of flash fiction, because I enjoy the density of emotion and imagery that can spring from these very short stories, and the tone of this piece was clear to me from the start – the girl’s unhappiness and loneliness. I worked backwards to see what kind of situation could have caused that kind of isolation and grief, and the bones of the story emerged very quickly. It didn’t take very much time to write the first draft, but I spent much longer editing it. Getting it just right was very fiddly, especially because I was dealing with such sensitive subject matter.
Has studying for the M.A. in Creative Writing at Manchester changed your writing style? Are short stories the main vehicle for your voice, or do you write in other genres too?
I hope the MA has changed my writing for the better – I’m not sure that it’s hugely changed my style, but it’s definitely sharpened my critical eye, and I think that I write now with more precision. I certainly seem to write more slowly! The workshop component of the course means that you regularly critique the other students’ pieces, and that makes you considerably more aware of what you’re doing in your own work. I’m more conscious of character development and how stories are structured than I was in the past, and I hope I’ll keep improving as I go along. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and that’s what I’ve concentrated on throughout the course. Before that, I wrote more short fiction; I haven’t had much time for short stories this year, as the novel is so all-consuming, but I hope to return to them in the future, and I try to keep writing flash fiction as often as I can. I wouldn’t want to restrict myself to one form or another – they all deliver something different.
It’s obvious from your blog that you’re an avid reader. Before becoming successful yourself, did reading encourage you to become a writer?
Absolutely. It’s an act of mimicry – I love to read and I’d love a book of mine to have an effect on other people. That probably sounds very egotistical! I can’t comprehend writing without reading; every writer must have had a transformative reading experience at some point that’s made them think, I want to do that. With me, reading has always been so integral to my life that it seemed like a natural progression, though I didn’t get started seriously writing until my late twenties. It’s an oft-repeated mantra, but I strongly believe that reading extensively is the single most important part of a writer’s apprenticeship – you see what’s successful and you can pick it apart and see how it works – and you see the breadth of possibilities of style, technique and genre. I can’t imagine writing without reading.
What do you think are the most important characteristics of a short story? How do you go about constructing yours?
I don’t think there are specific characteristics that differentiate a short story from a novel – you just write as much or as little as you need to tell a particular tale. That said, you’ve got to be very economical with short stories; don’t spend too long on the set-up or the peripheral details. Kurt Vonnegut said to start as close to the end as possible, and I think that’s excellent advice. With a short story you’ve got very little room for elaboration or explanation, so you need to figure out what your story is about and plunge right into the heart of it. Every sentence and every word is crucial in driving your story onwards. This is also true for longer pieces, of course, but it’s all the more essential with short stories. I’d say that a short story should be triple-distilled – it needs all the punch of a novel, but you’ve only got a few pages to do it.
My own stories are pretty haphazard in their construction. Sometimes an idea comes quickly and the form suggests itself – ‘Mum’s The Word’ was one of these – and other times it’s a drawn-out process over weeks or months, with draft upon draft piling up. I tend to over-write at first, and second and third drafts are about cutting out extraneous material, and then I’ll go back afterwards and rebuild areas that need fleshing out. I work on my laptop initially, and I’ll print out a story when I think it’s almost done – then I’ll find a whole new set of problems once it’s on paper, and I’ll go back to the computer for the next round. It’s slow going. I also tend to work in bursts; a very useful productive week followed by a dry period, followed by another burst of activity.
Many of your stories are contain nightmarish subject matter, but are also comic and very human. Do you think your stories share a tone, and if so where does it germinate from? Is it set to become your signature?
This is something I’ve noticed recently about my own work! I don’t consciously set out to write about dark and violent things, and yet I’ve amassed quite a few pretty gruesome and nasty tales. I think the dirty side of human nature is very interesting – the things we do under duress or when we’re desperate, or how we react in extreme situations. It can be very revealing. But, like you say, comedy is important too – I like the small, ludicrous details, like the scrap of toilet paper stuck to a killer’s heel or the person making a face at the back of a very serious photograph. Whether this will become my signature move remains to be seen! But I do love black comedy and I’d like to be able to pull it off.
You grew up in Ireland but have experienced two English cities, Birmingham and Manchester. Does location affect the way you write and where are you most productive?
I’m not sure that the actual places I’ve lived in have had a huge effect on the way I write – other than providing me with useful ready-made settings! But moving from place to place makes you very attentive to your surroundings and to the people and the communities you encounter. Birmingham and Manchester aren’t all that different, but moving from Ireland to England made me very aware of the subtle differences in otherwise very similar cultures – people’s customs and expectations and unconscious prejudices. I think as a writer you’re always positioning yourself on the outside, as the observer, and being the newcomer or the actual outsider makes that position all the more intense. I’m also quite aware of how people speak – variations in phrasing and pronunciation and vocabulary – and that’s very useful for my writing. I’d have to say I’ve been most productive in Manchester – but that’s because of my MA.
Do the many reviews you write complement your creative writing, or is it the other way around?
I love reviewing because it’s official reading time, and it introduces me to writers and writing styles that I probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise. Like the MA workshops and my online writing group, reviewing makes me concentrate on how somebody else has constructed and developed a story, and that feeds back into how I approach my own work. It makes me more aware of what I like and don’t like in a novel or a story, and why certain techniques succeed or fail. It also reminds me of how subjective reviewing is, which is a comforting thought when I’m struggling with my own novel and worrying about people’s reactions!
How will you continue to develop your author status after you finish your MA?
I’ll carry on as I am now – writing and submitting to magazines and competitions, updating my blog and twitter account and trying to get to readings and festivals to meet other writers and readers. Writing is a very solitary game – it’s very comforting to feel part of a larger community of people with the same aspirations, and the internet in particular facilitates that. Part of the joy of the Bristol Prize Ceremony was the opportunity to meet several of my virtual writer pals face-to-face. Plus with the economy as straitened as it has been and publicity budgets limited, even successfully published authors have to work hard to develop and strengthen their readerships. For me, at this stage in my career, I’d like to keep getting my work out into the world, and that’s what I’ll work at over the coming months. Of course, I’ll also be hunting for an agent and (hopefully) a publisher for my novel as soon as it’s complete. That’s my goal for the next year or so.
Other than reading, what inspires and/or influences your stories?
I’m a huge film fan. After my BA, which was in English and philosophy, I studied film production, and going to the cinema is right up there with reading as one of my default activities. Arthouse, blockbuster, animation – I’ll watch the lot. I love Quentin Tarantino – I saw Kill Bill Volume One six times in the cinema. Film and literature use different devices, but it’s all storytelling – structure and character-building and atmosphere. I’ve worked in television for several years as a video editor, so constructing a narrative is something that’s always been part of my working life. I think that job really helped me as a writer – I’m trained to spot redundancies and saggy arcs! I think I sometimes think quite visually – I’ll picture a scene before writing it – how it might run on-screen – and that gives me a sense of where to start typing. As for direct influences or inspirations – I’ll often use a phrase or a photograph as a prompt, especially for flash fiction, and see where it takes me.
How do you intend, in your new position of influence and authority as the face of the 2010 Bristol Short Story Prize, to raise the public’s awareness of how cool, fantastic and irresistible the short story is?
Influence and authority! I like that. Sarah Salway made an excellent point in her speech at the award ceremony – instead of having critical discussions about the decline or rebirth of the short story, we should thrust our favourite stories or collections in people’s faces and get them reading. I think firstly, I’ll be encouraging people to buy the Prize anthology! After that, I’ll blog more about the short fiction I’ve read and reviewed, because the short story is cool! It’s also manageable and digestible – so many people claim they don’t read because they don’t have the time, and they’ll point at long volumes like ‘Wolf Hall’ or ‘A Suitable Boy’ and shrug and say that life is short – but so are many stories. I think there’s a perception that short stories are difficult or overly intellectual, which is crazy, because it’s just as diverse a form as the novel. At the same time, it’s hard to get a collection of shorts published because it can be seen as not quite as serious as novel-writing. So you’re stuck in the middle of two contradictory positions and all you can do is shout about all the amazing and life-changing and world-shattering stories you’ve been lucky enough to encounter. So, in that spirit, I’d like to make some recommendations!
If you were to read just one story, check out ‘The Ledge’, by Lawrence Sargent Hall. But bring tissues, and maybe don’t read it on your lunch-break, unless you want to go back to the office all tear-stained and emotional – it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever read.
Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Collected Stories’ never get old or dull, and ditto anything by Annie Proulx – these two ladies make tiny isolated rural American villages seem like the most fascinating places on earth. Gruesome and bleak and hilarious.
Junot Diaz’s ‘Drown’ is a stunning first book about the Dominican diaspora in New Jersey. Everybody adores his novel, ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’, but for me it’s all about the short stories.
Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son.‘ I’ve clearly got a thing for American writing, but Johnson’s work captures the elegiac in the mundane filthiness of his protagonists’ miserable lives. And he does brilliant dialogue.
‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’ by David Foster Wallace. Wallace shows you there’s nothing you can’t do with the short story form. This blew my mind.
And if you’re curious about the whole flash fiction thing, do check out Nik Perring’s collection, ‘Not So Perfect’ which came out earlier this year. Very, very short pieces that really are pretty perfect after all. They’ll convert even the most hardened of sceptics.
‘Mum’s the Word’, Valerie’s brilliant winning story is available in our latest anthology (left), which also features the other 19 stories on this year’s shortlist. You canorder it with free woldwide postage and packing form this website. It is also available from The Book Depository, Amazon, Waterstone’s website, and some bookshops. If your local bookshop doesn’t have it in stock then they will be able to order it in for you. You can also buy the Kindle format ebook from amazon.co.uk