Bristol Prize

Interview with 2013 BSSP Winner, Paul McMichael

November 5, 2013   Joe Melia

Paul, Vanessa, AliThe 2013 Bristol Short Story Prize was won by London-based writer, Paul McMichael. His brilliant story, The House on St John’s Avenue, was announced as the winning entry at our annual awards ceremony just over a fortnight ago. Paul’s winning story along with the 19 other wonderful shortlisted stories are available in our latest anthology.

We took the opportunity of finding out more about Paul and his writing:


How did you feel when you were announced as the winner of the 2013 Bristol Short Story Prize?


I was overwhelmed to have been chosen. On the way to Bristol by train to attend the announcement ceremony, I had heard that a good friend, Gill Haigh, had just won the Commonword Diversity Writing For Children Competition on that afternoon. I thought, the two of us one day? That’s unlikely, that’s not today’s story. So it was even more of a shock to hear my name. It’s not only that a set of such discerning judges picked this story out, but also that everything I tried to put in there about the meaning of family came through, seemingly at just the right comic pitch. I was thoroughly delighted and grateful to win, never mind meeting such a wonderful set of people, as much if not more interested in creative writing as I am.


What effect will winning the prize have on your writing?


It would be nice to say, ‘nothing’. But in reality, and perhaps inevitably, the thoughts will intrude – can I do something else as good? Will I do well in any other competition? Will the higher expectations of others be able to be fulfilled and so on? I need to put those thoughts out of my head. There is no formula for a good story, so I need to hold that at the forefront of my mind and continue to look within for the good stuff.


In a moving passage in your acceptance speech, you mentioned the influence your mother and in particular her death had on your decision to really commit to writing. Please may you tell us more about that?


Well, before her death five years ago, I had not written a single word creatively since secondary school. I simply had no idea that it was something that I would enjoy or that I had the smallest level of ability in, never mind any kind of wider recognition or competition success. I never thought about writing.


But I had admired my mother for taking up poetry when she retired.


Writing, especially poetry of a personal nature, gives the reader an insight into that person you would never otherwise get. I was very moved by what I learned in her poems, things I never knew about her: the perils of home birth, the lying in bed awake until she heard the last one come in, the silence that ‘lay trapped in the roof’ when the youngest finally left home (we were seven boys). She was an incredible woman. I felt an almost overwhelming desire to write and read out a short eulogy at her funeral. I saw the impact of those words on the congregation and something shifted. If I believed in the supernatural, then you could say that the writing bug was reincarnated.


Your winning story, The House on St John’s Avenue, is a great mix of the recognisably real and the playfully surreal, does this Vol 6 Anthologyreflect your tastes in reading?


I’m not so sure it does. I admire those writers that have qualities of the ‘recognisably real’, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Cormac McCarthy, the spare prose that appears to say little and largely leaves the reader to induce interior states of mind. I wouldn’t say my writing is as spare or compact, more a work in progress to conquer that economy of writing style.


The surreal element in this story provides a counter to the themes I wanted to include: the nature of parenthood, the dynamic in same sex relationships. In effect there are two paradoxes in the story, (which I won’t give away here), and I think that helped me avoid the risk of slipping into something more pompous, or preachy, about the underlying themes. It’s as if there were not one but two suns in the particular solar system around which the story revolves. But as one of judges, Christopher Wakling put it, a story must have an ‘internal coherence’. The surreal element must not make the characters behave in an inconsistent way if the reader is not to be thrown off.


A great example of the surreal is in George Saunders’s stories. He is more audacious than I am with the bizarre end of science fiction. Hugely entertaining, funny, and in places sad and profound. I loved his most recent collection Tenth Of December.  The Semplica Girl Diaries is not just a wacky dystopia, it is also about a very concrete place and so works more powerfully as a satire on modern life. Crucially, it’s also the story of one hapless father’s struggle to give his children the life he thinks they deserve.


Which writers do you admire and read most often?


I find it hard to answer this. I’m going through a phase of reading short story collections and also, anything prescribed by the bookclub I attend every month! In the last year or so, I’ve read short story collections by William Trevor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Roddy Doyle (I love anything by him), Colm Tobin (again, I generally read and enjoy anything he has written. The Testament of Mary was wonderful). Irish writers over-represented there. But that’s me I guess.


I admire Hilary Mantel so much. She achieved greatness. Drop her books open at any page and you’ll find writing to match the best prose, in any era. I’m not a big historical novel fan in general, but her characters are universal and I am in a near perpetual state of anticipation for the next instalment.


Virginia Woolf, she’s one of the reasons I wanted to write. I read To The Lighthouse as a bookclub choice. I perhaps would not have picked it myself but I was deeply impressed by it’s intelligence and insights into human consciousness. There are certain descriptive passages that overwhelmed me. How could mere words make me gasp so, as well as being such an accurate but literary account of Husserl/Heigegger’s phenomenology of perception?


I read anything written by Alan Hollinghurst, David Leavitt and Michael Cunningham.


Lastly, guilty pleasures. On my Kindle. Don’t ask to see it. There, away from the real book shelf, you’ll see a bunch of cheap novels, gay romances, mostly self-published by US authors. You can safely judge them by their cover and you can thump through them in an hour or so, skipping the glaring typos and plain-as-day prose.  I think they fill the same gap that Leonardo De Caprio and Kate Winslett filled for opposite sex romantics when the two of them stood on the deck of the Titanic. I’ve no ambitions in that direction but it is so interesting that self-publishing serves the growth of genre niches previously badly served.


You can follow Paul on twitter here: @raisinhead



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