Our 2014 judging panel is being chaired by writer and producer, Sara Davies. Sara has recently retired from her role as BBC Radio producer where she worked for 20 years. During her time at BBC Radio she was the winner of several awards and worked on documentaries, arts features, poetry programmes, dramas and readings for Radio 4 and Radio 3. We took the opportunity to find out more about Sara’s work and what she’s looking forward to this year:
In your time at BBC Radio 4 you must have worked on hundreds of short stories, plays and readings; what were the highlights?
It’s hard to pick out highlights, because producing books, stories and drama is my idea of a perfect job, and working with writers has been the best thing about it. In terms of moments that stand out, directing Vanessa Redgrave reading a story by Fay Weldon in the voice of Boudicca has to be one of them. This was not long after I started as a producer and I commissioned five women writers to write stories in the voice of a character from history, famous or unknown. I couldn’t believe I was in a studio directing Vanessa Redgrave – I could barely croak out a request to retake the odd sentence, I was so petrified. Commissioning stories is always great, whether it’s from big names or emerging writers, and one of the most interesting recent commissions I made was for three Bristol writers – Tania Hershman, Edson Burton and Timothy X Atack – to write stories with a soundtrack of some kind for Radio 4’s More Than Words Festival in Bristol in 2012.
Another high spot was getting a very early look at the proofs for Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and thinking how brilliant it was. He’d found this extraordinary narrative voice that was almost pitch perfect. I put it forward as a Book at Bedtime and then I had to find a reader for it. I found a wonderful pupil called James Meunier at Clifton College who did a fantastic job.
I’m really interested in mixing drama with other forms, and worked on two drama documentaries that won Mental Health Media awards. One was written by Sara Maitland, about the phenomenon of hearing voices, and the other was written by Martin Sorrell, about a young man who thought he was turning to glass. Then there was a play called Forgiving, which wove real stories through a powerful piece or original drama by Tina Pepler. I loved the challenge of trying to tell absorbing stories in unexpected ways. I worked with writer Margaret Heffernan on two dramas about the collapse of Enron, recorded with students at the California Institute of the Arts, which was also a real highlight – and not just because I got to go to Los Angeles!
In what ways will all the producing, editing and adapting of other writers’ works that you have done inform or influence your own writing?
I think I will make me extremely self-critical. I’ve deliberately steered clear of writing fiction or scripts over the years, partly because I simply haven’t had time but also because I’ve always thought I couldn’t possibly write anything as good as the best work I’ve been lucky enough to produce. I’m currently adapting a memoir by Susan Swingler called The House of Fiction as a drama documentary for Radio 4, and I can only hope that I’ve learnt something from all those scripts I’ve worked on in the past, and from those gracious writers who have accepted my notes with patience, and not snarled when I’ve asked for another draft. One thing I do know is that someone else will see things that the writer may miss completely, and the collaboration between writer and producer, or writer and editor, is a genuinely creative one when it’s working as it should.
What role do you think writing competitions can play in a writer’s development?
I think they can be really empowering – and not just if you win. I first started writing feature journalism when I won a competition run by Company magazine to find the new humorous journalist of the year. One of the judges wrote that the standard wasn’t very high (thanks a lot), and I felt totally intimidated when I went into the magazine offices and everyone was wearing bright red lipstick and shoulder pads, but really nothing could dampen my enthusiasm, because after all, I’d won a bloody prize, hadn’t I? If you don’t win, there’s no shame, and actually going to the trouble of entering will have concentrated the mind and made you try and write the best story you can. It may even make you go back to a story and look at it again, maybe see where you could improve it.
What makes a short story really stand out?
I think something about the narrative voice; not necessarily a first person narration, but something distinctive that makes you trust that the writer is going to reveal something unexpected, or intimate, or insightful about the human condition. That sounds quite pompous, and I don’t mean a story ever has to have a deep meaning, but by focusing on a moment, or an event, or a conversation or calamity, a really good short story can set off a sort of small explosion: make you think about things in a way you haven’t before. Sometimes it’s to do with an understanding of the deep sadness of someone’s life through one small encounter, or the achieving of happiness through a series of seemingly unrelated events, or the arrival of catastrophe out of the blue…
Which short story writers do you most admire?
There are many. I think Tessa Hadley is one of the very best, her exploration of family is both forensic and incredibly humane; I also love Helen Simpson for what she can do with dialogue; Jackie Kay for the clear-sightedness of her love stories; Jon McGregor for his imaginative energy and risk-taking; and flash-fiction queen Tania Hershman for what marvels she can pack into so few words.
What will you be looking for in this year’s BSSP entries?
All of the above, with any luck I’m hoping to be entertained, provoked, comforted and challenged – and if all that can happen in one short story, we’ll have found our winner!