Bristol Prize

Interview with 2018 judging panel chair, Kate Johnson

January 9, 2018   Joe Melia

photo: Will Beckley

Based in Bristol and New York, our judging panel chair for 2018, Kate Johnson, is a literary agent at New York’s Wolf Literary Services. She represents a range of fiction and nonfiction writers including short story writers Sam Allingham, Tania Hershman, Bryan Hurt, Bonnie Nadzam, Hasanthika Sirisena and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. We took the opportunity to find out more about her work and what she’s looking forward to in this year’s competition.

How did you become a literary agent?

Sheer luck and gumption. I had helped edit the journal StoryQuarterly when I was at university, and though I went to school to study journalism and magazine editing, I realized along the way that I was much more interested in the world of books. So I applied to be an assistant at the Georges Borchardt Agency, and flew to New York for the interview having no idea what an agent really did. When I told them at the interview that I liked the thrill of discovering authors for the magazine, Georges let me know it’s quite a bit more than that. I’m lucky to have been able to learn from him.

How has the role of literary agent changed since you started?

I think quite a bit more editing needs to happen on the agent side before a book is submitted – I might work with an author for months or even years before we’re ready to let the project out of our hands. I could say ebooks or the digital world has changed things, but in truth, the publishing landscape is always changing, in both subtle and abrupt ways, so while it feels like my job has taken on more layers, the need for an agent to stay on top of any new developments is consistent.

What tends to excite you, initially, about submissions you really like?

It’s always the voice that grabs me first. I don’t mean it needs to be this wacky, in-your-face first-person, but simply a unique point of view, something more than just a delivery vehicle for a plot.

What role do you think writing competitions play in the ever-changing world of publishing? 

There are so many places to get your work published online these days, and even a longlist for a competition can help a writer stand out amidst a crowd.

Who are your favourite short story writers?

Aleksandar Hemon and Eley Williams for their inventive ways with words. Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro for their sharp observations of human behaviour. Mavis Gallant for her wit. Shirley Jackson for her unnerving depiction of the selves we want to be and the selves we really are.

What are you most looking forward to when judging this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize?

I anticipate an onslaught of talent and variety in the stories I’ll be reading for the Bristol Short Story Prize, and while it’s true my job has other parts to it, that initial thrill of discovery that I found at StoryQuarterly remains a pure joy, every time.


The 2018 Bristol Short Story Prize is open for entries until midnight (BST) May 1st 2018. Full details here.

Photo: Michael Lloyd

The 2017 Bristol Short Story Prize was won by Dima Alzayat  for her story, Ghusl. Following her win Dima has been signed by literary agent Juliet Pickering – read more here. Dima’s winning story together with the 19 other shortlisted stories are available in our brilliant new anthology, published by Tangent Books.


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