Bristol Prize

Interview with BSSP Judge, Sanjida O’Connell

January 31, 2014   Joe Melia

 We’re delighted to welcome Sanjida O’Connell, one of the judges for the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize, to the website.

Sanjida O’Connell

Sanjida O’Connell

Sanjida has had four novels published, including Sugar Island and The Naked Name of Love (John Murray), and four non-fiction books; the latest two are: Chimpanzee: The Making of the Film (Disney) and Sugar:The Grass that Changed the World (Virgin Books). She writes on science and environmental issues for The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph, and works as a wildlife presenter for the BBC.

Sanjida gave Joanna Lucas, a recent graduate from Cardiff University, an insight in to her writing and what she’s looking forward to when the judging starts.

You have a BSc in Zoology and a PhD in Psychology and write about science and environmental issues. In what ways do these inform and inspire your fiction writing?

I’ve always been obsessed with the natural world. Even as a child I told myself stories involving animals and what I like best as an adult is to go walking or running in the wilderness.

In my first three novels, scientific themes and ideas from nature were woven into the stories; in Theory of Mind the theme is empathy – whether it exists in animals and why one little boy is devoid of any feeling for others; Angel Bird’s subtext is memory and the genetics of free will; in The Naked Name of Love, the central character is a priest who travels across Outer Mongolia, searching for a rare lily and debating God and evolution with a monk – before he falls in love.

I believe the wilderness and nature are vitally important to us as a species and it’s part of our psyche. All of my novels feature nature in some shape or form and all of them have a bit where the central character is literally and metaphorically lost in the woods!

Do you take a different approach to writing fiction and non-fiction? Which one do you prefer?

For both novels and non-fiction books I do a great deal of planning, research and plotting. You need to tell a story, allowing it to unfold in a way that captivates the reader, giving them the right information at the right point in time. But the story can often be secondary in non-fiction simply because information may be better delivered linearly, or because events didn’t happen the way you wish they had. I prefer writing novels: the rush of creativity is so much more exciting – and I can make things up!

You have written two books of historical fiction. If  you could go back to one day in history just to observe, which day would naked_name_of_loveyou choose and why?

I’ve invented a History helmet – although one day it may be a brain chip. You dial back to whatever time period you wish and, wearing your helmet, you can see the area you’re standing in as it would have looked, complete with people, animals and smells! I’d spend my time in the Cretaceous and the Victorian era.

What do you feel are the most exciting elements of the short story?

No matter how brief, short stories still have elements of classic story structure: essentially something happens and there is a change; even if the change is in yourself. Short stories have the ability to deliver a twist that can send a shiver down your spine or have you reliving that moment much later, perhaps due to their precision and their brevity.

Do you have any favourite short story writers?

I like Richard Ford and Annie Proulx’s terse American prose and pared-down emotion, Andrea Barrett’s historical, scientific fiction and, for masterclasses in shivery suspense, Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury.

Recently I’ve enjoyed reading Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life. A psychotherapist, Grosz’s accounts of his patients are insightful short stories, which make you reassess your own life and marvel at humanity’s hidden psychological depths.

What are you looking forward to when judging this year’s BSSP?

Apart from spending time with the other judges, eating cake, drinking coffee and benefiting from their expertise, reading stories that are original, surprising, imaginative and innovative.

What have you enjoyed reading recently?

I thought ASA Harrison’s The Silent Wife was a gripping and unusual psychological thriller: an extremely in-depth analysis of a character, a marriage and the consequences of leading an unexamined life. Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, immersed me in the life of a Japanese teenager with a Zen Buddhist nun for a granny, quantum physics, environmental destruction and climate change on a Canadian island. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett is utterly brilliant – a Heart of Darkness for our generation. My favourite books of 2013 are on my blog under the review section.



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