Bristol Prize

Interview with Derek Sellen- 2008 BSSP runner-up

April 20, 2009   Joe Melia

derek-sellenDerek Sellen is one of Canterbury’s most active writers, having had numerous short stories and poems published.  The Bristol Short Story Prize, which he stumbled upon while “browsing the internet”, is not the first competition he has entered. He has previously won prizes  at The Cheltenham Festival and Rhyme International.

His 2nd placed entry for the inaugural Bristol Short Story Prize, Angel and Assassin,  tells the compelling story of an assassin hired to kill a religious figure and explores how he changes from potential killer to guardian. Derek drew on much from Canterbury’s history for the story; his home since 1975.

“The beginning point was in fact The Canterbury Tales. I had the idea not exactly of re-writing the tales in a modern setting (as in the set of BBC dramas) but rather taking hints in the tales as seeds for a fiction of my own. So Angel and Assassin took off from these lines from The Second Nun‘s Tale, which are part of the story of Saint Cecilia :

I have an angel which that loveth me,
That with greet love, wher-so I wake or slepe,
Is redy ay my body for to kepe.

“I couldn’t tell you why particular lines attract me but the final story is obviously completely independent from Chaucer’s tale. But I do put in a few ‘hidden’ references to Chaucer; in Angel and Assassin: ‘They were summoners and pardoners all. Looking back on it though, it’s quite a big leap from a medieval legend to a story told by a professional assassin set in the world of fraudulent sects and I cannot really account for how that happened. But once I had the voice of the assassin, I knew I had something I wanted to pursue.”

Derek’s decision to focus on the legend of Saint Cecilia was shaped by much deliberation and research. “Apart from re-reading The Canterbury Tales which gave rise to ideas for a number of stories (most of them sadly unpublished  – as yet), I did some Internet research into the legend of Cecilia once that had attracted me. The research supplied the idea that the saint could not be killed, which became important in the story.”

Derek wanted to play around with the idea of “faith.”  The skeptical protaganist of the story struggles with the possible existence of a celestial being and how his actions are controlled by fate rather than his own choice.

“Chaucer’s Tales often deal with false religion, so perhaps that led me on to the idea of commercialised sects. And then it was interesting to explore the idea that there may be truths hidden in the fakery. I wouldn’t describe myself as religious in any conventional sense but I do believe there are elements of our lives  –  coincidences, especially  –  which suggest there are forces which we don’t yet understand. Something central to the story is that the assassin’s entry into her life coincides with the woman’s need for an ‘angel’.”

Angel and Assassin recalls the weakness of men and how they can fall into despair and corruption whilst being watched with the unsettling eyes of God. Its also interesting to note that like Philip Pullman, Derek believes successful fantasy should read like realism.
“I enjoy the works of magical realist writers like Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass far more than out-and-out fantasy. If a piece of fiction departs too far from the ‘real’ it loses the power to involve me.”

Like many writers, Derek finds the idea of editing his own work frustrating, with thirty years’ experience of the process, he offers some advice’ to beginners. “As I read through and re-write, I tend to step back and take a more critical perspective, with an imagined ‘audience’ of critics usually saying ‘cut that’ or ‘condense that’. Most of my first drafts end up being cut by 50 per cent or more.”

According to Derek a writer should also see themselves as a reader, therefore  acknowledging a wider audience. “I suppose I write the kind of story I’d like to read myself.”
After winning second place in last year’s Bristol Short Story Prize Derek has had continued success,some of his poetry will feature  in the forthcoming  anthology Storm at Galesburg.   These poems on the work of Spanish painters will be published by Cinnamon Press in September 2009.

franki-webbDerek was interviewed by Franki Webb, who is currently studying Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She hopes to work in publishing in Japan after graduating.  She enjoys foreign literature, particularly works by Haruki Murakami and is an avid fan of street art. In her spare time she teaches Japanese.

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