Bristol Prize

Interview with Elizabeth Jane, winner of 2009 BSSP

December 2, 2009   Joe Melia

Elizabeth Jane talks about the adventure of writing her 2009 BSSP winning story, Beyond The Blackout Curtain, and discusses the poignant novel she hopes to have published next.

“It began with a concert,” says Elizabeth Jane, and it’s immediately clear that she’s a storyteller. I’ve emailed her to ask about her short story, Beyond the Blackout Curtain, which won the 2009 Bristol Short Story Prize. From the lively way she answers me, it’s easy to see how she impressed the judges.

“Two years ago, Mum flew over to spend the St David’s day weekend with me. We’d been to the concert, had a glass of wine. Belted out The Land of my Fathers along with everyone else, and were travelling home. I drove in silence, letting Mum’s chatter fill the spaces.”

Elizabeth’s mother was reminiscing about her childhood, about how the concert reminded her of her dad – Elizabeth’s grandfather – singing on the beach during the war. “War stories weren’t new to me,” explains Elizabeth. “I had grown up on stories of World War Two. Dad was in London during the Blitz, Mum was in Aberafan. But I’d never heard her speak of singing on the beach.”

What happened next is a miniature story in its own right.

Elizabeth asked her mum: “What do you mean?”

“The Germans were bombing Swansea,” said her mum. “Half the village was there.”

“Why did you go to the beach?”

“They’d bombed Swansea the night before,” she said, “and we were worried because of Aunty Annie. I don’t remember much. I was only little, my Dad had to carry me. But I remember it was cold and people were crying, then I remember singing.”

“What did you sing?” asked Elizabeth, fascinated.

“We sang: Mae hen wlad fy nhadau,” said her mum. “We sang our anthem.”

In the present day – while I interview her, as spellbound now as she was then – Elizabeth says: “I felt a shiver work its way up my spine. I knew right then, I had to write that story.”

But the task she set herself was long and difficult. Elizabeth is full of anecdotes about the maps and photo books of Aberafan she pored over, the workshops she sought advice from, the difficulties of recreating a story which only existed as fragments in a woman’s recollection. “Mum’s memory was only a beginning,” she says. “She didn’t remember anything political or strategic. But she could describe her house and the village of her childhood. Mum can be pretty funny, she remembered all the gossip. I wrote pages of notes. Of course, I had to change the names for the story.”

Even when the story itself was complete, Elizabeth didn’t find instant commercial success with it. Beyond the Blackout Curtain is her first published work of fiction, which made it tricky for her to break into the market. “I entered it in a couple of Australian competitions and it didn’t get placed. Then it won the Bristol Short Story Prize. That taught me no one story suits everyone.” She persevered, though, and trusted her writing group to help her through. A supportive group is vital for a budding writer, she explains: it’s important to hear encouragement along with the criticism. “I don’t believe in the ‘be harsh to get them ready for the industry’ school of thought. We are human beings before we are writers, deserving of courtesy and consideration.”

Now that she has been published, though, what is she setting her sights on? “Since winning the Bristol Short Story Prize, a Melbourne publisher has expressed interest in my novel. I made a limited submission. Their response was favourable and I am now working on a fuller submission.” That novel, with a working title of Chrysalis, has needed just as much effort as Beyond the Blackout Curtain – if not more. “I will know there are no short cuts,” says Elizabeth, as she reminisces on what she’s learned from her experience. “I will have to go through the great big messy journey of discovery, all over again. Get it wrong, countless times. Trust the process, and find myself humbled when it works. Above all, I will have to think until it hurts.”

And when the road is rough, she’s inspired by other people’s successes – for instance, those of New Zealand author Jenny Pattrick, a newfound favourite of Elizabeth’s. “Her first novel, Denniston Rose, the haunting tale of a young girl, is a linear story like my work in progress. Her second novel experiments with a number of locations and covers a greater time span. Her third novel is a non-linear story and set in multiple countries. I’m encouraged by the development of her craft.”

She confesses, as though such a thing should be secret, that she most enjoys books which run into series – CS Lewis’ Narnia stories, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, Alexander McCall Smith’s character-driven mysteries. “It’s not high brow, I know. But I like to spend time with my characters over a number of instalments. When my children were young, did a lot of embroidery. I always favoured big projects, well beyond my capability. Writing seems to be the same. I am not a person who has a thousand ideas spinning through my mind. I like to tackle something big, dig deep, and find hidden treasure along the way.”

Elizabeth may be concentrating on her novel writing at the moment but that doesn’t mean she’s planning to turn her back on short stories. “I will continue to write short stories. Especially when a story like Beyond the Blackout Curtain comes to me, and I know it simply must be written. But my novel, Chrysalis, will be part of a series.”

Chrysalis, set on an emigration ship in 1841, is a story which has grown in the telling. “As my characters boarded their vessel and began to respond to their new world. I began to hear voices,” says Elizabeth. “To understand their hopes and fears.” And what story do those voices tell? Elizabeth gives little away. “Take a thirteen-year-old girl, add a dead father to that image, and a profound grief, followed by dragons, legends and a one way ticket to the far side of the world – and you have Chrysalis, a novel of poignant change.”

But her taste of publicity hasn’t made Elizabeth desperate for more. She doesn’t write for a perceived market, but for her own pleasure. “I figured it was going to be a long and, at times, lonely road writing a novel, with no guarantees at the end. I had to enjoy the journey.”

This storyteller is happy to write for its own sake, rather than in pursuit of riches or fame. “It would be wonderful to have other people read my work. But if I don’t get published, it doesn’t matter: the writing is enough.”

Elizabeth was interviewed by Caroline Pettifer. Caroline is twenty years old and has harboured the desire to be a writer ever since she learnt to make marks on paper. She is a student at Bath Spa University, currently in her second year of studying creative writing. Caroline likes music from the forties, fashion from the men’s section, and fiction set in times and countries long ago and far away. Caroline blogs at  www.naggingmuses.blogspot.com

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