Writer Polly Ho-Yen talks to us about her work and short stories in the latest of our interviews with this year’s judging panel.
She is the acclaimed author of three novels one of which, Boy in the Tower, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.
In what ways did the widespread acclaim your debut novel received affect your writing?
Writing fiction or, perhaps I should say, finishing writing a piece of fiction is about turning up in front of your laptop and stubbornly chipping away at a story until you deem it complete. It’s about getting lost in the moods and feelings of the characters you’re creating, it’s imagining yourself in another environment, it’s piecing together every word, every sentence to communicate these senses. I find this so enjoyable! It’s the main reason why I can’t stop writing. After Boy in the Tower got picked up, I tried to focus on this pure joy I find in creating a story and concentrate on that. I think it might be easy to get lost in analysing or paying too much attention to acclaim you do or don’t receive, although of course I recognise it was a huge boost to my confidence and I felt privileged and still do that readers engage with my work. But I try just to concentrate on enjoying writing and feel ridiculously grateful that anyone else enjoys it too.
How much did your years of teaching influence your writing?
Sometimes I do wonder if I hadn’t been a teacher at the school I was working in whether I would have become a writer. I certainly wouldn’t have written Boy in the Tower. The students I worked with were just SO SPARKY. I just had to write something which put children like the ones I was teaching at the very centre of the story. I also remember the very first moment that I walked into the primary school I ended up working in – there was a very distinctive smell in the air, a combination of school dinners and a faint lingering scent of sweat – I felt like I had walked through a portal back to my own primary school experience. And the walls were covered, I mean completely covered, with paintings and stories and all sorts of creations. It was a very inspiring place to be and of course it was also very challenging at times, and raw too, but being there made me start writing a story I really wanted to tell.
What are the key elements of a successful short story?
For me, it’s all about being able to build character through, and despite of, the short word count.
Who are your favourite short story writers?
Miranda July, Helen Dunmore, Saki, Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, Truman Capote.
What are you most looking forward to when judging this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize?
If you ran a publishing house, what kind of books would you publish?
Weird ones. I keep trying to write something more intelligent in response to this question but keep returning to this. I would want to publish fiction that doesn’t necessarily ‘fit’ into a neat category.