It’s a great pleasure to welcome the recently-crowned 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize winner, Mahsuda Snaith, to the website. We took the opportunity to find out more about Mahsuda’s writing and her amazing run of success:
How did you feel when you were announced as the winner of the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize?
It was a particularly surreal moment for me, almost like floating along in a dream of my own making. For one very real moment I was sure there had been a mistake and I was going to be found out! I’d won the SI Leeds Prize the week before on the day of my birthday and had convinced myself that no one person could have enough good fortune to follow that by winning the Bristol Prize. As a result I was incredibly calm on the day which meant I could really enjoy it. I was already chuffed to be in the anthology so coming to Bristol was a bonus. As I embarrassingly said in my cobbled together speech, I was just happy to have a day out!
You have won two prizes and been a finalist in another competition this year, what does all this success mean for you as a writer?
Even though I’m 33 (which, I’m told, is still considered young) I’ve been writing with the aim of being a ‘Writer’ since I was 8. That’s 25 years of sending out short stories and pieces for magazines, entering competitions and applying for opportunities, daydreaming about being a writer and, most importantly, writing. I think I’ve come to realise over the last few years that my real desire in life is to a) have writing as my main living so that I can b) be the best writer I can be so that I can c) be the best person I can be. Being a finalist in the Mslexia Novel competition, getting an agent as a result, winning the SI Leeds and Bristol Short Story Prize has made me feel that, at the very least, desire a and b are possible! It’s been a massive confidence boost for me and given me that extra drive to keep going on.
Child narrators are notoriously difficult to write – how did you manage to portray the protagonist in your Bristol Short Story Prize winning story, The Art of Flood Survival, so convincingly?
I’ve been writing since I was a child and work with children on a regular basis as a supply teacher which means I’ve developed a bit of an ear for the way they think and talk. My first novel, The Constellation of Ravine, is mainly told through the eyes of a child which is a perspective I love writing from because, even though we’ve all been there, we forget how exciting and terrifying everything is at that age. It’s easy to underestimate the intelligence of children and how very aware they are of everything that’s happening around them. They might not be able to express what’s going on but somehow they know. There’s also an element of hearing voices for me in writing so when I get a real strong character in my head they just take over. This could be a child or a drag queen, a sarcastic teenager or an elderly man isolated in his home. Rabeya’s voice was very strong, she had to tell her story.
You are a self-confessed ‘writing polymath’. How do you approach writing in different forms?
Very haphazardly! In one given day I could be writing a chapter of a novel, the opening of a short story and the end scene of a play (not to mention blogging). I’ve learnt to be more disciplined with my writing time but if you’re writing something that’s just not working it sometimes helps to have other pieces to work on that are in a completely different style. For me, writing a novel is like running a marathon while writing a short story is like doing the 100 metre sprint – both need just as much training but will probably need to be planned and paced out differently. As I’m quite new to playwriting I haven’t decided what sports event that would be (relay?) but this year I’m really lucky to be working with Kali Theatre on my first full length play so I should hopefully find out soon!
N.B. I have neither entered a marathon or the 100 metre sprint, the analogy is pure conjecture.
You have said elsewhere that you “tried to give up writing” a few years ago – what do you think made you persevere?
When you have a real passion for something it’s virtually impossible for you to give it up. It will creep back into your life in some form no matter how much you try and block it out. When I stopped writing, which can’t have been for more than half a year, I found life became grey and drab. When I read a really good piece of writing my head would fill with ideas and it felt like a strange self-inflicted torture not to put them down. When I began writing again life was full of colour. I felt free. Without that fundamental love of reading and the ability to express myself through writing I wouldn’t have come back to it. Learning this was great for me in the ‘tumble-weed years’ when nothing seemed to be happening with my writing. I knew that I wasn’t writing for success and money, I was writing because I had to.
Which writers and books have influenced you the most?
There are so many books I love and for so many different reasons! But there are a few books I dip into regularly which have acted as my invisible mentors. Life of Pi which is an amazing feat of imagination and warmth. The Color Purple not only because it tackles such an important part of our world history but because it is innovative, funny and unique in its voice. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which has been greatly overshadowed by the film version (and what great film it was) but is an amazing work of fiction in itself. The writing is superb and the characters so vivid and endearing that you can’t help but feel your heart breaking at the end. I also love Aimee Bender’s short stories; her combination of frank writing with a twist of the bizarre is brilliant. As for non-fiction Stephen King’s On Writing is probably the best book about writing I’ve read mainly because it isn’t a manual but more of a biography of a great writer who has some experiences to share.
I don’t tend to be influenced too much by writers themselves. Although the life of Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski fascinate me I don’t feel any need to emulate them! (I couldn’t if I wanted to, I’m far too boring). What really matters is the work they left behind and even if you loved one thing a person wrote it doesn’t mean you’ll love the rest. I try and approach each work of fiction I read as its own entity with its own lessons to teach me.
What do you think the future holds for the short story?
For whatever reason, UK publishers have shied away from the short story in the past. I remember reading articles with interviews from agents and publishers that clearly advised not to even consider sending short stories in. That’s all changed with e-books and the ability to download stories. The ground was untested but I think now it’s very clear that there are readers out there who love short stories if they are given access to them. What better way is there of passing your commute than to have an entire world with beginning, middle and end painted out before you? I think some of the most innovative writing has come from the short story form and with the writing elite bringing out collections of their own it seems publishers are realising what a staple part of our reading diets the short story has become.
What are you working on at the moment?
Being the fool I am I am working on my full length play, two short stories, my second novel whilst also planning the rewrite of my first novel. The project that is pushing itself to the front of the queue is my second novel which is about a young homeless woman who goes on an amazing Wizard of Oz type of adventure to Skegness. I’ve just finished a Writing Residency at a homeless shelter in Leicester where I was researching elements of the novel so it’s now jostling for my attention because there’s so much I want to add. I think this happens a lot with artists and writers, you don’t choose a project it chooses you. Ignore its cries at your peril; you never know when you’ll hear them again.
Mahsuda was interviewed by University of Bristol student, Jessie Eames (right).