If winning goes to your head, it certainly hasn’t affected Rebecca Lloyd. Taking first prize in the inaugural Bristol Short Story Prize with ‘The River’ hasn’t changed her view on her own writing, or anyone else’s. It has, however, confirmed what she has always believed.
Rebecca first started writing when working in Africa as a medical parasitologist. Without modern amenities, she picked up a pencil and paper and began writing the stories the people in the surrounding communities told her.
“When you’re an outsider in a situation like that you’ll always find that there’s at least one person, another outsider, who will tell you the secret inner stories of their communities to get your opinion on them,” she says.
Outsiders have stayed in her writing ever since and play a big part in many of her short stories.
“I do write about, and am drawn to, people who are bewildered by life, people who find things difficult, those who live on the edges, or in the gaps. I hate to say it, but as a writer, things ordinary and comfortable do not inspire me.” She believes many writers, herself included, are outsiders and empathise easily with marginal people. “I find their position easier to understand, when you’re looking into the world, seeing round the edge of it you see it in a unique way.” She smiles. “It’s a good position because then you can be a proper observer and I think that a writer needs to be an observer.”
Her winning story, ‘The River’, was written after she moved from London, and draws a lot from the city.
“The river in the story is the Thames and in a sense the story is my goodbye to London. It’s a very powerful river, something endless in a city of huge changes, and I did spend a lot of time looking at the bobbing islands of rubbish. When I was in the middle of writing something difficult, I often used to walk by the Thames.”
Having had numerous short stories published, Rebecca is now turning her attention to longer pieces of fiction, but her true passion stays with shorts.
“I think in short story writing you can be addressing universal issues, and can bring into question all sorts of things that people perhaps wouldn’t talk about very often.”
But she still believes that it is beneficial to have practical knowledge of other forms of prose and not to be tied down to one specifically.
“If you’ve got time to venture into other forms of creative writing it’s a good thing. I think it’s important to know how the forms are different, so as a writer you can compare them,” she continues. “I am writing a novel at the moment, and haven’t written a short story in a little while now, which makes me scared because I think when I do go back to my real form I might be a bit rusty at it.”
Rebecca wakes early each morning and writes till lunch, it’s something she’s always done.
“I don’t say this smugly, it’s an old habit, but I do get up at five and write until twelve and the reason that happened was because when I had to work full time in London at various jobs, I had no other choice. I wasn’t going to give writing my poorest, most tired piece of brain when I came home at night. It’s more important than that. So now I can’t help it; the light comes, I’m awake and then I’m writing.”
This concept of a set time for writing is something that she tries to instil in her creative writing course students. “It’s important to be able to find a time that is just yours. If it’s a regular time, your brain clicks into action and you’re ready for writing and nothing else. You have to clear your mind of all other concerns and go to a different world really, because that’s what we create, different worlds.”
How do your students respond to the idea of waking up at dawn?
“I don’t think all of them would want to do it, or would be in the position to do it. But as long as they are writing regularly and not in fits and starts, then they are working seriously.”
Rebecca runs two writing courses in Bristol, one in Waterstone’s bookshop and the other in the Grant Bradley Gallery, where she tutors small groups over a course of nine weeks. At a time when creative writing courses and degrees are under fire from critics about their validity, she still champions their strength as a developmental tool. “I would say that if you just set out writing by yourself with no guidance, it would take you a much longer time to pick up the tricks of the trade, and to be able to use them effectively.” she says.
Apart from this, she thinks one of the big advantages of doing a course or joining a group is the company.
“I find in the groups I teach that there are always people who are just plain glad to be amongst people who are doing the same thing as they are.” She says “I think people come to my course and say ‘It’s alright; I give myself permission to be a writer.’ And once you’ve given yourself permission to be a writer everything changes.”
The 2008 Bristol Short Story Prize was the first competition Rebecca has entered, and even though she triumphed, she is a little bit cautious about regarding writing competitions and prizes as the be-all and end-all for writers.
“I’m really happy to have won it. But the real competition a writer should be engaged with is an internal one. The first and constant thing a writer should be doing is refining their craft. You never stop learning as a writer. I’m not a naturally competitive person, and entering competitions is not going to be a large part of my writing life. It’s great when someone wins a competition and gets a leg up in the writing world, because it’s a tough place. But it’s really important to remember that you can always improve your writing. Winning for me was gratifying though because I was always conscious that my creative writing students took it on faith that I could do the thing as well as talk about it.”
She firmly believes, though, that competitions do offer a real chance to get in contact with other writers, which is something she thinks is very beneficial.“I arrived in Bristol a couple of years ago and tried to get in contact with writers here because you keep up this illusion that writers might think like you do.” she says. ” I attempted to meet different writers, and didn’t seem to do very well, although things are much better now.”
Rebecca is glad she moved out of London, and is finding Bristol to be a highly creative city. The Grant Bradley Gallery is close to her home.
“One of the reasons I’ve been working with the Grant Bradley Gallery is because it’s more than just a gallery. It’s not one of those self-regarding places that prefer ordinary people on the street not to come in. So I went in and said ‘you’ve got lots of painting and so forth here, why don’t we start something with writing?’ and they liked the idea, so it all began from there.”
Rebecca comes from a very un-elitist and encouraging school of writing, one that believes in everyone’s ability to become an author themselves. Her passion for encouraging other writers is inspiring and should be regarded by others as a benchmark. If you’re unsure of your credentials to become a writer, Rebecca offers this. “You have to have huge discipline and a tremendous amount of passion, those are the only two things you need, oh, and chuck your personal ego out the window. You only need enough ego to move your story and your characters along.”
Rebecca Lloyd was interviewed by Tom Dodge. Tom is twenty two and studies creative writing at Bath Spa University, focusing on fiction and journalism. With a love of sudden prose and novels he aspires to one day become Dave Eggers, and dazzle people with his eloquence while being allowed to make a living transcribing the nonsense from his head.