We announced the winner of the 2016 Bristol Short Story Prize on Saturday – congratulations to Stefanie Seddon who received first prize for her brilliant story, Kãkahu, in the wonderful surroundings of Bristol Central Library’s Reading Room.
Tania Hershman, chair of this year’s judging panel, said of Stefanie’s winning story:
“Kãkahu is a poignant, magical story tackling trauma through a child’s eyes using the power of myth. Writing from a child’s point of view is a challenge, and Stefanie rises to it beautifully, unsentimentally. From the opening sentence we know we are held safely by a writer who knows exactly where she is going, and takes us there with grace and surety.”
Stefanie grew up on a farm in New Zealand but is now based in East Sussex in the UK. She only started writing fiction 2 years ago. In that time she has been a regional winner in the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and has just completed an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. We asked her about her Bristol Short Story Prize triumph, her writing and what comes next:
What does winning the 2016 BSSP mean to you?
First and foremost, it’s a huge boost to my confidence. I’ve just finished my MA in Creative Writing, so this year is all about learning to stand on my own as a writer, without the security, guidance and deadlines that a structured course provides. Opportunities like the Bristol Short Story Prize enable writers to feel part of a community and I think that’s really important when you’re just starting out. Writing can be a lonely business and the Bristol Prize has been incredibly supportive and welcoming to everyone involved in the anthology.
What was your experience of the awards ceremony?
I would sum it up as…magnificent, although interrupted by a brief moment of terror! The awards ceremony was a real celebration of the short story. It was wonderful to meet so many different and talented writers in the inspiring setting of Bristol Library Reading Room, and it was a real privilege to talk to writers of the calibre of Roshi Fernando and Tania Hershman. I’m now reading my way through the Anthology, putting faces to names. The terrifying bit came immediately after the announcement, when I was asked to say a few words to the lovely audience. Let’s just say I did not provide the Churchillian moment I might have hoped for!
What influence does New Zealand’s culture and landscape have on your work?
It’s very influential. I left New Zealand when I was 22, and although I’ve lived on this side of the world for almost as long, much of my writing is set in the place where I was born and grew up. I don’t see myself as an outsider when I go back – more as someone who might ask different questions or have different memories to New Zealanders who live locally, and I’ve found this perspective – this distance – to be helpful for my fiction writing. It gives me the space to think about what’s important to the story – about what makes the story unique to us as New Zealanders. Kākahu (Stefanie’s winning story) is about a Māori feather cloak and a young girl’s response to it. It’s about identity and loss. Landscape is also a big influence on my writing. I grew up on a farm in the South Island, in a rural, mountainous part of the country, and I think the view that you grow up with is something you never really lose. There are certain colours, smells, sounds, that I remember vividly and they tend to make their way into my stories. Kākahu is set in a little coastal settlement outside Christchurch; its sand dunes and pine trees are the elements I remember most strongly from our childhood summer holidays there.
In what ways has studying an MA in Creative Writing changed the way you write?
My Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck changed everything. The first fiction I ever wrote was a piece for my course application. I know the MA programme won’t suit everyone, but I’ve loved the structure and discipline of the coursework, and the techniques I’ve learned over the past two years – around character, dialogue, narrative etc. – are the tools that give life to my stories. Perhaps most importantly, the course has given me confidence. Sending out my first story for a group workshop was daunting – but now the workshop has become a hugely important part of my writing process. I was very fortunate to have a talented (and highly organised) bunch of classmates who continue to meet up to share our work-in-progress (or lack thereof) and encourage each other to keep going.
Which books and writers have had the biggest effect on you, particularly short story writers and collections?
I’ve learnt a lot from landscape writers like Robert McFarlane, Helen McDonald, and JA Baker. Their essays and books have helped me to understand my settings as more than just a visual backdrop to my stories. I think they gave me new ways of looking at familiar landscapes, and that feels like a writing tool as fundamental to the narrative as character and plot. I think I’m most strongly influenced by writers who put setting at the heart of their stories; I read a lot of William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx and Denis Johnson, whose novella, Train Dreams, is really magnificent. I grew up reading the short stories of the great New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera and I still love reading his novels. I admire writers whose characters come alive on the page and who take risks with language and structure, so I can’t get enough of Marlon James. I also loved the quiet intensity of Lena Andersson’s, Wilful Disregard.
I probably read more short stories than novels. I love the way a short story has to be stripped right back to what’s important, so that every word counts. Favourite short story writers would include Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders, Alice Munro, Colin Barrett, Claire Keegan and Kevin Barry, but the great thing about short stories is that you can read so widely – you can dip in and out of anthologies or collections and have a reading experience that really resonates. The other day I read a wonderful story by Kei Miller, The White Gyal with the Camera, and I can’t stop thinking about it. That’s the power of a great short story – it’s just a few pages long, but it stays with you.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes – but it took a long time to get started. I loved writing when I was really little but then life got in the way and self-consciousness took over. The wonderful thing about writing is that the older you get, the more you find to write about and the less you care what anyone else thinks of you! It’s a great combination.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on my first novel, set in depression-era New Zealand. That period in New Zealand’s history was dark and unsettling and I’m excited to be exploring it through the landscapes and communities in which I grew up. Alongside that, I want to keep writing short stories. I recently took a break from the novel to write a short story set in the UK and I’ve found the process incredibly useful. You have to readjust to focusing on what’s at the heart of the story – on making every sentence work.
If you ran your own publishing house, which writers and what books would you like to be publishing?
Whether or not my publishing house would be commercially successful is for someone else to judge – but in my fantasy life as a (clearly unbiased!) publishing magnate, I would fill the shelves with short stories; more anthologies populated by emerging writers, and I’d encourage my favourite novelists to publish short story collections. I’d also like to see more collections of essays. The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla is a must-read.
Stefanie’s winning story plus the 19 other shortlisted stories are available in our new anthology, here.