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10 JUDGES, 10 YEARS: Sarah Hall

Introducing our new series of short interviews: to celebrate a decade of the Sunday Times Short Story Award, we talk to ten past judges to get their insight into the process and gain an understanding of what makes a short story shine...

Sarah Hall was one of six judges on the Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2014. She shares her thoughts and tips on mastering this 'divisive, provocative' form of writing. This is a fascinating insight into the mind of a writer and judge, helpful if you're thinking of submitting to this year’s prize...

What was your experience of judging the Sunday Times Short Story Award?

Edifying, but in some ways tougher than novel awards. Short fiction is often divisive, provocative, and requires absolute technical mastery. That can mean much disagreement when judgements are made.

How do you think the Award benefits the short story?

Enormously. I’ve heard people complain too much money is attached to a single story, and it’s not commensurate with substantive worth. But the form is extremely difficult to get right and that should be commended. It might give a writer space and support to create a collection.

What skills do you especially admire that are showcased in the short story form?

Allusion, dissonance, potency, economy, poetic essence, psychological acuity, narrative torque, experimentalism, and imaginative range.

Why is the short story important today? What about it do you think should be most celebrated?

I think great stories are often disquieting and investigative. The necessity for the reader to engage more, and sometimes rethink human policy, is a great challenge in a world of literary laziness, false consolation and complacency. To commit to reading them means less time involvement, but more mental ‘openness’.

How do you think the market/appetite for short stories has changed over the past 10 years?

I suspect there has always been a good appetite among readers, and financial blocks within the industry. But the market seems better – collections being published, good review space, media coverage, airtime, commissioning, and other platforms. Advances are still lesser, and foreign rights sales might be somewhat limited, but I think those areas are improving too.

What would be your One Top Tip for writing short fiction?

Don’t underestimate anything.

What would be an example of ‘the perfect short story’ written by another writer?

Look at the history of the form. The beauty is it seems physically boundaried, but is internally flexible. There are so many versions and such variety. It’s like asking which is the most perfect piece of fruit.

And finally .... which new short story writer should we look out for now?

Just look out for rare and brilliant stories by any writer, new or established. Like lightning, you don’t know where that strike will occur.

  • Sarah Hall is the author of Haweswater (2003), which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first novel, The Electric Michelangelo (2004) which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Prix Femina Etranger and was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and The Carhullan Army (2007), which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was listed as one of the 100 Best Books of the Decade by The Times. Her most recent novel, How to Paint a Dead Man (2009) won the Portico Prize for Fiction 2010 and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her first collection of short stories, The Beautiful Indifference was published in 2012. It won the Portico Prize for Fiction 2012, the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and was short-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize. Besides writing, Hall has judged prestigious literary awards such as The Folio Prize, The John Llewellyn Rhys, the David Cohen Prize for Literature, the Northern Writers Awards and several short story competitions. She lives in Norwich with her partner, who is a doctor.

Adam Johnson took the top spot in 2014 with 'Nirvana'. Read his winning story here and discover more about the judges that year here.


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