We speak to award-winning writer and 2019 Judge, Carys Davies, about what she'll be looking for as she judges this year's Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award. Carys is the author of two collections of short stories, has won the 2015 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. She is also the recipient of the Royal Society of Literature's V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize and the Society of Authors' Olive Cook Short Story Award.
What makes a great short story?
For me the greatness of a short story is all about its effect on the reader. There are many good, well-made short stories in the world, but only the great ones have the capacity to take your breath away – to conjure a moment that burns, in the heart and in the mind, long after you’ve finished reading. All my favourite short stories do that – whether it’s the man and his two boys in Lawrence Sargent Hall’s The Ledge, waiting, in the rising water, to die; or John Cheever’s lonesome swimmer wandering through the gardens of his suburban neighbours until he reaches his own abandoned house; or the nightmarish half-skinned steer stalking the old man through the wilds of Wyoming in one of Annie Proulx’s greatest stories; or the moment when someone picks up the first stone in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery; or when Joyce’s Eveline pulls backs from the barrier at the docks and from her young man and from an entire future in Buenos Aires to stay home in Dublin. These moments are freighted with such extraordinary power and resonance they seem to drop like stones straight into your heart, the ripples spreading outwards as the reverberations and implications of the moment begin to take hold. In a single, glancing instant, they shine a light back into the past of the story, and into an unwritten future beyond its last line.
What have you been looking for while judging this year's short story competition?
Above all, I was looking for stories which moved me – which delivered this pulse to my heart and my head; stories which, while brief, felt somehow huge; stories which were specific and idiosyncratic and at the same time universal and full of truth. Stories which when I finished reading them and found myself ambushed by their power, would leave me thinking, how did that happen? Stories which would send me straight back to the beginning to read them again and unpick the painstaking artistry which made them.
That artistry has a lot to do with voice, of course, and I was looking for a voice I believed in utterly – a voice which held me from its first sentence and captivated me until it set me down with its last; a voice which never stumbled on false notes or wavered in its point of view; a voice which was confident enough to leave things out; a voice which had something interesting to say about our struggle to live; a voice which took me somewhere I wasn’t expecting to go. I wanted to read stories which could only be told the way they were being told – stories which couldn’t have been told any other way, to which you couldn’t add or subtract a sentence or a paragraph without somehow losing something. Stories which knew exactly how they should end.
For me the greatness of a short story is all about its effect on the reader.
As an writer who's been nominated for and won multiple awards, have you had a sixth sense about the stories you've submitted that have gone on to be winners?
I think all writers know in their heart when a story is working and when it isn’t. It’s miserable when you’ve worked for years on a story which somehow turns to dust beneath your fingers, and it’s always tempting to hope you’ve succeeded when you haven’t. Most of the stories I try to write fail, and the whole process, for me, is a continuous one of trial and error. If I knew how to get it right, I would get it right all the time. I don’t, and I don’t. Every story is different, each one has its own form and you can never do the same thing twice – you can bring all your technical know-how to a story and still it refuses to take flight. But that’s good, I think, because it’s important to feel that you can’t possibly pull a story off, that it will escape you. You’re trying to catch something on the wing – a feeling, a moment – and that’s as hard as it should be.
I think it’s true to say that all my best stories are the ones which took me by surprise – I thought they were about one thing and they turned out to be about something else entirely. But on the rare occasions when my stories do work, I know it. I’m not sure that I’d call it a sixth sense – it’s more a feeling that the story is completely its own thing; that it has earned its ending.
I think it’s true to say that all my best stories are the ones which took me by surprise – I thought they were about one thing and they turned out to be about something else entirely.
If you could write and submit any short story by any author other than yourself, alive or dead, to the STASSA whose would it be?
Probably Death of a Traveling Salesman by Eudora Welty. It’s one of the first stories I read when I was starting to try and write my own stories, and I was absolutely transported by it – into the dark and lonely world of the salesman and the mysterious couple he meets when his car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. I love the slow, tense stealth with which Welty reveals things through the salesman’s unseeing eyes, and the way the story gathers towards the moment when the truth of his situation dawns upon him. There is so much pain in that moment – his understanding of everything that has never been and now never will be – and Welty captures it with extraordinary delicacy and power. It takes my breath away every time I read it. Even after all these years, I sit down every once in a while and copy out the whole story, by hand, in the hope that I will learn something new from its brilliance.
Do your short stories tend to grow into novels, your novels get whittled down into short stories or do both exist entirely separately?
All stories are as short or as long as they need to be. The longest short story I’ve published is a little over 5,000 words; the shortest is under 500. Both those stories existed in many different forms of varying lengths before I finished them. I think you just have to be very patient, and keep writing, and experimenting, and over time the story will reveal itself. Many do end up being whittled away, and it can feel like sculpting – writing the big blob of stone and then discovering the story inside it. I began one of my shortest stories, Homecoming 1909, thinking I was writing a big epic novel about an ill-fated whaling voyage. But in the end there was a single, brief moment which snagged my imagination like no other, and it became the one thing I wanted to write – ... a brief, concentrated drama a page and a half long which seemed to me to have inside it all the ideas and emotions of something much longer, but with that particular ‘swivel’ only a short story can deliver, when the whole world is suddenly turned upside down.
I had a very different experience writing my first novel, West. This time I began with something small which had captured my imagination – the discovery of giant mammoth bones in early nineteenth century Kentucky – and quickly discovered that what I was writing couldn’t possibly be a short story. Short stories are such brittle, delicate things, and if you overload them, they break. In West there were too many ideas jostling for attention, and too many characters, all with their own view of the world. That said, I think the book’s form, structure, and spare style has a lot to do with my having written short stories for the last twenty-five years.
It’s hard for me to see how a finished short story could become a novel, because if the story has done its job of glimpsing a life ‘at bursting point’, as V.S. Pritchett once said, then so much of that life is already in the story; we don’t need to visit the rest of it because it’s already there, on the page and between the lines.
If you could choose anyone to read one of your collections who would it be and why?
As it happens my second collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, has recently come out from Audible, and the stories are beautifully performed by Jilly Bond and Kris Dyer. I couldn’t have wished for better readers. They both seem to have such compassion for the characters they inhabit, and their readings are alive with the sadness and comedy of living.