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Interview: Di Speirs of the BBC National Short Story Award

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Di Speirs, of The BBC National Short Story Award. Photograph by Ken Grant

Di Speirs has judged the BBC National Short Story Award every year since it began. She shares her tips on what makes a great short story (just don’t write about selkies and middle-aged women living in sad circumstances by the shore) – and asks, are men intimidated by literary awards?

The BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University launched in 2005. What is the most surprising thing you have learnt about short fiction (or running a prestigious national award) in that time?

Maybe it’s not surprising, but it’s certainly confirmed to me how very difficult it is to write short fiction well. There’s so much out there that’s perfectly competent and quite enjoyable, but to really echo over time, a story requires a focus and brilliance that’s very hard to achieve.

As far as running the award goes, I’ve discovered a wonderful community of writers and lovers of short fiction, and realised that we can make a genuine difference to writers’ lives and the profile of the form, despite the competition for space and eyeballs. The power of audio, of course, has always been clear to those of us who live and breathe radio – what is nicer than being read to? And knowing over a million people will hear each of the stories on BBC Radio 4 and via BBC Sounds is still something I take great pride in.

What is the most invigorating part of the BBC NSSA judging process for you? And the most challenging?

Every year, the most exciting element of judging is discovering new voices I didn’t know, being told a story in a new way that lingers long after or finding out that writers I already love can do something surprisingly different. As we read blind, it’s also fun finding out that a story I like is by someone unexpected, whose identity I hadn’t guessed.

Identifying the issues that are rising to the surface is always fascinating. These change by some unquantifiable magic to do with the zeitgeist, but almost every year, there is a theme or two that bubbles up – sometimes we travel far and wide, sometimes it’s much more British-based. Short stories respond to our circumstances quickly. Last year, there was much more fantastical writing, from magic to folklore – perhaps reflecting the difficulties of the current divisions and turbulent times that we are living in. A number of stories were making a plea, however disguised, for tolerance.

The most challenging aspect of judging is to give myself the space to read, not least because I’m also reading so much else for work. I’ve learnt over the years to pace myself and not read too many stories at once. They need air around them or they become indistinguishable, and occasionally indigestible! And that’s when you can miss a gem, through saturation.

The other huge challenge is keeping it all going – finding partners in a challenging landscape, not least for the BBC. I believe very passionately that we make a substantial difference to writers’ careers and the wider support for the publication and reading of short stories – so while it’s never easy, it’s absolutely worth fighting to keep such a cherished award afloat.

For more than a decade, you have championed the short story form. Where does your love of fiction and, in particular, short fiction, stem from?

My love of fiction began as a very young child being read to by both my parents – who remain great readers themselves, to this day. It explains perhaps why I loved making Book at Bedtime for so many years, being read to is in my blood. As a child, I discovered books weekly in the Blackhall library in Edinburgh, and powered through them. Short stories took me longer to appreciate. A friend at university gave me William Trevor’s The Ballroom of Romance, which remains a deeply treasured, if battered, collection, and I’ve never looked back. I discovered then that great short stories fed me and took me elsewhere very powerfully, and I’ve loved them ever since.

It’s an impossible question to answer, but what makes a great short story for you – what do you in particular enjoy and look for when selecting winners?

I want to be drawn in, intrigued, to find myself uncovering layers of a story, but that can be done in so many ways; themes threaded together, depth of a character, or a story that reaches back in time, while casting forward. It’s critical to believe in the world that’s drawn and to be engaged with characters, but I’m also always looking for originality of form and really outstanding writing. And I must be able to excavate more deeply on a second and third read – so many stories have given their all in the first hit.

I particularly like short stories with an emotional impact – Kate Clanchy’s The Not-Dead and The Saved remains one of my all-time favourite winners of the Award; Sarah Hall’s Mrs Fox was an outstanding example of sublime writing that subverted the expected.

Are there any themes or phrases or styles that you think are woefully overdone in the world of short fiction? Anything you would happily not see on paper again?

There’s a lot of rather overwriting that would be so much better pared back. Coming-of-age is hard to do originally and there are sometimes too many stories about the lost, but I’m loathe to be prescriptive, because no subject should be off-limits and anything can be written about well. This year, we had a lot of stories including both selkies (seal-women) and middle-aged women living in sad circumstances by the shore (from the Highlands to Kent) – which, while good, possibly missed out because we felt we were returning to the same trope. More positively, I’d like to see more experimentation with form, more comedic writing – that’s so rare – and more stories reflecting the lives of the young today.

There were five stories shortlisted for last year’s BBC NSSA and Jo Lloyd won with The Invisible. What elevated her work to the top spot?

The Invisible is a distinctive and compelling original story that reverberated long after reading, and more on each read. I think it’s incredibly skilled, intriguing and entertaining, too. It was inspired by the story of a real woman from Carnarvonshire, called Martha, who claimed to be friends with an invisible family, living in an invisible mansion. Jo Lloyd found her story by chance in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography. But what’s so clever, is that while the story is set in a close-knit rural community in Wales, it transcends being simply a historical snapshot, and works brilliantly on many levels, structurally, linguistically, emotionally. Despite the setting, it feels timeless and highly relevant, dealing as it does with the fear of outsiders and of social division, with wealth and class, what’s seen and not seen and what’s precious and what should really be valued. It’s also beautifully written in the first-person plural, and there’s brilliance and beauty in its ability to conjure the landscape and the natural world, and to slip in time. It has layers of meaning and we loved the way it rebounded and reflected its own ideas and challenged the reader to think more and more deeply. I don’t think any of the judges had thought initially that it was necessarily the winning entry – but by the time we reconvened for the winner’s judging meeting, it had clearly got deep under our skin and the admiration was immense.

The BBC NSSA is famous for its all-female shortlists (the sixth year in a row now?). Apparently, submissions from female writers tend to account for 50-70% of your submissions. With that in mind, what are the challenges facing female writers in today’s industry, would you say?

The six all-female shortlists are testament to how women in particular are hugely confident with short stories and prepared to take risks and to invest in them – you can see it in wonderful collections from many of our winning and shortlisted writers, from Sarah Hall to KJ Orr, Clare Wigfall to Lionel Shriver. I think we need to turn the question on its head and ask why fewer men are entering – are they intimidated?! Or is it seen as a less viable form?

I don’t really think that’s the case: think of the writers such as Jon McGregor, Colin Barrett, Kevin Barry, Tom Morris and David Szalay who are writing superb short fiction. What might be true is that for those nervous of committing to a whole novel because their lives are full, maybe short fiction seems more achievable – but, of course, it isn’t actually easier, and it’s certainly still harder to make any sort of living from it.

I’m very encouraged by the greater investment in and prominence of short story collections now than 15 years ago – but there’s a long way to go. And we need more places such as Radio 4 and the excellent literary magazines to invest in the writers and help them to hone their craft and eat at the same time.

What more do you think can be done to encourage new and diverse voices to submit their work to competitions?

Spreading the word remains crucial, but I am encouraged by the change in the demographic over 15 years. We have a much wider spread of submissions than we did at the start and we hope that by publicising that fact, we continue to help break down the sense that there are barriers. It’s free to enter, which should help wider representation. Entrants do need to have had published one piece of creative writing – that can be a poem or a play, as well as short or long fiction – so we are trying to find people who have put some time into writing.

But last year’s winner, Ingrid Persaud, entered with her first-ever story The Sweet Sop – and won! – so anything can happen. I always like to see younger writers entering and hope that one day soon we’ll start to see entries from the amazing people who enter our Young Writers’ Award for those age 13 and 18 – something you can enter without any publishing record. On a broader note, the industry is changing, too slowly, but there’s a rise in the amount of BAME fiction being published. I hope that will continue to feed in to the awards.

What tips or advice would you offer writers of short stories who are looking for competition success? Editing, tone, dialogue, bravery, etc?

My biggest tip is edit. Not once, but again and again. It’s the worst short story cliché, but there isn’t room for wasted words, and the best short stories are spare and pinpoint sharp.

They have to have something to say so being brave is important, too. I don’t mind about dialogue (though there’s no doubt it helps on air in particular – although that isn’t a judging criteria for the Award), but the story needs to stand up to multiple re-readings – both by yourself as the author, finessing and killing your darlings, and from judges who need to find more as they deep dive in.

Of course, read great short stories – old and new – and see what they are doing. Also be playful, take a risk, don’t explain everything, assume your reader is intelligent and will take a leap of faith, be imaginative, don’t be afraid to portray kindness or to be still, in the moment, but avoid the overly lyrical, the overly sentimental and the overly overwritten!

What are your hopes for the coming years for the BBC NSSA? And for short fiction (in general) in the future...

I hope our 15th Award will be even more widely heard, read and enjoyed and that our listeners and readers will go back to previous stories, too, and that all five of the writers, whoever they turn out to be, will find it a springboard into a writing career if they are at the beginning – or a valued appreciation and addition to their work if they are long established.

From then, I hope we can head smoothly towards our 20th and beyond, helping to celebrate a great form.

There are many reasons why we need short fiction and short form more than ever now – and the blends of creative non-fiction and auto-fiction, the rise in the essay, especially in the States, underline that. When attention spans are challenged, and much as you might want a long escape into a novel, it’s hard to achieve sometimes; a story still offers the chance to inhabit another world, feel another’s pain – or love, and can resonate more powerfully and for longer than its limited word count initially suggests. The world would be a much poorer place without short fiction.

For more than a decade, Di Speirs has championed the short story form in Britain. She is the Books Editor for BBC Radio and has produced numerous editions of Book at Bedtime over two decades and produced the first ever Book of the Week in 1998. She has been instrumental in the internationally acclaimed BBC National Short Story Award since its inception in 2006. She is a member of the Charleston Small Wonder Lifetime’s Excellence in Short Fiction Award panel.

The BBC National Short Story Award 2020 with Cambridge University is open for submissions now, for stories of up to 8,000 words, from published writers from or resident in the UK, with a £15,000 prize for the winner and £600 for the four shortlisted writers.

All five stories are broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the authors interviewed on the station’s flagship arts programme, Front Row. The closing date is for entries is 9am on Monday 9th March;

Interview by Sophie Haydock

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