Tag Archives: Commonwealth Writers

So, where am I now?

Firstly, here’s a blog I wrote for The Scotsman on the first Edinburgh Historical Fiction Festival this weekend (it’s below the one about ‘Thatcher’s musical legacy’).

The shortlist has just been announced for this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize and Granta will again be publishing the regional winners – I’m looking forward to reading them and wish them all best of luck! In the meantime, Granta have published short updates on the five of us from last year and you can read it here if you like: ‘Where are they now?’ Or, if you’d rather not be scared by a horrible photo of me, I thought I’d put up my original answers to their email questions, which had to be understandably cut down for publication. I hope it doesn’t seem too self-indulgent, but for me anyway it was an interesting exercise to think about how to answer these. Especially the last one.

How has the experience of being selected by Commonwealth Writers and having your story published by Granta altered your perspective of yourself as a writer, if at all?
Oh, it was such a boost. I really believed in this story but it’s a bit of a strange one, so it was amazing to have someone else – especially people as eminent as the Commonwealth judges – say that they got it and they enjoyed it. It really gave me confidence that I was on the right track: I know I have a lot to learn about writing, but this award said that I could do it. I went down to the Hay-on-Wye book festival for the official announcements and it felt like a small taste of a potential future. And, honestly, the prize money came in handy too. The only downside was having to provide a photo for the publicity. Ugh.

Granta was the first literary magazine I ever read, or even heard of, back in 1990. I still have those first issues on my bookshelves. So for me to have a story published under the same imprint (albeit online) as all the big beasts of contemporary literature is something so special that I’m almost embarrassed to talk about it. I was very, very pleased and it has been the highlight of my writing career so far. It was also lovely just to see it laid out on the screen page, with pull-quotes and that beautiful photograph to illustrate it.

Has anything resulted directly from your story being published by Granta and/or winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize?
Since the story was published, I’ve been approached through my blog by a couple of agents wanting to discuss my work, had someone want to translate it and even heard from a cousin abroad whom I haven’t seen in 25 years!

What are you working on at the moment?
I have been developing The Ghost Marriage into a novel, with substantial changes. It’s a long process, but I’m making good progress so I hope to finish by the end of this year and then try to get it published. But I also take breaks from the book to write short stories, on all kinds of subjects – from working in a call centre to a WWI war crimes trial to a zombie rock star.

How did you find the experience of having your work edited?
Great – I just want my stories to be the best they can be. An outside perspective helps make sure that everything’s coming across clearly, so the reader knows what they need to know but the story still has space for ambiguity and imagination. I’m used to being edited anyway because I have a journalism background, but there you don’t tend to get much of a say about it! Fiction allows for so much more nuance and multiplicity of meanings, so there has to be a bit more of a discussion between writer and editor. It’s more personal, yet you don’t want to be self-indulgent, so there’s almost a collaboration going on.

If you were in a band, what would they be called?
The Procrastinators. We’d rehearse a lot but never get around to playing any gigs.

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Filed under Articles, Competitions & Awards, Interviews, Literary happenings, Literary magazines, Writing

Granta & Hay

Photo by Martinliano

Here is a link to my Commonwealth prize-winning story on Granta. I absolutely love the picture they’ve chosen, the white jasmine emerging from the black background, beautiful, mysterious and a bit sinister – it’s perfect (thanks to Ted Hodgkinson at Granta, who edited the piece). The story was written a while ago now and since I’ve been working on the book version, and doing research, I SO wanted to change so much of it – for instance, Lucy is now from Scotland, which makes much more sense, the father’s history is quite different, the details are much more accurate – but it had to remain more or less as I’d entered it. And it was odd answering those interview questions … particularly as the emphasis (understandably) was on nationality and the idea of Commonwealth. It made me realise that it’s not something I’ve ever thought about much before, in itself, despite considering myself fairly well-informed and opinionated about matters of politics and colonialism. The answers from the other regional winners are very interesting too – as are the stories, which are also up on Granta. I’m really happy to be in their company!

At the weekend I went down to Hay-on-Wye for the book festival, to meet up with the Commonwealth Writers staff who were involved in various events there. Met lovely people, including the thoughtful Emma Martin from New Zealand, who won the Pacific region and the overall prize – her story Two Girls In A Boat is absolutely beautiful – and the charismatic Shehan Karunatilaka, from Sri Lanka, whose book Chinaman: The Legend Of Pradeep Mathew won the Commonwealth Book Prize (and sounds brilliant, despite being about cricket, will read it soon). Thanks to all the Commonwealth people and particularly to those of the judges who were there, Bernadine Evaristo, Margaret Busby and Nicholas Laughlin, for being lovely and encouraging. There was a reception and couple of other talks.

with Bernadine Evaristo and Margaret Busby


Other interesting encounters: the impossibly glamorous Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who arrived in a gorgeous, totally impractical vivid green frock and stilettos, and was so sweet that when she drew a little picture of me in a book (like a child would draw), me and the two adoring blokes with her melted into cooing praise like fools.

With Chimamanda at Hay


A very posh lady, whose identity I never quite got but who had lots of intense anecdotes and seemed to know everyone, who told me a story about hearing ghostly footsteps “when my husband at the time and I were living at Longleat for a while with Alexander” (ie the Marquess of Bath – pronounced AlexAUNNNder). Two very nice writers from north Wales, Mary and Debz, who took pity on me when I was hanging around on my own and were good company. Debz runs Bridge House Publishing and Paws’n’Claws; among other things they publish children’s books in aid of the Born Free Foundation. AND, though it shouldn’t really count as I didn’t actually speak to him, Salman Rushdie who ate his dinner just two tables away from me (I was tempted to do a Bridget and ask him where the toilets were).

Hay Festival Commonwealth Writers

Having booked at the last minute, I was staying in a weird dorm room with 16 small bunk-beds crammed in. Thankfully only two others were occupied, but the 1970s decor and low heights made it feel like a claustrophobic Girl Guides’ trip. I can’t complain about the price though: £22 a night including a great breakfast! The only other thing available was a luxury yurt at £200. And the hotel it was in, while also untouched by the fashions of the last few decades, was the original Baskerville Hall, where Conan Doyle stayed and took the name (relocating the place to Dartmoor). It was a bit out of the way though, down a dark country lane, and it took two buses to get to the festival site. And unfortunately the weather at Hay was bloody awful. The tented village may have kept the rain out but not the cold and wind, so being around there all day was a damp and depressing experience. I’m sure the festival is really good usually (though I don’t get the sense they have as big and varied a programme as the Edinburgh book festival), but I only saw it at its grimmest. And the journey was quite complicated with a succession of dull bus and train journeys – and stop-offs of several hours in Hereford (quite pretty, nice cathedral) and Crewe (incredibly boring and ugly town centre). I came back home exhausted and immediately succumbed to quite a rotten cold. I’ve spent the last few days snuffling and moaning and cuddling the dog. You know, just in case literary success went to my head or anything.

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I won!

To my genuine amazement, my story The Ghost Marriage has been named the winner (Europe & Canada region) of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize!

I am delighted, of course, thrilled that the story is going to be published in Granta online, hopeful that this will lead to ‘Things’ but mostly … relieved. I’ve been calling myself a writer, carving out time to write, sending off stories, going to events, doing readings, boring people by telling them about my novel and generally trying hard to shut down that bit of brain that scoffs: yeah, right. You’ll never do it. And why would anyone care if you did? Winning a prize doesn’t kill off that voice, but it does gag it for a bit. And it’s wonderful to be able to tell friends, be congratulated and feel how pleased they are for me. I am basking, just for a bit, and it feels like those days when you’ve just finished a big piece of work or just sat a test or completed a contract and you’re free, free …

(Yes, I know I still have a lot to write. And I will. It’s a tremendous motivation to revise what I’ve already done and move on)

The list of regional winners – I love how varied we are, from an accountant in Lagos to a Jamaican environmental activist!

Interesting discussion of the prize on Radio 4’s Open Book with the fab Mariella Frostrup.

Official announcement of winners on the World Service’s programme The Strand

More details in Granta. Excuse the dodgy old picture with fringe.

Whee!!!!!

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Commonwealth Short Story Prize

I’m delighted (and shocked) to have been shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize!
It’s for a version of The Ghost Marriage, which I’ve been trying to turn into a longer book over the last year, so this is a massive encouragement that I’m working on something which is worth pursuing. I’m so relieved I can’t even tell you.
Since writing this version, I’ve done a lot more historical research and made many changes to develop and expand the book. But it retains the essence of the initial story which I enjoyed writing so much that I didn’t want to leave these characters and that setting.
The prize is open to stories from 54 countries which is amazing: I imagine the entries were incredibly varied so it’s a real honour to be shortlisted. I have to admit, the Commonwealth as an entity is not something I’d previously thought about very much, but looking at the Foundation’s website, they seem to do some great work (there’s also a useful site for writers). They say: “We exist to empower charities, non-governmental organisations, professional associations, trade unions, faith groups and cultural practitioners; the lifeblood of any healthy society. We equip these groups with the tools required to contribute to national and international goals of democracy, good governance, sustainable development and cultural diversity.”
All good things, but the latter I think is something which is particularly in need of celebration at the moment, when “multiculturalism” has become a dirty word in some places and people are either deliberately or thoughtlessly denying the historical circumstances which have made the world the way it is.
My story is all about making connections (Scottish, Chinese, Japanese; men and women; the literal and the metaphorical; the physical and the poetic; commerce, war and Empire; the 19th Century and the 21st) so maybe that’s what made it a good fit for this competition. Or maybe not, I dunno!
I’m looking forward to finding out more about the other shortlisted stories. There’s also a prize for best (published) first novel – anyone read any of them?

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