Bridport Prize-winning 2016 October 18, 2016

Just back from England, bringing home a UK cold and a lovely piece of news. I’ve won third prize in the annual Bridport Prize short story contest. My story is called Steroid Dreams and later this week, I’ll put it up on my blog.

Last Saturday, my friend Frances and I travelled from London to the prize ceremony in Bridport, Dorset, a pleasant train ride to a town with a historical twist. A local man told me that Bridport is famous for its ropemaking. Not rope for ships, or not just that. They made the rope for every hanging in England up to the end of capital punishment in 1964. He seemed quite proud of the fact.

The decidedly non-punishing Bridport Arts Centre was host to the prize luncheon, with winners coming in from all over England, Ireland, the U.S. and Canada (me)–although that’s a little cheat since I was going to the UK this fall anyway and tweaked the dates to be there for the ceremony. Apparently there were 4,512 entries in the short fiction contest this year, so the winners of prizes and honorable mentions formed a select group.

Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley

I was delighted to meet the story judge, Tessa Hadley, an award-winning novelist whose work I’ve admired for years, both her books and the stories she publishes in The New Yorker. Her latest novel is The Past, which I recommend highly for its insights as well as for the wonderfully fluid writing.

From The Past:

“The oddity of marriage, she thought, was in how unwise it was to attend too intently to the other person. This was the opposite to what she had naively imagined, as a girl. To the unmarried, it seemed that a couple must be intimately, perpetually exposed to each other–but actually, that wasn’t bearable. In order for love to survive, you had to close yourself off to a certain extent.”

It’s a passage I thought reverberated strikingly against a poem published this past Sunday in The New York Times Magazine by Kay Ryan called “Ship in a Bottle.”

“It seems/impossible–/not just a/ship in a/bottle but/wind and sea./The ship starts/to struggle–an/emergency of the/too realized we/realize. We can/get it out but/not without/spilling its world./A hammer tap/and they’re free./Which death/will it be,/little sailors?”

My congratulations to all the 2016 Bridport winners, not only in the short story section, but of the poetry img_2506prize, judged by Patience Agbabi, the flash fiction prize, judged by Tim Stevenson and the First Novel Award, judged by Kerry Young. My thanks go to Kate Miller, who administers the prize so ably.

The 2016 Bridport Prize Anthology of winners and runners up in all categories (save the novel prize) is available to buy on the contest webite. Those faint words you can barely make out in the photo come from Fay Weldon, patron of the prize: “a prize really worth fighting for in terms of prestige and genuine literary accomplishment.”

And now for Tessa Hadley’s judge’s citation on the winners she chose, which gives some fine hints for writing stories.

 

Short Story Report by Tessa Hadley

My reading each time begins sceptically. Stepping into a short story, I’m always resisting it until it wins me over. First of all, it wins me over through its sentences, because they’re not cliched, because they’re musical and they’re exact. I can see what they’re describing, I can grasp their thought, I know where I am. The best writing is so deliciously plain and clear: as in these beginnings, for example. ‘A trellis separates the patio behind Elizabeth’s house from the door to the rooms where the servants live’ (‘Moore’s Alley’), or ‘“Watch this,” Lateef says and he reaches under the goat and starts pulling and squeezing’ (‘Lateef’s Room’). The detail is precise and vivid, the vocabulary isn’t fussy, there’s a scrupulous concern to denote exactly what’s required for the story to get started and for the reader to be carried inside it, involved and interested, sensuously present.

Of course I’m talking about good style here, and what I’m saying applies as much to writing novels as short stories. Everything in a good sentence should feel original, but not strained or effortful. (I know – so much effort goes into it. Only it mustn’t show.) Sometimes a sentence has something extraordinary or miraculous in it: but that too should be exact – the miraculous should feel hard-won, as if a great deal of solidity, of real building-work, has earned the writer their moment of letting go. There’s a gorgeous letting go at the end of ‘Uncle Frank’s Turkeys’, when the farmer is feeding his turkeys. ‘He bends down to the sack and throws handfuls in big arcs. The grain floats in a shining circle for a moment, and then sinks back down in slow motion to the waiting turkeys.’ In ‘The Disappeared Girl’, in the middle of real country life and hard work, there’s a bit of magic. ‘There was a slit in the bark of that tree, just big enough for a girl to slip through. It was cool inside, green moss, soft and cushioney. She lay down, just a minute. Nobody’s laid eyes on her since.’

Another thing good sentences can do is catch the right idiom of a world, capture its flavour for us. In ‘Brylcreem Boy’ Jim Waite remembers a girl’s petticoat in 1960: ‘yards and yards of stiff material that made the lower half of her dress stick out like a ripe lettuce, ballooning over my lap’. In ‘The War Against The Monsters’ we can vividly hear the voice of awful, haunted Auntie Brenda, with her appetite for horrors. ‘Hours he were stuck – that suicide. Up to his neck in clinging mud. And then he came to – and do you know what he saw?’ Some good writers just have this gift for mimicry, this ‘good ear’ – others don’t, it’s not their thing. But it’s a lovely asset if you do have it.

A story shouldn’t read like an extract from a novel, or a compressed novel, with just too much crammed into its short space. A good short story has a satisfying single-mindedness, it drives purposefully and economically towards its ending, you can hold it in your mind all at once. ‘Avalanche’ is so shapely and dramatically effective: four friends are caught up in an avalanche and the terrible drama of their rescue clarifies and simplifies the messy sprawl of the relationships. In ‘Bonxie’ a woman has retreated to the Orkneys to write her novel, then finds herself in a tragi-comic confrontation with a huge seabird trapped in her bathroom. The single story-element encapsulates a much larger complexity and irony.

Endings are the hardest thing to get right in a short story. At the end of ‘Expiating Irene’ a daughter with her eyes closed listens to her mother reminiscing and fibbing and singing. And a tender moment in ‘Porn Star Names’ might have been too sweet, if Jo Holmwood hadn’t finished on a different beat, by returning to the boys’ funny sex fascination.

My three finalists have all achieved just the right poised, liberating, exhilarating closure to their stories. All these three stories are so completely different! I didn’t plan for that, but it makes a nice point. ‘Steroid Dreams’ is just so beautifully written, every sentence poised and funny and intelligent. The prose has a marvellous rhythm, rich with perceptions. ‘Open House’ is much stranger. Who knows whether that bear in the garden is real, or some phantom expression of the wildness in this odd family? The crazy party and its aftermath of wreckage are superbly done, so enigmatic and terrifying and exhilarating. And ‘Cut Loose’! It seems to be written in a single perfect breath, so apparently artless yet perfectly controlled. There’s simply nothing out of place in this hushed, tensed imagining of the twisted history of violence between a man and a woman, all wrapped up as austerely as a Greek drama inside one lonely room, in a few short weeks of waiting.