Four days at a short story festival, what a wonderful idea! From Thursday night until Sunday night, at gorgeous Charleston, home of Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell, writers reading from their stories and talking about stories. And in a large barn, with atmospheric lowing from the cows next door and the soothing hum of milking machines.
I came on Thursday night and stayed til Sunday lunchtime with Vanessa, in the company of several other writer friends, which meant late night chats about that thing that we do! I went to six events, and to sum it up I would say that while the concept of Small Wonder is fabulous and the organisers are to be applauded, it is, as most of these festivals must be, driven by commercial considerations, or, to use that lovely British phrase, "bums on seats". In other words: ticket sales and then book sales. Of course this is important since, sadly, there are no billionaire short-story-loving angels dispensing money to the few short story festivals that exist. But the upshot is that almost every writer is a "name", because otherwise many of the seats would be unfilled. So, as someone who loves to read experimental, non-traditional short stories from new voices, often published by small presses, much of the writing here didn't excite me.
Thinking about it, one of the reasons may be that there is only one space - albeit a very large converted barn - in which to hold the events, and so there is only ever one session at a time. If there was a second, smaller space, perhaps the big names could draw the crowds to subside the newer, riskier talents who might be talking only to a few keen and more adventurous readers and listeners. It would be a great shame to change the venue, Charleston is stunning and there is the scent of artistic endeavour in the air. But I read so many short story collections that just knock me sideways and I would love for these writers to reach the type of audiences that come to Small Wonder. Maybe I'm dreaming... but a girl can dream!
More specifically, though, the festival started badly for me but ended on a high. First, the low point: the event that kicked off my Small Wonder experience was one of those a short story lover hopes never to have to sit through, especially at a festival which celebrates the form. It was an "oh, the poor short story, why doesn't anyone want to read it?" type event, at which the question was even raised as to what the short story can do that, say, the novel can't. Oh, oh, oh: why even ask the question? Once you've read one great story, you know the answer. My blood pressure was rising dangerously.... and take this kind of thing very personally, perhaps too personally, but it just makes me MAD.
Thankfully, the excellent, sharply Scottish and very real writer Janice Galloway, whom I had heard so much about from Sara, cut through all of this nonsense to tell it like it is, as well as reading from her excellent stories. Thank you, Janice, for saving my health! Of course, I had to say something so, in the guise of a question - the final question! - I said how I didn't want to talk about the "problem with short stories" because I don't think there is a problem. The problem, I said, is that the pioneers taking the "risk" of publishing short story collections are the small presses, who do it for love and are often on the verge of financial ruin because of it. My question? "What did the panel think about this?"!! Apparently, although I was shaking from my public speaking and didn't notice, Janice Galloway applauded my question. And then she made the excellent point that these small presses make beautiful books and the reader just must go and search out these books. It's up to the reader. Yes, it is.
I approached her afterwards, we had a lovely chat, and she agreed to be interviewed for The Short Review to accompany a review of her new Collected Stories, which I promptly asked for from her publisher. So all wasn't completely dismal! (It was also great to meet Tom Lee, one of the others on the panel, a lovely writer whose first collection, Greenfly, we will be reviewing shortly!)
And the ending? Well, a session chaired by Alison MacLeod - a great writer and friend whose Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction is a must-have collection - in which A. L Kennedy, one of my favourite writers, and Helen Dunmore, read from the short stories they were commissioned to write for the new Amnesty International anthology, Freedom, inspired by the anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Two completely different stories, both deeply moving and beautifully written, and three highly intelligent and thoughtful writers discussing the book and the role of short stories. Fabulous, inspiring, unsettling. Alison introduced me to the woman from Amnesty afterwards, and I already have a review copy of the book, so watch this space and the Short Review for more on the book, including a giveaway and a blog post about how it all came about.
All in all, a great four days, for me personally too. I had flown from Israel to attend Small Wonder a few years ago on my own, and had found it quite a lonely experience, no-one to chat to, I was on the outside looking in. This time, within an hour of arriving, some lovely person - one of the founders of a shortly-to-be-launched short story venture, Spoken Ink, which will offer audio downloads of stories read by professional actors - wanted to meet me, has my book and "will be in touch"! I was introduced to the festival organiser, and was in the glorious company of Vanessa, Jo, Claudia, Selma, Vicky (congratulations on being an Asham finalist), Jenny, Marian, Geraldine, Adam, Alison... A very different view of events. It made me more confident, approaching people to give out Short Review postcards, sitting in the audience without that swirling in the pit of my stomach of longing to be "the ones with their names on the books". It was a great opportunity for me to see different stops on my personal journey, where I have traveled from and where I am.
Perhaps an opportune moment in this blog post to mention some small wonders of my own. Actually, pretty huge wonders. In the past two weeks I have been asked to judge not one but two short story competitions: I will be one of the judges of the next Bristol Short Story Prize, which is such a thrill and a great vote of confidence from my new home city. Joe Melia, the competition organiser, is a dynamic short story lover with so many ideas and I am delighted to be part of his plan for world short story domination! This year's competition will be launched in a few weeks, I will keep you updated.
The second offer is a double wonder: I am to be the new editor of Southword, the literary magazine of the Munster Literature Centre in Ireland which organises the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize and the annual festival which I read at last year. I will be taking over from Philip Ó Ceallaigh in December, and this one-year-post comes along with the honour of being the single judge of next year's Sean O'Foalain short story competition. Yes, I was bowled over to be asked. Bowled over.
I feel incredibly honoured and look forward to both of these responsibilities with great delight. Both competitions are judged strictly anonymously, so you can enter without any worries on that score - which is reassuring to me too. I will be reading the longlist of the Bristol Prize and every single entry of the Sean O'Faolain competition, and will report here on how it is to be on the other side of the process for a change.
A further surprise and delight: the three stories I have had broadcast on BBC Radio 4 were produced by Sweet Talk, a wonderful independent production company with whom I have become great friends. I had suggested that flash fiction could work in the Afternoon Reading slot (now three days a week, down from five), and Jeremy at Sweet Talk had mentioned this to the folks at Radio 4. Or rather: he cajoled, persuaded and assured them it could work. And now... they've said yes to a flash fiction week of stories! And not only this but, gulp, a week of my flash fiction! Yes, I know, I was on the floor too. Jeremy told me yesterday that it's now official and will be broadcast in April next year, so now we have to pick around 12 flash stories. I am unbelievably excited and I hope this open the doors to much more flash fiction on Radio 4, one of the best - and best-paying - British venues for short stories.
All of this feels to me like the clearest signal that our move here is the right one for me at this stage in my career. I get to travel around the country meeting people who want to talk about short stories (four or five more events in the next few weeks alone), and I am privileged enough to be asked for my opinion on the precious stories that are sent in to competitions, which I know only to well is really a great act of faith on the part of a writer. Will I be writing at all? I hope so! I have applied for a grant for writers working on their second book, so that would most definitely help. And I will be attempting to fathom my way through the Arts Council application forms, we will see how that goes. (A new review of the White Road and Other Stories on Bookmunch wonderfully entitled "Eschewing the rote delineation of new facts and stats in favour of zesty, obtuse life" is a great boost!)
And to put back some of this wonderful karma, I took part in Sue Guiney's Pay it Forward and so, in return for her sending me her excellent poetry play Dreams of May and a beautiful pendant, I am to "pay it forward" by offering to send a gift to the first three people who comment here saying that they agree to pay it forward too. How about it?
And last but not least, thank you to Kelly for the Kreative blogger award. After writing this blog post it might be more accurate to call it the lengthy-waffling-blog award, but I am honoured! I promise I will do all the things I am supposed to do in the next blog post.