In December 2017, we announced that the winner of the London Short Story Prize 2017 is Maria Thomas with her short story, Dead Yard. Joe Dunthorne, who judged the prize with Emma Paterson and Leone Ross, said that Dead Yard was a “masterclass in voice and vitality” that “carries the reader away with its energy and specificity.”
We caught up with Maria to find out how she feels about winning the Prize, the inspiration behind Dead Yard and what she’s got planned next…
What does it mean to you to win the London Short Story Prize?
Everything! I’m still reeling. 2017 has been trying for most of us, I think, but I feel like London just gave me this big hug. It’s the boost I needed to keep up my emotional energy for writing.
Can you tell us about your winning story Dead Yard – when did you start writing it, and how did it come to being written?
I’m neck deep in a PhD and about 18 months ago I was really, really blocked with the novel that I’m writing as part of it. When I say blocked, I mean I was finding it hard to even compose an email. I was also finding it hard to read long-form fiction, because I was so frustrated with my own attempt, so I returned to devouring short stories. This inspired me to write them again, so I snuck into an MA workshop at Goldsmiths and produced the first draft of ‘Dead Yard’ for that.
I’m typically a very, very slow writer but ‘Dead Yard’ came quickly – in a day, actually. I got some great feedback on the draft from the workshop, my supervisor, and some wonderful notes from a friend who’s a brilliant writer and editor. The ending of the story changed radically as a result, but not much else. I think it was ‘birthed’ almost whole because I’d been so blocked, and also because it came from personal experience: the confusion and alienation I’d felt about my own dad’s passing some years earlier. I’m always keen to move away from writing too close to my own life, but I think this story had been brewing a while, though I wasn’t then conscious of it. Funny how these buried things find their way to the surface.
Who are your favourite short story writers?
Actually, one of the reasons I was excited to enter the London Short Story Prize is because I’m a fan of Leone Ross and Joe Dunthorne’s work. I’ve read Joe’s story “The Line” about twenty times, trying to understand what it is that enables it to speak to me the way it does. The answer still eludes me, which is probably a sign of just how great it is. I also love Grace Paley, Alice Munro, James Baldwin, John Cheever, Junot Diaz, Rebecca Lee, Joy Williams, Helen Oyeyemi, Viet Than Nguyen, Shirley Jackson, Lorrie Moore, Danielle Evans – I could go on! Ehud Havazelet, James Joyce, and Anton Chekhov are always somewhere on my mind.
Do you have any tips for other short story writers?
Never stop challenging your own tastes, which you can do by reading a wide range of literary journals. It’s the best way to discover new talent and inspiration for developing your own craft. Lots of them are free but if you can’t afford to subscribe to pricier ones you want to read, ask your local librarian to hook you up.
Find a supportive writing community that will give you compassionate, rigorous feedback on your work. It’s partly luck that in my job and life I’m surrounded by exceptional writers, and partly as a result of putting in some effort over the years. You can join an informal writing group, take a course, or just show up at a few readings and make conversation. The time you spend on thoughtful reading and critique of others’ work will eventually pay dividends in your own. Plus, you’ll have shoulders to cry on when things get tough, which they will. Oh, and make friends with poets – they can teach you a lot.
Keep writing and be as patient as you can with yourself. In my experience short stories that resonate are really hard to write, and writing them is a learning curve that begins all over again with each new attempt. It can feel like it’s taking forever for your conversation with the form to sound less like a shouting match (in which the form is most definitely winning), and more like a mutually respectful dialogue. Just take your time and keep at it.
What are your goals as a writer?
To keep learning from the work of others as well as from my own failures and successes. To be braver and take more risks with my work. To always remember that being a brown woman writer from a working-class background is one of my superpowers, even when the world challenges my faith in that belief.
Are you working on anything at the minute?
I’m always working on being a better teacher of writing in my job at City Lit. I’m also writing more short stories plus a big, lively novel that is kicking my arse daily.
Maria Thomas gained her MFA from the University of Oregon and is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her stories have appeared in Wasafiri and The Masters Review Anthology Vol VI, selected by Roxane Gay. She lives in London, where she is at work on a novel. Photo of Maria © Nick James Photography.
The London Short Story Prize Anthology, published by Kingston University Press and Spread the Word, will be published in Spring 2018. Stay tuned to Spread the Word’s website and social media for more information.