A word with the Life Writing Prize 2017 judges


The inaugural Spread the Word Life Writing Prize in association with Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre has an inspiring panel of judges; Blake Morrison, Katy Massey and Margaret Stead. We asked them for what they’ll be looking for in submissions, and what life writing texts they find inspirational.

What are you looking for in Life Writing Prize entries?

Blake Morrison:

The key will be originality. And knowing that the author has found the right form for the story he or she wishes to tell. It will have to feel as if it’s true.

Katy Massey:

I am looking forward to encountering exciting stories about everyday life – especially those which would otherwise remain untold. I will be looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary, for tales that feel like intimate, perhaps whispered, one-to-one conversations with the author. So, if you know you have an exceptional story to tell, please start writing it down. I can’t wait to read it.

Margaret Stead:

These to me are essential to all writing, but perhaps to life writing in particular:
Acute observation, whether of the writer’s interior world, or their world of experience, as with Do No Harm.
A sense that an experience is being worked through, understood; that the author is writing with a sliver of ice in the heart.
A freshness, innovation; that in some way the genre is being made new.
Narrative structure and form– devices used to shape and illuminate. Above all, essential, is voice.

What five life writing texts do you think highly of ?

Blake Morrison:

Five fine relatively recent examples of life writing, to my mind, are:

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard (any of the 6 volumes, but my favourite is the second)

Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood

Dave Eggers’s A heartbreaking work of staggering genius

Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life

Linda Grant’s Remind Me Who I Am, Again

Katy Massey:

The Three of Us by Julia Blackburn

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

Pilgrim State by Jacqueline Walker

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage

Smile Please by Jean Rhys

Margaret Stead:

I find this very difficult to do as there as so many wonderful books to choose from – and I am excluding any published by Atlantic! However, these are a few that have had a profound effect on me over the years:

Until the Final Hour by Traudl Junge –the searing memoir written as confession by Hitler’s secretary, which was the basis for the film Downfall.

Pond Life by Al Alvarez –a beautiful, poignant meditation on aging, and on the Hampstead Ponds, one of my favourite places.

An Angel at My Table – the second of Janet Frame’s marvellous three volumes of autobiography.

Experience by Martin Amis –clever, funny, glittering.

Instead of a Letter ­- the most powerful of Diana Athill’s wonderful books. As she has said, it taught her that ‘Difficult things happen; I recover.’

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – I desperately wanted to publish this brilliant book about being a woman scientist, being bi-polar, and about the trees the author has studied through her life’s work.