Ahead of her book launch, short story writer Vicky Grut talks to the winner of last year’s London Short Story Prize, Maria Thomas, about the role of awards and writing prizes in developing a writer’s career.
Vicky: Maria, what did it mean for you to win the 2017 London Short Story Prize?
Maria: First of all, it meant that my story was published, both in the anthology and in Open Pen magazine. And there were other outcomes, such as being solicited by agents. I know how difficult it can be to secure interest in your work, so to have a short story bring me that kind of attention was just amazing. The other development is that recently I’ve been successful in securing a public commission, which will be announced officially in September. It’s a wonderful opportunity. I think that is probably the biggest thing to come out of the London Short Story Prize for me. And just having Spread the Word raising my profile and supporting my development as a writer has been wonderful. It’s like having a cheerleader in the form of a really, really, really useful organisation backing you. But what about you? You’ve been writing for a long time, haven’t you?
Vicky: My first short story was published in 1994 and I’ve had work in lots of anthologies and literary magazines, both here and in the States, but it’s only now that I have a book of my own coming out. That also came about as a result of a short story prize. There was a contest in 2015 run by Holland Park Press. They wanted stories in the first person, driven by a strong emotion, but not autobiographical. I had an existing story that I re-wrote, changing it from third to first person, and it was helpful. It seemed to give the story a feeling of immediacy. That’s the other thing about prizes: sometimes there’s a brief or a theme that helps you lift a piece of work to a new level. At the very least the deadlines give you an incentive to finish things. And this particular story won first prize.
So that was back in 2015. Since then I’ve been going to the Holland Park launches, getting to know them a bit better. Finally, this year I asked the publisher, Bernadette op den Haar, if she’d be willing to consider a collection of my stories. She agreed to read, but she warned me that there was no guarantee. So then I had to wait. You wait for months and months to hear from agents and big publishers. In this case it took three weeks, but nevertheless, it’s always difficult. And then one day I was walking along and, it sounds funny, but I just felt the acceptance. It was as if a big smile was travelling towards me down the road, and the next day I got the email from Bernadette saying that she thought it was a wonderful book and, yes, she wanted to publish it.
Maria: That is fantastic. I know what you mean. You do get vibrations. I absolutely know when I haven’t got something. I was recently short-listed for something and I got the lovely email from the director and I turned to my friend and I said ‘I’m not going to win that’. I just knew. Whereas with the London Short Story Prize, I was so in love with the judges – Joe Dunthorne and Leone Ross, and of course Emma Patterson, but particularly the work of Leone and Joe – I thought to myself I’ve got to have a shot at it. I think that is my strategy as far as submitting to prizes. If I see that a prize is being judged by a writer whose work is just to die for, that’s what makes me take the chance. Because it can get expensive: ten pounds here, ten pounds there. Financially, that’s not always possible for everybody. For me, it’s about working out the best places to send my work and being a little bit strategic. You need to find your lane. Think about where your work fits, where people will be receptive to what you do.
Vicky: I think it’s the same for publishing. Some writers can engage with genre better than others. Some people will find agents and publishers who love their work. They can be themselves and it’s not a compromise and off they go. Other people have to look around a bit more, try everything until they find the right place for what they do. In terms of my story collection, some of the stories are realist, others are a bit more heightened or surreal and for some publishers that would have been a problem, but not for Holland Park Press.
Maria: We get so hung up on categories sometimes. We start to apply all these sorts of boundaries. All this categorisation is not for us writers and it’s not for the readers either. It’s for the people who sell. They have certain boxes that they want to fit writing into. I think if it’s alive, if it has a structural integrity that works for the themes of the book, if it has a heart, readers will read it. I think there’s space for it all.
Vicky: Hear, hear! Thank you, Maria. It’s been great talking to you.
The London Short Story Prize is currently open for entries. The winner will receive £1000, a meeting with an agent and see their story published in an anthology. The deadline is 17 September (5pm). Enter here.
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. Maria was the winner of the London Short Story Prize 2017. Photo of Maria © Nick James Photography.
Vicky Grut’s short fiction has appeared in new writing collections published by Picador, Granta, Duckworth, Serpent’s Tail and Bloomsbury in the UK and Harvard Review in the USA. Her collection of short stories, Live Show, Drink Included, is published on 5 October 2018 by Holland Park Press. Visit her website and find her on Twitter @VickyGrut.