Carrie Kania, literary agent for Conville and Walsh and short-list judge for the 2015 Bath Short Story Award says this about submissions and short story entries: ‘Make me cry – if one sentence gets me, that’s it.’ Bath Short Story Award Judge 2015.
There’s a couple of sentences in Elinor Nash’s short story, ‘Ghost Boy’, winner of the Bath Short Story Award, 2014 which had me reaching for the tissue box. The narrator, a teenaged boy disabled by a bike accident, suggests how different members of his family relate to him now he is brain damaged. He’s can’t express his thoughts and his sensations have merged. Wanting to ease family tension, he attempts to sing ‘The Wheels On The Bus’, a song he now loves. His Dad joins in with him usually. But then –
‘Sometimes, though, Jake’s Dad wouldn’t join in singing ‘The Wheels On The Bus’ but would leave the room. On one occasion he stormed out of the house and was gone a whole day and night.’
However much he tries to overcome his feelings, he finds his teenaged son’s reduced state unbearable. It is not clear whether Jake realises why he has left and that’s the power of the sentence of course – what is left unsaid.
The last paragraph of Kit de Waal’s story ‘A Beautiful Thing’, second prize winner in the Bath Short Story Award 2014, is similarly poignant. The story is about the narrator’s father’s first day in this country as an immigrant and it ends like this:
“He shook my hand for the first time and held it awhile
‘And don’t be angry. If you look, you will always find a beautiful thing.’
‘From the doorstep I watched him go. I saw him hunch and shiver, check his watch, turn up his collar and heard above his soft whistle, the ringing of his boot tips on the wet English street.”
It’s the combination of dialogue and character observation that moved me. The father makes a big impact throughout the story and particularly here, at the end. Kit’s debut novel, ‘My Name is Leon’, has just been taken on by Viking and Publishing Director, Venetia Butterfield, said ‘My Name is Leon is a truly extraordinary novel; heart-wrenching and powerful, its characters leap off the page. I’m thrilled to be publishing a major new talent.’ I can’t wait to read it.
The collection of brilliant stories, ‘Young Skins’ by Colin Barrett, winner of The Guardian First Book Award amongst other major prizes was one of my favourite reads last year. All the stories in this collection are memorable for their emotional resonance. ‘Calm With Horses’ is one of those stories, where, although the protagonist is violent – a murderer in fact – it is possible to feel deeply for him and the tragedy of his life. Colin Barrett achieves this by describing the character’s life trajectory, his relationship with his disabled son, the bleakness of his surroundings and relationships.
When I’m emotionally involved with characters it’s as if they become part of my life. In ‘The Goldfinch,’ the controversial Pullitzer prize winning novel by Donna Tartt – the least finished book of 2014 apparently – I felt the jolts in Theo’s life as if I knew him personally.
Similarly when reading ‘Heroes’ Welcome’ by Louisa Young, which I have written about in a different post on this blog, the losses of the characters became my losses too. Most recently I’ve read ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ Antony Doerr’s New York Times best selling novel and finalist in the US National Book Award whom I interviewed on the Bath Short Story Award site.
A summing up sentence from the description of the book on Doerr’s site says his novel “illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another” .That’s a moving theme. It’s desperately sad how Werner, one of the young protagonists fails to support his friend for fear of the consequences. Although unable to make amends to this friend, he redeems himself by saving another.
Finally, I recommend listening to an interview with novelist and short story writer, Paul McVeigh on writing emotional fiction. One of things, he talks about is the importance of becoming aware of what resonates for you emotionally when you are in the company of others. You can then write from this place. There are many other gems in Paul’s heart-felt account of his approach to writing.