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On Friday 6th September, it was announced on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row that the BBC National Short Story Award had selected its sixth all-woman shortlist, inspired by the Me Too movement, Brexit and Trump.

Award-winning writer Lucy Caldwell, who has now been shortlisted for the award twice, is joined by former bookseller Lynda Clark, charity worker Jacqueline Crooks, and new voices Tamsin Grey and Jo Lloyd to complete a shortlist of writers exploring sexual politics, intolerance, community and immigration.

The Award is one of the most prestigious for a single short story, with the winning writer receiving £15,000, and the four further shortlisted authors £600 each.

The winner will be announced live on BBC Radio 4 Front Row on Tuesday 1 October.

We spoke to all five shortlistees about what inspired their stories, and how it feels to have been selected for the BBC NSSA 2019 shortlist.

The anthology, including all five stories, is out now.

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Lucy Caldwell (‘The Children’) 

A writer researching the life of 19th century child custody reformer, Caroline Norton, draws a worrying amount of parallels between motherhood then and now.

What inspired your story and how do you feel it reflects our current times?

‘My story “The Children” was, as it happens, a commission by Comma Press – with whom I’d worked before after being shortlisted for the BBC NSSA in 2013. For Resist: Stories of Uprising the protest movement that caught my eye was the story of Caroline Norton, and her one-woman campaign to change child custody law in the mid-nineteenth century, after her abusive husband took her own children away.

I’m always intrigued by the stories of women who are neglected, or not acknowledged or celebrated as they should be, and so I started reading about her. Almost as soon as I did, I had that frisson of recognition – that hairs-rising-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment – that gut instinct that said: here was a story that I could tell.

The story reflects our current times in that over the summer of 2018, as I was researching and writing, the news – sadly still so current – was breaking worldwide of the children of asylum seekers and refugees at the US border being taken from their parents, often forcibly; toddlers and even young, still-breastfeeding babies.  It was hard not to feel utter despair and a sick sort of helplessness at the devastating footage and personal testimony, circulated on social media.

There was something in the bravery of those attempting to expose and to change things that made me think of Caroline Norton, of her struggles to fight iniquity and apathy, and so I wove that into the story and in response she, or her spirit, began to feel very live to me.  It felt essential that her story not be confined to the past, not seem like a faint accomplishment, and so that present-day political strand was essential.’

How does it feel to have made yet another all-female shortlist for the BBC NSSA?

‘Caroline Norton was an extraordinary woman – a woman who not only lived by her pen, but changed the world with it. It couldn’t feel more apt that she, and her story, should be celebrated in the company of other brilliant women writers. I can’t wait to read their stories, too.’

Caroline_Norton_(1808-77)_society_beauty_and_author_by_GH,_Chatsworth_Coll.

Lynda Clark (‘Ghillie’s Mum’)

A mother and son struggle to fit into society with their uncontrollable shape-shifting abilities in this story of overcoming stigma.

What inspired your story and how do you feel it reflects our current times?

‘The initial idea came from a very strong image in a dream. I don’t remember anything else about the dream, just that a dumbo octopus, an orangutan and an elephant were all taking care of a baby – attempting to bathe it. The image really stayed in my head, and I started thinking about why those three creatures might be caring for a human baby, and the final answer I came up with was “Ghillie’s Mum”.

I feel it reflects our current times both in terms of how difference tends to be pathologized, even when that isn’t necessary, and as a reminder that we could all stand to be a little kinder to one another.’

How does it feel to have made yet another all-female shortlist for the BBC NSSA?

‘I think it just speaks to how many great women writers there are out there, particularly working with the short story. Most of my own favourites are women, whether that’s big names like Kelly Link, Sarah Hall and Octavia Butler, or up and comers like Giselle Leeb and Alexia Tolas.’

You can read “Ghillie’s Mum” for free at Granta.

Jacqueline Crooks (‘Silver Fish in the Midnight Sea’)

Three children’s ancestors watch them from the stars, as their mother’s house is haunted by her past on a far-away island.

What inspired your story and how do you feel it reflects our current times?

‘The story is based on my childhood with my siblings when we were locked into our garden because our single mother couldn’t afford activities or childcare support. I wanted to write a story about children’s rights – the right to be heard and the right to play.  That was the starting point but themes around migration and the need for support for migrants to help them integrate also emerged – also based on my family.

I think the story reflects cuts to vital youth services for socially excluded young people who have nowhere else to go, and cuts to family services and children’s centres. In a more subtle way, the story is also about the environment, our connection to it, and how children are attuned to it.  I suppose we could look at Greta Thunberg to see how young people’s voices are so important, and also see their connection to and understanding of our environment.

I had this story in my head for many, many years, but it was only with the passing of my sister that I felt an urgent need to write it.’

How does it feel to have made yet another all-female shortlist for the BBC NSSA?

‘I’m excited to be on an all-female shortlist. I currently run young women’s writing workshops for a Mayor of London funded project, as I want to get more women writing and involved in the publishing industry.’

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Tamsin Grey (‘My Beautiful Millennial’)

A young, leave-voting woman escapes her relationship with an older man, and finds friendship on a London tube train populated with myriad kinds of people.

What inspired your story and how do you feel it reflects our current times?

‘I was asked to write a story set on the London Underground for a collection published by Borough Press. A Londoner all my life, very at home in my beloved metropolis, I immediately remembered being alone and uneasy in Paris, aged eighteen. I knew straight-away that I wanted to write about being alone in a huge, buzzing city; how it will cast you out, and then welcome you in, in the blink of an eye.

Men would approach me everywhere – on the Metro, on the street, in art galleries – and, not wanting to seem unfriendly, I got myself into all kinds of pickles. If the man was bullying, it would be much easier for me to feel self-protection, and escape. But if he was pleading, needy – lonely, even lonelier than me – then I would become subjugated by the need to be kind.

The commission to write the story came as the #metoo campaign exploded across the world, and I’d been re-inspecting past encounters and relationships under this new and blazing light. So, the liaisons I had felt honour-bound to endure, kicking myself for having somehow sent out the wrong signals – maybe they weren’t my own stupid fault?

Rather than describing a simplistic predator-victim relationship, I wanted to express the complexity of the dealings between a young, naïve woman, and an older, richer man. I was also interested in to what extent things had changed. If I was an eighteen-year-old alone in Paris now, would I get the same levels of attention, or are things different now? Had I been born a Millennial, would I have had the gumption to avoid such affiliations, or at least to disentangle myself quicker?’

How does it feel to have made yet another all-female shortlist for the BBC NSSA?

‘As one of five sisters, I feel very at home to be on this all-female shortlist! And at the same time, deeply honoured – and heartened.  A few years ago, in a creative writing evening class, I listened to a young man go on a rant about how hard it was for men to be published these days; the unfairness of all those women-only publishing opportunities, prizes and genres – chick lit, hen lit, chick noir. Of course he’d actually hit on one of the big obstacles facing female fiction writers: the tendency for their work to be packaged and labelled as girly and inferior.

But is it still harder to write, and be published, as a woman? My sense is – and I am about to seriously generalise – that yes. On a practical level, women tend to have less time on their hands (and maybe that’s why there are so many brilliant female short story writers!). Women are also less likely to have the confidence it takes to show their writing to others, and to keep knocking on doors.’

Jo Lloyd (‘The Invisible’)

The values of a small farming village are challenged by talk of a wealthy community living on the other side of the lake that only one person can see.

What inspired your story and how do you feel it reflects our current times?

‘A friend’s mother was in hospital, being visited by people that no one else saw. At the same time, I read a paragraph on the Dictionary of Welsh Biography about the real Martha and the wealthy, invisible people who came to her cottage and attended fairs and markets about the district. The idea that the invisible were wealthy immediately intrigued me, along with the thought of them rubbing invisible shoulders with this ordinary, poor, rural community far from the centres of power. Something that arrived seemingly of its own accord was the voice of that community, where half the people fervently believe one thing and half, just as fervently, another. Working that line out became key – intolerance is always, unfortunately, topical but perhaps never more so than right now. The story is also, like much of my writing, a love letter to the Welsh landscape.’

How does it feel to have made yet another all-female shortlist for the BBC NSSA?

‘I’m thrilled to be on this wonderful shortlist. I’m neither surprised nor unsurprised that it’s all women – is a sample of 5 even large enough for gender to be significant? There’s always a few who get quite heated about all-women shortlists, but actually writing is something that women have always been allowed to do (except in Gilead, obviously), like weaving and still life.

Now, if all 650 MPs were women that really would be something remarkable. And why not? Not so very long ago they were all men.’

Dyce, William, 1806-1864; Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting


The BBC National Short Story Award 2019 anthology is out now and available from all good retailers in hard copy and e-formats. Order it direct from our website.

9781912697229

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