Turning Points - Vanessa Gebbie's blog on her 2007 Bridport Prize win
We are delighted to welcome our first guest blogger to the website, author Vanessa Gebbie. Vanessa will be writing a series of blogs for the next three months – the first all about her Bridport Prize win in 2007. Do comment – we would love to start a conversation!
Autumn 2007, and a lovely phonecall from Frances Everitt of The Bridport Prize to tell me my story “I can squash the King, Tommo...” has come second. I can even remember where I took the call, what I was wearing, and exactly what I was doing beforehand. This must be the positive and delightful flip side of those questions that ask “Where were you when...?”
Maybe I remember it so well because at gut level I knew this would be a turning point in my writing career, even though at the time my thoughts were in a spin, shell-shocked as I was. Maybe I recognised that this was more far-reaching than a forthcoming injection of cash for my poor old bank balance. Maybe somewhere I knew this was validation of the very best kind for strange characters I didn’t really know back then, a very different voice, and a strange story that wanted to flex its wings and be part of something else.
It is lovely to be invited to be the first blogger in residence for the Bridport Prize. I have three whole months to share anything I want with you, and I’m looking forward to that very much. But I thought this first post just had to be about winning, and what it meant for this writer. You see, prior to that, I had found it very hard to answer the question, “Why do you enter writing competitions?” It’s a complex thing, isn’t it? Looking back, I certainly had my fingers crossed for a little income, but the biggest thing was validation. That this particular piece of work was ‘worth’ something tangible in the eyes of the Bridport Prize readers, the shortlister and that year’s final judge (the lovely Tracy Chevalier) was good stuff. Better than good.
I well remember the trip to Bridport, and all the joy of meeting the other writers, the whole Bridport Prize team, readers, organisers and of course the final judge herself. I treasure her generous words at the award ceremony, but more than that I treasure the words she used when she signed a copy of her own book for me: “To a colleague”. I have not met her since, but perhaps that was the moment I felt for the first time that I really could be part of this writing world in a way I had not, up to that point.
Hey - we all make our own way. There are no real maps, not many short cuts. But winning a good prize like this one can indeed provide a great short cut, if you are lucky. The anthology is read each year by a great London literary agency - and if you are fortunate, as I was, your work is noticed and the long hard schlep of sending your work out to slush piles is suddenly bypassed. Oh, Bridport, thank you for that!
“I can squash the King, Tommo...” is now part of The Clerk’s Tale in a novel called The Coward’s Tale, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2011 (UK) and 2012 (USA). Oh, it took a while - the manuscript was finally handed in to my agent in October 2010, with loads of ups and downs on the way. But would it have got written at all without the validation it got from the Bridport Prize, among others? I doubt it.
After the award ceremony, I spent a very jolly evening with the team of readers, each one of whom, that year, had read over 500 stories. And another thing I have never forgotten, and have quoted many times, is the instruction given to the team by the chief shortlister, John Wyatt. He told me that he does not give them a detailed list of things to look for, no boxes to tick. He just asks them to send him those entries that ‘make them forget they are reading.’ Think about it - it’s a clever instruction - because for that to happen, all the craft has to disappear. It’s all about the story...duh! And yes, I quoted him with great gratitude when I was asked by Salt Publishing to pull together the text book ‘Short Circuit - guide to the art of the short story.’
What, me, write a text book? No - I have never managed to read one written by just one writer, so it would have been impossible to accept a commission to write one myself. But a team approach was fine - so with some twenty four writers contributing, among them a good cohort of Bridport winners, the bouncing baby that is ‘Short Circuit’ was born in 2009. Bless Bridport again for being the first to endorse - calling it a gold mine.
I am still sending work to Bridport, because I like them, and what they stand for. I like their no-nonsense approach, the fact that the fees go in part to fund the wonderful Arts Centre in the town. I like the fact that the readers of the stories are just that, readers. The career paths of so many of the winners are a clear sign of the readers’ eye for quality, if they need one. And after all, it is your readers who will, later on, decide if your books get read or not - not writing teachers. So isn’t this a good place to start?
I have been sending them poetry, and am always delighted when pieces reach the shortlist - it means I’m on the right track as I explore this new obsession! As I write this, last night I was in the audience for the T S Eliot shortlist readings at The South Bank. It was wonderful to hear Sean Borodale read the poem that won at Bridport a few years ago.
Last year, for the first time since 2007, I sent them a short story I wasn’t sure about. It bombed. There is still work to be done, thank heavens!
PS. If there are any writing-related subjects you would like me to address in this series of posts - please do say. I will do my best.
PPS. For those who like to know these things, I took the call from Frances Everitt in my upstairs study and was wearing yellow rubber gloves...I had just been cleaning the bath.
Vanessa Gebbie is author of one novel (The Coward's Tale from Bloomsbury UK/USA) and two collections of short fiction (Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning, both from Salt Modern Fiction). She teaches widely and is contributing editor of the writing text book Short Circuit - guide to the art of the short story (Salt). She also writes poetry, and was awarded the 2012 Troubadour International Poetry Prize. www.vanessagebbie.com