Rebecca F John made the shortlist as an unknown writer, age 28
8th Mar 2017
Rebecca F John was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in 2015, age 28, for her story The Glove Maker’s Numbers, about a woman who is institutionalised after the death of her brother. Here, she describes the shock of being a new writer thrust into the spotlight when she was longlisted alongside Mark Haddon and Yiyun Li
What were your motivations for entering the EFG Short Story Award?
Primarily, it was the prospect of gaining a wider readership, of upping my profile, which prompted me to enter. I’ve always been a writer focused on building a career, rather than writing for myself or for my friends, and the EFG Short Story Award seemed the perfect opportunity to gain exposure. The prize money, of course, is alluring, but I was sure I had no chance at winning, so it was less of a concern for me than the prestige the prize had to offer.
Would you have described yourself as an “unknown author” before you entered?
Prior to entering the award, I’d published only in small ways. I’d had short stories published in the odd journal and magazine. I’d also had a story broadcast on Radio 4, which felt like a significant step forward in the career I was attempting to shape. I’d signed with independent publisher, Parthian Books, who were due to publish my short story collection much later in the year, but yes, I remained an unknown writer. As such, I didn’t anticipate progressing in the competition at all. It was practice. It was positive to have a deadline in the diary.
How did you find out that you were on the longlist?
I was driving to work when my phone rang and, though I wouldn’t have usually, I pulled over to answer it. I was so shocked when the lady on the other end explained that she was calling about the prize and that I was on the longlist. I hadn’t expected it at all. Of course, I’d hoped for it – you have to become a devoted hoper, I think, to even begin to pursue a writing career – but realistically I didn’t think my story would stand out from such a crowd.
Has that success changed your writing at all?
I don’t know whether it’s naivety or just a strong commitment to my writing, but I’ve not yet found my process to be directly affected by my successes or my failures. I write because I love to write. I write what I love to write. All that happens around the writing (how many jobs I might have to work to support it, and so on) has changed dramatically in the last two years, and that is certainly as a result of my being shortlisted, and it’s wonderful. I have more time now.
The big difference, then, is that I’m able to produce more. And that I’m extremely grateful for, as there are always ideas clattering around. Even now, whilst I work on my second novel, I’m holding three more in my mind that I can’t wait to start writing.
And was there any shift in how others saw you as a result of being shortlisted?
On a personal level, friends and acquaintances started to view me as a “real writer”. On a professional basis, I suppose it meant I had a feather in my cap. I’d been endorsed, if you like. It thrust me much more firmly into the professional writing world.
What impact has it had on your career?
Being included on the list has been enormously helpful in launching my career. Once my name was published there, a significant number of agents contacted me and, after some meetings, I signed with my lovely agent, Chris Wellbelove, now at Aitken Alexander. We have a great relationship, and shortly after the competition, he sold my first novel to Serpent’s Tail and The Haunting of Henry Twist will be published on July 6, 2017, which is very exciting.
Following the competition, I was also able to secure a bursary from Literature Wales, which bought me time out of my day-job to work on new writing. During this time, I was able to make good progress on my second novel which, along with a second short story collection I’ve recently drafted, will, I hope, eventually find its way into the hands of readers.
In short, I feel I made the transition from amateur as a result of being shortlisted for such an established and respected award.
Is the “blind judging” element of the award important?
As a new writer, finding yourself on a list alongside the likes of Mark Haddon or Yiyun Li is an immediate boost to your credibility. It also says a huge amount for the credibility of the award.
And I don’t think it’s often in any profession that the playing field can be completely levelled, but that’s exactly what the EFG Short Story Award manages to do so successfully. This year’s longlist exemplifies that. But after being the baby of the 2015 award, though, I was a little jealous to note three or four writers who are younger than myself on this year’s longlist!
And the experience wasn’t too daunting?
It would have been easy, I think – especially for me, as an unknown writer – to have felt overwhelmed, overshadowed, lost in the experience. The people involved in the award, however, ensured that this was not the case. I was so well-informed and welcomed at all times that at no point did what was a very alien process feel uncomfortable. The staff and the other writers on the shortlist must be commended for this.
Do you still consider yourself an unknown writer?
From the moment I was included on the longlist, I felt like a professional for the first time, and that in turn gave me the confidence to present myself as one. Being largely unpublished at that time, I could never find it in myself to admit to being a writer. Now, when people ask me how I make my living, I can say “I’m a writer”, almost without blushing.
Rebecca F John was born in Wales and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Swansea University. Her short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and, in 2014, she was highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize. She is the winner of the PEN International New Voices Award 2015. Her first short story collection, Clown’s Shoes, is available through Parthian and her first novel, The Haunting of Henry Twist, will be published by Serpent’s Tail in July.
Interview by Sophie Haydock
Photograph by philipgriffithsphotography.com