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Roshi Fernando: being on the Short Story Award shortlist changed my life as a writer

Roshi Fernando was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in 2011, for her story The Fluorescent Jacket. She describes the impact of finding herself in the literary spotlight and the surprising consequences it had on her career

  • You were shortlisted in 2011. What prompted you to enter?
    I was prompted by my publisher at the time – Impress. It’s very clear that you need to keep entering competitions for your name to be in the public eye.

    How much exposure had you had before you entered?
    I had very little publicity before I entered. I’d done my best by myself – just a few years ago, it was a matter of sending out nice, hand-written letters to magazines and newspaper literary editors to ask if they would, kindly, consider your book. Mine was with a small publisher, and it was turned down a lot.

    Were you expecting to get on the longlist?
    Of course not. And yet, also, maybe. The story I entered was The Fluorescent Jacket – it was one of the best of my stories of the collection. It was a risky story, about abuse, so I wasn’t entirely sure anyone would take a chance on it.

    Do you recall the moment you found out you were on the list? How did that feel?
    I was perturbed. I’d won the Impress Prize for new writers the year before, and my husband took the call as I was away teaching – and when he told me, I asked him to call them back to make sure they’d got it right. With the STEFG, it was much the same. I kept imagining that someone would call me and say they’d made a mistake.

    Did making it further onto the shortlist have any impact on your writing?
    I realised I was going in the right direction. Not necessarily good, but getting there. I was up against some incredibly talented people – Hilary Mantel, Will Cohu and Anthony Doerr (who eventually won). That can only make you think: “Keep going, you’re getting something right.”

    Did it give you the confidence to write in a new way?
    It did give me the confidence to be more experimental with short stories. Short stories are my love, my way of perfecting my art: writing short stories is like doing life drawing every week, in order to become a better anatomist when you go toward your portrait painting. You write short, you edit back, you write it again. You keep practicing.

    How did your inclusion on the list affect how others saw you as a writer?
    Well, the biggest impact was that my wonderful agent, Euan Thorneycroft, set up a few meetings with big publishers, and I signed a contract with Bloomsbury and with Knopf in the States. For that, I will always be grateful to the STEFG. It gave me a publishing deal. The second is that people have wanted to option that short story, as a movie or for TV.

    Were there any downsides?
    The down side has been that success was almost a mortal wound. If you’re a writer of any worth, and not a politician, you tend to reflect on everything with hypersensitivity. Your work is you, and although you want to continue to be successful, there is no magic key to it: there is simply a subjective judgment by whoever is the panel that year.

    But overall, the impact was positive?
    I was championed by Will Self, and given great encouragement by him and A S Byatt, when I met them during the week of the award performances and the dinner.

    I feel huge gratitude for the small moments in my writing life when someone I admire has told me to keep writing, or that they enjoyed my story. We are solitary creatures: we write and we don’t see a huge change in the world because of our work.

    The impact of the award has been to really change me – I am courageous in the way I work, I am happy to keep trying to represent the world the way I see it.

    Did you feel that it was an advantage that the award is judged blind?
    Of course. Very much so. Good writing will always shine through. It is marvellous for someone like me to be on a list with someone like Hilary Mantel: I admire her work so much – how lucky to be listed next to her in a newspaper column!

    Would you say the prize is successful in helping unearth previously undiscovered voices and putting them in the spotlight?
    New writers – such as Rebecca F John (who I taught at University of Swansea! – I was so excited when she was shortlisted!) – need that fillip to get their work out to a wider audience. Great judges will find the best new voices.

    What was the best advice you were given in the wake of the STEFG nomination?
    After the award ceremony, we went for drinks with the great and good. Ben Okri, was there, and I said hello. “You!” he said. He took my arm and patted it very firmly. “You will now have to work very, very hard.” It was a presentiment – the Ancient Mariner’s grip. He was right.

    I have worked very hard. I feel like I’ve gone backwards at times (I’m a mother of four, and during the seven years since the shortlisting, three of them have got to university, and the fourth only has two more years at home with us). But I’m writing every day, working hard every day. I still enter the STEFG every year – why wouldn’t I? Winning a prize like that is like winning an Oscar.

    Roshi Fernando was born in London of Sri Lankan parents. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea and in 2009 won the Impress Prize for New Writers. Her debut novel, Homesick, was originally published by Impress Books and is now published by Bloomsbury

    Interview by Sophie Haydock