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What winning meant to me...

Previous winners of the Sunday Times EFG short story award discuss the impact the prize had on their life and writing

  • Bret Anthony Johnston won in 2017 for his story Half of What Atlee Rouse Knows About Horses

    There was immense surprise and gratitude when I won the prize in April this year, but mostly there was – and is – an abiding sense of disbelief. I wasn’t nervous at all before the announcement because I thought there was no chance of my winning. After Mark Lawson announced my name, a very real anxiety took hold. It’s a constant rattling in my veins, a constant reminder of that wonderful moment. I hope it never leaves.

    The win has impacted my life and career in countless ways, but one of the most meaningful is hearing from so many friends and readers after the announcement. There was a beautiful deluge of messages right after, and I’m still getting a few notes each week. I’ve been bolstered by the connection with such a wide variety of readers and by the vitality of the short story.

    The money afforded me time to write and read, which is the richest of gifts, and I can already feel that investment paying off. The prize has allowed me to follow my curiosity into an area that would have otherwise been inaccessible.

    I’m always working on stories, and I’m currently drafting a new novel. Shortly after at the award ceremony, I was offered a new job – coincidence? I don’t think so! – so I’ve spent much of the last few months moving. I’m now the director of the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas, and I’m working with the finest emerging writers on the planet. As for what’s next, I hope it’s more of the same: a year full of reading and writing stories.

    Jonathan Tel won in 2016 for his story The Human Phonograph

    I was pleased to win the Sunday Times EFG short story award. I was not as surprised as I might have been, since another story of mine had been shortlisted two years previously. Both these stories come from a book of linked stories about financial corruption in China. The prize money made it easier for me to research my next fiction book, which is now almost complete, about Syrian refugees in Germany. I hope both these books will find a publisher. Money and acclaim are nice, but whether or not I have external validation, I will keep writing.

    Yiyun Li won in 2015 for her story A Sheltered Woman

    I was shortlisted with some of my favourite writers and friends, including one of my early teachers Elizabeth McCracken, so the award was one of the most special experiences. I’ve always dedicated my career equally to both long form and short-form of fiction. Winning the award was a confirmation, especially when we are often told that the publishers prefer novels to short stories. I’m working on a novel now – after that I imagine there’ll be another collection of stories. For a writer with children and a full-time job, money always means a little more time to write. I’ve often said to friends that, had I had the means, I would have offered writers with children assistance to services such as childcare and house-cleaning.

    Adam Johnson won in 2014 for his story Nirvana

    For a writer of short stories, winning the STEFG Award is a pinnacle. Not only does the award bring new readers to a form with a deep and rich tradition, it creates a dazzling gallery in which today’s best story writers can display their work. I’m deeply honoured that one of my stories can be counted among them.

    Junot Diaz won in 2013 for his story Miss Lora

    At the moment I’m not writing anything new, but the STEFG Award underwrote an intense period of research and time-witness interviews for a future project that otherwise would have been impossible. I am still deeply grateful for the honour.

    Kevin Barry won in 2012 for his story Beer Trip to Llandudno

    Winning the prize was naturally a great blast, a great night out and a great boost for my second collection, Dark Lies the Island, which came out the same weekend that I won in 2012. Almost eerily good timing. In terms of the money, I think writers generally always buy the same thing with prize money – they buy time. If you can keep going with the work, without having to do other things, that seems like a pretty good working definition of success. The desk is feral, as ever. I have a draft of a new novel, drafts of two new plays and a couple of screenplays. The first feature film I’ve written is based on characters from my stories – it’s also called Dark Lies the Island and shooting begins imminently, directed by Ian Fitzgibbon. I’ll admit to a certain giddiness at the prospect.

    Anthony Doerr won in 2011 for his story The Deep

    You don’t write short stories hoping for glory – you have to love the work. You have to love shifting words here and there, testing different combinations; you have to love trying to conjure up people and places with nothing more complicated or expensive than black letters on a white page. Truly, the most a short story writer can hope for is that a stranger might leave his or her world for an hour and enter the world you’ve invented: a place that exists only in language, only in imagination.

    So to fly across the ocean, to take the train to Oxford, to sit at the same table as writers who have written a substantial portion of the novels on my shelves, to have speedwalking waiters serve us chargrilled tournedos of beef in a red wine and tarragon reduction – all this simply because a bunch of writers wrote a bunch of short stories – that is a feeling that bears no articulation. You sit among all that glittering talent and think: short stories matter to everyone in this room.

    After the prize ceremony in Oxford, I decided to delay my return to the US and travel instead to Saint-Malo in Brittany, the setting for large portions of a novel I’d been working on (the book would become All the Light We Cannot See). During that visit I was able to rent a little attic apartment and make some substantial progress on the book. It was only because of the prize money from the Sunday Times EFG award that my wife and I could afford to let me have that time in France.

    CK Stead won in 2010 for his story Last Season’s Man

    It was exhilaration to win the Sunday Times EFG short story award in its first year. I’d thought the story was a good one, but there’s always an element of luck in literary prizes; so although I did not think I was in the least undeserving, I did think I was extraordinarily lucky – especially as a writer coming from so far away [New Zealand].

    Winning gave me renewed confidence. The five judges that year were such an impressive group, and to hear (as I did) that their decision was unanimous was a great boost. It helped me on the home scene, here in New Zealand, where I was not always a favourite son. And of course, it added another accolade which my publishers could use to assist publicising new work.

    I published a new novel, Risk (MacLehose), shortly after winning the prize. More recently I’ve published a collection of stories (The Name on the Door is Not Mine), which includes my prize winner (Last Season’s Man); and I’ve just completed a two year stint as New Zealand Poet Laureate. A new novel (The Necessary Angel) will be published by Allen and Unwin in New Zealand in October and in London early next year.

    Enter the Sunday Times EFG short story award before 6pm on Thursday 28 September for your chance to win £30,000 prize for a single short story