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"Embrace your quiet madness": an interview with the short story champion Cathy Galvin

Cathy Galvin co-founded the Sunday Times EFG short story award in 2008. She went on to launch The Word Factory, an organisation promoting excellence in short fiction

  • You and Matthew Evans set up the STEFG short story award in 2009. Where did the idea and the enthusiasm first come from?
    Where did it all begin? There is a story – of course. No new project is ever straightforward and nothing is ever created without its own touch of madness. But let’s start with the late, sane, Matthew Evans, who is deeply missed. He had the authority and drive to make things happen and an innate mischievousness – an insider, he was also a Labour peer, with the spirit of an outsider. He was a man who made a difference to many writers’ lives and was the confidante and friend of many of our 20th-century literary greats, including Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney.

    How did you meet?
    He was introduced to me by a mutual friend, at a party, as the former chairman of Faber and, our friend whispered, he was also the current chairman of a private bank. At the time, I was deputy editor of The Sunday Times Magazine and had driven through our first commissioning of short stories. I said I wanted to find a sponsor for a short story award. He said the magic words: “Let me call Geneva,” and arranged a meeting with EFG Private Bank’s marketing whizz, Keith Gapp.

    What was your shared goal then?
    There were unspoken values within this partnership: a passion for great writing; an awareness that literature can interrogate language and politics in a way that is complementary to quality journalism.

    The prize money was a whopping £20,000, and soon increased to an even-more-impressive £30,000 – the most generous prize in the world for a single short story.
    Between us, we wanted to reward writers who had been honing their skills for years, who had the power to tell stories that transformed and challenged. There’s little money in literature for even the most talented writers, and we felt the prize money needed to be as serious as the work itself to make a difference to the life of any recipient.

    Where are short stories so important to promote?
    Short fiction is where most writers learn their art; it’s the perfect length to publish in a magazine and to perform live. The prize marked a turning point – and its continuing success is a testament to that original intent – a passion for literature; an appreciation of great writers; and sheer mischief. Matthew Evans, Keith Gapp and EFG Private Bank and the Sunday Times were clear from the beginning: we wanted a prize for literature that made a difference.

    What was the short-story landscape like back then, almost 10 years ago?
    This was all unknown territory. I had never been involved with literature or publishing and had certainly never run an award or arts event. But I was determined to create a template that was strong and sustainable. We had experienced and generous partners and a professionalism that comes from delivering a national weekly newspaper and magazine. I also had that touch of quiet madness mentioned earlier and realise I hadn’t admitted how much literature meant to me. But the catalyst of quiet madness worked – a good prize for the paper and the bank, an important new platform for publishers and a significant prize for authors.

    Did you feel that short stories are taken seriously enough?
    They always have been, and it’s interesting to see the landscape changing, with more major awards rewarding collections. STEFG was instrumental in that shift. The short story is part of the literary canon in many countries, particularly America, Canada – just think of Nobel laureate Alice Munro – and Ireland – and we forget about our own short story greats, from DH Lawrence to Angela Carter. There are only artificial separations in literature – imaginative narratives read or heard come in so many forms and disguises. When is a piece of flash fiction a short story or a poem? When are a series of linked stories a novel? When is a long short story a novella?

    How has the short-story “scene” changed? You’ve contributed to it significantly with your own short story organisation, The Word Factory.
    Six years ago, I left the Sunday Times, my professional home for 17 years, to develop my own writing as a poet and memoirist – and my first short story will appear in an anthology next year. I have also founded what is now the UK’s leading organisation promoting short story writers, The Word Factory. The twin passions for reportage and fiction are coming together in November 2017 in Citizen: The New Story, a Word Factory festival exploring language, nationality and identity. There’s much to say and inspirational new commissions within the festival to enjoy.

    What were its aims when you first set up the Word Factory and what does it offer the literary community now?
    What did I learn? To seize the moment. That you need great partnerships. That you need your colleagues, and I had many, notably the Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate. That you need great judges – AS Byatt, Hanif Kureishi and Melvyn Bragg were amongst the first to step forward. I also learned that as an innovator it helps not to have an ego. Your baby is successful when it’s independent. You can measure your own success when it’s growing without you.

    Do you think literary prizes such as the Sunday Times EFG short story award are beneficial?
    I can only see the positives about prizes: they’re encouraging for writers who work alone and who will always lose faith in their work at some point, and important in bringing talent to the attention of agents and publishers. The landscape for fiction – and short fiction – had never been more exciting thanks to prizes like the STEFG, to the hundreds of live events every month around the country, to creative writing courses, online magazines and brilliant mainstream and independent publishers. The short story returns us to our roots – literature to be spoken and heard as well as read.

    Your passion for short stories is clear – who are your favourite writers in the genre?
    My favourite contemporary short story writers include David Constantine, Tobias Wolff and Carys Davies.

    What tips would you give others looking to set up a literary award, at any level?
    Embrace your quiet madness.

    Citizen: The New Story festival is taking place from Friday November 10 to Sunday November 12