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Stories to change your life

Shortlisted authors for the BBC National Short Story Award discuss the stories that have moved them...

by Psychologies

woman reading

Dip in to these suggestions and reminiscences from the authors who have just been nominated for the BBC National Short Story Award...

Jeremy Page on Roger Deakin's Waterlog

'Although I grew up among the creeks and saltmarshes of the north Norfolk coast, and swam in the icy North Sea every Boxing Day, I never considered myself a truly wild swimmer until I read Roger Deakin’s wonderful Waterlog – his personal journey around the British Isles by way of its lochs, rivers, tidal estuaries and ponds. This is a book written with such a sense of joy, enthusiasm and simple appeal for swimming in British waters that it’s almost impossible to read Waterlog and not share its sense of natural wonder. It made me buy a wetsuit, and it helped me appreciate the sheer pleasure of swimming across a Norfolk Broad in the rain, exploring a sea cave in Pembrokeshire or jumping off a harbour wall in Cornwall just for fun. Like a Newfoundland dog with its webbed feet, I feel the need to swim whenever I see water now, and I tend to take Waterlog with me when I travel – sometimes using it as a guidebook to some of the lost waterholes of Britain and often wishing the book was laminated. For me, Waterlog is my swim-buddy – it’s led me to water and remains something I can endlessly immerse myself in.'

Jeremy Page’s ‘Do It Now, Jump The Table’ has been shortlisted for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award with Book Trust, the winner of which will be announced on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row from 7.15pm on Tuesday 6 October 2015.

Frances Leviston on Flannery O'Connor's 'Good Country People'

'When I first read Flannery O'Connor, I had no idea where I was going. Job, relationships, living situation: none of them were what I wanted. I hadn't written for months. And yet I felt a curious lack of urgency about all this, as if my real life would be waiting when I chose to drift back.

O'Connor cured my somnambulance. One character especially haunted me: Joy from 'Good Country People' (1955), with her wooden leg and weak heart and perverse insistence on being called Hulga. Despite flaunting her intellectual superiority, Hulga has no life beyond her mother's house. Then a demonic Bible salesman lures her into the hayloft and teaches her a lesson.

Reading about O'Connor, I realised she had based Joy/Hulga on herself. The profoundly gifted O'Connor suffered from lupus, which killed her at 39, and all her pride and pain went into Hulga. Hulga was not a grotesque, not a fantastical invention: her story was not a break from life, but a confrontation with it.

O'Connor's brutal self-examination made me confront my passivity as a person and a writer. I saw that I could not remain undamaged by the way I was living.'

Frances Leviston’s ‘Broderie Anglaise’ has been shortlisted for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award with Book Trust, the winner of which will be announced on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row from 7.15pm on Tuesday 6 October 2015.

Mark Haddon on Jo Ann Beard's 'Werner'

'Only later did I realise that it wasn't, in fact, a short story at all. It was a piece of reportage. I was being stupid. It was the first item in Best American Essays 2007, so I should have realised. It tells the story of Werner Hoeflich whose New York apartment building is on fire but who saves himself by leaping out of the window and in through the window of the adjacent building. Jo Ann Beard had pieced the essay together from interviews with Werner himself, but tells the story from inside Werner's head. I've never forgotten the electric thrill of reading it. I keep it at the back of my mind as a kind of benchmark against which to measure any fiction I write. Because if an imaginary world is not as gripping as the real one, then why bother?'

Mark Haddon’s ‘Bunny’ has been shortlisted for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award with Book Trust, the winner of which announced on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row from 7.15pm on Tuesday 6 October 2015.

Jonathan Buckely on Donald Barthelme's City Life

'I would have been 18 years old when I first encountered the stories of Donald Barthelme. In the Compendium bookshop – London’s major outlet for innovative writing, now extinct – I picked up a copy of City Life and scanned the contents page: 'Views of My Father Weeping'; 'Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel'; 'Brain Damage'. Intrigued, I opened the book at random. I found that The Glass Mountain consisted of 100 numbered sentences, concluding with: 'Nor are eagles plausible, not at all, not for a moment.' In the midst of another story, 'At the Tolstoy Museum', stood a small print of a ruined building; in the foreground, a huge arrow hovered over a minuscule figure; the caption read – 'At the disaster (arrow indicates Tolstoy).' Already I loved this writer.

As an English Lit undergrad, I’d read many of the canonical figures of the genre: Chekhov, Lawrence, Hawthorne, Joyce. But I’d never read anything like Barthelme's surreal textual collages. 'Fragments are the only forms I trust,' says one of his narrators – and I too was developing a predilection for the fragmentary. I was not yet a writer. At 18, I didn’t even think of myself as someone who might one day be a writer. But Barthelme impressed upon me forcibly, at that age, that there is only one valid rule in the writing of fiction, which is that there are no rules.'

Jonathan Buckley’s ‘Briar Road’ has been shortlisted for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award. His latest novel, The river is the river was published in July.

Picture: Balazs Kovacs/iStock

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