Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Interview with Joe Melia

Joe Melia is the mastermind behind the first Bristol Short Story Prize. An anthology containing the best twenty entries is released next week. I caught up with Joe to ask him about the prize and why he thinks the short story is the next big thing.

Joe Melia
Prized Possession

"I’ve always thought that short stories have always had a raw deal. I’m a big fan of the form and so is everyone else involved with the prize. Working in the bookselling world, I see a lot of single author collections and anthologies getting published but sadly they never leave the shelves. They’re not marketed properly by book shops. Instead they’re tucked in a corner and left to gather dust.

A short story is an excellent way to discover new authors. You can just sample their work; explore the writer’s style and then move on to something different. It’s perfect medium for those with hectic lives as you don’t have to invest the same amount of time as you would in reading a novel. When my first child was born about four years ago, I started reading a lot of short stories. They’re almost exclusively what I read now, as with young children it’s all I can fit in.

The prize started as an offshoot of the Bristol Review of Books Magazine. We were looking to diversify a bit and to raise the profile of the magazine and we thought a competition would be the most interesting way of doing that. I’ve been overwhelmed by how well the prize has gone this year. I thought it would be successful but it has traveled a lot further than expected. One submission winged its way all the way from New Zealand. We also received stories from unexpected locations like Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates and Iran.

The judges were searching for originality above anything else. They wanted a convincingly tale but also something that you could tell the author had spent a lot of time on. Short story master Raymond Carver, said that in constructing a good piece of work every word and every comma had to be sweated over. We were looking for narratives that had generated buckets of the stuff. The quality of the entries was surprisingly high considering it was the prize’s first year. Many really strong stories that didn’t make it onto the longlist, let alone the shortlist. There are so many talented writers out there; the whole process has been very inspiring.

We were really worried at one point that we weren’t going to get everything done in time. Nearly all of the people involved in the project are working for free. We’ve all got other jobs to provide us with food and shelter so we’ve had to fit in organising the prize in our own time. The Anthology has been a real labour of love, I hope it shows.

The prize is all about providing undiscovered authors a leg-up towards bigger things. In the future we’d like to get to a point where we can fund local creative writing projects for young people, whether in schools, young offenders’ institutes or on other creative programmes. We aim to get more cultural and educational establishments involved next year. The cover for this year’s anthology has been designed by Femke De Jong, a final year illustration student at UWE. Many of the students there gave us advice about the design of the book. These kinds of partnerships are something we’d really like to build upon in the future.

Next year it’s going to be easier to enter, as we’re going accept submissions via email as well as online payment. We’re going to have to buy a giant printer. It would be nice to see some entries that really challenge the traditional prose format next time or even some graphic novel-style short stories. There’s a little hint for authors that want to enter next year! Most of all we really want to make Bristol the home of a massive literary project. It has been this year but next year we want it to be even bigger. The project is going to go global with Bristol right at the centre."


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