Wednesday, 2 July 2014

For the Love of Short Stories

Some people love short stories. They just do. It's like loving apricots, or rainy days, or a good Traminer. It is an indisputable love, a love that is self-serving and self-perpetuating.

A bunch of these people gathered at Waterstones Piccadilly on 20th-22nd June for the inaugural London Short Story Festival - to listen, read, workshop, chatter, celebrate, share. It wasn't a fancy gathering. I'd say it was earnest and discreet. There were some big short story rock stars, as well as smaller people with just a story or two published. I think there was a good warm feeling in the air.

Organised by tireless short story champion Paul McVeigh and London's Spread the Word, there were talks about the weird and wonderful in the short story, about idea generation and the current boom in opportunities for short story publication, about compiling a collection, about voice, about approaching agents and publishers and writing for radio, about the current crop of brilliant Irish short story writers. These were delightfully chaired by - among others - Tania Hershman, Vanessa Gebbie, Paul McVeigh, Anita Sethi and Alex Preston.  There was a series of workshops with authors Claire Keegan, M.J. Hyland, Claire Wigfall, Frank O'Connor shortlister Colin Barrett and Jacob Ross, plus free writing workshops with expert teachers and a Speakers' Corner where stories were read to aficionados - by intriguing writers such as Ruby Cowling, winner of this year's White Review Short Story Prize. There were also special interviews with inspiring short story stars Claire Keegan, Jackie Kay and Colin Barrett.

I didn't manage to book tickets to all events but I did go to a good smattering (these were entirely affordable). Tania spoke to 'weird' authors Dan Powell, Adam Marek and Robert Shearman, who all read mesmerising pieces of their work. Vanessa spoke with a panel of 'gatekeepers' in the short story world, including Jacques Testard of The White Review, cool literary agent Carrie Kania and Jen Hamilton Emery of Salt Publishing. I was lucky enough to hear Claire Keegan read from her New Yorker story 'Foster' - I can still hear the lovely tones of Claire's voice and am reading her collection Walk the Blue Fields at the moment. I also participated in a workshop with M.J. Hyland who handed out a series of tricky (and daunting) writing exercises - to 'shorten the apprenticeship' that all of us are working through. And finally, I heard Frank O'Connor shortlister A.L. Kennedy, Helen Simpson and M.J. Hyland read from their work in a session aptly entitled 'In Praise of the Short Story', chaired by Alex Preston (wearing an excellent shirt).

Though I escaped a couple of times to cocktail down at Southbank or brunch with a friend, it was an intense weekend, spent within one of the most alluring bookshops I know, surrounded by the very books we are all trying to compose. It was indeed an inspiring, comforting, sometimes daunting Festival and I will be coming back next year. 

Congratulations Paul!

There's something very lively about short stories - you can be taken through a whole lifetime in just a few minutes. Festival Director Paul McVeigh