Sydney Writers’ Festival 2011: Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Nominees at Varuna

New Voices From Across the Globe

David Brooks — author, poet, short story writer, essayist and co-editor of Southerly hosted this event in which three contenders for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize , read from and spoke about their works. It turned into a celebration of the short story form which is appropriate as this year is the Year of the Short Story (YOSS 2011) and two of the shortlisted works are short story collections.

Introducing the authors by saying he’d read their works with delight and that they were all already winners by having won their divisional first book awards, Brooks lauded the Sydney Writers’ Festival as a globally recognised literary event. He also believes the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is in some ways more important than the Booker because it tells us what we should be reading right now.

Cynthia Jele, a former short story prize winner, read from her debut novel  Happiness is a four-letter word which has been described as Sex in the City set in Joburg. Craig Cliff  (A Man Melting) and Katrina Best (Bird Eat Bird) both read from their short story collections.

The multiple voices from Best’s humourous, sharply observed  story Lunch Hour stuck in my mind — it was about people’s reactions to watching a pelican devour a pigeon and she thinks her former occupation as a screenplay writer has helped her with the creation of dialogue. That said, eavesdropping on London bus passengers has also come in handy.


Commonwealth Writers' Prize Nominees 2011

L to R: Katrina Best, Craig Cliff, Cynthia Jele ©PG


Brooks asked the writers where their impulse to write comes from, where they caught the ‘disease of writing’?

Best was a story writer in her early childhood and read a lot, then went into magazine journalism and wrote screenplays. Cliff said he started early on as ‘a dreamer and a fantasist’, wrote terrible teenage poetry then aged 15 or 16 stumbled across  writers who inspired him, studied literature and commerce and still has the day job to pay the bills.

For Jele, always a reader, writing happened ‘by chance’ during the time she was ‘avoiding responsibility of being a grown up by globetrotting’. She attended a reading by one of her favourite authors, Elizabeth Berg, and after reading a paragraph, Berg asked her audience to submit another one or two paragraphs which she would then read aloud; Jele went home and finished  writing the entire story. She had been reading a lot of chick lit authors including Marian Keyes and Jennifer Weiner and decided she’d like to write in this genre.

Brooks opened an interesting discussion about the short story saying when he mentions to his publisher that he has a new collection they look down at the mouth and say: ‘you know they don’t sell?’ So will there be a resurgence of this form?

Best was cold-called by an agent but was asked did she have a novel. Two agents have approached her and one has said the short story is a much harder sell. Puzzling she says, as in Canada, the biggest award is the Giller Prize (a very generous novel or short story prize)and two of the works shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize are short story collections. Katrina’s book is published by a small indie publisher in Toronto and her last story was a novella ; it was cut after she was told it resembled the ‘small press War and Peace.’

Jele says that novels are essentially shorter stories woven together in some way as in her novel where the lives of the four women she writes about are connected and relate to each other.

Cliff says he has ‘had his arm twisted to write a novel’. He had a story published in an anthology and when he asked the publisher if they would like to see his other short stories,  was  told that they wouldn’t sell, that he wouldn’t make money or become famous. Publishers see short story collections as ‘a loss leader’, says Cliff and he was told to write more to make the book look fatter so it looked like a novel as he was a few stories short. He says genres and word length restrictions are driven by publishers but it’s encouraging to see that New Zealand holds a competition for short stories over 10, 000 words and for stories under 1000 words.

Hoping to see the short story thrive!

© Paula Grunseit 2011

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