The winner of this year’s BBC National Short Story Award will be announced this evening. Of the five shortlisted stories I’m rooting for “The Edge of the Shoal” by Cynan Jones. You can listen to the story on the BBC website or get the collection from Comma press. Thanks to Frances Gough for arranging my review copy and Q&A with Cynan Jones.
The feelings are quite complex. On one hand it's incredible. The story gets to a far wider audience, is lifted off the page and broadcast alongside other great stories. There's real validation in that. But on an individual level, £15,000 is enough for my family and I to live for a year. It would allow me time for the next big piece of writing and there's nothing I can do to affect the decision of the judges. Just wait.
“The Edge of the Shoal” is about a man who sets out to get lunch (albeit in a kayak) and ends up fighting for his life. Is the survival theme of particular interest to you as a writer?
All the shortlisted stories are about survival. Perhaps everything is, ultimately, so yes, that underpins my writing. But in "The Edge of the Shoal" the question is why he fights for his life, beyond the physical imperative. I think the idea of relevance and our place in the world probably interests me more consciously.
The protagonist has taken his deceased father’s ashes with him while, back home, his partner is pregnant. I wondered if his heightened awareness of life and death at this particular point in time might have somehow made him less alert to the warning signs of imminent danger?
He just gets it wrong. When the warning signs come he's already too far out. Before that, he's on a seemingly placid sea.
Your prose is extremely lyrical, with beautiful descriptions and gorgeous imagery. Does that come easily to you or is it something you have to work quite hard to achieve? How many drafts did this story need?
I've worked hard on the technical ability to write things as I want them to be. Armed with that, and because I intimately know the things I write about, I generally don't have to fight with the imagery on the page.
The challenge of this story was structure, and working with very severe narrative constraints. It's a distillation of Cove, a short novel of 11,500 words. That short novel is the most difficult thing I've written and went through countless drafts. The short story happened relatively easily after that.
(Please note the words 'generally' and 'relatively' in the above answer!)
There’s a significant overlap between “The Edge of the Shoal” and your latest novel, Cove. What, in your opinion, differentiates the novel, if anything, from the short story form?
In shorter forms, every word has to be doing a job. There's no room for digression, or reflection, or explanation. All of that has to be packaged into the words on the page.
The ending is ambiguous; do you know whether your character makes it to safety and, if so, at what point in the writing did you decide?
I know absolutely and did from the beginning.
Wishing Cynan the best of luck with the award. You can read my review of Cove, where I say it seems more like a short story than a novel!
My own latest short story publication, “Life Lesson”, is now out courtesy of Foliate Oak.
And if you like flash fiction, why not head over to the Rough Writers Rodeo Fest too?