I’m not a great baker, but during the lockdown, like many, I’ve been baking more than usual, trying out new recipes, experimenting more than usual. It’s a dull grey Saturday afternoon, early June. I’m measuring out the ingredients for a carrot cake, to cheer myself up, to fill the house with the sweet smell of cake. A friend had suggested adding a tin of puréed pineapple to the cake mix to improve the texture. I’ll give that a go, I thought, anything for a bit of variety. I’m looking at a carrot cake recipe on my phone when a number I don’t recognise, and the word Madrid flashes onto the screen. I don’t know anyone in Spain but remember that I’ve been shortlisted for a writing competition which is based in Madrid. Dare I hope?
This year, for the first time ever, I submitted a story for a competition outside Ireland. The competition was the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize. In May I was thrilled when I found out I had made the shortlist. I knew that whatever happened, my story would be published in their Eleven Stories anthology and would by read by the four judges – Rachel Cusk, Claire Louise Bennett, Niven Govinden and Ottessa Moshfegh. The shortlisting was a lovely boost, it really lifted my spirits during the lockdown.
My story was what you might call an auto-fictional piece. I had been working on it, on and off, for a couple of years and it had been through several incarnations. I struggled with finding a form that best suited the material and the story I wanted to tell. Straightforward prose wasn’t doing it justice I felt, so I experimented, alternating between a prose and poetry form. Over time, it evolved into a sort of hybrid.
I was also guided to some extent by the essence of a James Joyce quote I had come across. In a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver in 1926, Joyce wrote that ‘one part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.’ So, with a nod to Joyce, my story begins on the Feast of the Epiphany and is narrated using a diary format. As any short story is essentially an incision in time, deciding on a time span was key. I read a lot of short stories and am endlessly fascinated by the way short story writers handle time. While an Alice Munro story seems to effortlessly span generations, a William Trevor story which takes place over the course of a day, can reveal so much about a character’s life (I thoroughly recommend listening to the New Yorker podcast of Trevor’s A Day, which is beautifully read by Jhumpa Lahiri). Once I had decided on a calendar year, to use an architectural phrase, form followed function. Within that framework I was free to select fragments from the narrator’s diary to best tell her story.
I sent the story out early this year, and having received a few polite rejections, and encouraged by a notable mention in another competition, I reworked it and wondered where I might send it next.
Late in March, I was idly googling articles on Rachel Cusk – I’m a fan – and a photograph of her lead me to the Desperate Literature Prize. Luckily for me, as it turned out, the deadline had been extended. I bought and downloaded one of their Eleven Stories anthologies to see what kind of writing they published, and it occurred to me that my story Excerpts from a Pale Blue Notebook with Silver Stars might suit its verve. So, I submitted my story and hoped for the best.
Fast forward to June and I’m beyond thrilled to have my baking session interrupted by that call from Madrid. The caller is Terry Craven from Desperate Literature bookshop, telling me I have won the competition. Inchoate, I listen as he talks about the judges’ comments, prizes, (part of which is a week at the Civitella Ranieri retreat, a 15th century castle in Umbria). I actually pinch myself after the call – my lockdown dreams have been quite lucid so I cannot be sure). After the call I look around the kitchen, the cake ingredients laid out, the bright orange hill of grated carrot. In a state of mild delirium, I manage to finish the cake. I even remember to purée and add the tinned pineapple. And later that evening, after telling my loved ones the good news and too excited to eat dinner, I pour myself a gin and tonic and cut myself a slice of cake. The pineapple, as it happens, was an excellent idea. Deviation is a good thing, I think.
The Desperate Literature Prize rewards innovative and experimental fiction writing and aims to give winners the most visibility possible for their writing. They normally organize readings for the all of the shortlisted writers in Madrid, Paris (Shakespeare and Company. hello) and London. As none of these gatherings would be possible at the moment, there’ll be an online launch and some readings for now. As part of the prize, I get to have a consultation with Charlotte Seymour from Andrew Nurnberg Associates. And just yesterday, Partisan Hotel magazine https://partisanhotel.co.uk/ offered to publish my story.
Maybe you’re reading this and maybe you’re looking for a good home for a short story that’s a little offbeat or idiosyncratic. If so, you might consider checking out next year’s Desperate Literature Prize. To get a flavour of the kind of stories they publish (and for less than the price of a coffee) you can download and read a pdf of Eleven Stories here: https://desperateliterature.com/product/eleven-stories-2020-download/. There will be a limited edition risograph booklet, published later this year. I look forward to holding it.
(c) Angela Finn