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In Praise of the Short Story ~ A Conversation with Joe Melia August 22, 2011

Posted by Patricia Ann McNair in Blog posts, Conversations, Things and Stuff.
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The Bristol Short Story Prize out of the United Kingdom is one of the few international awards that specifically celebrates the short story form. With generous guidelines that allow writers from anywhere in the world to submit more than one story–so long as the writer is over 16 years old–and prizes that include publication and cash (or gift certificate,) the Bristol Short Story Prize does more than its share to support short story writers in their endeavors.

At the heart of this operation is Joe Melia. A man who has spent a good part of his life surrounded by books and people who read (he worked for years in bookshops around Bristol,) Joe continues to make a difference in writers’ and readers’ lives by coordinating the Bristol Short Story Prize and the brand new ShortStoryVillejamboree.

Recently, Joe was kind enough to spend some time in conversation with me about reading and writing short stories, and about the prize and the jamboree. Here’s what I found out:

PMc: The Bristol Short Story Prize, one of the most prestigious awards for short story writers, has been around since 2007, yes? Have you been part of it since the beginning? 

JM: Thanks for calling it ‘prestigious’, Patty, really appreciate it! Yes, we’ve just completed our fourth competition and published our fourth anthology. I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved from the start. I was working in a Bristol bookshop and had a meeting with three Bristol publishers who mentioned the idea along with lots of other stuff. As a short story fan it was a wonderful thing to hear.

PMc: Why did you choose to become so deeply involved in the honouring of the short story form? What are some of your favorite short stories? Why these?

JM: For the last decade or so I’ve read short stories more than anything else. I love the intense, all-consuming reading experience short stories provide. You have to surrender completely to a short story when you read it and that’s fairly unique, I think. There’s no cruising or drifting like there can be with a longer work. And that’s what makes short stories stand out for me. As a reader you are completely involved from the first word and that doesn’t change on second, third, or fourth readings. Reading a short story is a massive commitment, and also a joyful one.

As for favourite stories, there are thousands. Far, far too many to mention.  Other than the ones we’ve published, a few favourites that spring to mind are: ‘Bezhin Lea’ by Ivan Turgenev, ‘Barking’ by Emily Perkins, ‘The Chain’ by Tobias Wolff, Judy Budnitz’s  ‘Preparedness’, ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ by Eudora Welty, ‘Go Away’ by Tania Hershman, ‘My Oedipus Complex’ by Frank O’Connor, The Distances’  Julio Cortazar, ‘Sweet Memory Will Die’ by A.L.Kennedy, ‘The Brown Pint of Courage’ by James Meek, ‘Misery’ by Anton Chekhov, ‘The Other Mr Panossian’ by Nik Perring, ‘A Small Good Thing’ by Raymond Carver, ‘Brownies’ by Z.Z. Packer, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ by Virginia Woolf, ‘A Real Durwan’ by Jhumpa Lahiri, ‘The Lunch-Box’ by Italo Calvino, ‘One Hundred Rupees’ by Ivan Bunin, ‘Harriet Elliot’ by Robin Black and ‘King’ by Alan Beard. There are many, many, many more. Have, also, read loads of great stories recently by Seth Fried, Kirsty Logan, Danielle Evans, Stuart Evers, Amelia Gray, Tom Vowler, Patricia Engel, Laura van den Berg and plenty of other writers – it’s such an exciting time to be a short story reader right now.

PMc: An impressive list. Can you tell us some about ShortStoryVille and how it came to be? What is your role in that—its inception and its execution?

JM: We wanted to find different ways to share our enthusiasm for short stories and ShortStoryVille is the result. We, also, wanted to get local schools reading more short stories and thinking about them. Inviting students to work with writers we have published—to produce work in different genres based on stories we’ve published—seemed like a great way of getting lots of different people together and also introducing school students to really exciting stories. And then putting them on the same bill as really established writers and publishers was the obvious way to go. There has been an explosion in short story activity in the last few years and we want to be right in the thick of it all.

I helped to shape the idea, I suppose. Two big influences were seeing Dave Eggers at the Hay Festival a few years ago, there was a great atmosphere and not a furrowed brow in sight as there can be at festivals form time to time. He was introduced by Zadie Smith and it felt like a really special, unique occasion. Dave Eggers was humble, hilarious, witty, irresistible. He chatted for a bit then read a story narrated by a pizza-eating dog called Stephen. The place was filled with an amazing exuberance. If we can eventually get within touching distance of capturing a tiny molecule of that spirit with ShortStoryVille then that would be brilliant.

And reading John Carey’s What Good are the Arts? had a big effect. It’s an absolutely amazing, stimulating, provocative book – immensely quotable and wise, and inspired the idea of getting schools involved.

PMc: How do you make time to stay current with your reading with all of the work you must have to do to coordinate these events? Do you carry a book in your bag at all times? Can you tell us a little about your reading habits (where, when, how you choose your books, etc.)?

JM: I nearly always have several books on the go at the same time. Short stories are great for that—overlapping and mixing up. Tend to read at home and in the evenings more than during the day. Choosing what to read happens in a variety of ways. There’s nothing better than a browse in a bookshop, discovering new writers and taking a punt on something. The internet is such a fascinating place with so many enthusiasts sharing recommendations and that’s probably where I tend to get the majority of triggers for reading choices. Sites like the brilliant theshortreview.com and Scott Pack’s meandmyshortstories blog are great for making readers aware of just how much great stuff is out there. Twitter is also a great source; I’ve discovered loads of great writers from Twitter recommendations.

PMc: Do you consider reading to be an important part of a society, of a culture? Why or why not?

JM: Reading helps in loads of different ways. It encourages and inspires understanding, empathy, creativity, knowledge gathering and so much more. So the answer is yes.

PMc: What other reading do you make time to do besides the short story? Dirty pleasures?

JM: I read the occasional novel and some non-fiction every now and again and try to read a few pages of John Carey’s What Good are the Arts? most weeks (yes, it is that brilliant). I love reading reviews too – not just in newspapers and magazines but online blogs too. You often get the most sincere and committed comment from the latter. As for ‘Dirty Pleasures’ I’m not sure what would qualify. I’m a big cricket fan and there’s an ex-player who writes about the sport for the Guardian newspaper, Mike Selvey, and he’s a champ of a writer…wish he’d have a go at some short stories, actually. Does that qualify?

PMc: Sure. So Joe, what is the hardest part of the work you do for the prize and for the festival?

JM: I wouldn’t call any of it hard, really, it’s a such a pleasure. Perhaps having to let some stories go when we’re putting the longlist together can be tough in a sense but I wouldn’t call any of it hard.

PMc: And are you writing short stories, too?

JM:  Did a bit of dabbling many years ago, but that’s long gone. Much, much happier reading, promoting and championing.

PMc: Thank you Joe Melia, for your support of the short story. Always good to have a champion in the corner. Thanks, too, for taking the time to talk with us. Good luck with next year’s prize and jamboree.

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