In 2016 we awarded Jo Tiddy first prize in our Short Story Competition for her entry Asase Ya. The judges said her story had a "standalone, simple and beautiful quality". We asked Jo to share her thoughts on her favourite books and tips for writing a good short story.
Where do you write?
I have a shed at the end of the garden, with a desk, a comfy chair and a radio. It's a little haven of serenity. I'm supposed to write there, well away from the temptations of the internet and the kettle and biscuits. So I usually write at the kitchen table. I'm easily distracted.
What was your favourite book as a child?
There are so many books that I loved as a child. We didn't have television, and I was a bookworm with no social skills. The Swallows and Amazons series was a favourite, and Humphrey Harman's "Tales told near a Crocodile", a book of African folk tales, now sadly out of print. (Guilty secret, as a teenager I loved Wilbur Smith....)
...and your favourite book as an adult?
I am utterly obsessed with Hilary Mantel. I re-read "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies" every year. But I also love a "Place of Greater Safety", which is a doorstop of a book, and requires a great deal of concentration!
What are you reading at the moment?
I usually have about three books on the go. As a bookseller I get advanced copies so there's always something new to read. I have loved Naomi Alderman's "The Power", a bit like Margaret Atwood on steroids, and a superb children's book by Kiran Millwood Hargreave "The Island at the End of Everything". Current favourite is Sarah Winman's "Tin Man", out in July. Lyrical and heartbreaking, and based in Oxford, which I know well, so it has a particular resonance.
What is your idea of a perfect short story?
I love the short form, and read a lot. Single authors, anthologies. They're perfect for dipping in and out of. I also love linked novels made up of shorts - Sara Taylor's "The Shore" and Petinna Gappah's "Rotten Row" are two that I've enjoyed recently.
You don't need a huge cast of characters or a complicated story arc. When writing them you're constrained (often) by word counts, so its a great exercise in brevity. No need for exposition or a huge backstory.
It's hard to pick an all time favourite, but it's probably Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery". The way she builds up the tension and sense of unease is astounding.
What has been your most memorable journey?
In 1989 I went to Kashmir. We stayed on a houseboat in Srinigar, travelled the backwaters by shikara, visited the Mughal gardens along the shore. The beauty and peacefulness of the Dal Lake has never left me, neither has the drive (in a rickety Morris Ambassdor) up into the mountains to the hill station at Gulmarg. I read and re-read" Heat and Dust" there. Shortly afterwards Kashmir was closed to tourists for a number of years. One day I'd love to return.
Where do you find inspiration for a story?
I find inspiration in all sorts of unlikely places. A photograph will catch my eye, or a phrase, taken out of context. A memory of a specific time and place, which I will then twist into something unrecognisable (well, I hope my family think that!). I people watch a lot. The obituary columns are an endless source of fascination. I wrote a story once based on an epitaph in our local churchyard. Something will stick in my head, and I'll needle away at it, usually whilst dog walking.
How do you celebrate finishing writing a story?
If I haven't got another story waiting in the wings to get going on, then a large glass of wine or two. Not in the mornings, obviously!
What is your favourite cup of tea?
Favourite tea? I went to school near the tea growing highlands of East Africa. Even as children we had a morning cuppa - strong Kenya tea with 3 spoons of sugar, in a plastic mug. The plastic mug gave it a particular "bouquet" that I can recall even now. My tastes have improved since then. Assam in the mornings. Earl Grey in the afternoons. Might push the boat out and have a spiced chai, but I make it from scratch on the stove so its a bit time consuming.
What is your number one writing tip?
Eavesdrop. Someone said "I once got bitten by a dog in Ghana." My story Asase Ya grew from that one phrase. Eavesdrop, then write it down. Write everything down!
I grew up in Kenya, living at the coast, and later up-country, close to where Karen Blixen had her coffee farm. I moved back to the UK in the late1980's and was horrified to discover Winter. For innumerable years I worked in local government, as a Planner and a Listed Buildings officer. I have also been a dinner lady and a gardener, which was a lot more fun. I now have the absolute best job in the world ever, working in an independent bookshop in Thame, Oxfordshire. I write on my days off, if the laundry pile allows. I live in rural Ickford, Buckinghamshire with my long suffering husband, two daughters and a very large dog.
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