photo by Roy Mattappallil
by Jane Hayward
The plan was for me to arrive at Middleton Hall Gallery, at the University of Hull, around 5.15 pm. I was to read my short story ‘The Way to a Man’s Heart’ in front of a camera before the launch of the first Lightship Anthology and the prize giving ceremony. Lightship Publishing is a new venture of Simon Kerr’s, the convener of the Creative Writing MA at Hull, who has taught at the universities of Bath Spa, Reading and Leeds. His aim in publishing the Lightship Anthology is to discover and mentor the best new literary voices from around the world. And that, apparently, included me!
It is all very well to write and to publish one’s stories, but increasingly, writers are called upon to promote their work at live events. At some point, an author has to bite the bullet and read his or her work in front of an audience, an unnerving experience, particularly for new writers like myself. In this case, the audience consisted of Hull University students, shortlisted competitors, and fifty or so other writers – including a number of prominent names, plus a video camera. Daunting, to say the least.
My only experience of presenting my work to an audience was limited to readings of a novel synopsis at a Spread the Word event in London, and an extract from my work-in-progress during my time on the Chichester MA programme. I had a ‘secret weapon,’ however. Not only I had done some acting, but at the age of ten I had been entered into a talent competition by my mother for which I read the poem The King’s Breakfast in our village hall. On that momentous occasion, I had won 2nd prize.
This time, however, I had won 1st prize for my own story, and Simon Kerr would be giving me a cheque for a thousand pounds in front of an audience which included Lightship’s Honorary Patrons Sir Andrew Motion and Hilary Mantel, and the Head of Books at United Agents, Simon Trewin, who served as one of the judges for the First Chapter competition. Also in the audience, was the poet and translator Alessandro Gallenzi, founder of Alma Books, which – it is hoped – might one day publish my novel. No pressure, then, to read well.
Any anxiety I felt beforehand, though, was only compounded by the taxi ride to the university campus. What should have been a twenty-minute journey turned into a forty-five-minute marathon and when we finally arrived, we were half an hour late. Much to my relief, the filming of the reading had been cancelled in my absence and I was able to retire to a nearby pub (with my husband) to drink rum and Coke and soothe my frazzled nerves before the awards ceremony began.
In the Gallery at Middleton Hall, the shortlisted authors and others in the audience were gathering. Immediately we arrived, a dashing young Jamaican wearing a trendy suit and a scarf which draped around his neck and down to his knees, seduced me with the news that he had read my story and my blog, On Being Rejected. My blog? How had he found that? He smiled and waved an elegant hand decorated with two huge silver rings. He had Googled my name and found me on Thresholds. Hurray for THRESHOLDS!
I smiled back. And he was? Roland Watson Grant, writer of the shortlisted story ‘The Sketcher,’ who had just flown in from Jamaica. This was his first visit to England, he told me, but he had to fly back straight after the ceremony as his wife was just about to give birth to their first son. I was amazed and delighted to meet him.
The winners of the poetry and flash fiction awards had also made it to Hull, and Simon’s introductory speech left us in no doubt that we were involved in the creation of a great new literary venture. Excited to be in at the very start, we all vowed to enter our work in the following year’s competition.
The readings were delivered without a hitch, with both Roland and the young South African writer Kiare Ladner, raising laughter as well as applause. The other readers were Angela France – winner of the poetry prize, Peter Crockett – winner of the flash fiction prize, and Helen Holmes – shortlisted for her amusing story about a doomed budgerigar.
After more wine and chat, we were all bussed to an Italian restaurant for dinner where I found myself sitting next to Sir Andrew Motion and opposite Alessandro Gallenzi. Alessandro, being Italian, made much light-hearted banter about the food in my story but there was a tricky moment when he told me how he’d checked all of my Italian dialogue very carefully. I wasn’t brave enough to ask if he’d found any mistakes but if he had, he was too polite to say.
The champagne flowed on through the evening and noise levels grew as literary friendships were forged and conversations became more and more animated. But as the clock approached midnight, I feared that I might suddenly change from the literary prize-winner I had become, back into an ordinary wanna-be writer, and we left the party at a quarter to twelve – before the fairy-tale ended.
There was, however, still the matter of the recording which my late arrival to the university had scuppered. The next day, still feeling the glow from the awards dinner, I presented myself at the home of the cameraman where I was filmed reading my entire story – thirty-three minutes in total. As I reached the final line, I came to the end of what had been a tremendous experience – from the award itself and the distinguished literary company at the dinner which followed, to the reading of my story. For the first time, I felt like a real writer.
Submissions are now being accepted for the 2012 Lightship competitions. Judges are Sean O’Brien for poetry; Vanessa Gebbie for flash fiction; Andrew Crumey for the short story, and Alessandro Gallenzi, MJ Hyland and David Miller for the first novel chapter. Anyone interested in entering should visit the Lightship website for further details. The deadline for submissions to each of the four competition is 30th June.
Jane’s winning story ‘The Way to a Man’s Heart’ and the other ten shortlisted stories are all published in Lightship Anthology 1 (Alma Books, 2011).