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Short Fiction: Short, Not Always Sweet, But Perfectly Formed

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Other than a fairly crucial commitment to brevity, what is it that makes a short story a short story? As the 2012 edition of the world's richest prize for the form - the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award - comes to a conclusion, I spoke with this year's shortlist to get their own insights into the art and craft of writing short fiction.

Emma Donoghue, the Irish writer whose novel Room became an international bestseller, makes the shortlist for 'The Hunt', a disturbing tale set during the American War of Independence. "It's inspired by a snippet of history" she says, "as my stories and novels often are: in this case, a passing reference in a historical study to a mass rape that happened in 1776."

What is that she thinks attracts authors to the form? "Writers often love writing short stories because they are small worlds: big while we're inside them, and offering all the satisfaction of researching and shaping a novel but in miniature, without the years of commitment. Romances rather than marriages..."

Tom Lee's story, 'The Current', examines the altered and sometimes strained relationship between father and son after the father has had treatment for a mysterious illness. Like Donoghue, he also finds the required level of focus attractive and so far he has written and published only short stories: "I like the concentration and intensity of it. I like that they tend to be suggestive, allusive and unresolved. I like that you can write something and if it doesn't work you haven't spent three or more years of your life killing yourself over it."

Linda Oatman High's 'Nickel Mines Hardware' considers the devastating effects of a high-school shooting on a traditional Amish community. She is a lifelong resident of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. "I was inspired to write the story after covering the Amish school shootings of 2006 for a newspaper in Lancaster and another one in Scotland. My husband's grandparents were Amish, and so I felt a personal connection to the people and their tragic loss."

What does she think distinguishes short stories from the novel? "Writing short stories differs from writing full-length fiction in that the writing feels more poetic to me. The story must be told and resolved in a concise manner, and every word matters."

Jean Kwok also feels that there is something in the creation of a short story that distances it from the process of novel writing: "Short stories are an illuminating and extremely difficult art form. Although many people think short stories are easier than novels, there are many ways in which short stories are more challenging. Because of the limited length, every sentence in a short story has to count, every scene has to add to the whole. There is more room for error in a novel. Furthermore, short stories explore the multitude of shadows in every writer's heart."

Her story, 'Where the Gods Fly', is certainly drawn from that shadowy place. It explores the hardships and choices that migrant families must face as they look to make a new life. Jean herself made the migrant's journey from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood.

Advocates for the short story have long stressed that the form has its own integrity and identity. But there is no doubt that writing short fiction can also be a valuable testing ground for ideas, styles and approaches that sometimes grow or morph into longer works: "'Where the Gods Fly' was my first foray into weaving together the themes of art, cultural differences and poverty" says Kwok. "It taught me a great deal and my next novel is also about a Chinese girl who becomes a professional dancer. It is a completely different story from this one but it shares the same roots."

The Irish short story writer and novelist Kevin Barry's shortlisted story, 'Beer Trip to Llandudno', follows a tight-knit group of ale-obsessed men travelling from Liverpool to Llandudno for their latest bittersweet tasting trip.

Barry explains the extreme fragility of a short story as it comes into existence. "A short story is a high wire act. Every sentence is a step along the line, and you can fall off and break your neck at any moment. It is a tighter, more controlled and in many ways more difficult form than the novel - you're working with your breath held, almost, as you try to engineer this very delicate contraption. Most stories wind up in pieces on the floor."

But if where they end up is precarious, the origin of many short stories is equally fractured and mysterious. And just because the form is short, doesn't necessarily mean that the investment in research is any less serious. Welsh novelist and poet Robert Minhinnick's story, 'El Aziz: Some Pages From His Notebooks', charts the progress of an Iraqi man who makes his way across Europe to the UK where he becomes a care home worker.

Here Minhinnick explains a little about the complex origins of the story: "In 1998 I was helping make a film about depleted uranium. It involved interviews with US and UK soldiers who had fought in the first Gulf War, and with Navajo and Hopi miners who actually dug out the uranium in Arizona. Our team decided to go to Iraq to film first-hand the impacts of the war. This was the time of the UN embargo on trade, so entry to Iraq was very difficult. We flew to Amman then took the bus across 'Badiet Esh Sham' - the Syrian desert."

Alongside this challenging trip, Minhinnick also drew inspiration from his father-in-law's experiences in the care system as well as his own travels around Andalusia, and the result is a short story that weaves current political conerns with the personal, the biographical, the historical and the mythical.

Having heard from the six shortlisted authors, it's perhaps right to leave the last word with Joanna Trollope who, as well as being on the judging panel for The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, is also the Chair of judges for the Orange Prize for Fiction:

"Short stories are notoriously difficult to pull off successfully, needing - as they do - to involve the readers during reading as well as to leave them with something to reflect on afterwards, and all in only a few thousand words."

You can read the shortlisted stories in an anthology published by Waterstones available to purchase in store and through waterstones.com. The winner will be announced on Friday 30 March.

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