BookBrunch | An interview with KJ Orr, winner of this year’s BBC National Short Story Competition

As many of you may know, I love short stories. Reading them, writing them, eating them… Ok, maybe I don’t literally imbibe them but there’s a definite consumption process involved in perusing a short story.

So you can imagine how excited I was this week when I got to interview KJ Orr, the winner of this year’s BBC National Short Story Award. As always, read the full article over on BookBrunch or enjoy the excerpt below.

KJ-Orr c_ Lottie Davies.jpgThe big book buzz this week has been about the 2016 BBC National Short Story Competition winner, KJ Orr, and her winning story, ‘Disappearances’. A debut author, Orr beat a heavyweight shortlist including Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel and Costa Poetry Award shortlisted Lavinia Greenlaw. Here, Orr discusses what it feels like to have won, how she came across short stories, and their value to readers.

“It feels pretty incredible and still quite hard to believe,” says Orr about winning the award. “I was settled on the idea that I hadn’t won so I was not prepared at all. Doing the live broadcast directly after was surreal. Most writers are fairly introverted, quiet souls, then there are moments where you have to come out and put on a public hat. I just hoped I made some sense because I wasn’t really prepared to say anything!”

Orr’s winning story, ‘Disappearances’, comes from her debut collection, Light Box, published in February this year by Daunt Books, which employed her as a bookseller many years ago and with which she has an excellent working relationship as an author. “Daunt has been part of my life since I made the decision to be a writer, really. They’ve been doing incredible work for short stories, making brave choices and supporting work that not every publisher will support because the short story market is tough.”

Orr says that it’s wonderful to have won the award as a debut author, especially as another of the collection’s stories, The Human Circadian Pacemaker, was shortlisted for the same award in 2011.  “I went into it feeling pretty proud that I had two shortlisted stories in my first collection. When I was shortlisted in 2011 I was really just starting to gather stories for a collection, and then to win the year that the book comes out, it’s framed my collection in a really lovely way. It takes time: I don’t write quickly. As every writer knows, there’s so much time spent just working away quietly, that these sorts of endorsements mean a lot in terms of the reach of your work and feeling that people are responding to it.”

Even so, Orr was looking forward to the night purely as a fan of short stories. “What’s wonderful about the award is that it’s grown over the years. This year, they had a discussion about the winning short story live on BBC Radio 4, which is fantastic. I think that’s the first time they’ve done that. I went along to the ceremony very much as a long-term short story lover, thinking how fantastic that they were going to dedicate the whole show to the form.”

On writing
Orr was first inspired to write ‘
Disappearances’ during a trip to Argentina. “I saw an old man sitting alone in a cafe and he was very striking, partly because of his posture and his focus and his solitude in particular,” Orr explains. “Every now and then you’ll see a face that really sticks with you. I carried him with me and I wanted to write something for him. Gradually, I started to develop a voice and get inside his world. I can’t remember how I got to the point of deciding he was a surgeon, but I think so often with a character it’s a case of locating yourself in their lives. I think the solitude – that sense of separation and some kind of longing – became important elements of his story. Then Argentina’s history of the 70s and 80s became very relevant in terms of what lies beneath the story.”

As often happens with her work, it took Orr time to formulate the story. “I’ve thought of it for several years as a gathering of different elements. Often, there’ll be one – I’m not sure I like the word inspiration – but there’ll be one tiny fragment that will sit in a notebook or my mind for a very long time. Then it’s a waiting game: there needs to be more than one thing to build a story. Once there is that gathering or clustering of two or three elements, something starts to happen and the story begins to take shape. Over-planning is not necessarily your friend. For some writers it works, but for me I have to be pretty patient and wait for that conversation to start happening between these elements before I can start writing.

“For me, writing is to do with empathetic connection,” she continues. “What you would hope is that very often you would be writing about an experience that is nothing like your own, but somewhere in your life, somewhere along the way, you will have experienced something that gives you a connective bond with the character you’re developing. Without that empathetic connection, it would be very hard to develop characters with a feeling of conviction.”

Orr tends to write in the morning when she can. “It’s very hermetical: I roll out of bed, make coffee, and ignore the rest of the world until I’m done,” she says. “A lot of writers have talked about that time of the day as being very productive because your critical mind is not yet completely up to speed, so it means you can access a really interesting threshold or mantle in the imaginative and emotional space. You’re just involved in a difference space as a writer.”

Editing is a “different hat”, and Orr finds it important not to get the two mixed up. It’s a task for the afternoon brain, ideally… [READ MORE]