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By Hannah Connolly
nder leafy oaks and a gently lit canopy pitched in central London’s Bedford Square, the shortlisted authors of this year's Women's Prize For Fiction Award read extracts from their novels. With September temperatures of 29 degrees, the tent buzzed with the flight of mosquitos - though the palpable energy of a tent full of eager writers buzzed louder.
“Just because we have stepped forward does not mean we can’t step back,” shared host, prolific author and Founding Director of the Women’s Prize, Kate Mosse, who kicked off the proceedings of the event and urged the audience to continue to support women authors.
Through their fiction, the nominees for the 26th award had tackled subject matters from rural poverty and addiction issues, to the age of the internet. Each sharing their unique voice, both through their writing and in their answers to questions from the crowd.
Though wisdom overflowed, one quote in particular stood out to us at The Stack: “The brave thing is to say this is a novel, this is an essay, this is a memoir, because that makes it such,” said Patricia Lockwood, author of No One Is Talking About This. Swap the word novel out for anything you wish to achieve and we think you’d agree, it is a pretty good mantra to stand by.
Below, The Stack has collated all of the best quotes from the evening. Words of wisdom to help shape your own words. The five writers, all at different stages in their career, offer different perspectives towards the art of writing. If you’re looking for inspiration, want to know how the writers keep motivated, or simply want to know their methods, read on.
Susanna Clarke author of Piranese and Winner of the 2021 Women’s Prize For Fiction
Susanna Mary Clarke is an English author known for her debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a Hugo Award-winning alternative history. Clarke began Jonathan Strange in 1993 and worked on it during her spare time. She is 61 years old.
“This was a book that I had the idea for in my 20s and that was about 40 years ago now. I had read the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, who writes these beautiful, jewel, short pieces of fiction about labyrinths and worlds and I wanted to write something like that. I had ten pages that had been written on a typewriter and I just had no idea how to write it. So over the years I kept noodling away at it”
“I thought I had created nothing at all and I took it to my husband and said to him please tell me if you think anyone would have a clue about what is going on and he said they might - so it went from there”
“It all stems from things I love really, something strange but familiar at the same time. It was built out of things I was obsessed with - buildings that go on forever”
“When I write I don’t think about the genre - that's the publisher's problem to figure out which shelf to put it on - I just start with the story and honour it as best as I can.”
“What you can learn from fiction is what it is like to be another person from the inside, you can see the story from someone who is entirely different to you and understand”
“Piranesi was a character that I missed when he had gone. There are a few honeymoon days once the book is done, but I remember coming out of my house early one morning and seeing a sunrise over the village and thinking he would’ve enjoyed this so much. I really missed him at that point”
Patricia Lockwood, author of No One Is Talking About This
Patricia Lockwood is an American poet, novelist, and essayist. Her memoir, Priestdaddy, was named one of the 10 best books of 2017 by The New York Times Book Review. She is 39 years old.
“I started it [No one Is Talking About This] because I had a lot of inner posts I didn’t think belonged online and I wanted to write about the internet. I just didn't know where to put it, the novel preserves that moment”
“I thought people would tell me not to put parts in because they were so raw”
“I didn’t write a poem the entire time I was writing the novel. I was like “where did they go?” My poems went into the book”
“I do not feel a pressure to write traditionally, I have made my own idiosyncratic path but that is all I know, it's not intentional I'm not trying to break new ground”
“With fiction, or when you read fiction, it is someone else's imagination you are experiencing… you walk this other human brain like you walk through a house - down corridors, through halls and you discover things and find things - in fiction that's what you get”
“The brave thing is to say this is a novel, this is an essay, this is a memoir, because that makes it such”
Cherie Jones, author of How The One Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
Cherie Jones was born in Barbados in 1974. A graduate of the MA program at Sheffield Hallam University, she was awarded a fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center. Her short fiction has been published in PANK, Reflex Fiction and the Feminist Wire. She is 47 years old.
“If you should learn to love a man he is probably not the man you should be loving” from How The One Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
“This book has been a labour of love for me, this story chose me, I don’t feel like I had a choice. I feel as though I receive my stories. I was living in London and was on a long commute home and Lala popped into my head and I felt compelled to tell her story. It was difficult to write and I had to put it down at times but I felt I had to write it”
“For me there is a point in my projects where I appreciate I am loyal to nothing but the story.”
“Barbados is like a beautiful woman, everyone knows she is gorgeous and all these things that people consider beautiful. Everyone ignores that she’s late, that she’s not a good friend or a good conversationalist. Barbados is a complex place and it was important for me to show this through this story. The truth sometimes means the not so great parts”
“Writing is intrinsic to who I am, whereas law was a career path that I took”
Yaa Gyasi, author of Transcendent Kingdom
Yaa Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American novelist. Her debut novel Homegoing, published in 2016, won her, at the age of 26, the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35" honors for 2016 and the American Book Award. She was awarded a Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature in 2020. She is 32 years old.
“The why and how of this novel started with a friend who was a neuroscientist that studied depression and addiction. After my first novel I wondered how people ever wrote a second thing. So I met this friend and I was amazed by what she did and I wondered if I could make fiction about this. So I began to think about science, addiction and depression in a family context”
“I had written the first book about some of the darkest moments in history and I think I had developed these mechanisms to deal with subjects. To give yourself lots of breaks, mindfulness, and therapy helps too”
(Regarding pressure following the acclaim of her first book) “Fortunately I didn't feel external pressure from the people that I know but I felt I had put everything into that first novel so there was internal pressure from myself.”
“I felt like I put everything into that novel so where do you go from there? What helped was learning how to say no to things and return to the quiet place and get back to myself and to the page, but figuring out how to do that was a hard time”
“Fiction requires you to think outside of yourself and it is about doing things with care - a reader can tell when you do something without care”
Claire Fuller, author of Unsettled Ground
Claire Fuller is an Oxfordshire-based author who won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for her debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days. She also won the BBC Opening Lines Short Story Competition in 2014 and the Royal Academy & Pin Drop Short Story Award in 2016. She is 54 years old. Read our interview with Claire here, on how she structures her day.
“It wasn’t that I chose anything, for me books start with a person or a place. I don’t start with a plan, I had no idea I would write about rural poverty but I found this abandoned caravan near my home - in fact my son found it and he said ‘Mum you have to come see this you love weird places’”
“The idea of rural poverty was something that was put upon this character, rather than something I had intended the book be about”
“A book is made in the editing. It will take another year after completion to edit. To put in the breadcrumbs and trails that lead to the ending” “There is a huge vulnerability in writing especially when you give it to other people or when you want other people out there to want to read it. It depends on your environment. I discovered a peer group and we were sharing our work and ideas in a safe space - your work doesn't immediately need to go out there”
“I don't have a plan, it's not mystical, once I’m three-quarters of the way through the first draft then the characters are very real to me and I know them”
All the best bits from the Women’s Prize For Literature shortlist readings.
By Hannah Connolly
Galleries have reopened and the city is pulsing once again with the return of culture, art, music, people. We hear from the women leading the art scene on what galleries they’re heading to this summer and what they’re most excited to see