On 12 October, Big Issue in the North announced Anthony Howcroft as the winner of The Award for Short Fiction at a special event held at The International Anthony Burgess Foundation as part of Manchester Literature Festival. The Award was sponsored by Creative Industries Trafford and Waterside Arts Centre and had raised funds for The Big Issue in the North Trust. Judged by Kevin Gopal (Editor of The Big Issue in the North), David Gaffney (acclaimed short fiction writer) and Jamie McGarry (Editor of Valley Press) the winning short story, Killer, is featured in the anthology of ten shortlisted writers produced by Valley Press.
We decided to ask Anthony about winning the award and how he was inspired to write Killer.
Congratulations on winning Big Issue in the North’s first Award for Short Fiction, Anthony. Killer, your story, really impressed the judges and David Gaffney described it as “a sinister and disturbing look at false memories, buried secrets, and hidden transgressions”. Without giving too much away how would you describe the story?
I think David sums it up very well. It’s a story that starts off with an innocuous dinner party, and turns into something much darker as the characters discuss recent news about the police finding a missing person’s body. For me, it’s a story about how we live beneath masks, how there are situations where we try to stay calm and present a good front when their can be turmoil in our minds.
Can you give us a little background on yourself?
That’s a tough question. I’m all sorts of things – maybe that’s why I’m a writer. I earn my keep in the technology industry. I used to be a programmer many, many years ago, and since then I’ve been selling and marketing technology to large corporate accounts. I got involved in a start-up in Southern California, lived in Laguna, Orange County for a while, and we successfully sold that company to Microsoft. For the last few years I’ve been managing a Microsoft Sales Team across Europe, Middle East and Africa. Lots of travel, lots of interesting people to meet and work with. I’m also married and have a nine-year old daughter who’s amazing, and then I love to do other stuff – writing, playing the guitar, running, I used to do some flying but I just couldn’t get the time to keep it up. Last year I discovered I’m left handed, which is sad to discover when you’re in your forties, because I’ve already learnt to do everything right-handed.
How does a writer discover he is left handed in their forties? That itself sounds like a short story.
I guess there were plenty of clues along the way – instinctively trying to catch things with my left hand for example, or putting my first contact lens in with my left index finger. The final realisation came about in the wilds of Montana last summer, and involved a double-barrelled 22-calibre shotgun, but given my story is called Killer may be I shouldn’t be talking about this incident today.
What originally prompted you to write Killer??
I was in the car driving to the airport, and there was a news story about how the police had arrested a man for a murder committed thirty years before. It was the second or third such case that had been in the news recently as the police had been going back through their unsolved murder cases and using modern DNA techniques to re-evaluate them. Something about the news resonated with me, and that night I dreamt the story, with myself in a primary role. I felt very uncomfortable the next day, wondering if I really had committed some terrible crime in my past – it was one of those dreams that was hard to shake off. The story is a retelling of the dream, if you like, and I tried to induce that feeling of unease in the reader too.
One of the reasons Killer resonates with people is because of that familiar feeling of a dream inducing false memories and waking up with guilt etc. It sees to be a story built around the idea of doubt and uncertainty is that what drew you to it? I certainly enjoyed the suspense and I found myself thinking of Edgar Allen Poe.
I like Poe, and I also think Kafka & Phillip K Dick are all masters of that feeling of discomfort that comes when reality isn’t quite right. I think Killer though is more reflective of my working life, where as a sales person and/or a manager you sometimes have to present a confident exterior when you are filled with doubts, often at stressful times – trying to secure a major deal at the end of a fiscal year, for example. I’ve written a few stories where that seems to be a theme.
Is it a story that is typical of your short fiction?
The best thing about short fiction is that it can be anything, go anywhere and experiment. I’ve written historical items, sci-fi, feminist pieces, along with tales about boy racers, exiles, and a man paid to create riots. So I would have to say there must be some key elements of my voice in Killer, but I wouldn’t classify it as typical of the type of story I write, because I’m not sure short fiction can be classified that easily.
Would you categorise yourself as a short fiction writer or have you worked with longer forms too?
I have written one and a half novels, both were disasters in their own way. The first one was great fun and helped teach me how to write. It wasn’t awful but I made a few mistakes that I vowed to avoid next time around. The second novel was 80,000 words before I realised it was terrible. The most embarrassing thing was that I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. My wife suggested I do the Creative Writing course at Oxford University, and I spent two years in the company of a great crowd of writers, a few well-known authors and an excellent tutor. You can’t write a novel each week for your homework assignment, so a lot of our work was short fiction, and I found I really liked writing short fiction. It fits my lifestyle better than the novel. For now, I’m really happy working in the short-fiction format and I have no plans for a novel, although I am working on a non-fiction book due to be published next year.
What’s Ink Tears?
InkTears is a website championing the cause of the short story. Our mission is to encourage more people to discover the pleasure of the short story in a way that fits their lifestyle. InkTears provides a free short story each month to a growing membership, and runs annual writing contests for both flash fiction and short stories. It came about because I found that so many of my colleagues, often well-educated, were simply not reading anything except emails or perhaps a single autobiography or novel on their summer vacation. They claimed to be too busy to read. I asked them to give me ten minutes a month, which is all it takes to read a short story. We’ve discovered some wonderful writers, and we also publish some classic stories as well. Please see www.inktears.com
There seems to be an abundance of online collectives and webzines dedicated to the short story at the moment, Alice Munro recently received the Nobel Prize for literature and Amazon is seeing great success with the Kindle Single: it feels like a fantastic time for writers of short fiction.
I think it’s a fantastic time for short story writers. We are benefiting from a revolution in the publishing world, and in the consumption model too. With the proliferation of e-readers, and ease of access to self-publishing tools there are far more people able to reach an audience, and the big publishing houses are no longer able to act as the gatekeepers. I think many editors and publishers are really struggling with how to fit, and yet there is a key role to be played – with so much content it can be hard as a reader to find good quality. You need to rely on publishers and editors you can trust. The resurgence of the short story is great to see, and ties in really well with the changes taking place in the market. The success of authors like Alice Munro is wonderful. It is also good to see many established novelists putting out collections of short stories too.
Do you think short fiction is better suited to the 21st Century than the novel?? Are there any contemporary writers that you find yourself being influenced or inspired by??
I’m influenced by everything I’ve ever read or seen – I think we all are. My favourite contemporary authors are probably Steven Millhauser (amazing short story writer), Neil Gaiman (raw story-telling), Dave Eggers (who makes me embarrassed to call myself a writer – he is both phenomenally talented and also gives so much back to charity), Chuck Pahlahniuk (very talented writer, even though his subject matter is right on the edge of society which can make for uncomfortable reading), Haruki Murakami (who just missed out on the Nobel prize to Alice Munro but will surely win it soon), I could go on. I’m pretty easy to please! My favourite book in the past year was The Minotaur takes a cigarette break by Steven Sherrill.
From the shortlisted writers featured in our anthology are there any that stand out to you?
Yes, there are several writers. I admit to reading Max Dunbar’s story first – our paths have crossed in the past, when he was editor of Succour magazine and I like his work. I enjoyed reading The Relic by David Martin. We chatted at the Big Issue in the North event, so I know that David is a journalist and I think that shows in his writing, in the high quality of the language and structure. Rebecca Swirsky’s story and Derek and his clown by Fee Simpson were also both very engaging stories.
Do you think awards such as this are important to emerging writers?
Absolutely. I think awards are really important. Writing can be a lonely habit, and comes with plenty of obstacles and rejection. I’m not sure if I would still be writing without some of those early short-listings and awards. I was looking at Alison Moore’s short story collection the other day, she had a lot of success in the competitions before she went on to write The Lighthouse, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize. I can’t speak for her, but you wonder if a writer like Alison would have got to the Man Booker list without some of those short story wins. Awards are fantastic for encouraging new writers. On a personal level, I can tell you that I’ve edited ten or so stories since my win last week, and begun work on a new story. That’s a much higher throughput than normal, and I have the Big Issue in the North team and judges to thank for inspiring me to keep at my writing.
by Nathan Connolly
The Big Issue in the North Award for Short Fiction 2013 is an anthology of all ten writers shortlisted for the award including Anthony Howcroft and his winning story, Killer. It available to buy from Valley Press here and 50% of the proceeds go to The Big Issue in the North Trust.