With just over a month until our Short Story Competition 2016 closes, we spoke to one of the judges, Erica Wagner, and found out that Emily Dickinson inspires her creative process. She also told us what three elements she believes are key to a good short story. 


What are you currently reading? If it’s not fiction, what fiction have you recently read and enjoyed? And what specifically did you like about it?

I’ve just read Yaa Gyasi’s wonderful novel, Homegoing (coming in the UK from Penguin in January) and I’m trying not to get to the end of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, her take on The Tempest, which is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Homegoing is remarkable for a first novel — a book that takes us from 18th-century Ghana to present day America, bringing to life the dreadful history of the slave trade and its legacy in the United States. Atwood’s Hag-Seed is serious, moving… and funny, for she always manages (sometimes miraculously) to combine the three. It’s a perfect homage to the Bard and yet always its own story: quite a trick!

What is your favourite short story, and why is it your favourite?

I can’t believe you’re asking me this question. My favourite short story? How could I possibly choose? On the one hand there is Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, on the other Rose Tremain’s “The Housekeeper” (to mention just one relatively recent story I adored).

Which writer’s work can you always rely on to inspire your creative process?

Emily Dickinson.

If you were stuck on a desert island and you could only take three books, which three would you take?

The collected poems of Emily Dickinson (see above). A Story As Sharp As a Knife, by Robert Bringhurst. The best atlas available between hard covers: a good map is an infinite story.

In your opinion, what are the key elements of a good short story?

Vision, precision, and a sense of unlimited completion.

What advice can you give entrants to the Short Story Competition 2016?

See everything you want your readers to see. If you are there, we will be, too. Edit your story, and then edit it again. And again.


Erica Wagner is an author and editor. For 17 years literary editor of The Times, and twice a judge of the Man Booker prize, she is now Lecturer in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, a contributing writer for the New Statesman and consulting literary editor for Harper’s Bazaar. She is the author of Gravity: Stories; Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters and Seizure, a novel. Pas de Deux/A Concert of Stories, co-written with storyteller Abbi Patrix and musician and composer Linda Edsjö, tours around the world. First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner, has just been published by Unbound, and her biography of Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

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