happened at the weekend. Feels like a world away... it did take us 12 hours to get there and 12 hours to get back - but when you think of some of the other winners coming over from the US I realise I have no cause to mention my journey.
It's hard to know where to start - so I'll just start at the top and see what happens.
I woke up nervous. Really nervous, the kind of nervous where you think of all the times you've been an idiot in public and you're certain you'll be that idiot again. Or someone will ask you a question about writing and you'll answer it badly - thus revealing your actual non-writer status. Or you'll be dull. Bland. And you'll shake. You'll shake when you're reading your story on stage, and your mouth will be full of wool and your tongue is far too fat to be reading out loud anyway...
This lasted about an hour, but luckliy M is very good at bringing me down from such ridiculous heights of insecurity. I dusted myself down and felt better. Think I just needed to purge.
We were due at the Arts Centre at 12noon for champagne and photographs. I think we might have been amongst the first to arrive, but we were greeted warmly and given name our badges. Even M had one, but his did not have a red sticker on it - which meant 'a winner', rather than 'sold'.
We were directed upstairs to an exhibition space where the photographers were. The champagne went down quickly. I had my photo taken holding the anthology, which I hadn't seen yet - but when I started leafing through it the photographer assured me I'd have a copy waiting for me at my place on the table in the town hall where were having lunch. I stopped pawing it.
We made our way downstairs again, and in the time we'd been upstairs, so many more people had arrived, and the place was crowded. Frances, the organiser of the whole Bridport operation, recognised me and after we'd said hello she asked, "Have you met Ali yet?" I hadn't - I didn't know she was there - and Frances, knowing I was nervous, took my hand and led me through the crowd to her.
She is small, as small as me, and lovely, and warm, and her first words to me were, "Teresa - In a seaside cafe," and I felt phew - she did read it then. Which was obvious, she knew everyone's stories. Later, in her speech, she spoke baout how she'd spent the summer reading them and getting to know them. She was genuinely sad for the ones that didn't make it.
We talked for maybe 5 minutes. The first 30 seconds were taken up by me fawning, I won't use any direct quotes - but let's just say she looked a bit embarassed, and a bit stern, and she frowned and then swerved the conversation to me, and my writing, and my story. Which was an odd and brilliant experience. She said she was happy when she saw, that because of the alphabet, my story is the last in the anthology. She thinks it's a good one to end on.
She asked what I'm working on at the moment, and raised her eyebrows when I said I'd started a novel and one of the reasons is because so many people say you must write a novel asap if you want to get published. She didn't go into what she thinks about that, but she asked how I felt, and if I was ready to write a novel. I said I'm finding out, making notes and seeing where it takes me.
There were other people waiting to meet her, and so we ended our chat. I think I touched her arm as I said goodbye... take that not as a stalker move, but as a relaxed one. It felt okay to do that.
I rushed back over to M so I could relay everything to him before it disappeared from my memory and therefore ceased to exist. I felt relieved to have met Ali so early on, and ready to keep celebrating the day. I had another glass of champagne.
Lunch was a lively and informal affair, and we were lucky to be seated next to some lovely people: a fellow short story runner up, Anna Britten, and her husband Peter; and also 2 Bridport readers, Maggie and Liz, who are part of the team of volunteers who read all of the entries. There were approx 6500 short stories entered this year, and Maggie and Liz read 400 each. It felt a real privilege to be able to chat to them about the process, which involves a team of primary readers, secondary readers, and then one man, Jon Wyatt, selects the list which is passed onto the judge.
It really hit home at that point how much chance has played a part in getting me there. If the primary reader who read my story didn't like it, or it didn't hold up against the other pieces they'd read, that would have been it. My story jumped through 3 hoops before it got to Ali Smith. Think of all the stories, as good as and better than, the ones in the anthology. I don't for one second doubt the capabilities of the readers - Maggie's been doing it for 7 years, and was very serious about how she dealt with reading everyone's work, ensuring each entry is given a fair read, and respected.
One of the things that stood out during the whole experience is that the Bridport Prize is this big international prize, but behind it all is this small but dedicated team of people who just love short stories and poetry.
After we'd eaten the prizes were given out. Ali talked about the process of judging, and as I mentionned before, she felt for each story that she couldn't put through. She talked about the short story form, which she did brilliantly and you can read something similar in her Judge's Report. Then she read out the names of the runners up - my name came first. It felt like a long walk to the front to collect my envelope, and it's a bit of a blur but it included her handing it to me, saying well done, and the two of us having our photo taken. The rest of the story prizes were handed out, and then Jackie Kay - a smiling, sparkling lady with real warmth, talked about the poetry entries, and then handed out her prizes.
We were then all invited to an 'after-show event' hosted by the lovely Vanessa Gebbie, who came over and said a friendly hello to me during lunch, back at the Arts Centre. This was where the readings were to take place, and so the nerves reared their heads again, but just a little, just normal-scale nerves.
It was a great experience. My voice held, I didn't have a wooly mouth, my tongue isn't that fat. My legs did shake.
Here's Vanessa introducing me:
(If you look closely you can see my hands clutching the anthology...)
And here I am, reading: (please note how Vanessa's throne takes centre stage. And rightfully so.)
And that was where the day should have ended, after everyone read, and said their goodbyes, and parted. We were on our way out when the photographer came over to me, looking worried. The only photograph that hadn't turned out from the whole day, was the one of me and Ali Smith. BUT, if I didn't mind, I could go with her to Ali's hotel, and see if she was there, we could take it again. I really didn't mind.
Though, when we got there, she wasn't there. We waited a little bit. I should add here that this photo wasn't a souvenir for me, but for the local-to-me press release. It seemed we didn't know when Ali would be coming back, and so the photographer decided we should probably leave it, but she was really sorry. So we got up to leave, and in she walked.
She was first suprised, then worried we'd been waiting for ages, and then very happy to have her photo taken again with me.
Look at my eyes - can they get anymore "OHMYWORDIMHAVINGMYPHOTOTAKENWITHALISMITH!"
And that, really was, that. We said goodbye and I left the hotel feeling thrilled, relieved, tired, excited, and ready for a drink. I found it hard to sleep that night, with so many things swimming in my head - my conversations with Ali, the people I'd met, but most of all the stories I'd read - there are so many wonderful stories and poems in the anthology.
In a way, I wish I'd had chance to read them before the event, just so I could tell the other writers how much I liked their work.
I am left with an inspired feeling, particularly about the short story form. I think I am a fan of fragments coming together to make a whole, which, I guess is what every piece of writing does, but when it happens in short form it's something else.