I was thrilled that my short story, “Where the Gods Fly” had made the longlist for a number of reasons: 1) I’d had so much trouble creating the pdfs they wanted for the application that I didn’t think they had even received my entry; 2) I knew they’d had over 1200 entries and was convinced I wouldn’t ever hear from them again, even if they had gotten my submission; and 3) the other writers on the longlist of twenty include greats like Lionel Shriver, Emma Donoghue, A.L. Kennedy, Alison MacLeod – need I say more?
The writers on the longlist heard the news a few weeks before it was made public. In fact, we were told the same day the decision was made and sworn to secrecy.
Then came the waiting for the news about the shortlist. I didn’t think I had any real chance of making the shortlist. Some of the authors I most admired were on that longlist. However, I did want know for sure so I would have time to recover from my disappointment. Cathy Galvin, the founder of the prize, had tweeted on Twitter that the shortlist meeting would be on Wednesday, February 22. I was traveling on that day, flying from Amsterdam to New York with a Dutch television crew which was filming a documentary about my novel, Girl in Translation, and my
I worried. What if they somehow did choose me, yet tried to call my Dutch mobile phone, which wouldn’t function for the two weeks I was in New York with the television crew? What if they left message after message, then decided, “Oh dear. She obviously doesn’t want to be on the shortlist, let’s move on to someone else.” I hoped that if there was any news that they would send me an email or ring my US cell phone instead.
I fidgeted throughout the long flight to the US, went through customs, took a taxi to the hotel and finally set up an Internet connection. No email. No phone call. Nothing. Not on my home phone, not on the US mobile number. I’d known it was unlikely that I would make the shortlist – it was already incredible that I’d made the longlist – but I still felt sad. I decided I wouldn’t be fully disappointed until the next morning because perhaps they would wait a day before telling the shortlisted authors.
The next morning: still nothing. Now I felt like a loser writer. I understood what had happened – my story was the one that a single judge mildly liked but the other judges had laughed at that person because my story was so bad. I imagined all of the authors who had made it, sipping champagne and glowing with heavenly approval. I emailed my UK editor, Juliet Annan, told her I wasn’t on the shortlist and was sorry I wouldn’t be able to take her to the award ceremony at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. She wrote back and told me that I always took first prize in her eyes anyway. That helped. I took a deep breath and told myself that the shortlisted authors deserved their happiness. I’d gotten friendly with a few of the other longlisted authors and I hoped they’d made it at least.
Time passed, almost a week. Tuesday morning, as I was frantically trying to get all of my hair dry in time to meet the television crew downstairs, my US mobile phone rang. At first, I didn’t understand who it was, then realized it was someone from the same organization that had rejected me for the Sunday Times short story prize.
I knew why the lady was calling. She was going to say, “We feel so sorry for you for not making the shortlist that we would like to offer you this pamphlet on how to become a better writer.” Or maybe, “We need someone to help clean the ballroom after the award ceremony and we were wondering if you might be interested.”
While this was flashing through my mind, the lady on the telephone, Hannah Davies, was saying, “Jean, do you have a moment to talk?”
I did not really want to sweep the ballroom after the ceremony and I was still a bit hurt (irrationally) that they had not shortlisted my story for the prize so I answered, “Well, a little but actually I am rushing to get ready so I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of time.”
“Oh, this will just take a minute. I wanted to tell you that you have made the shortlist for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.”
I shook my head to clear it. “I have NOT made the shortlist, is that what you said?”
“No, no, you HAVE made the shortlist.”
It went on this way for a while. We sounded like Laurel and Hardy. Hannah is extremely British and kind and I could tell that it physically pained her to say “no” to me so forcibly, but I drove her to it.
Finally I understood that I had actually made the shortlist of six writers. Somehow, out of a field of 1200, my story is in the top six. In fact, everything that had happened had been in my imagination and had no connection to reality whatsoever. In my mind, my hopes had sickened, then died. I had already grieved and moved on. Only it hadn’t actually been necessary.
There must be a lesson in here somewhere but I’m not quite sure what it is. Possibly that you should be grateful you are not married to me because I don’t think I can stop being like this.
And I am going to London. First, I’ll be at the Waterstones in Piccadilly on March 29 at 7pm where well-known actors will read mine and the great Kevin Barry’s stories aloud, and then I will actually take my lovely UK editor to the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival for both a panel and the award ceremony on March 30.
Fortunately, I am quite certain I will not win so at least I do not need to worry about preparing a speech or anything. This time it is not my imagination. Really.