I’ve found myself returning to certain short story writers, sometimes deliberately, but more often than not, by an indirect route. One of the finalists on a shortlist I was on recently wrote about a woman who divided her lover in half – this reminded me of a Marcel Aymé story, ‘The Sabine Women’, in which a woman multiplied herself, from his wonderful collection, The Man Who Walked Through Walls, so I went back and re-read that – it was published in English in 2012, ( the book itself is a beautiful little artefact, published by Pushkin Press). That experience reminded me of a whole range of European short story writers I used to read a lot – in particular, Italo Calvino, whose story Memories of a Battle is a quietly devastating piece of writing about memory and the trauma of battle. I also went to a Beckett festival last year, here in Enniskillen, and there were some great readings of his work – I went back and re-read More Pricks than Kicks.
These Belacqua stories reminded me of how the freedom of movement in a piece of writing, the extravagant and the excessive, if it works, can just carry you along.
I’ve spent the last couple of years trying out short story writers new to me – I admire very much Anthony Duerr’s collection Memory Wall, both the story ‘Memory Wall’ itself and his Sunday Times Prize story added to that collection, ‘The Deep’. Speaking of the Sunday Times Prize, I also admire Junot Diaz – I like the way he doesn’t compromise for the reader. I feel woefully ignorant of contemporary women short story writers, although I’ve always read Alice Monro. Since living in Northern Ireland, I’ve been introduced to various Irish writers such as Claire Keegan and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne.
I’m not sure how these writers influence me – it seems to me that when I’ve read them, my understanding of what good writing is has grown. They are all so different, they remind me that there’s no formula for a short story. And, apart from the aesthetic experience of reading them, they all have some practical ‘nuts and bolts’ thing which struck me when I re-read them as a writer, rather than as a reader. I gravitate towards writers who set their stories in strong social / cultural contexts, something I do in my writing – seeing it done well encourages me not to give up trying.
Sheila Llewellyn is currently completing a Ph.D in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Queen’s University, Belfast, whilst finishing off her first novel.
Sheila travelled and worked overseas for some years, mainly in Africa, Iran, Singapore, Russia, Germany. Then she changed careers, re-trained as a psychologist and came to work in Northern Ireland, specialising in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre in 2011-12. There are some fantastic poets there – Sinead Morrissey has just won the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry – but also prose writers, playwrights and screen script-writers. She finds the creative buzz in Belfast inspirational.
In 2011, Sheila won the RTE Radio One P.J.O’Connor Radio Drama Award. She was shortlisted twice for the Costa Short Story Award, in 2012 and 2013. Over the past two years, she has also been shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize, the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize, the Sean O’Faolain Prize, and the Fish Memoir Prize.