I’m amazed and delighted to have won this year’s Willesden Herald Short Story Prize.

My story, ‘Ward’, is about a young girl who gets very ill and how it changes her.

You can read it and the other nominated stories by buying the anthology which is a bargain at £5.99 (incl. postage)- the best place to buy it is here.

An extract:

She’d never had so many presents. Flowers, magazines, teddy bears and balloons, a poster of two puppies wedged in a boot. Sandra was the only visitor who didn’t bring a gift. Her presence was confusing, because she and Emily weren’t friends. Emily wondered if Sandra liked her the way she liked her classmate Maxine: quietly, from an awed distance, content to sit two rows behind. After ten minutes she noticed the way Sandra’s eyes returned to the needle in her arm, the IV line, the slowly shrinking bag. She asked if Emily was in pain, if she was going to have an operation. She wanted to tell everyone about her dying classmate.



Great Expectations?

The first prize I ever won was for English at school. I was given £15 of book tokens, with which I bought all the volumes of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!Quartet.
Here is the cover of the first book:

‘The Shamutanti Hills’ is a quest through a fantasy world in which magic and might are required to defeat various monsters and obstacles. This requires good judgement and a lot of luck, the latter generated (or not) by rolling two six-sided dice. Unsurprisingly, the reader fails (and dies) many times and has to start again.

Neither ‘The Shamutanti Hills’ nor its successor, ‘Khare- Cityport of Traps’ were on the school syllabus, despite their excellent spell casting system and well-pitched level of difficulty. During the prize-giving ceremony it became apparent that I was the only winner to have bought such books. The other pupils had purchased encyclopaedias, advanced math textbooks, bilingual dictionaries that required a two-handed grip. When the headmaster- a kind man with a degree in Classics from Oxford –handed me the brightly coloured fantasy books, he was obviously disappointed. Until that moment it had never occurred to my nine-year old self that with rewards might also come expectations.

This episode taught me that sometimes you have to conceal the things you enjoy, and not because they are illegal or immoral, but because they don’t fit with people’s conceptions of you. But I think it also had a hand in teaching me that things we expect to wholly enjoy are often a more mixed affair. Awards require speeches; fondue parties can drag; many cherished fantasies end in discomfort and hospitalisation. I wouldn’t go so far as to label this a depressive or melancholic worldview; but it’s one that definitely looks for the grey in every silver cloud.

This also extends to compliments (especially about my writing). What should be a form of validation just makes me feel awkward. ‘Thank you,’ doesn’t seem an adequate response, but I can never tell what else the person might expect to hear, whether they want me to talk about the story, say something about my work in general, or ask them something about themselves: I have so little idea of which would be right that I might as well roll a dice to choose. Though this is true of any encounter, the person’s kindness makes me want to give an answer they’ll appreciate, and there are just those two or three seconds in which to speak, and if I fail, there’s no chance to start again.

So when I received a phone call informing me I had been awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, I was slightly taken aback. Matters weren’t helped by me mistaking the voice of the woman asking if I was Nick Holdstock. I leapt to the conclusion that she was my mother, causing me to say ‘Mum? Is that you Mum?’, which caused equal confusion in her. She mastered hers more quickly and went on to say that all I had to do was decide when to go to Grez sur Loing (the small village 70km southeast of Paris where RLS fellows have been going since 1994). Feeling that more than simple gratitude was required, I replied by saying it was by far the best news I’d had in a really long time. This disclosure elicited a pause, perhaps of pity, for either the sentiment, or that I had been compelled to express it.

Though my answer might have suggested desperation, it was mainly borne of surprise. Like many artists, I’m constantly applying for fellowships, bursaries and grants; given the huge impact these can have on one’s professional life (often determining what you have to do to make ends meet), it is with more than a small amount of expectation that you await the verdict. During this period it’s easy to find oneself performing tricks of mental sleight of hand. You tell yourself that although you deserve it, and are good enough, there are many reasons why you might not get it. You tell yourself that the outcome is at least partly due to chance. Or you do the same as the subject of Lydia Davis’s short story, ‘The Fellowship’, in which two reasons are posited why the subject of the story, year after year, does not get the award: one that the person is qualified, but his/her ‘application is not good enough’; the other that the applicant is qualified ‘but not patient enough.’ If the results arrive, and one is rejected, there is thus an embarrassment of explanations to choose from, certainly no need to doubt that one’s application might have failed for reasons that the subject of Lydia Davis’s story does not even consider.

Receiving a prize or award raises an opposite, almost equally terrifying possibility: that with sufficient time and space you might actually produce something good. Having to work several jobs, or go to fondue parties, is something I have often bemoaned, both for the interruptions to work and my sang-froid (and I cannot write with burned lips). Being given a month in which to do nothing but write and eat cold French cheese was in many ways an answer to my moans. However, after the initial I-want-to-dance-till-I’m-dead euphoria had cleared, there was the worry of whether all the time and lack of interruption would actually make a difference. Perhaps I would be prey to all the clichéd monsters of distraction: the ‘fact-checking’ that leads to ‘research’, the many links that can be clicked, so that one wanders, as if blindfolded, through the great labyrinth that is the Internet. Either that or I’d be fighting my way through Sorcellerie!

It is with some relief, and just as much surprise, that I can report that these expectations (or to be precise, fears) have proved mistaken. During the last 20 days I have mostly been able to work in a steady fashion. Here are some of the sentences:

“Even the word of so many monarchs was not proof enough.”

“They felt like ants, but much faster than ants, these did not march in slow columns, these ants rode on trains.”

“The predictable vibrator was in her bedside drawer.”

“People in the newer districts rolled their eyes and groaned; in the old town, in the midbrain, lights pulsed in applause.”

My productivity has not been due to the lack of possible distractions. I could have followed the river Loing through the woods for hours, pursued the mysteries of the village— who left the decapitated snake outside the bakers?; what is really happening in the ‘vaccination centre’ where lights burn all night? —or indulged in the all too easy business of writing about the foibles of the other artists in residence. But the latter are kind and welcoming people, and it has rained most days. As for the unexplained events in the village, I know better than to pry in rural matters. I have lost too many kin in the dark woods of East Sussex (in their own way as perilous as the Hills of Shamutanti) to think otherwise.

But I think there’s a far simpler reason I’ve found it easy to work here. I hesitate to name it, but it can perhaps be found in watching the angles the swallows turn as they approach their nest. Or in the bullying tactics of the white dove that squats on top of the roof. It’s in the sound of the trees and hearing people joke in languages I do not understand. To say it stems from the removal of pressure is to approach the truth: but I don’t know if ‘expectation’ has an antonym.

The Embrace

I have a story called ‘The Embrace’ in the Autumn 2011 issue of The Southern Review. Both this story, and its predecessor (‘The Ballad of Lucy Miller’, which appeared in the Spring 2009 issue) were chosen by editor Jeanne Leiby, who died earlier this year. I only met Jeanne through email, but I owe her a huge debt, not just for accepting the stories, but also for encouraging me to send more work after my first submission to the journal was rejected.

This is how the story begins, and as should be quickly apparent, it is another despatch from The World of Happy. The issue also features new poems by Sharon Olds, a wonderful poet you should check out if you’re not familiar with her work.

The Embrace

There is no excuse: buildings have windows, roofs and stairs; roads have lorries and cars. In her house there are knives, pills, and bleach. There is a gas oven. If after two years, Heather is not dead, it is because she’s a coward. All she does is say her prayers before she goes to bed. Dear no one, dear nothing, let something burst while I sleep. It does not need to be my heart, just an artery.

But every night her body fails her. Every day, she wakes.

She gets up and goes into the bathroom where there is a high window. Open it and fly beyond, say several bars of soap. Why is it these things that speak? Why not the shampoo?

She sits on the toilet, water leaves her. She flushes and puts down the lid. What was a toilet is now a step, which leads to another, as it does on a scaffold. She climbs up and opens the window; the sky is full of white clouds except for a gap that beckons. It will close, and never reopen, and so she must hurry. All she need do is lean out; gravity will help.

The problem is that the hole is over a cloud, which is above a roof, a window, a stretch of wall, a plaque that says ‘1898’. There is then another window, an intervening branch, and finally, the schoolyard, or part of it, a narrow stretch between portacabin and fence, and soon a bell will ring.

Heather climbs down, then turns on the shower. She takes off her underwear, waits— the water may still be cold —then gets into the bath. The water is warm, then properly hot, and it does not take long to wash. Soap on her face, soap under her arms, soap between her legs. Once this chore is done, she can close her eyes. Focus on water meeting her skin, the paths it takes down her back and arms; the glide of it down her legs. She does not think, hear words, see pictures. She is held by water.


I have a story in the new issue of Gutter, as does Jane Flett, my colleague at Forest Publishing. It also features a review of Ryan Van Winkle‘s excellent book of poems, Tomorrow, We Will Live Here. My story is called ‘I am not Gary, She is not Gwen’- this is how it starts:

After a hard day’s ride we arrived on the outskirts of Plate. We fed the horses and pitched the tent; after a frugal supper, we slept. It was a deep, refreshing sleep. In my dream the President shook my hand after pardoning us. He said, “O my son and daughter! How greatly you have suffered!” Then he hung gold medals round our necks and named a park after us.

In the morning we put on our masks and rode into town. When we passed someone, I said, “Hello,” and after they returned my greeting, I added, “We’re on our honeymoon!” Then I waved my beak, and Ethel waggled her horn, and after we’d gone through this a few times, it was more or less true.

DFW story in The New Yorker

I can’t recall the last time I saw a story in the New Yorker by a writer I hadn’t heard of (i.e. someone like me). From what I gather, a lot of the ‘biggest’ (by which I mean prestige, not size) writers have exclusive contracts with them, so there is really no reason for them to ever look in the virtual slush pile- I’m amazed they even accept unsolicited fiction.

This, however, is not to complain. All the fiction they publish is available free online, which is why I am able to urge you to click your way to the late David Foster Wallace’s beautiful, sad, and very genuine story ‘All That’ which I’m guessing is an extract from his unfinished novel, The Pale King, due in April 2011.

Sale of stuff

In a rearguard action to gain some shelf-space (and to support various legal ‘habits’) I’m selling some magazines and anthologies I’ve been in. I only have a few copies of each, so fortune will favour the bold.

For £6 (+£1 postage, UK only) you can get a copy of The Southern Review, which my story ‘The Ballad of Lucy Miller’ appeared in. Here’s a short Review of it.


For the same price, there’s the Edinburgh Review special issue on China that has a non-fiction piece about Xinjiang.


For £7 ((+£1 postage, UK only) you can buy a copy of the Willesden Herald Anthology that features my story ‘Amy’, and a fine story by Jo Lloyd entitled ‘Work’. There’s a review here.


Payments only accepted by PayPal. Send the £7 or £8 to

The Southern Review


My story, ‘The Ballad of Poor Lucy Miller’ is currently appearing in the Spring 2009 issue of The Southern Review. Thanks to a remarkable technological breakthrough (me learning what some of the buttons on my blog do) you can view a pdf of the story-TSR_Winter2009_Holdstock

Subscriptions for The Southern Review start at $33 (including International Postage), which works out to just over £5 an issue- cheap for what is a beautifully produced journal.

The results


of the Willesden Herald Competition are in. Alas, alack I did not win. But my story, as one of the shortlisted (from, I am told, a total number of 645 entries) is going to be published in the New Short Stories 3 anthology, which can be ordered here

Some have said it “ably and wryly depicts the sometimes quite contrary nature of the male psyche.” (Authortrek). As a taster, (or perhaps, a warning), this is how it begins:


One night, a few months ago, I went into my flatmate’s room. I put back the pillow and then, without thinking, bent down and pulled out one of the plastic trays that slot under her bed. In the first were trousers, t-shirts and shorts, so I pushed it back in, and pulled out the other. In that one there were bras and pants so I brought a black pair to my nose and slowly, deeply, breathed.

I had taken the pillow because a friend was supposed to be staying. When I’d finally made up the spare bed— the duvet cover was a nightmare —I realised there was no pillow and so earlier that day I’d gone into Amy’s room. I didn’t think she would mind: she was in Romania with her adventurous boyfriend.

I remember listening outside while the floorboards creaked. If she had somehow been inside— having returned from her holiday early after breaking-up with Tim —it would have seemed strange, almost creepy, for me to be stood there so long, as if I was waiting for a hole, or crack, to open in the wood.

I pushed the door with my knuckles. It swung in with an unfortunate groan but no one said Get out. I went in and took a pillow, then paused for a quick look round (although she’d lived there eight months, I’d only been in once before, when I had stood and watched while she wrote me a cheque). I saw that the bookcase was full, that she had a thriving yucca and a Vettriano print. I certainly didn’t think about touching the trays under the bed.

When I returned the pillow later (my friend had inexplicably decided to stay in a Travel Lodge) I was pretty drunk. When I brought her pants to my nose, it was mostly as a joke; there’s something unavoidably comic about sniffing someone’s underwear. My thoughts during the three or four seconds that I smelt the spring freshness of the fabric conditioner, felt the softness of the crotch (which although far from worn, felt too thin to be new) were anything but erotic. I smelt them the way you breathe in a rose on your way to the bus stop. At no point did I imagine Amy taking off these pants, slowly, or with a jerk of eloquent impatience.

The Fun of the Fair

We were getting off the Ferris wheel when Judy said,

“I think I was raped.”

“What? When?”

Things were going around in circles.

“I’m not sure. But I think I was.”

I waited for her to continue but she just looked at the wheel.

“Raped? By who?”

A balloon guy started walking towards us. Most of his balloons were red, but there were some white ones too.

“Look, I don’t know. I’m not sure. Maybe I wasn’t. Never mind.”

The balloon seller stopped and sat down. He took a cigarette from behind his ear and although it wasn’t quite a trick, I liked it anyway.

“Come on Joe, I’m tired,” she said.

We walked back to the car. On the way a boy was crying because he’d dropped his cotton candy. He was jumping up and down, pushing it into the mud. I gave the boy a buck and said to get another. He stopped crying and ran off. Judy yelled at him, Say thank you, but it was too late.

When we got to the car I let Judy drive. I figured it would take her mind off things. I didn’t know if she was angry with me or the guy that raped her. Not that it mattered. I’d seen her like that before. When she got mad, the best thing I could do was keep my big mouth shut.

I rolled the window down. It was a warm night and I could smell flowers. The streets were clean from the rain, the dust not really settled. Even though I had work next day, I wanted us to drive for hours, my head hanging out like you sometimes see dogs do. But Judy pulled over after the third set of lights. She turned off the motor and the crickets got loud.

“Mother fucker.”



“Who’s Bob?”

“He was a friend of my Dad’s.”

“And he was the one who raped you?”

“That’s what I said.”

“No, you didn’t. You said he might have.”

“Look Joe, if a woman says it’s rape, it is.”

“OK, alright. So he raped you. When was this?”

I tried to get comfortable.

“It was the summer before I went to college. I was working in a place just across the street from Dad. He used to come in after work, sometimes on his own, sometimes with Bob. They usually sat at the bar and talked about fishing, you know, lines and bait and shit. It was pretty boring. Are you listening?”

I said I was.

“You’d fucking better be. Gimme a cigarette.”

I fished one out the pack, thinking how much cooler it would have been to reach behind my ear. She lit it, took a deep drag, then blew the words out with the smoke.

“Dad said Bob’d been married twice but hadn’t learnt a thing. That the only thing he could commit to was a rod. And he was definitely one of those guys who looks and doesn’t mind if he gets caught. He was careful when Dad was there, but as soon as Dad went to the john, Bob had a good look. That summer was really hot, I usually wore a shirt and shorts.”

“I bet you looked hot,” I said.

She broke off, inhaled and held it. Then she blew it out and said,

“If you say another fucking word, I’ll break up with you right now, I swear.”

I said I was sorry.

“Yeah, sure.”

A police car approached and slowed. The officer leaned out.

“You folks alright there?”

“Yes officer.”


“No, we’re just talking.”

“Alright, have a nice night guys.”

“You too officer.”

We watched the car glide off.

“One day, when Dad was out of town, Bob came in on his own. He drank beer when he was with my Dad but that day all he drank was rye. I treated him like any other customer, you know, smile, be nice, but not too much. He asked for twenty bucks of change and then disappeared. I forgot about him because this little guy named Mitch started hitting on me, but it was okay, it was almost funny. He kept trying to kiss my hand, saying all this crazy shit about how I was a princess that would one day be a queen.”

I reached out and stroked her hair; she didn’t seem to mind.

“Anyway, then Mitch starts giving me all this crap about how if I was in a tower he’d damn well climb up. And I got really mad, I knew what he was saying. I told him to leave it but he just kept on. Then the music began. It was definitely a Doors track, I don’t know which one. It was about a girl, it sounded weird. Bob came back, walking slow, just as the chorus kicked in and it was obvious he’d timed it, just so he could make some sort of entrance. I wasn’t impressed but Mitch got the hell out of there, so I was kind of grateful. Bob said, Just look at the old boy go, and I had to laugh. I thought he was going to keep talking but all he did was order. After that the music kept on, he must have put the twenty in. It was old stuff, but good, a lot of Stones and Elvis, some stuff that sounded British but wasn’t the Beatles. The whole time he just sat there, drinking, playing with a ring.”

She was looking straight ahead, maybe at the car in front, maybe at the lawns.

“Eventually the tunes ran out. The place was quiet, so I went over. He said how you doing kid? I asked if he wanted another, on the house, for all the music, and he said no, he’d had enough. He looked like he was about to leave, not that he was getting up or had his jacket on, he just seemed sort of ready. I asked how come he’d got divorced. He laughed, twisted his ring and said, Which one? I said either and he said, Well, alright. First time because I was dumb, the second because we both were.

I thought this was an asshole thing to say, so I asked how she was dumb. He told me how she always bought the wrong milk, every week, for two years, and how he got to thinking if a person can’t get something that simple right, the rest hasn’t a chance. And although this sounded stupid, it was kind of interesting. I didn’t know anyone else who’d been divorced, it was that sort of town. And he had one of those voices, the kind that are easy to hear, like on the radio.”

I saw a car approaching and was sure it was the police. But the car didn’t slow or stop, it just carried on.

“Then he stood up to go. He walked to his truck in a straight line, I guess he could really hold it. But he didn’t drive off right away. I could see him in the cab, sitting, smoking, his eyes shut. Then he rolled the window down. He flicked out the butt then drove away and if some guy hadn’t ordered, I’d have gone and stood on it, you know I hate that.

After that it got really busy. It was some guy’s birthday and they were playing games. I must have poured a hundred shots. Earl had to break up a fight after one of them said something to a Korean guy who seemed pretty nice.”

Judy always had a soft spot for them.

“I must have gotten out of there sometime after ten. Usually I didn’t mind walking, not if the weather was good. That night I just wanted to be home. So when I saw Bob sitting in his big red truck, my first thought was to catch a ride, and only when we’d been driving for a few minutes did I wonder why and when he’d driven back.

Bob asked if I went fishing and I said a bit, not much. I told him sometimes me and a few guys went to the lake by Denton’s farm. He said, You ever catch anything? and when I said No he said Really? Not even VD? Then he laughed and said I know a place where no one goes, the fish are so bored they want to be caught. If you want to go, it’s close. But you’d better tell me, that’s your turn off. And before I knew it I’d said yes and we were going past.”

I risked a question.

“I don’t know, maybe the ride had woken me up. Or perhaps it was like my Dad asking. I guess I wasn’t thinking.

We turned off the highway, down a small road that became a track. Branches brushed against the truck, I guess no one did go there. We stopped and then got out. He must have seen me shiver because he reached in the back. He brought out a rod, some bags, and then a sweater, a big old heavy thing that came down to my knees. It had a strange smell, like lots of things mixed together, aftershave and smoke, dust and maybe sweat. But it smelled alright, not dirty.

The path twisted left and then I saw the lake. There was a big moon and the water looked like it’d had a load of milk poured in. It was a good night for swimming, and if it was now I would. But I didn’t swim that well then, really, not at all, so I didn’t, and anyway, I guess there could have been all kinds of stuff.

I looked at the water while Bob went to get the boat. I wasn’t sure I wanted to but Bob said it was a nice night, we should. We pushed off and when the engine started it seemed way too loud. But then it settled down and we chugged on out towards the centre. When we got there he cut the motor and it seemed like all the insects were holding their breath.

I watched Bob bait the hook. When he handed it to me I realized that it was the only rod. He said, I’ve fished here plenty times, I’ll let you have the pleasure. Then I cast off and made a real mess of it. Bob didn’t say anything, he just took the rod and reeled the line back in. Then he gave it back to me and said, Let me show you. He put his hands on mine and they were large and smelled of soap. He raised my hands to one side then flicked my wrist quickly and I felt the line and my hands flow forward. I watched the hook sink in and wondered if the sleeping fish would notice. He moved his hands to my shoulders. I didn’t flinch or tell him not to. I guess I wanted to be touched, maybe just held and if he was there and wanted to, well, that was OK.”

I took my hand from her neck and hung it out the window. A cool breeze was starting and I remember thinking there’d be rain by morning.

“He kept them there a while, and although I thought I felt a few tugs, nothing really happened. Then his hands moved to my hips and he said I was pretty.”

I felt a yawn begin but got to it in time.

“He shifted to get closer and the boat began to rock, not much but enough to make me scared. I didn’t know what to do, my hands were busy with the rod. He started kissing me and then his hands were between my legs and tugging at my shorts. He pushed me down into the bottom of the boat, but not in a rough way. I told him I didn’t want to but then he was on top of me. He held my hands tightly. It didn’t take long.”

Outside the wind picked up a little, not much but enough to make me wish I’d brought a jacket.

“Afterwards I lay there looking at the stars. I don’t think I knew what had happened. It had been that way with my boyfriend too. We’d been making out in the woods and then he’d been on top even though we’d agreed to wait. I think until a few years ago I thought that was just how things were. And on the drive back Bob acted like nothing had happened. He asked when I was going to Buffalo, if I knew people there. When he stopped outside our house he said, See you around. I got out and then he nodded and drove off.

When I got in my mom and brother were asleep. I took a shower and went to bed. And when I woke up next morning I told myself that it was just a dream or didn’t matter.”

Judy started the engine.

“Didn’t you tell anyone?”

She shook her head.

“He and Dad had a falling out and then we moved away. Last week my mom told me he’d died a few years back, lung cancer she said. I guess I hadn’t thought about him much until then.”

I rolled the windows up and we started the rest of the drive back. I wondered what I was supposed to say. I had a few ideas, but in the end I figured that I wasn’t supposed to say anything. She’d just wanted me to listen.

When we got in we watched TV and then went to bed. I was horny, but also nervous, like it was our first time. I lay next to her, wanting to touch her but not knowing if I should. In the end she put her hands between my legs. When we’d finished I lay awake for a long time, not just thinking about Bob but about all kinds of stuff. And a few weeks later I started seeing one of the secretaries.

-first published in Stand Vol. 8 (2)

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