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An interview with Sally Skinner, shortlisted for the 2021 Prize with The Mirador

  • How and when did you get into writing and have you taken any formal qualifications?

I grew up loving books and read English as an undergrad, just down the road from Lucy Cavendish at Girton. After studying how the great writers did it, it took a while to believe I could try it too. Eventually I took a year out of my advertising career to do a Masters in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, largely as a way to make myself take writing more seriously, and carve out some space in my life to give it a proper go.

  • What inspires you to write and what do you love writing about?

It’s still great writing that inspires me to write. I love the lyrical prose of Michael Ondaatje; the wit and psychological depth of Penelope Fitzgerald; the magic, mythical quality of Elena Ferrante and the sense of place in her work. I’m drawn to writing about times and places other than my own - fin de siècle Paris and Naples in my first novel, 1936 (and 2016) Spain in my latest - and try to capture and convey an atmosphere as much as a story. I think I’m quite a visual writer - water imagery seems to crop up a lot!

  • How did you hear about the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize and what made you enter?

I was aware of the Prize and its amazing hit rate through Twitter, but it was winning a pitch competition that solidified the idea of entering. The judge pointed out the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as somewhere agents actively seek writing talent, and the criteria of ‘literary merit plus unputdownability’ seemed like a good fit for what I was trying to do with my novel. 

I’d done a lot of research and planning but I was still on my first draft of The Mirador when I entered. My first novel had attracted a high rate of full requests but ultimately not an agent, so for this novel I was hoping to get some professional input earlier in the process. I’d also heard what an incredibly supportive community had built up around the Prize’s past and present judges, administrators and finalists.

  • How did you feel when you were selected for the longlist and then the shortlist?

I was blown away when the Prize got in touch to ask about the length of the current manuscript - this was before the longlist was announced, so I had a bit of advance warning I might have made it. I tried not to count my chickens but there was a lot of inbox-refreshing that week, finally met with the lovely news I’d made the longlist, and the thrill of a prestigious accolade for future cover letters. The shortlist announcement came unexpectedly soon after. I was having a coffee in the sunshine with my husband when the unbelievable news came through: a massive highlight in a miserable year, to say the least.

  • Has being involved with the Fiction Prize helped your writing career?

Being shortlisted has given my writing career a huge boost. As well as shining a spotlight on my novel, it led to an invaluable one-to-one consultation with the agent judge. Lockdown meant our prize-giving event was virtual but this was offset by the warmth of the people behind the Prize, their generous feedback, and me and my fellow shortlistees forming our own mini-community on WhatsApp.

And after the experience of querying agents, having three brilliant ones proactively getting in touch with me was amazing. Off the back of those conversations, I shared my WIP with two more that had already expressed an interest in my work - giving me all the impetus I needed to complete the manuscript asap!

  • What advice would you give other aspiring writers about their writing careers and then more specifically about entering the Fiction Prize?

I’m a bit hesitant to give writing advice but everyone should read ‘A Swim in the Pond in the Rain’ by George Saunders - he’s so WISE. 

I think it helps to try and write every day, but also to be kind to yourself when you can’t. As a writer struggling with the realities of being a working mum of small children, I’ve been enjoying Jenn Ashworth’s 100 Days of Writing challenge, which makes you observe your own practice and see the value in daily contact with the work, even on days when that contact is light. 

In terms of entering competitions, you can’t really lose if you appreciate the value of a deadline. If you can think of it as a milestone to aim for - a word count or a submission package or a certain standard - getting listed becomes a bonus. A particularly awesome bonus if it’s this Prize.

Sally is on Twitter @salskins and Instagram @burning_qs.

Photo by Dimitry B on Unsplash

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