The Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize

I had to keep it all hush-hush until the award presentation on May 3rd, but oh it was a happy moment when I heard my memoir/creative non-fiction manuscript won second place in the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize. First prize went to Sara Johnson Allen, and third to Sarah Fuchs.

As I recently said to Lizzie Harwood, Vice President and First Pages Prize Founder (and author of the wonderful memoir “Xamnesia“), it is very unusual for a writer’s prize package to not only offer a really generous award in financial terms, but also to cover festival fee, accommodation, a travel stipend AND developmental editing of the first pages. I very much doubt there is another competition that does this, anywhere.

With this competition, it felt to me the Festival was not only hoping to give encouragement to the prize-winning writers, but really looking to support them to take a step forward with their work and their career. It’s nice to win competitions but then you go back to your quiet little room and try to face the blank page yet again. It’s a short lived ‘high’. But winning one of the prizes for the First Pages Prize felt totally different, as if I had been taken by the hand and guided, supported, inspired, encouraged in my long term journey of being a writer.

I had not been to the Stockholm Writers Festival before, nor to Stockholm, and to be honest I was bowled over.

The Festival has a very specific focus: to help writers find their path to getting published. In fact you cannot enter the First Pages competition if you have a literary agent.

There was so much about the Festival that impressed me. I have been given an award for my writing in public before, but it was a fairly short-lived moment in the spotlight. This time, the judge, Paul McVeigh, spent some time talking about each of the entries and what it was that impressed him. I am sure I was not alone amongst the winners in feeling a little weepy with gratitude as I sat there, listening to what he said. The prize was also presented by Jonas Nabbedo, Vice Mayor of Culture and Clydette de Groot of the de Groot Foundation (who generously support the prize packages), and they both gave heart-felt and inspiring talks about the importance of prizes for writers, and about the importance of writing. After this, all three winners had the opportunity to read from the first page of their manuscript. I love giving readings (I flubbed my lines!).

The Festival’s organisers keep the participation numbers fairly small, and this means that although I may not have managed to befriend everyone, it still felt intimate and easy to forge connections. The sessions I attended were exceptional, including Jane Friedman‘s “How To Get Your Book Published”; Julie Cohen’s “Learning Story Structure from Pixar Films”, Jess Lourey and Jennifer Dahlberg‘s “From Traditional to Indie” and Paul McVeigh‘s “Creating your Platform”. And although some sessions overlapped, it was possible to have a ‘taster session’ with each of the faculty during one of the events. I was able to spend 20 minutes with Cassie Gonzales on ‘Making Your Dialogue Do the Heavy Lifting’ for example.

I learned SO much. I have a notebook literally packed with scribbles.

I pitched my novel to two highly regarded agents. I have never I’ve done this before – not in person. Terrifying, but great practice. Both agents want to see the novel, and one in particular I felt a strong connection to (I must do another read-through to make sure it’s in the best shape possible!).

I also was honoured to be able to spend time with Clydette and Charles de Groot. What a pleasure! And special mention should go to the efficient (and gorgeous) team of volunteers who were on hand whenever I was confused, or lost (or lost something!).

I did make friends during the weekend, and I want to return to Stockholm as the little I saw I loved. So all in all a truly spectacular, informative time.

If you have read my previous two blogs about my ‘health situation’ you might wonder how I manage to participate in such a full-on Festival. The truth is it is incredibly challenging. I usually spend about 15 of each 24 hours lying prone in some form or other – trying to sleep. sleeping, resting. And this was 15 hours of sessions, events, walking, connecting…. It was hard. Very hard. At times I felt horrendous. But I was also doing something I love to do: spend time with other writers. Usually I get quite ill after such intense periods of activity. So far I’m just mindlessly exhausted (hence how long it’s taken me to write this blog), so I’m crossing thumbs all the positive energy from the Festival has helped my immune-system.

Photography: Birgit Walsh Photography
(The photograph of the volunteers which was taken by Catherine Pettersson Founder of the Stockholm Writers Festival)

15th International Conference on the Short Story in English

Thanks to a Canada Council for the Arts Grant I am a participant at the 15th International Conference on the Short Story in English, taking place from June 27-30, 2018 at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. The theme is: “Beyond History: The Radiance of the Short Story.

In an age when private lives appear to be ruled by the force of historical events, we are contradictorily challenged by creative achievements that, even if originating in History, develop a self-sustainable energy, a radiance, so to say, that supersedes material circumstances and/or envisages alternatives for them.

The 15th International Conference on the Short Story in English brings writers of many nationalities to Lisbon, a city where the cultures of the world meet and stories of history unravel around every corner. In this scenario, fiction writers in English, or authors who have been translated into English, together with scholars of the short story, will join in reading sessions, roundtable discussions and panels, as well as in the more traditional paper presentation sessions.

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the Society for the Study of the Short Story, the Conference looks forward to the opportunity of highlighting the variety of ways in which the Short Story becomes a specific form, blurs the boundaries with other literary forms, goes beyond the written medium and borrows from other artistic processes/languages, shaping itself anew in an endless process. Indeed, proving to be an extremely resilient medium, the Short Story has been changing throughout the times and aesthetic tendencies, without losing the kernel that makes it a distinctive mode of the human expressive genius.

On Thursday, June 28th, I’ll be on a panel discussing Flash Fiction in Method and Meaning with Nuala O’Connor and Tracey Slaughter, and on Friday, June 29th I’m reading one of my short stories as well as participating in the round-table discussion on Politics and Short Fiction, with Garry Craig Powell, Rebekah Clarkson, David James, and Robin McLean:

An age-old question for many writers and artists has been to what extent should politics intrude on art: should we write above politics or face it head on? Can fiction affect or even transform the political climate? Should it even try? Then again, is it even possible to avoid a political stance of some kind?

You can download the program of events from the website – there are a number of exciting authors reading their work, and a packed program of panels. See you there!

Photographs from the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English

P1010296I loved the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English that was held 2 years ago in Little Rock, but I have to say this year’s conference was very special. I suspect the reason for this is that the organisers decided to invite twice as many authors as they did in Little Rock. There was a downside: many more panels and readings, and so also many conflicts.  It was impossible to go to all the events I wanted to go to, but I had a spectacular time. I thank everyone involved in this inspiring conference, particularly Sylvia Petter,  Dr Susan Lohafer and of course Dr. Maurice A. Lee.

I was particularly delighted to re-connect with writers I’d met in Little Rock, and to meet so many new writers and academics in the field of writing, men and women I feel are now part of my extended family. There are too many to name, but here are a few….  Adnan Mahmutovic, Lauren B. Davis, Vanessa Gebbie,Robert Olen Butler and Kelly Lee Butler,  Nuala Ni Chonchuir, Tania HershmanRebekah Clarkson, Valerie SirrThomas E. KennedyBharati Mukherjee, Velma Pollard, Nancy Fruend, Paul McVeighRhoda Greaves, , Dr Suzanne Scafe, Anna Solding and so, so many others.

The 14th International Conference on the Short Story in English will be held in Shanghai, China, 13 – 16 July 2016. See you there!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

13th International Conference on the Short Story in English

I can’t believe that it’s less than a month before the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English in Vienna, Austria. Very exciting!

The theme is “Unbraiding the Short Story”.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 17.14.24

This conference will bring writers of fiction in English (Irish, British, American, Canadian, Australian, Caribbean, South-African, Indian, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, etc.) and writers who have had (or will have for this event) their work translated into English together with scholars of the short story, and all will join in reading sessions, roundtable discussions and panels, including ones devoted to translation.

The 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English will also host a number of sessions, both in the more traditional format (with presentation of papers) and in other formats involving performance, dance, art, films, etc., having in mind that the form of the short story is not necessarily confined to the limits of the written page but may open up to manifold fields of expression.

You can download the program of events from the website.

On Wednesday July 16,  I’ll be reading one of my short stories, and on Thursday July 17th I’m on an extended length panel with Robert Olen Butler, Farhat Iftekharrudin and Billie Travalini. The subject of the panel is Liminality in the Threshold Story, moderated by Alice Clark from the University of Nantes.

There are a number of talks and workshops, and the guest author line-up includes Clark Blaise, Bharati Mukherjee, Tania Hershman, Vanessa Gebbie, Nuala Ní Chonchúir amongst many others, so I hope to see you there!

Summer Literary Seminars

This morning I received a lovely note from Mikhail Iossel, director of the Summer Literary Seminars telling me that my novel excerpt entry had “Strong, interesting, inventive writing. Really quite accomplished.”

I was a shortlisted contest finalist and have been offered a “merit-based fellowships” to Summer Literary Seminars in either Lithuania or Kenya:

“Our programs this year will take place in Lithuania (July 14 – July 27) and Kenya (December 8 – 21), and will feature a wide variety of internationally renowned faculty and guests, including innovative writers, poets, translators, literary scholars, publishers, and artists. Another unique feature of the SLS programs is our close cooperation with the local literary and artistic communities, and the sheer degree of our program participants’ immersion in the local culture. We enable our students to the see the place “from within,” as it were: through the eyes of the local writers and artists, whether in East-Central Europe or East Africa.For more information about our 2013 programs, please visit our website at”


12th International Conference on the Short Story in English

From June 27 – June 30th I will be a guest writer at the 12th International Conference on the Short Story in English:  SHORT STORY TRADITIONS: BRIDGES TO MODERNITY AND BEYOND. This conference will be held in North Little Rock, Arkansas.


On Thursday 28th of June I’ll be reading one of my short stories as well as participating in a roundtable on flash fiction: FLASH FICTION: THE LITTLE STORY THAT COULD. The moderator is Sylvia Petter from the University of Vienna and the others on the roundtable will be Robert Olen Butler, Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Tania Hershman.

There are a number of other talks and workshops, and the guest author line-up includes Clark Blaise, Bharati Mukherjee, Alexander MacLeod, Molly McCloskey, Katherine Vaz and Alistair MacLeod amongst many others so I hope to see you there!

Sirenland 2012.. and catching up

positano_church_wb-225x300At the end of March, I returned to Sirenland, the writers conference in Positano, Italy. Last year I titled my blog “Sirenland – a writers conference in heaven,” and my opinion has not changed, in fact it was an even richer experience this second time around, perhaps because I spent (a little) less time with my mouth agape at the beauty of the view from my window…. and more time soaking up inspiration and ideas and support from the group.

What I find so remarkable is that both times I’ve attended, the organisers and the three workshop leaders are completely ‘available’, even outside of workshop time and the other events. And because no one else is staying at the hotel, it feels very cosy but with this lovely glow, since the Le Sirenuse, where the event is held is one of the most beautiful ’boutique’ hotels in the world.

I was in Dani Shapiro’s group this year and last year. She writes both memoir and fiction. I recently finished her memoir, “Slow Motion” and couldn’t put it down. She is a remarkable teacher and group leader, able to ‘evoke’ a whole novel from just 25 pages of submitted work, supporting the writer to find out where the strengths and weaknesses might be, and what to do about them. The quality of feedback from the other participants was, again, excellent.


Kathleen Lawrence and Rebecca Stead, participants in Dani Shapiro’s group

The other two workshop leaders were the inimitable Jim Shepard, and Susan Orlean who took the non-fiction group. Jim once again brought his wife, the author Karen Shepard, and his two sons and daughter – all three talented writers. Dani’s son, Jake Maren again produced the highlight of our open mic night by writing and directing a play (Jake’s just turned 13). Hannah Tinti gave her exceptional talk on getting published and entertained us with her ukelele playing (and singing). Michael Maren, as always, made sure everyone and everything was alright, and made sure the event was captured on film (he took the photograph of me, below). All of the workshop leaders read from their work on other evenings, Jim Shepard choosing  to read a new work, a flash story that had me weeping.

Sandra_Sirenland_wb-300x215I highly recommend this conference. I came away feeling supported and encouraged. Friendships were cemented or begun: people with whom I will be able to exchange writing feedback. This alone is such a gift.  Both times I’ve left Sirenland feeling  part of a ‘family’, one that will be there for me and for my writing in years to come. And it’s not just a feeling: after last year’s conference I stayed in touch with several of the participants, and received very helpful feedback on work that I shared with them.

I do talk a little more about the general schedule of the conference my blog about it from last year, so if you want to know more have a read.

Applications are open for next year’s Sirenland on September 15th.

I returned home from Sirenland to find a letter from the Arts Council of Ireland informing that they had awarded me a literature bursary to help me complete my novel. Arts funding has of course been slashed in the past years, so I feel especially honoured and grateful. What a blessing, and great encouragement for the final leg of the work, which seems to get harder and harder the closer I am to finishing…especially as my mentorship with Marina Endicott from the Banff Centre’s Wired Writing Studio is now complete.

I have to say I’m not sure I could have managed the long grey winter without Marina’s excellent guidance and editing. My weekly ‘date’ was sometimes the only thing that kept me from giving up on my novel – and myself! I’d re-edit a chapter and send it along to her, and receive back in a few days her comments and line edit suggestions. I would go through these and then work on the next chapter and send it off, and so on. The work she did with me brought my novel much closer to final draft, and taught me a lot about the process of editing a longer work. I am still in touch with some of the other participants from Banff, and hope to meet up in Toronto in July.

I’m not yet at final draft, but close.

I will be a guest writer at the 12th International Conference on the Short Story in English, June 27 – 30, but more about that in my next post.

Sirenland – a writers conference in heaven

LeSirenuse_bedroomview4-e1302797288971I have recently returned from Positano, Italy, where I was a lucky participant in the Sirenland Writers Conference. It was an extraordinary experience.

The conference is held at Le Sirenuse, surely one of the world’s most beautiful hotels. I had a room overlooking the bay and my view was simply breathtaking. Although it’s such a luxurious hotel, I felt completely at home, everyone who worked there took care of me as if I was their closest family. The hotel is family run concern, owned by the Sersales, a house turned into a hotel, lovingly taken care of and every room individual, gorgeous artwork on the walls, a fantastic spa,  swimming pool.

Sirenland is held at Le Sirenuse because the manager, Antonio Sersale, loves literature, and he is the official host. But essentially the event is organised by Hannah Tinti (author of The Good Thief and the editor of One Story magazine) Dani Shapiro (author and professor of creative writing) and Dani’s husband, Michael Maren (journalist and screenwriter).

There were 30 writers (participants) and many had brought family or friends. The thirty writers were divided into mixed-genre groups of three, each under the tutelage of either Dani Shapiro, Jim Shepard or Hannah Tinti (normally this would have been Peter Cameron, but he was unable to attend this year).

Sandra-Pete-300x198Every morning  two of us were ‘workshopped’. We had submitted 25 pages for this purpose, a few weeks prior to the event.  The afternoons were free. The quality of the teaching was exceptional – I had Dani Shapiro who is quite wonderful, both as a person and as a teacher.  I was impressed how she was able not only to give each of us specific help on what we had submitted, but – in the case of those who submitted portions of longer pieces  – she was also able to consider the whole story. To my mind, essentially everyone came away with a way to radically increase the potential of their work – whether novel, short story or memoir.  We also had a half hour one on one with Dani which was very helpful. The standard of feedback by the other participants was extremely high.

Each day there were different early evening events, readings of work by the teachers and the Sirenland Fellow, who this year was Karen Thompson Walker (who has just sold her first novel The Age of Miracles to Random House), a talk on publishing, on the writing life and so on. We had an informal talk with Jim Shepard, for example. Jim is the reason I sought out Sirenland, I am a huge fan of his writing. Although initially I was disappointed not to be in his group, it seemed to me that Dani was the perfect choice for me and what I’m writing at the moment. And Jim is very approachable, so I had some time to chat with him outside of the workshop mornings. He is a delightful man: funny, wise, irreverent, gives the best hugs. He came with his family, including his wife, the writer Karen Shepard, and each of them added something special to the week. Andrew Sean Greer gave a reading from his novel in progress, (I’ve just finished his wonderful A Story of A Marriage).

Some evenings there were ’sponsored’ cocktail events, and gourmet dinners, others we had free to eat in the village. In the afternoons Judy Becker gave yoga sessions.  I only did one of these on the last day, but regretted not doing more as it was such a lovely, meditative experience. A good contrast to the active socializing the rest of the time.

readingjupitersmoons_mod1-239x300My favourite evening we were all invited to dinner at Antonio and Carla Sersale’s home, and that’s where we had ‘open mic’ night… everyone had 2 minutes (if they wanted) to read something.  I was going to read a recent story, but when I timed out 2 minutes it just didn’t have enough punch for a short read,  I ended up reading a memoir piece about my first colonic which seemed to stay in people’s minds afterwards (perhaps not in a good way…). Jim’s kids gave readings.. his son, Emmett read a story of his (very impressive writing) soon be published in Subtropics; and we had a performance of a hilarious skit on Justin Bieber written (and performed) by Jake, Dani Shapiro’s son.

I met some wonderful people, many who I will stay in touch with, particularly to share work. And all the teachers and those involved in the publishing industry made themselves very available for ongoing connection and support.

I cannot recommend this conference highly enough. Although I am not an experienced conference participant, I suspect Sirenland is quite unique in that it is kept small and focussed: you truly feel you are part of a family, a family that will not abandon you when you leave. In some ways it was similar to my recent experience of being a participant at the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka, a combination of luxury and literature that I could very easily get accustomed to.