Thursday 5 January 2017

Getting to know our Big 5 Winner ... Sophie Wellstood!

Winner of the Big 5 Comp - Sophie Wellstood
By Gillian Hamer.

Among the many hundreds of entries, long-list, short-list processes, there was in the end one winner, chosen by our head judge, crime writer Sheila Bugler. And that winner was Sophie Wellstood and the opening pages of her novel The Sky is a Blue Bowl.

Sophie will now spend 2017 working alongside the Triskele team to polish her novel to perfection and hopefully see it make its way out into the big wide world. We thought it would be nice to get to know Sophie a little, and introduce her to our followers right at the beginning of her journey.

So ... congratulations, Sophie, on winning our Big 5 competition! How did you feel when you heard the result?
Surprised, thrilled, and a little scared.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself away from writing?
I work in central London, teaching English to adults - a job I love. It's endlessly interesting and rewarding, and can be hugely creative. I also play piano and guitar with my Irish ceilidh-loving friends, go for very long walks in wild places, swim in ponds and spend a lot of time looking through a camera lens.

And a little about your writing?
Recurring themes seem to be wilderness, desire, alienation, abandonment, recovery, grief...all of which sound very grim on paper, but actually there's just as much humour I hope in my writing. Life really can be absurd, even in the midst of the most dreadful times. My unconventional upbringing gave me some of the darkest experiences possible, but also some of the very best, and I'm old enough now to be able to treat it a gift, rather than as a millstone.

I've long felt that my natural home is the short story and poetry, that novels were just too long and complicated and difficult (not that short stories or poetry are in any way 'easy'!). I still feel that to some extent. But after studying for two years at Birkbeck University with Jonathan Kemp, and then later with inspirational author and editor Debi Alper, I found that I could - and wanted to - push the boundaries of my comfort zones and go for it. Writing novels is still a ridiculously long and complicated and difficult process, but incredibly exciting.

The opening 10 pages of your novel connected with all of the shortlisting judges, and was the overall favourite of crime writer, Sheila Bugler, our head judge – what was your inspiration for the novel?
There was no one lightbulb moment as such, but after taking voluntary redundancy in 2010 from a role in Further Education, I thought I'd like to write a dark comedy based around the mysterious murder of an unpopular senior manager - kind of 'in the photocopy cupboard with a bottle of tippex' kind of thing. But that idea quickly proved to have no legs at all, and would likely be libellous anyway. So I began sketching out a very camp nod to the 60s and 70s girls own-style adventure stories I've always loved, and the seeds of The Sky... were sown. In fact, the matriarch of the novel, Edith, was originally named Enid as a direct nod and wink to Enid Blyton, and the seriousness (or lack of it) I then ascribed to the story.

However, as the imaginary world began to take shape - and all writers know this mad feeling - the characters began to shout and boss me around and would not be trivialised. The darkest and saddest of themes began to emerge, and I realised that yes, there is a lot of lightness and love and silliness to enjoy in the novel, but the monsters in the shadows have to be there.

What I was always very sure about, though, was that a same-sex love affair would be at the heart of the novel, and that I wanted to create people who would be as lovely and damaged and as conflicted as I could make them - whilst still being real and relateable enough to engage a reader. We will see! I may or may not have succeeded, but that's part of the whole crazy challenge of attempting to create an authentic, fictional world.

Why do you write?
Initially out of a pure love for reading - which I think if you experience as a child you're set for life - and just wanting to copy my favourite authors and poets. Then, through many solipsistic years, I produced reams of obsessive, angry, fractured woe-is-me stuff - but enough accidentally-nailed-it moments to realise that eventually words can say exactly the right thing in the exactly the right way. Now I hope I'm much more structured, more disciplined, more relaxed, and slightly less precious about it. Writing is what I love, and I hope I can produce reasonably professional and meaningful work, but the world won't stop spinning if I can't. The rejections hurt, though - I'm not that thick-skinned yet.

Which authors would you list as your inspiration?
How much space do you have?! Spike Milligan, Patti Smith, Maya Angelou, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Nancy Garden, Carol Noble, Debi Alper, Jonathan Kemp, Annie Proulx, David Sedaris, Denis Johnson, Alison Bechdel, Armistead Maupin, Alice Munro, Alice Walker, Sarah Dreher, Ellen Galford, Fiona Cooper, Keri Hulme, Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Sylvia Plath, Jackie Kay, Julia Darling, Ali Smith, John Cheever, Carol Ann Duffy, Joanna Cannon, Carol Anshaw...and of course, Enid Blyton. 

What did you know about Triskele Books before the competition?
Actually very little, other than what I learned online via Words With Jam.

Why did you enter our Big 5 competition?
I enter many writing competitions - the discipline and focus is important for me, and provides a sense of structure and involvement with other writers and the industry. You know you're being read, even if more often than not the outcome is crushing disappointment! With the Big 5 competition, however, the prize was - and is - an exceptionally generous and exciting opportunity which I knew immediately I wanted very, very much. I've not come across any other competitions offering such a well thought-out and genuinely life-changing prize, and could not be happier to have won.

What do you hope to gain from the experience?
Hopefully the beginnings of a readership base, but prior to that, making the most of this unique opportunity to work closely with and learn from a team of people who are experts in their fields; to get professional advice and guidance and insight into all stages of the publishing process, especially the promotional and media-related side, which I find daunting and excruciating in equal measure.

In an ideal world, where would you like to see your writing career taking you?
I'm traditionalist enough to really want agent representation; to find the right person who gets what I'm on about and with whom I can set out my plans for at least the next two novels (the current, second one is plotted, half-written and will be finished mid 2017; the third is poking up little tendrils of ideas). I'd love to put out a collection of short stories and poetry, too - oh and all my children's stuff as well, and a couple of radio plays! But ultimately, I'd just like to find the right agent and have much more time to write.

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