On the face of it: I Am the Mask Maker and other stories

This time last year, one of my stories, ‘The Last Flight of La Librairie d’Afrique du Nord’ was shortlisted for the HG Wells Fiction Short Story Competition (senior category). This year’s shortlist has just been announced – congratulations to all the writers on that list, by the way. When I saw the news, I was momentarily disappointed to see that none of my stories had made it this year, until I reminded myself that I hadn’t entered. I often do this, to my husband’s amusement, so that by now it’s become a bit of an ongoing joke.

Me:       (very despondent) I didn’t get on to the shortlist for XXX

Him:    Did you try?

Me:       No.

What is it about competitions?

Shortly after last year’s award ceremony, the HG Wells competition released their theme for this year’s contest. The theme was Mask. I liked it. It was topical. I was determined to try.

We all have a new relationship with masks that would have been unthinkable two years ago. In the past, we may have associated masks with burglars, terrorists or superheroes, the dentist, Halloween or, if we’re lucky, beauty treatments. But those of us who have been happy to wear them, and who weren’t already working in the medical profession, now associate them with protection. A mask is also visible proof of other people’s concern for our safety. To some extent, (on the face of it?) wearing or not wearing a mask has become a statement of intent, of how one sees the world and our responsibility towards it.

Against such a background, how was I to go about writing a story that wouldn’t be too depressing? Creating a story involves willingly immersing yourself in a time and place, and I didn’t much like the thought of spending more time than necessary in Pandemic Britain. I decided to go on location and travel through time. I went back to Renaissance Italy and began writing about a place which was as far away from the undulating hills of Monmouthshire as I could imagine – beautiful, watery Venice. My central character emerged and the story rolled along. In fact, it did what stories often do; it developed a life of its own. Before I knew it, I had a piece of work that was twice as long as the maximum word count allowed for this year’s HG Wells competition, and no way of cutting it without losing important parts of the story. So there it was: ‘I Am the Mask Maker’ – a story inspired by this year’s theme but which was, at nearly six thousand words, far too long to be entered for this or most other competitions.

When Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes at Victorina Press agreed to publish a collection of my stories I set about choosing the works I wanted to include. As far as I was able, I tried to include pieces that had been longlisted, shortlisted or had won competitions. After all, someone somewhere had already judged them to be at least passable, hadn’t they? It was only when I gathered them together that I realised something which hadn’t been obvious to me until then: most of my characters seemed to be looking for ways of dealing with, or escaping from, tricky situations. Am I a person who is constantly searching for ways out of tricky situations? I don’t think so. Therein lies the mystery of writing, I suppose.

At first, I hadn’t planned on including ‘I Am the Mask Maker’ but the longer it sat there next to the other stories, the more obvious it became that it should stay. The central character is (you guessed it!) in a challenging situation. His route forwards is convoluted but in the end he finds his way. In his case, it is the disasters he encounters, and not the successes, which bring about the changes necessary for him to go in the right direction. Isn’t it often the case that the worst events in life and not the best are the ones which bring with them the most valuable insights? I’m holding on to that fragile, positive thought as we approach the end of a second year of Covid.

Do I have a love/hate relationship with competitions? When you are a writer published by a small, independent press, getting mentioned in competitions is often the only comfortable way for you to draw attention to your work, particularly if you feel embarrassed blowing your own trumpet on social media. Used as markers throughout the year, competitions can be valuable incentives to produce work that you might not otherwise attempt or complete. In the end, this year’s theme for the HG Wells Fiction Short Story Competition encouraged me to write the title story for my new book, even if it was never entered as intended. When you’re writing, you’re definitely playing the long game.

I’ve won a few prizes and I’d love to win some more. I’m as thrilled as the next person when I see my name on a list. But it isn’t all about winning. In fact, is there even such a thing as ‘winning’ when we’re talking about the act of creation, whether it’s writing or art or music? Isn’t this why most of us are creative in the first place – because we don’t like the idea of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; writers inhabit the spaces in between, the grey areas, which are much more interesting.

The last time one of my stories didn’t get anywhere in a competition (because even if you win some, you will almost certainly lose far more), I turned to Jan Morris’s writing; she has a wise way of looking at most things and instantly makes me feel better about the world. She said she didn’t approve of literary prizes at all and that success as a writer cannot be compared to the success of an athlete or a chess player.

‘There are no rules to art, though, nobody is offside, and to my mind nobody should be judged a winner. Not even me.’

[In My Mind’s Eye, Jan Morris, Faber & Faber, 2018 ]

I Am the Mask Maker and other stories will be on general release from the 30th October, 2021.

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