Cherise Saywell - Women's Short Story Competition 2015 winner

Cherise Saywell, ‘Pieces of Mars have fallen to Earth’

I was getting ready to leave the house when the phone went. I had loads of things to organise – judo kits and violins and what-have-you. I thought it would be my friend, checking that her daughter had arrived safely. But it was Debbie Taylor and when she said I’d won I couldn’t quite get my head around it. Honestly, afterwards I thought I’d dreamt the whole thing.

I love writing short stories even though I find them really difficult. It’s a different sort of buzz to writing a novel. Reading really excellent short stories is like fuelling up. Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection The Interpreter of Maladies is one I return to often. I adore her story, ‘Mrs Sen’. Also, ‘When the Door Closed it was Dark’ by Alison Moore. Jo Lloyd’s story, ‘Because it is Running By’ is superb. And MJ Hyland’s ‘Rag Love’. I could go on and on. I like to go back and re-read to try and understand how and why particular stories work. I can get a bit obsessive.

I wrote ‘Pieces of Mars…’ really quickly. I had this idea and I carried it around for a while. We were moving house and there was no time to write. I was intensely sad about moving. I suppose some of that melancholy found its way into the story. In January I sat down and it just seemed to come together. I looked back at my files recently and I was surprised to see how many drafts I made, and how much it changed. I really struggled with the opening paragraph. But there was something at the heart of it that was there from the beginning. I’ve learned to let the story find itself on the page. It doesn’t always happen but it’s wonderful when it does. 

Cherise Saywell is 46, has two school-age children and lives in Edinburgh. She grew up in a town called Casino in Australia and has worked in media studies research, and in various admin jobs, as well as producing annuals for football clubs in the UK – but she is now a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Stirling University, ‘the best job I ever had’. Her two novels, Twitcher and Desert Fish, were published in Australia (Vintage, 2013 and 2011). She writes every day, if only for half an hour, hot-desking in her flat, in libraries, whilst travelling – but works best very late at night.

What did the judge say?

‘Pieces of Mars have fallen to Earth’ by Cherise Saywell was an exquisite and daringly original story: on the one hand, a meditation on the mystery of the cosmos, and on the other, the story of a mother who, like all mothers, must school herself in the ‘art of goodbyes’. Saywell delivers this with beautiful restraint and understatement. The prose is impressively honed and hums with a stark but powerful lyricism. At the same time, it’s a very ambitious piece; a story about the far edges of our knowledge (and our world), a story that is excitingly contemporary. As it unfolds, a sense of the marvellous springs from the seemingly mundane and everyday, so it is both utterly human and surprising. It’s also an incredibly tender story. I had to remember to breathe again at the end. Like many great short stories, it’s even more wonderful on the second reading.

Alison MacLeod is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. Her most recent novel, Unexploded, was long-listed for the 2013 Man-Booker Prize and selected as one of the Observer’s ’Books of the Year’. Her previous works are the novels The Changeling (1996) and The Wave Theory of Angels (2005), and the short story collection Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (2007). She is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester and has served as a judge for literary awards such as the International Frank O’Connor Award, International Manchester Fiction Prize, and the Charleston-Chichester Award. Her next short story collection and novel will be published by Bloomsbury.

Congratulations to the shortlisted writers!

  • Julie Hayman, ‘Hangman’
  • Anna Sayburn Lane, ‘Conservation’
  • Nell Stevens, ‘Not Emily’
  • Alison Bullivant, ‘Malaika’
  • Amanda Block, ‘Still life moving fast’
'Just read Ann Abineri's January Flash Card in #LittleMs @Mslexia. #BOOM #Fabulouswriting. Deserves more than £20! #genius'