Third time lucky as Caldwell wins BBC National Short Story Award

Third time lucky as Caldwell wins BBC National Short Story Award

Lucy Caldwell has won the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University, a prize she has been nominated for three times. 

Caldwell scooped the £15,000 award for "All the People Were Mean and Bad", a story taken from her 2021 collection Intimacies (Faber). It was praised by the judges for its "masterful storytelling", "deep truthfulness" and "deft precision". It follows the story of a woman navigating a long-haul transatlantic flight with her young daughter after a family loss, variously influenced by Frank O’Hara’s poem "Sleeping on the Wing", Walt Whitman’s journey-poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry", Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Adrian Tomine’s "Translated from the Japanese". The story is available to listen to on BBC Sounds.   

Caldwell said: “I wanted to write about the distance between where we come from and where we end up; between who we think we are and who we turn out to be. Between what we dream, and what we do. A lot of my stories are set on planes, or in airports, on car journeys, in inbetween spaces, spaces where time seems to stop, or is elsewhere for a while – places or spaces of exile, of not-belonging, of longing, places where different paths, different destinations, momentarily seem possible.” 

James Runcie, chair of judges, said: “Lucy Caldwell's story has a confidence, daring and authenticity that is wonderfully sustained. All five of the stories on our shortlist were excellent, but this totally assured and moving piece of storytelling commanded the award.”

Di Speirs, editor of books at BBC Audio and a judge of the award since its launch, added: “I discovered Lucy Caldwell as a short story writer a decade ago. Since then, between bouts of novel writing, Lucy has turned out a series of spell-binding short story collections, and now been thrice shortlisted for the BBC NSSA. I’m delighted that one of our consistently accomplished and increasingly mature story writers, who is always so generous in her curation of others in the field, is this year’s very deserved winner of the award, which was set up to celebrate those creating the very best short fiction in the UK.”

The other judges included Booker Prize-shortlisted novelist Fiona Mozley, award-winning writer and winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize Derek Owusu and multi-award-winning novelist and short story writer Donal Ryan.

Caldwell beat a shortlist dominated by new voices including Dublin-born novelist, playwright and screenwriter Rory Gleeson, Orange Prize-shortlisted writer Georgina Harding, former postal worker and creative writing lecturer Danny Rhodes and journalist, novelist and "Mastermind" finalist Richard Smyth. 

Alongside the BBC NSSA, BBC "Front Row" also announced 19-year-old Tabitha Rubens (pictured right) from London, had won this year's BBC Young Writers’ Award. Rubens won for her story "Super Powder", which follows a young woman as she markets a snake-oil wonder formula to an unwitting public. The story was praised by the judges for its "spirit of adventure" and its "distinct voice" with judge Louise O'Neill calling Rubens "a serious talent". 

Rubens said: “I wrote ‘Super-Powder’ in April, after the winter lockdown. Mental health in the UK, particularly among young people, has been steadily worsening for some time. During the pandemic, when there were few ways for those struggling to seek help, the situation was only exacerbated, with devastating effects for self-esteem and wellbeing. Seeing how this affected my friends and family, I wanted to write a story that emphasised the baselessness of most insecurities.

"Many people make a lot of money from exploiting these insecurities and promoting unrealistic and constantly changing ideals. I also wanted to play around with the structure of the story to underpin the theme. The words move around on the page so that the reader has to shift their gaze to follow them. I wanted to try not only to make the story more engaging to read, but also to mirror the way your attention is manipulated on social media platforms, including by targeted adverts.”