It’s 8 am in New Zealand, and York alumna Paula Morris is surrounded by boxes, waiting for the removal men. We have a date over Skype to talk about her latest work, False River, which was recently shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award.
Paula has not long returned to her New Zealand homeland to take up a position as a teacher of creative writing at the University of Auckland, but she’ll be back in London next week for the Times awards ceremony. She is one of six writers in contention for the prize.
False River is to be read aloud by former CSI actor Gary Dourdan. “All my friends are very excited to get a chance to see him in person,” Paula says, while she is herself more excited by the prospect of hearing the works in full. “It’s so infrequently, if you’re a fiction writer, that you get to hear a piece of yours in full, because with most readings you don’t get a chance to read for forty five minutes straight,” she explains. “Anything that draws people’s attention to the short story form and its possibilities is a good thing.”
Paula is delighted to be shortlisted, but being the only writer from the Southern Hemisphere to make the list was bittersweet. “I was a little dejected, and a lot of that is to do with terms of competition in the UK. You need to be published in Britain, which knocks out the majority of the world.”
She admits that short story competitions are slightly less restrictive because, “it’s much easier to get a story published in the UK than a novel.” Paula had [at that point] two stories published in the UK, one of which was False River, published in the e-journal Five Dials.
But even that hadn’t been an obvious route. “The only real reason I even submitted for that was because they had a special Australia/New Zealand issue, to coincide with a festival in London. It’s still quite hard for [short story writers], there are still many barriers to entry for those of us in the Southern Hemisphere in particular.”
I tell Paula that I’d never realised there were so many hindrances to entering the competitions. “Nobody realises it,” she exclaims, recalling an email she has received recently about the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction. “[Competitions are] for books by women all over the world… but [to enter] those books have to have been published in Britain.” This makes entry impossible for international authors not published in the UK.
It’s clear that Paula feels very strongly about championing International authors. “I’ve been a sort of activist in this area for some time!” she laughs, before becoming more serious. “[I’ve been trying] to get people to stop thinking about the British awards being somehow global or international in reach, because the book awards are simply not. They only reflect what is chosen by London publishers to publish in the UK, to sell to the British public.”
The conversation turns to her time at York. “My deep love of short stories was fostered at the University of York,” she explains, “and it’s all due really to Hermione Lee, who was my thesis supervisor. She opened my eyes to American short stories, by women in particular. At that time she was editing the two volumes of The Secret Self, which were short stories by women.
“I started reading and buying collections of short stories, mainly by women writers early on, and that’s really where the reading of short stories and then ultimately the writing of them began. But if I hadn’t been a student at York, it might not have happened.”
That’s not to say Paula spent all her time with her head in a book. “I remember everything about York, it was unbelievable,” she says. “I arrived two months after my twentieth birthday, and I spent three years there, most of which I spent living in Eden’s Cottage [court].”
“I never did anything useful [as a student] like go on a ghost tour!” she laughs. “I was so stupid when I was there, you go to all the pubs but you don’t go on a walking tour of the city, which would have been quite useful.
“But I did go to the Minster a lot because of course it was free in those days. So I really wanted to set something, a book that took place in part of the Minster. And of course I wanted to get Betty’s (York’s famous tearooms) in as much as possible, because I spent far too much time and money there!”
Paula was also an active participant in student life. “I was very involved in the Graduate Students’ Association, and I was president of the overseas’ students’ association for two years I think! Many of my dearest friends around the world are people that I met at the University of York. I’ve stayed in touch with an awful lot of people from that time. It was just such a positive place for me.”
York left such an impression on Paula that she based the second of her Young Adult (YA) novels, Dark Souls, in the city. “All of my YA novels are mysteries set in haunted cities,” she explains, “two of them are set in New Orleans, the new one coming out is set in Rome, and then Dark Souls is set in York. So I had to come back to do some research!”