Debut writer KJ Orr wins BBC National Short Story Award

Claire-Louise Bennett, Galway-based author of Pond, is runner up


Debut author K J Orr, a short story writer whose first collection was only published this year, has beaten a host of writers including two-time Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel to win the coveted BBC National Short Story Award with BookTrust for 2016 with her story, Disappearances. Described by author and judge, Kei Miller, as “a near perfect example of how the short story works – a small world that’s perfectly observed”, Disappearances is a richly layered story of guilt and identity set in Buenos Aires.

K J Orr was presented with the prize of £15,000 last night by Jenni Murray, the chair of judges , at a ceremony in the BBC’s Radio Theatre in London. The news was announced live on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, during a special programme celebrating the short story.

Claire-Louise Bennett, also a debut writer whose first collection, Pond, was published by Stinging Fly Press in Dublin, was selected as the runner-up and received £3,000 for her story, Morning, Noon & Night. Bennett lives in Galway. The three other shortlisted authors, Lavinia Greenlaw, Hilary Mantel and Tahmima Anam, received £500.

Di Speirs, books editor at BBC Radio 4 and longstanding judge of the award, said: “In a year when the shortlist was supremely well balanced and the judges initially quite divided about a winner, our meeting was full of insight, debate, discussion and courtesy; by its conclusion we were all of a mind. I’m delighted, as are we all, to be honouring as winner, and as runner-up, both the debut writers on the list, both writers who have dedicated themselves to the short story, honing their craft, experimenting with form and finding their unique voices. KJ Orr’s precision and clarity, her ability to expose a life in a line and to induce sympathy and disdain, linger long after reading the final paragraph.”

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Born in London, Orr’s debut collection of short stories, Light Box, was published by Daunt Books in February. A writer dedicated to the short story form, her stories have been published in The Irish Times, Sunday Times Magazine and The Dublin Review among others and she was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award with BookTrust for the first time in 2011. Orr studied at St Andrews, UEA and Chichester and has published essays and reviews in Poetry Review, the TLS and the Guardian.

Disappearances was inspired by Orr watching a solitary man in a cafe in Argentina whilst travelling. Surfaces and what lies beneath were a starting point for this story of a retired plastic surgeon who develops a relationship with a local waitress and is compelled to visit the same cafe every day. Surprised by his own desire to create a new identity, his plans are thwarted when two women from his past disrupt his new world. Caught off guard, the tension between the life he led and this desire to create a new identity is a pivotal moment.

Talking about the short story form’s humanity and ability to create a “furious, challenging and exhilarating experience”, Orr said “a single story can transform a day and lead to a shift in perception”. It “magnifies” and “celebrates” and “encourages empathetic connection”.

This year’s runner-up, Claire-Louise Bennett, was born in Wiltshire but now lives in Galway. Morning, Noon & Night is the subtly witty and evocative story of a failed academic told through the rhythm of one day. A slow-burning, sensual story filled with loneliness and humour, it was applauded for its “bravery” and “experimental” intensity.

Ted Hodgkinson, senior programmer for literature at the Southbank Centre and judge of this year’s award, said: “Morning, Noon and Night is a short story driven by the lucidity of the voice which captures moments of revelation in the rituals of the everyday. For an award that has often been prescient in acknowledging emerging talents, seeing two distinctive sensibilities who have recently published debuts triumph is no small cause for celebration.”