Lucy Caldwell wins BBC National Short Story Award

Belfast author wins major prize, having been shortlisted twice before

Lucy Caldwell. Photograph: Tom Routh

Belfast author Lucy Caldwell has won the 16th BBC National Short Story Award, having been shortlisted twice before, with All the People Were Mean and Bad, a story taken from her latest collection, Intimacies. The news was announced live on BBC Front Row this evening by James Runcie, chair of the judges.

Praised by the judges for “masterful storytelling”, “deep truthfulness” and “deft precision”, All the People Were Mean and Bad is the story of a woman navigating a long-haul transatlantic flight alone with her 21-month-old daughter after a family loss.

An intimate exploration of parenthood, marriage, religion, kindness and the seductive power of an alternative life, the story was 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.

Talking about her story, 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 in-between 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.”


Caldwell is the author of four novels, including the forthcoming These Days (Faber, March 2022), about the Belfast Blitz; stage plays, radio dramas, and, most recently, two collections of short stories: Multitudes (2016) and Intimacies (Faber, 2021). Her work has won many awards, including the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright and the Dylan Thomas Prize.

This year’s judging panel was chaired by novelist and former Radio 4 commissioning editor for arts James Runcie; Booker Prize shortlisted novelist Fiona Mozley; Desmond Elliot Prize winner Derek Owusu; Irish author Donal Ryan; and Di Speirs, editor of books at BBC Audio.

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

Speirs said: “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.”

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.

The BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University was established in 2005 and is recognised as the most prestigious for a single short story with the winning writer receiving £15,000 and the four shortlisted writers, £600 each.

Dr Midge Gillies, Academic Director, University of Cambridge Centre of Creative Writing, the Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge University, said: “Lucy Caldwell’s bittersweet short story, set on a transatlantic flight, explores the weight of grief and loss that is so often carried on these journeys. Her depiction of the intense connection that develops between two strangers gently uncovers their hopes for the future and the fragile possibility of finding good in other people. After being shortlisted three times, it is a delight to see Lucy Caldwell win this highly deserved award. All the People Were Mean and Bad showcases her deftness with dialogue and her ability to bring the inner lives of her characters into brilliantly sharp focus.”