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Penguins, Coco Pops and the Apocalypse: What makes an award-winning short story?

The entries for 2019's Hammond House Short Story Competition were suitably apocalyptic. From climate change to nuclear disaster, the stories ran the gamut of the dark and the terrifying – and the all too real.

And whilst the quality of stories was superb, it was the work of London-based writer and playwright, Matt Wixey, that caught our attention.

Originally conceived of as a short play, Tenacity Penguin is a darkly funny and compulsively readable short story that takes the reader on a journey into the fractured mind of a character stationed at the North Pole. Framed as a desperate radio broadcast, the story charts the character's obsessive search for penguins and Coco Pops, with an ending that is, in equal amounts, fitting, hilarious, and devastating.

Hammond House team member Alex Thompson asked Matt some questions about his award-winning short story.

What inspired you to write Tenacity Penguin?

Tenacity Penguin started life as a very short (4 minute) play, but it felt like there was a lot more potential in it, so I turned it into a short story. I've always been fascinated by post-apocalyptic fiction, but what really inspired me to write this story was the idea of not just an apocalypse, which of course has been done before, but of someone cut off from the apocalypse – completely helpless, not able to do anything about it, or able to see what happened, and realising that they might be the last person on the planet, by virtue of being away from all the 'action'. I thought telling that story, with a slightly naive, but also a justifiably angry, narrator, would be interesting – and also an opportunity for some very dark humour as certain truths are revealed.

Not many stories are set at the North Pole. What made you choose this setting?

I think that's one of the main reasons! I wanted a location which was unusual, but would echo that sense of isolation and of being cut-off, and I've also always been interested in extremes of environment and temperature when it comes to locations for stories. Locations which are 'hostile' in themselves almost become an(other) antagonist. Setting Tenacity Penguin at the North Pole also gave me a great opportunity to include penguins (or rather, to not include them, which underpins one of the key themes of the story).

Tenacity Penguin is framed as a desperate radio broadcast. Why did you write it in this way, as opposed to the more traditional 3rd person narrative?

There were a couple of reasons for this. The first is that I wanted to use the radio to emphasise the sense of sudden loss and of things having irreparably changed: the narrator is using what's usually been a two-way form of communication to tell a one-way narrative, and the frequent "static" which comes back to him in place of dialogue – no actual words or responses – accentuates that.

The second is to allow the narrator's anger and sadness to come through effectively. Quite understandably, he's upset about a number of things - not just the fact that there was a nuclear war, but also that he was lied to about the penguins, that he's completely stranded, that his colleague left him - and I wanted to give him a target at which to aim those emotions. The "Foxtrot Two" he's trying to reach on the radio provides him with that.

What do you think it is about the apocalypse that intrigues readers and makes it so popular in fiction?

I think a lot of it is cathartic – in many ways, humanity is in a very precarious position, and at one time or another most people have probably wondered how it's all going to end, and what will happen when it does. It's something that's so immense it's almost incomprehensible, and hugely disturbing to think about – it's very difficult to try to come to terms with. So like horror, and dystopian science fiction, apocalyptic fiction can be a way of exploring our worst and darkest fears in a safe environment.

On a more positive note, I think apocalyptic fiction can also reinforce to readers what's positive about humanity – in many cases, we're shown that despite the world coming to an end, human good can still shine through, which perhaps takes the sting out of some of those fears a little bit. Finally, whenever I've finished a really good apocalyptic novel or short story, I find myself appreciating the world around me a lot more, and generally seeing things in a more positive light!

What advice would you give to people entering the 2020 competition?

First of all – submit! I had no expectation of winning when I entered, and wasn't sure if I should, but I realised I had nothing to lose. You've got no chance of winning if you don't enter!

Second – take your time. The first draft doesn't need to be perfect – in fact, it definitely won't be! I am halfway through writing an absolutely terrible first draft of a play at the moment, but I know that nobody's going to see it until at least the fourth draft, so I'm not concerned with making everything perfect just yet – that comes later (when the script editor and director can then point out all the things still wrong with it!). So leave yourself enough time to write a few drafts, and take some time off between them so you come back to it fresh.

Third, put yourself in the judges' shoes – they're reviewing hundreds of stories; what's different about yours? What's going to leave them open-mouthed, or laughing, or crying?

And finally – two questions I always ask myself before I write anything (sometimes I need to halfway through as well) – a) why does this story need to be told? and b) why am I the one who needs to to tell it? Write the story only you could write.

Do you like Coco Pops?

I do! I haven't had any for a long time, but I should probably hoard a box or two for emergencies...

You can read an excerpt of the brilliant Tenacity Penguin here, or read the full story in Leaving, an anthology of award-winning short stories from the 2019 International Writing Competition.

And if this year's theme – Survival – is anything to go by, the stories can only become more apocalyptic! You can find out more about our 2020 writing competition here.

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