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  • Hammond House Publishing

“A room, a baby, a snake…” What makes an award-winning short story?

Black Madonna by Kate Carne won first place in our 2020 International Literary Prize. It tells the story of a woman’s encounter with an unrelenting snake as she desperately tries to save her young baby. The judges loved the wining story for its simplicity and creative economy, that belied its complex structure. It drew them into a story that gradually revealed the layers that lay behind the predicament. The vivid and excruciatingly detailed descriptions of the snake made them want to lift their feet off the ground…

Kate Carne’s short stories have appeared in various Bath Flash Fiction Anthologies, The Bridport Prize 2017, The Hammond House ‘Leaving’ Anthology, and Dark Lanes Anthology 2020. Non-fiction work: Seven Secrets of Mindfulness, How to Keep Your Everyday Practice Alive (Rider, 2016). Kate was born in the States and has spent most of her life in Oxford. Black Madonna, the short story in this anthology, arises from a time when she lived in Brazil.

We spoke to Kate, who is a judge for the Short Story category in our Hammond House 2021 International Literary Prize, to find out more about the inspiration behind her story and to ask what she is looking for in this year's entries.

What inspired you to write Black Madonna?

‘Black Madonna’ is drawn from my experience of living in the mountains, about three hours from Rio. As always, a short story is a synthesis of different puzzle pieces. In this case, the location, the shack, and the baby were all taken from real, lived experience. I recalled a neighbour, a farmer, telling me that he bent down to pick up a belt on the floor and then realised it was a poisonous snake.

Black Madonna is written in the second person point of view. What made you tell the story in this way?

Good question. It just came to me. I think originally the story was third person. The second person is a bit like salt: used judiciously, it transforms the flavour. It offers an awkward intensity, and this story, it felt just right.

Your previously shortlisted entry in our 2019 competition, A Woman Who Knows, shares a similar setting to Black Madonna. What is it about this setting that draws you to write about it?

I’ve only written two stories about living in Brazil, and both happened to fit with your topics of Leaving and Survival. When we go through extreme and unusual events, they are vivid, indelible in the mind.

In our interview with you for the 2021 Awards Event, you mentioned you were a teacher of mindfulness and meditation. Does practising mindfulness benefit your writing?

I have practised meditation for many years. I think if you read any good poem or story, it offers the sense of what it is to be truly present.

What advice would you give to people entering the 2021 competition?

Well, the first thing is to write. Tell the story that only you can tell. Don’t bother making it sound like anybody else. By the time you finish a first draft, you will have some idea of what the story is about. At this point it’s like a sculpture: you need to chip away to get rid of anything extraneous. Every word needs to pull the reader towards the final sentence.

As a judge in our 2021 competition, what are you looking for in a short story?

I’m not terribly interested in clever or self-conscious writing. It’s always lovely to be surprised. Because stories are short, they need to draw you in from the first line. And wake you up at the end.

A strong voice, a new-point, the sense of authenticity.

To enter this year's Hammond House Publishing 2021 International Literary Prize, please click the link below:

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