Since the competition’s genesis in 2020, Ringwood has had the privilege of highlighting two young women at the start of their writing careers: Mónica Ferreira in 2020, and Emily Miller in 2021. Here at Ringwood, we believe that experience is priceless, and we are pleased to announce that this year, we had the exciting opportunity to speak to Maureen Cullen, who was incidentally both our winner and runner up this year! Maureen has been writing since her Open University course in 2011, and won her first short story competition in 2014. Maureen’s fascinating background and experience offers a slightly different perspective this year, so we hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as we enjoyed hosting it!
Details about Ringwood’s 2023 Short Story Competition and links to Maureen’s stories can be found at the end of this interview.
Could you tell us about your background and how you got into writing
I started off in social work, so I was a social worker for about 30 years. I retired in my 50s and then thought, “what am I going to do with myself?” My friend suggested I take a course at the Open University, so I did an introductory creative writing course. I then went on to do the second one offered. After that, I just didn’t look back – I went for the Master’s at Lancaster University in Creative Writing. I did that for 2 years and got a distinction and thought, “well, there must be something in it!” and kept going.
Had you dabbled in writing before?
Not creative writing, no. I only ever wrote as a social worker, writing up reports. I am, however, an avid reader and always have been.
What kind of books do you like to read?
Everything really. I love novels, but I’m fixed on short story writing and poetry right now. I’m reading Michelle Obama’s new book right now, The Light We Carry. It’s very good, she’s a very inspirational kind of writer. It’s non-fiction which isn’t usually my thing, but I’m enjoying it.
Do you write anything other than short stories?
I suppose at the moment it’s about 80% short stories and 20% poetry, but it has been 50-50. That was on the course – for my sins I decided to study short stories and poetry – I was the only one! I decided to do both because I liked them both so much. Now I think I’m more inclined to short stories.
I’ve done a novel before, but that came from my short stories. I still think it’s a collection of short stories. I think the short story format suits me, because I can keep it all in my head at once – you don’t have to revisit it. You don’t have to look at plans and that kind of thing and you don’t have to forget, say, that someone had blue eyes at the beginning and brown eyes at the end! So it’s just the shape of it that suits my brain. I can think about it, come in and out of it, and I don’t always have to go back and refer.
What is your process for writing a story?
My process is fundamentally the same for every story. What I usually do is I wait for an idea, a feeling, or until I see an image that catches my eye and I think, “oh I quite like that”. I’ll then run it around my head until I get a voice of a character in my head. Then I just start writing and see what happens. I always start by hand – I’ve always done it that way. I try to do 500 words a day to get something down, then another 500 words the next day, then another 500 and I’m away. Once I’ve got about 1500 words in the notebook, I go on the computer and start again. I do the same of 500 words a day and then I’ve got a story. Once I’ve got a beginning, middle and end, I print it out, shift it all about, and then probably redraft it about 25 times. I’m not kidding! I’ll redraft about 10-12 times, put it away, then bring it out to look at again. I do that process twice, and then I’m ready to send it out. If it doesn’t do anything, I look at it and redraft it again. The process can go on for years for each story.
What do you look at for inspiration?
Everyday life. I like to keep a good eye on what’s happening politically and in terms of social justice, and what’s going on in the country – mostly UK and sometimes America. Plus, everyday interactions and experiences with people. I’m more of a watcher and listener.
Are all of your stories based in Scotland?
No, not all of them. I’d say about 60% are set in Scotland. I lived in Cambridgeshire for 16 years, so I’ve got a few set around there too. I do like to write about Scotland, and one of the things I’m passionate about is writing in Scots language and how I speak. This West Coast accent. I wanted to do that, and I really have pushed it, even when I was told not to. During my course, I was told that “you can’t write in this dialect in 3rd person. You can write it in 1st person but not in 3rd.” Basically, if I have a character, it’s okay for them to be Scottish, but it’s not okay for me, the narrator, to be Scottish! They tried to guide me away from that, but I didn’t take it on.
How did you find Ringwood and our competition?
I’d sent a query to Ringwood back in 2018 about my short story collections and was very politely informed that you didn’t accept short story collections.
I didn’t come across Ringwood again until I saw it through the Scottish Book Trust. I have an app on my phone that gives you Scottish things to apply to and I saw this. I saw the £2 entry fee and thought, “Oh, that’s cheap as chips! I’ll send three!”
Are you consistently submitting to competitions?
I tend to do that. The competitions I’ve actually done very well with – it’s hard to win so that’s why I was shocked with the result of this one. I’ve got longlisted and shortlisted quite a lot over the years, and I find it keeps me focused. When I send something out and it doesn’t get listed, I look at it again. I try to focus and figure out if it needs more – what’s wrong with it. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not the right competition. I do tend to work to competitions and deadlines, because it keeps me focused to keep working.
How do you deal with rejection?
You get used to it. You get 4-5 times as many rejections as you do good results. I count the ultimate result as a publication. A longlist is good, and a shortlist is great. If I don’t get anything, nothing, I think, “okay, I’ve sent 4 stories over the years and not got anything back”, so I cross that one off.
Could you tell us the inspiration for Next Stop and any messages it has?
I don’t know about messages – I don’t really write that kind of way. That was a personal story for me. My husband has had cancer since 2019, so I was trucking up every morning with him to the hospital for 6 weeks. Then my sister had cancer in 2020, so I was in that place a lot again. So that’s where the inspiration for that story came from. The thing that interested me about it was the communication, how patients and professionals communicate with each other in situations like that. My experience is that it’s like everything else – some are really good at it, and some are not so good. Elsie (the protagonist) just kind of popped in – I thought, “what would this kind of woman make of it?”
Regarding Kitten Heels – you said previously that you had written other stories featuring Anne-Marie (the protagonist). Why did you choose this story in particular to go with?
The other stories have been published! I was thinking, this is my favourite story out of the four. I thought, I’ve had her out about 10 times, and she’s done quite well – she’s had 2 or 3 longlists, a couple shortlisted, but never published. She just never seemed to get there, so I thought I’d have one last stab with Anne-Marie.
What was the inspiration behind this story?
That one came from the Masters. I had to do a short story project, and I was always really interested in why my grandparents had photos of John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy in their living room when I was wee. Why’ve they got that in there? The assassination came and it was like it was a bereavement for them. That stayed with me – what did my wee granny and grandpa know about the politics of America? I mean, I suppose they knew a bit because there was plenty of emigration in our family, but I always thought that was really interesting.
I decided to write a short story set in 1963, the time of the assassination, in the West of Scotland, and it sort of grew from that. I wrote 3 or 4 short stories about teenage girls in Scotland, and then I thought, “wait a minute – that’s the same lassie!”. I thought, why not have the same character in a collection with 4 different stories? Now I have a few characters in collections of stories, so they are all kind of connected.
Would you ever turn her (Anne-Marie) into a novel?
I have done! I sent my short story collection out to 3 or 4 agents who said they really liked it but couldn’t touch short stories, so one recommended I turn it into a novel. I did that but our communication faded – she wanted the novel to be about the mother, and I didn’t want that.Coincidentally, I actually submitted the manuscript to Ringwood early this year, and they have responded very positively to it, so fingers crossed!
Why did you choose your submissions? (Next Stop, Kitten Heels and In Full Bloom)
Next Stop and Kitten Heels, because it was a Scottish competition. I thought they might appreciate the Scots, the location and the characters. As I said before, I was also quite determined to get Anne-Marie published!
Do you think it’s important to have a community when writing?
Yes, it’s really important. My current group is about 4 or 5 – they get to know your style of work and what you’re trying to do, which is quite important too for getting feedback.
What advice would you give somebody wanting to submit to a writing competition?
Get feedback on your story beforehand and listen to it. Check it line-by-line and back to front. From the end through – you’ll read it in a different way and stuff will pop up that you wouldn’t have seen before. It’s tedious, so don’t do it all at once, perhaps a page a day or something like that.
Follow the rules of the competition. They’re all different – it’s a nightmare! Some want page numbers, and some don’t; some want PDFs, and some don’t; some have rule about font sizes and names. Don’t be put off if it doesn’t get listed. Look at it and send it off again and again and again.
If you can, research the competition and the judges. You can sometimes check stories from years before that won, and that will give you an idea of what they are looking for. For example, I researched a competition I was submitting to and saw that the judge was a working-class writer, I thought he might therefore appreciate a specific work I had.
Keep the work going out. It can be really disappointing when you’re not getting anything back, so keep looking ahead at what else is coming up.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to start writing?
It’s the old thing, you’ve got to read, read, read – you’ve really got to. Also, doing a course, even if it’s a short online course, can be really helpful. I think you do need some kind of formal education.
Read the texts that authors have written, for example, Stephen King’s On Writing. He’s very encouraging and recommends to find your level and work to that. There are a few others I go back to often – so find what suits you and go for that.
If you can, go into a group. Family and friends are no good. You have to have people who are also writers, people who know where the pitfalls are and what you’re doing wrong. They’ll give you helpful feedback and you’ll give feedback for them too. I’ve always felt that feedback is such a privilege – to feedback on someone’s work that isn’t finished. I always think, “I’m so privileged to get to comment on that”, and you know, make a suggestion, and then that work just blossoms, because they’re getting input from all these other sources. So yeah, share it. Share it definitely.
Thank you for your time, Maureen! Congratulations once again!
Details for Ringwood’s 2023 Short Story Competition can be found here. (2023 Competition Terms and Conditions – Ringwood Publishing)
By Megan Gibson.