Lucy Caldwell has won the BBC national short story award for her “masterful” All the People Were Mean and Bad, in which the mother of a young child takes a transatlantic flight after the death of a relative.
Exploring parenthood, marriage, kindness and the glimpse of an alternative life, the story was praised by judges for its “masterful storytelling”, “deep truthfulness” and “deft precision”. It draws its title from the Noah’s Ark picture book that Caldwell’s protagonist is reading to her 21-month-old daughter as she flies back to London from Toronto after her cousin’s funeral.
“All the people, it says, were mean and bad. Except for Noah. Noah was good, and because he was good, God saved him,” reads the mother, who hates the story but needs to keep her toddler entertained for “the remaining seven hours and 36 minutes of this flight” – and does so with the help of the kind, insightful older man sitting next to her.
“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,” said Caldwell. When writing the story, her influences included 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.
Caldwell likes to explore “in-between spaces” such as planes, airports or cars, “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”.
All the People Were Mean and Bad is taken from the collection Intimacies, and marks the third time the Northern Irish writer, who is also the author of four novels as well as stage plays and radio dramas, has been shortlisted for the award, which is run with Cambridge University. It beat works by Rory Gleeson, Georgina Harding, Danny Rhodes and Richard Smyth to win the prize, which is worth £15,000.
“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 spellbinding short story collections, and now been thrice shortlisted for the BBC NSSA,” said judge Di Speirs, books editor at BBC Audio. “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.”
Chair of judges James Runcie said: “Caldwell’s story has a confidence, daring and authenticity that is wonderfully sustained. All five of the stories on our shortlist were excellent, but this totally assured and moving piece of storytelling commanded the award.”