Anne Tannahill Judges Michael McLaverty Competition

The former Blackstaff Press managing director on keeping an open mind and looking for the unexpected

The Michael McLaverty Short Story Award is one of the most prestigious literary competitions in Northern Ireland. Run biannually by the Linen Hall Library in central Belfast, it combines the cachet of association with one of Ireland’s most distinguished short story writers and the professional boost of prize money and publication.

Anne Tannahill, freelance editor and one-time managing director of Belfast publishing house Blackstaff Press, has been involved in the Michael McLaverty Award since 2008, or ‘not quite from the beginning’ as she puts it.

After 2006, with judges Sophia Hill and John Cronin, it was decided that there should always be an editor and an author on the judging panel. The voice of publishing experience has remained Tannahill’s, but the author changes each year. ‘I did it with Carlo Gebler in 2009 and in 2010 with Glenn Patterson,’ Tannahill recalls. ‘This year the other judge is Jennifer Johnston.’

Tannahill is enthusiastic about the competition, believing it to be an important outlet for short story writers in Northern Ireland. Frequently, she points out, the only way to publish a book of short stories is to first publish a novel that makes a literary splash. ‘The short stories were almost always written first, but the publisher didn’t have the nerve to publish them,' she surmises, 'without a name to make them stand out in the marketplace.’

Tannahill’s support for the Michael McLaverty Award is admirable, given the amount of time and energy that goes into judging the competition. ‘In 2010 there were 273 stories entered,’ Tannahill recalls. ‘Which is a lot! It can take me months to go through them.'

Used to reading through the slush pile at Blackstaff (‘We published 25 books a year, but were getting well over a 1,000 submissions’) Tannahill initially believed that she would speed through the short story submissions just as quickly. It took her a little while to realize why she couldn’t.

‘It’s because quality is the only criteria,’ she says. ‘As a publisher you are balancing quality with all sorts of other criteria: will this sell, do we have enough money to publish another book, is the subject of this book too much like another book someone else published? Whereas with the short stories for the Michael McLaverty Competition, all I had to go on was quality, and none of them have ever been so bad I could reject them out of hand.’

Tannahill reads through the lion’s share of submissions, winnowing them down to the ‘top 15', which she then sends on to her co-judge.

Although she always has her favourites, Tannahill has yet to identify her favourite of 2012. ‘I never tell the other judge what my favourite stories are until they have read them all themselves,’ she explains. ‘Then we discuss, usually by email, who should be 1st, 2nd and 3rd. They point out writerly pluses and minuses that I might not have been alert to, and I point out editorial details that they might have missed. By the end of it we’ve usually both changed our minds.’

So what does Tannahill look for in a winning story? Is there a particular style, genre or theme that anyone submitting a story should adhere to? Tannahill refuses to be drawn.

‘It’s a mistake to go into it with a whole lot of rules in your head,’ she says. ‘I could say that I am looking for all sorts of things, but there is always going to be one interesting writer who comes out of nowhere and thinks of something I couldn’t. What we are looking for is originality.’

As far as Tannahill is concerned, the winning story this year could be anything from magic realism to romance, as long as it is well written (and the author is over 18 and either born in or lives in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland).

The author certainly doesn’t have to write like Michael McLaverty to win this award. There is, however, some advice that McLaverty gave that Tannahill thinks is still good today. ‘He told Seamus Heaney, "Don’t write as if the veins are bulging in your biro." Isn’t that fantastic?’

The Michael McLaverty Short Story Competition is open until June 29. Go to the Linen Hall Library website to enter.