Interview with Devon Prize Winner - Bruce Harris

Bruce Harris has been writing and publishing short stories and poetry from his home in Seaton, Devon since 2004 and his first novel was published last year, 2019.

Hello Bruce, well done for winning our Devon Prize with Night Caps For Wild Boys. As a Devon based writing group it's always heartening to support local writers. Tell us how you felt when you found out you'd won.

I’ve been competing in short story competitions and publishing them in online and print magazines for eleven years now, with three full collections on the way, but I still cannot find it in me to be blasé or indifferent when a new piece does something. 

The sense of achievement that writing something other people value never goes away.  I live no more than fifteen miles away from Exeter, so there’s also an added satisfaction in registering a success ‘in my own back yard’.

   Tell us a little about Night Caps For Wild Boys. Where did you get the idea from?

I grew up in the north-east, spending my teen years not far from the centre of Sunderland. My college and teaching years were spent in and around Nottingham. Both places could  get very lively at times, and conversations with café owners, some of whom operated at all hours of the day and night, revealed some interesting experiences. 

The café featured in the story is based on one in Nottingham city centre, near the bus station. And, of course, as a secondary school teacher for twenty years, I came across a fair few ‘wild boys’, whose adventures and mindsets could also intrigue me. As for hospitals, three of my female relatives, my sister, stepsister and sister-in-law, were nurses, and I enjoy talking to them. 

Your story touches on some very difficult themes. What advice would you give to writers who want to write about suicide and trauma?

Individual writers must come to their own decisions, but my preference would be to avoid being judgmental or censorious, and equally, to avoid hyperbole. Most people who’ve knocked around a bit have developed antennae for what they see and don’t see as credible; troweling on the tragedy is as thin as pretending everything in the garden is lovely.

How do you approach the writing process? What advice do you have for other short story writers?

There is no such thing as a method which suits all. Personally, I find it very difficult to sit in front of a screen and wait for inspiration; I have to have had the central idea and built something of a structure around it before beginning the story, though the process of writing it can radically change its shape and final form.

Some of our readers may not have read your story yet. Can you sum it up in a sentence or two? Tell us why they should go and read it now!

Nightcaps for Wild Boys is set just before dawn in a city centre all-night café and populated by an experienced and well-organised café owner, a woman in late middle age with suicidal tendencies and three drunken young men. 

It could almost be a Harold Pinter scenario. I dare say he would have made a much better fist of it than I do, but I think my attempt is at least worth a look.

Bruce, you've been extensively published - tell us about your previous successes.

However I say this it’s going to sound at least a little arrogant, but in the interests of sheer practicality I can’t list them all here. 

All my books and my publication record are listed on my website

My next book is a collection of rites of passage stories called Fallen Eagles which will be published by the Book Guild in January/February 2021 in aid of the Huntington’s Disease Youth Organisation.

People tend to think of HD as an old  person’s illness; it isn’t, and the earlier in life it manifests itself, the worse it is likely to be. Several of my other books have been in aid of the Huntington’s Disease Association.

Do you have any writing heroes or favourite authors?

I admire Hilary Mantel immensely; I have read the three books in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which have almost re-invented historical fiction in absorbing and immersive ways. I recently reviewed The Mirror and the Light for the local arts magazine Marshwood, which was a means of expressing how much I got out of the book.

Other favourites include Patrick Gale, Pat Barker, William Boyd, Ian McEwan, John Le Carre, Julian Barnes, Zoe Heller, Graham Swift, Patrick O’Bryan, Alan Hollinghurst, Edmund White, Zadie Smith, Colm Toibin, Tracy Chevalier, Antonia Fraser, and in some ways the big daddy of them all, George Orwell.

Who has influenced your writing the most?

Probably George Orwell, who I first ‘discovered’ in my late teens. 

In addition to his classic fiction, like Animal Farm and 1984, and his real life accounts such as Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, a four volume compilation of his journalism. 

For clarity of thought and lucidity of expression, he is exemplary. I don’t try to imitate him, but I do try to maintain his integrity, organization of material and underlying principles in what I do.

Have you ever taken any courses in creative writing and if so are there any that you would recommend?

No, I haven’t, but that’s largely because I started being published relatively quickly and it seemed to me that paying for courses when your work was already being accepted didn’t make a lot of sense. Otherwise, I would certainly have considered doing a creative writing degree, which I think is the best way to do it. The Exeter University course is very highly thought of.

How has lockdown impacted your writing?

It hasn’t really made much difference for me; I work at home anyway. Early on in the piece, I decided that writing about the whole Coronavirus experience when we were still in it wasn’t for me; I think what is going to make most sense about it will come out in reflection. I had writing projects in hand when it started, and have continued with them.

Talk to us about your writing routine, what does an ordinary writing day look like for you?

I can only write in the afternoons. My civil partner is suffering from Huntington’s Disease, and there’s a limit to the amount of time I’m prepared to leave him alone. As it is, I write upstairs while he is down, so I can hear. My writing afternoons have become part of our routine, which to date is contributing to keeping him alive.

Any parting words of wisdom or encouragement for budding authors reading this?

Read, read and read. 

The more extensive the reading, the more the ideas are likely to come. That doesn’t mean plagiarism; it means developing your own take on subjects. 

To stand any chance now of having stories or poems accepted by online or print magazines, a working knowledge of contemporary fiction or poetry is pretty much an absolute necessity, and it is highly advisable to acquire a publication record of short pieces before you attempt approaches to agents or book publishers.

Thanks very much for taking time out to do the interview with us. We wish you all the best for the future. 

Interview conducted by Jessica Triana de Ford member of Exeter Writers, Interviewer and Reviewer for Loudstuff Blog, and Freelance Copywriter.