Interview with the 2024 1st Prize Winner - Marc Joan

 Meet the Winners!

Marc Joan won first prize with his story, Desire Lines.

His first two novels, ‘Hangdog Souls’ (2022) and ‘The Cartoon Life and Loves of a Stupid Man’ (2023), are published by Deixis Press ( Marc has also published 30 stories in anthologies and magazines, and his short fiction has been placed in several competitions (for details, please see:

Where did you get the idea?
The truth is that I don’t know where the stories come from. My writing process is basically as follows: I sit down in a fit of laziness; my mind is a blank, as normal; then, amid the blankness, things appear, seemingly of their own accord. Sometimes these apparitions coalesce into an ‘anlage’ of a story, a kind of rudimentary, relatively inchoate mixture of words and feelings; and sometimes this anlage subsequently develops into a more cohesive narrative. You could say I’m just the host for a series of mental teratomata, some of which eventually develop to the point where they must burst forth. In ‘Desire Lines’, the story started with a concept of boys fishing in a North Wales river (think innocence, pleasure, beauty, freedom), but with something dark and savage slowly revealing itself (think how cruel children can be, and how much cruelty can be done to them, and how when rules erode so too do the limits of behaviour). This concept grew into a story while building a pattern based on the partial superimposition of, respectively, desire lines, psychological manipulation and freshwater fishing. Pattern-seeking, by the way, seems to be a feature of creativity; certainly, whenever I am particularly pleased with a story, it is because it has developed a particularly pleasing pattern (a set of non-random, meaningful internal and external connections) inherent to its structure or direction of travel.
Do you have any writing heroes or favourite authors?
In terms of authors I read as a child, Kenneth Grahame, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien were transformational. We’ve seen none like them before or since. In terms of ‘adult’ authors, it is difficult for me to satisfactorily answer this question, because – having spent most of my adult life in the world of biomedical science, in which one’s reading and writing hours tend to be focused on scientific papers – I am shockingly poorly read. I wish I had enough time to read all the greats that I have not yet touched. But from the inadequately-sized pool of authors with whom I am familiar, I would mention Cormac McCarthy, Robert Macfarlane and David Mitchell: McCarthy, because he proves that writers do not have to  ‘dumb down’ their language to be published; Mitchell, because he proves that writers do not have to adhere to conventional structures to be published; Macfarlane, because he proves that writers can be published even when avidly pursuing topics that some would call ‘niche’. Together, these three authors (in addition to creating truly excellent books) indicate that there are audiences for work which breaks the mould; in other words, it is not necessary for writers to do only what everybody else does or only what the publishing industry expects. In brief, the McCarthy-Macfarlane-Mitchell books may support my contention (and I am sure others have said this too) that authors should write the story that only they can write, in the way that only they can write it, and let the market catch up with them if it has to (not vice versa).
How long have you been writing? Is this your first win?
I started writing ten years ago, in 2014, when the penny finally dropped that time was running out and that if I wanted to do the things I actually wanted to do, I should start PDQ. As is the case, I think, with just about everyone, my first writing efforts were clumsy; I was trying to force the stories into patterns instead of letting them find their own connections. It took a couple of years before I thought I had anything worth submitting to a competition. Since 2017, I’ve been lucky enough to be placed several times in several different literary awards, but I have only won once before (Spencer Parker Memorial Award for Fiction, 2020 -- a US-based award).
Do you have any advice for other short story writers?
My main advice would be to take all advice with a pinch of salt! In particular, my experience is that literary critiques tend to comprise a roughly 1:1:1 mixture of suggestions that are (i) absolutely on the button; (ii) debatable; and (iii) absolutely wide of the mark. That said, a really good critique may skew towards the (i) end of the spectrum; if you find someone who can do that for you, don’t lose them! In any case, an important component of the writer’s development, in my opinion, is acquisition of the experience and confidence – and humility -- to accurately distinguish the above three categories of feedback and act upon them appropriately. We should listen to suggestions, of course, but listen with a judicious ear. Other than that, I think it is potentially counterproductive to give advice, as we are all on different journeys, and probably not all travelling to the same destinations. We all have to work out what works for us in the context of our particular constraints and ambitions.
How would you sum up your story in a sentence or 2?
Huckleberry Finn and Machiavelli go fishing with the Lord of the Flies. Don’t underestimate what the desire for revenge can make people do, even children, nor the extent to which people may be unaware of the reasons why they do what they do.
Do you have any other stories published elsewhere that our readers can check out?
I have had about thirty short stories published in various journals; they’re listed on my website, if anyone is interested. A small number of them are freely available online. In addition, may I point out that my first book, ‘Hangdog Souls’, is a collection of linked short stories and novellas, most of which are more or less standalone, but which also, when taken together, all contribute to a meta-story. A ‘novel-in-stories’, in other words. ‘Hangdog Souls’ has been described as M.R. James set in South India (where I grew up), which pleased me, as I love James’ atmospheric writing. I’d also be delighted if anyone would consider reading my second novel, ‘The Cartoon Life and Loves of a Stupid Man’, which was summarised in the Daily Mail as follows: “Jealous, paranoid fantasies start to pick away at the fabric of Philippe’s reality, an unravelling that takes on a ghastly, relentless momentum of its own. Deeply involving, fabulously well controlled and shot through with shafts of dark humour, this is a graphic tragedy with cartoon vividness.” Both books are published by Deixis Press, which is one of the most outstanding of the independently-minded small presses we are lucky enough to have here in the UK. I urge everyone to have a look at the Deixis backlist; Angel Belsey has put out some fantastic books. Finally, for anybody who wants more information before dipping their toes into the murky waters of my own novels, I have summaries / links for reviews of both ‘Hangdog Souls’ and ‘Cartoon Life’ on my website. And of course feel free to get in touch if you have any questions not addressed on the website or in the reviews.

Thank you, Marc. If you haven't read Marc's story yet you can find it here!