Northern Soul: What’s the importance of writing competitions? How do you think they are beneficial for writers?
JE Rowney: Writing competitions are important for a number of reasons. They are a great way of getting your work seen by readers, but they also help you to improve as a writer. Especially if you write a piece specifically for a competition, focusing on a particular prompt can help you to develop new ideas and write stories that you wouldn’t usually write.
NS: What attracted you to the subject matter of ‘Artificial Intelligence’?
JER: Artificial Intelligence isn’t something that I normally write about. I write women’s fiction rather than science fiction, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the subject matter in a new way. Exploring the way that AI might develop and the impact that it could have on an emotional level rather than a plainly scientific level intrigued me, and I was drawn to the themes that one might not normally associate with a story about a woman and her household robot.
NS: Did you already have the idea for the story before entering or did you write the story as a result for the call for submissions?
JER: I wrote Protect and Serve specifically for the competition. I write many short stories, but as I hadn’t written anything on this theme before I saw this as a personal challenge.
NS: Your winning story, Protect and Serve, covers a range of subjects – grief, loss, mental health, healing, technology – and it’s quite a feat to explore so much in short story form. Did you plan to look at these themes or did they appear organically when writing the piece?
JER: These are all subjects that I frequently write about in my short stories and novels. I am interested in people and interpersonal relationships. I thought about how I could bring human elements to a story about AI and the story wrote itself. I tried to imagine the limitations of AI assistants or companions in terms of how humans might relate to them. Programming machines with the capacity to understand human emotions feels like a distant dream. Maybe one day our Alexa or Siri helpers will not only send a text message to our significant others, but they might suggest we word things differently. Or warn us against sending messages when we are angry or drunk.
NS: One of the things that really struck me about Protect and Serve was how we catch glimpses of a very possible future, particularly in regards to our growing reliance on technology. Do you think the story has taken on greater resonance during the COVID-19 lockdown when we’re all using our computers and phones more often? I re-read the piece yesterday and it really made me think about our current situation.
JER: There are times when you can suddenly find yourself alone, or have a limited capacity for personal contact with others. COVID-19 thrust that situation upon so many people and we all found ways of working around it. Most of those ways involved turning to technology. I was completing my Master’s degree and had to take online workshops and seminars rather than being with my course mates. Now, it feels normal to use online webinars and resources. We adapt and change to the necessities of the times, even if we would prefer a different way. Perhaps having an automaton would have helped people who felt isolated and alone during lockdown? Perhaps it would have made them miss actual human contact more?
NS: You’re also a bestselling novelist. Do you find the short story form/working to a strict word count restrictive? Which do you prefer?
JER: I prefer writing novels, because I always feel like I have a lot to add to stories that I can’t fit into a few thousand words. I am currently finishing a three book prequel series to my novel Ghosted, which I originally planned to be a single novella. One book wasn’t even enough, let alone the lower word count of a novella.
NS: What do you think are the benefits/restrictions of writing in short story form?
JER: I enjoy writing short stories as they take a different skill set to construct. Writing an effective short story entails capturing the right images and using the words that have the most impact. You have to be a lot more selective and focused when writing a short story.
NS: What’s your writing process?
JER: I like to know where the story is going. I have the end in mind when I begin, whether it’s a short story or novel. I don’t plan the intricate details in advance, but I do have an idea of what needs to happen to get me from the beginning to the end and what emotions I want to capture. I have a mental image of the big picture and what scenes or events I should include, but I’m very much a pantser. I’ve tried detailed outlining, but I find it restrictive. I like the freedom and spontaneity of not planning everything in minute detail.
JER: Go for it. Even if you don’t win, writing is always good experience. Write. Keep writing. Winning, or even being shortlisted, will give you such a confidence boost, but even writing something that you are proud of is an accomplishment. Good luck.
NS: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything at the moment?
JER: As I mentioned, I’ve been completing a three book prequel series to my novel Ghosted. I also have my first psychological thriller release in October. I Can’t Sleep is a move to a new genre for me, but I am writing my next psychological thriller now as I have really enjoyed it. I’ve had some excellent advance reviews, so I’m looking forward to the release.
I’ve also completed my Master’s degree in Creative Writing and I’m going to be starting my PhD study in September. I like to keep busy.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
To read Protect and Serve, the Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2020 winning story, click here.