Photo: copyright Tom Pilston
The winner of this year’s BBC National Short Story Award was announced this week as best-selling author Naomi Wood. Following the announcement, we spoke to her about Comorbidities – her winning story, selected from a shortlist of five – which examines the difficulty of maintaining love and intimacy in a marriage, from her forthcoming collection
Comorbidities is the story of a married couple, Mackenzie and Mason, who are exhausted by the reality of parenting their young children, six-year-old Aida and one-year-old Casper. With a rare 24 hours alone, and desperate to reintroduce some intimacy and passion into their relationship, the couple decide to make a sex tape.
Interview by Sophie Haydock
You’ve said the story is ‘very much not autobiographical’ despite you writing it when parenting young children. What inspired you to tackle this theme in this way?
In the pits of my own exhaustion, I wondered what might be the most outrageous thing a couple of parents could do to spice up their sex life, and I thought of a home movie. It seemed like such a delicious little idea for a story, so I set out to try and write it!
How long did this story take to write? Did it change in shape or style along the way?
I wrote the story in 2020, and I think the initial draft took 3 or 4 months. Then I edited it on and off until 2023. I have a very important first reader – Andrew Cowan who used to teach fiction at UEA – and he always helps me edit once I’ve exhausted the possibility of what I can see myself.
Were there any particular challenges with this story that you felt you had to overcome, or battle as a writer?
Structurally this story was something of a challenge. I wanted all of the tensions in the story to be ‘comorbid’ with each other, but not necessarily go anywhere. They’re chronic; long-lasting, and I had to find a way of the story moving dynamically forward, but also with nothing having been solved. There was a kind of paradox there.
This story will be included in your upcoming debut collection, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, which will be published next summer. You’ve already published three novels. How will winning this award impact you as an author, do you expect?
When I pivoted from novels to short stories three years ago, I didn’t realise I was kind of starting again, making new connections, reading new magazines, going through rejections. This award is so important for me. I’ve been shortlisted for a few story awards but never won anything. It just feels like such a pleasure to finally win something!
Why did you enter this story in particular to BBC NSSA over others? Did you have any doubts about it before you sent it in?
I thought ‘Comorbidities’ was the funniest out of all of the stories from This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, and, I don’t know, my tastes have really orientated recently toward being made to laugh – even while we are in this supermassive cluster of contemporary anxieties – Climate Change, the Internet, parenting through those things, etcetera. My main doubt was about whether the judges would want more of a story through-line; it doesn’t necessarily ‘go somewhere’, but rather presents a patchwork of problems.
What do you think the judges admired about this story? Why does it connect with readers, do you think?
I think they enjoyed the humour! And everybody, regardless of whether you are a parent, knows the experience of being pulled in about 100 directions at once.
One of the judges, Jessie Burton, spoke about a good short story having “life beyond the final full stop” – what do you think the future holds for Mackenzie and Mason?
I think I hold the opposite view. I always feel in a story that the final full stop holds everything in, and that outside of it is a glamorous but opaque void. I never think of the characters going beyond that moment. Maybe I feel that that final full stop is more of an explosion than a gateway: like I’ve detonated the characters at that moment, and they have no future afterward.
How did it feel, when your name was announced as the winner? What was going through your mind at that moment?
I was stunned! I was preparing nice things to say to the other shortlistees.
You spoke at the award ceremony of getting complaints about this story after it was broadcast – why do you think as a society people can be uncomfortable with writing about these themes – such as sex and intimacy and anxiety around climate change?
Maybe people are uncomfortable in particular about a woman writing an account of making a home movie. Home movies can make the woman as the object, or as the victim of it having been released in the first place. Here was a woman authoring and authorizing the making of a consensual, bi-racial sex tape, and I think people perhaps felt uncomfortable with that. I mean, more sympathetically, it was also broadcast at 3.30, so if I was with my daughter I would have also had to switch it off!
You spoke about how awkward it was to write the sex scene – can you say more on this?
The story originally stood without the sex tape being described. I didn’t know how to write about this sex because it was meant to be both arousing but also mechanical. I avoided it for a while, thinking the story could stand without it – then I realised it had to go in. It’s not that I avoid writing about sex, it’s just that I don’t usually want to – sex, when it’s good, is just not funny?!
How do you feel winning the BBC NSSA will shape you as a writer? Will it change your life, in any way, do you expect?
I feel like it’s the biggest prize I’ve ever won. I don’t know, it just feels great to have won! It’s so wonderful to have that line to put on the jacket, now.
Do you have any favourite short stories, or writers who concentrate on the craft? I felt there were some nods to Miranda July and The Metal Bowl in your short story…
I love Miranda July’s work, and also: Deborah Eisenberg, Jenny Zhang, Danielle Evans, ZZ Packer, Yan Ge, Sarah Hall, Daniyal Mueenuddin, James Salter.
Can you offer any advice to other writers? Anything to help inspire or motivate, or to keep going when things get tough?
I feel like a big moment for me was realising that the joy of writing has to necessarily always be a private experience between me and a story, especially when it comes together. If you can nail that private communion, then the public stuff still matters, but it matters less. One thing I’m still learning is how to tolerate the uncertainty of a first draft, not knowing whether it’s going to be any good, whether it’s going to fail. That’s the hardest part for me.
Naomi Wood won the 2023 BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University for her story, ‘Comorbidities’, which will appear in her debut collection, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (Phoenix, 4th April 2024), and in the BBC National Short Story Award Anthology 2023 (Comma Press, £7.99). It is also available to listen to on BBC Sounds.
Sophie Haydock is a journalist and author based in Folkestone. The Flames, her debut novel about the muses who posed for the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, was longlisted for the Historical Writers Association Debut Crown Award. She has worked for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award and is associate director of the Word Factory; sophie-haydock.com