getting to know our 9th winner-Suzanna Challenger

Getting to Know Our 9th Winner, Suzanna Challenger 

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Mash’s 9th Competition Winner, Suzanna Challenger, said that winning came as a complete surprise. We disagree. If you haven’t yet read Airlocks, go do it right now. We’ll wait here until you get back. Done? See, we told you. Pretty great, right? Here Bill Bibo, the Mash Blog Coordinator, talks with her about writing, her influences, and the “dark playground”.


Bill Bibo: Congratulations on winning the 9th competition of Mash Stories. How has winning changed your life?

Suzanna Challenger: Thank you! I really never expected to win. It was just a massive buzz seeing my story published in the first place, so I would say winning has given me a huge confidence boost. Although now I feel like I have a lot to live up to…

Bill: Wow! “Airlocks” is quite an emotional ride. It hit home in many ways for me. I’m not only a parent, but also a healthcare architect who has designed a number of Neonatal Intensive Care Units. I know how complex these spaces can be. How impersonal they can feel. How bewildering, upsetting, and yet hopeful they can be for the parents. You captured an aspect of those feelings very well. How did this story come about? Did one of the key words strike you over the others?

Suzanna-ChallengerSuzanna: What an interesting coincidence! That’s some fantastic work you do. I am lucky enough never to have needed one, so I’m glad to hear from someone in the know that I have managed to convey some of those feelings accurately. I’m not quite sure where this story came from, to be honest—my original brainsplurge notes on the keywords were for something quite different, but then the opening line of “Airlocks” popped into my head, followed by the image of the Frankenstein mask atop a bag of sticks.

For me, becoming a parent was (and is) such a powerful transformational experience—it alters your mind, your body, your outlook, your relationships…the immediate postnatal period in particular was almost hallucinatory (lack of sleep will do that) and I wanted to explore one person’s private world as it utterly shifted on its axis, in an unexpected way, during those first vivid days after birth.

Bill: One of the strongest traits in the story is how you move the reader along with the couple filling in details of their surroundings by showing how they react to it, or withdraw from it. You don’t give the reader a lot of information about the surroundings, yet they can fill them in very well.

Suzanna: Well, that is good to hear. I think we all strive for ‘show, don’t tell’ but I’m never quite sure if I’ve managed it. There were many redrafts. Also, writing that makes you work for it a little is my favourite kind to read, so it’s really pleasing to hear that I’ve achieved that effect.

Bill: Tell us about your other writings. On your Mash Winner’s page you state you’ve loved writing ever since childhood. What do you like to write the most often? How have your interests helped shape how you write?

Suzanna: I’ve been writing since childhood—stories, poems and songs—but rarely finishing anything, and even more rarely putting it out into public view. Music of all kinds has always been a big part of my life—my dad is a guitarist, and I’ve been singing (mostly to myself) since I was a kid. My husband makes music and we actually ended up getting together while working on a robot soul thing, about a million years ago. I’ve also contributed guest vocals for a couple of other artists and most recently wrote a prose poem for my husband’s latest album, Make Way For The Young.

Bill: Can you tell us about being “across the dark playground”?

Suzanna: I am a world-class procrastinator and have spent a lot of time hanging out on internet message boards while trying to get the courage back up to actually put my writing out there. This dark playground has its horrible, poisonous downside but it can also be an incredible window on the world. I’ve learned a lot from reading other people’s experiences of life, work, and parenthood, some of which undoubtedly helped me write “Airlocks”.

I always think of myself as a happy person but whatever I write seems to come out quite dark. The last story I wrote before “Airlocks” was about child-snatching.

Bill: Who are some of your literary influences, authors you search out and go back to again and again?

Suzanna: This is a hard question to answer briefly! Undoubtedly Stephen King, my writing hero since childhood (just check that work ethic!)—I learned so much about writing from reading his books. Joe Hill, to me, is like SK+, all the relentless storytelling and vivid characters but with an extra layer of emotional intensity and depth. Rupert Thomson: each novel provides a complete and seamless dream world. Belinda Bauer writes some of the darkest and most darkly humorous crime novels without tipping over into exploitative nonsense. And I love Kate Atkinson: she makes everything she does look effortless.

I could go on…there is so much amazing writing out there, and so little time. This year I discovered Jeff Vandermeer and devoured the Southern Reach trilogy—just stunning, terrifying, beautiful and hilarious all at once. Very recommended to all.

Bill: What’s next? Anything you wish to promote? This is free promotional time.

Suzanna: Just more writing, hopefully more finishing and putting stuff out there! If I finish this year with ten or so short stories that I feel really good about, that will be a win for me. And maybe then I’ll start work on that novel…

One thing’s for sure, I will certainly be Mashing again. It’s a fantastic format for getting back into the game and, just as importantly, having fun with your writing. I tend to dwell on story ideas for ages, so having a set of random words and no expectations is very freeing.

Bill: Suzanna, thank you for letting us get to know you a little better. Good luck with all your future writing endeavours. Be sure to catch Suzanna here on the Mash Blog at some point in the future as she has expressed an interest in writing an article. What will she write about? That’s for you to know and us to find out. Wait, reverse that.

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Bill lives with his wife in Madison, WI. Late at night he writes about intelligent mummies, incompetent zombies, and other things that scare him in the hope that someday they no longer will. He’d like to thank his wife and children and especially his grandsons, Nolan and Sonny, for keeping the child alive in his heart. It’s so deeply rooted now nothing could remove it. @bbibojr

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