When the prize was presented for the City Reads and Book Guild Short Story Award on Sunday (7 October), one person was missing – the winner Erika Szostak.
While she has a background in writing, she also works as a professional photographer and has been busy shooting a wedding in America before taking a family break in Mexico.
So she sent a friend in her place to the Old Market in Hove to read her speech and accept the £1,000 prize, which was put up by the Book Guild, a Brighton publishing company.
She said that she was delighted to have won the City Reads competition. The City Reads festival is an annual citywide “big read”. It is intended to spread a love of books and ideas to the widest possible audience throughout Brighton and Hove.
The project is run by Collected Works, a community interest company based in Brighton. Each year one book by one author is chosen. This year it was My Policeman by Brighton author Bethan Roberts.
The aim is to encourage as many people as possible to read, discuss, debate and creatively engage with that book in a series of special events, workshops and performances.
Mrs Szostak, 36, said: “It was a great weekend. I heard I’d won the Book Guild prize. The next day I also found out that I’d won a photographic prize.
“That was really exciting to have validation in both the fields I’m passionate about. They’re both forms of narrative, just in different media.”
She comes from Indiana, one of the flyover states in the Midwest of America, and spent 11 years on the West Coast.
She lived in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, where her winning story, Shine, was set.
The theme for this year’s prize was The Lie and Shine tells the story of a woman’s love affair.
She said: “It’s an unfinished novel I’ve been working on – on and off for ages. It’s the narrator’s back story.”
Mrs Szostak has had writing published in literary journals, including the Poetry Review, and won awards at university for her work.
She studied at Indiana University and in LA, with a term – or semester – in Prague.
She was a finalist in a competition for female writers in America. She said: “This is the biggest thing I’ve ever won.
“I’d love to spend the prize on some new photographic equipment. But I’ve told my husband I’d put it in our new house fund. We’re renting at the moment.”
So how did she end up in Brighton? “I married an English bloke. We were trying to decide between London and Brighton – my husband has family in Brighton.
“It’s a bit more relaxed. I love LA but it can be a bit vast and overwhelming. You can live for years in LA and never see the same people twice. Some people like that.
“It’s so crowded it can be quite lonely. Brighton is much more accessible. People are much more open, accepting and friendly.”
She has lived in Kemp Town for three years with her husband Mark Cooper and their 18-month-old son Oliver.
The couple work as photographers, shooting weddings like the recent one in America as well as other events and portraits.
But for now it looks as though her writing is back in the picture too.
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