Creator Spotlight: Return of the Night Owl Challenge Winner - EJ Ferguson

by Vocal Spotlight 3 months ago in spotlight

"All the best adventures are ones that never really happened, but have enough truth in them to make it feel as though they did." -EJ Ferguson

EJ Ferguson has been on the come up as a creative writer for quite some time, and after diving into her work, the position of success she finds herself in now seems far from happenstance. Since a short story of hers gained popularity online at the age of 14, her work has been recognized by casual readers and academics alike. Now, at 28, still in the early stages of her career, it's really not much of a surprise that she's making some noise on Vocal – specifically with Vocal Challenges.

EJ won first place in our most recent Vocal+ Challenge: Return of the Night Owl. In her winning story, "Until The Rain Stops," she delivers a haunting, brilliant story of a mine disaster, told with a knowledge and emotional subtlety that made us wonder if she had experienced that hard, gray world firsthand. Vocal's Head Judge, author and former Booker Prize judge Erica Wagner, had this to say about Ferguson's prize-winning story:

[Ferguson], time-stamps her story, "Until the Rain Stops," to give it a sense of immediacy, arresting us with the image of blood turning to glass in a young woman’s veins. Who are those ‘wild and bony’ children? The reader feels the same alarm as the people in the story do when the steam whistle blasts.

This Challenge, which matched our largest first-place payout to date, was the second time EJ's work joined the winner's circle on Vocal. Back in July 2021, she won third place in the seventh installment of our Summer Fiction Series: Long Thaw with her piece "The Frozen Rabbit and The Fox."

We're honored that EJ found a home and community for her creativity on Vocal — featuring her in this #VocalSpotlight was a no-brainer. EJ Ferguson, everyone!

On Her Background, Interests, and Aspirations:

I'm something of a dark horse (if I had a penny for every time I heard it…). I'm an amateur writer and I've been creating on Vocal since July 2021. I love to write and I love to read. I'm a genre-hopper, but YA Fiction is where my heart truly lies.

I'm from the UK, specifically Wales, and I owe my dry humor and gentle pessimism (especially since Brexit) to my country of origin. I have a deep fondness for animals and magic, and a penchant for poetic descriptions. One day, I hope to be a bona-fide author. Fingers crossed, and we'll see.

On Recognizing Herself as a Writer:

There must have been a time in my life where I didn’t write (it seems unlikely between 0-3 years), but I don’t remember it, honestly.

I was the nerd who couldn’t wait to get to English class and who would wriggle with excitement instead of groaning in despair when it was time to read a book or write a story. I have a very specific memory of holding my classmates hostage in circle time in primary school, forced to listen by a teacher to me reading out my poetry. Imagine being that kid. Wow.

It’s only recently though that I’ve made a conscious decision to engage with writing meaningfully. It’s always been something I’ve done for my own enjoyment with no end goal in mind. I hardly ever finish anything and delete 90% of it. Recently, encouragement from family and friends has helped me to focus on being a productive writer, rather than just a habitual one. And that led here! All that practice must have paid off.

On Winning the Return of the Night Owl Challenge:

To say I was stunned to read my name doesn’t really cover it. There's no shortage of talent on Vocal, and for a Challenge this popular, I was humbled to win first place. There were so many amazing entries. Imposter syndrome kicked in a bit and I’m very grateful to the Vocal Social Society, who reached out to celebrate the win with me, that was very reassuring. And, of course, huge thanks to the judges and the Vocal Curation Team for the vote of confidence in my work. It means the world.

As soon as I read the prompt, I had to write something for the Challenge — animals are a recurring motif in my short fiction and owls are something of a favorite. Reacting to a prompt can help to create something startling that you didn’t expect, or that you didn’t know you had in you. I love doing Vocal Challenges for that reason, this one was no different.

I had a couple of ideas rolling around about rain and flooding but couldn’t settle on a story line. Then I got stuck on a memory of finding a shiny lump of coal in my grandparent’s coal scuttle. It was smooth and glassy, and there was something fascinating about it. My grandfather taught me it was anthracite, and that the local mines used to produce it before they were closed down in the Thatcher era. He is full of stories — knew people and members of our own family who were killed in accidents underground.

Because of that memory, I started researching mining disasters and the story took shape from there. The Tynewedd Mining Disaster in 1877 probably had the heaviest influence, the details of which are harrowing. Coal mining in Wales is something we learn about as part of our heritage; but it hits different when you’re reading the names and ages of people who were killed in accidents, some of which were unforgivably young, and there's list after list after list. It was incredibly poignant, and I wanted to write a story that captured that feeling.

I was proud of the end result, but I didn’t expect to place — best I dared hope for was runner up, so when I saw that "Until the Rain Stops" had won the grand prize, I refreshed about 30 times to check my name was still there. It feels wonderful to have achieved something like this; it's given me the confidence to share my work — I'm shy about it usually, but now I've 180'd and I've been gloating all week. I’m sure I'm doing everyone’s head in now, but it’s difficult to care!

On What Draws Her to The Fiction Genre:

Fiction is utterly immersive. There’s something vaguely magical about it. I love making stuff up, writing it down, and then the struggle to make it connect together – to make it feel real. It’s like doing a puzzle, not knowing what the picture is. There's such satisfaction in that lightbulb moment when you figure it out.

As a reader, it’s always an adventure. All the best adventures are ones that never really happened, but have enough truth in them to make it feel as though they did.

On Her Creative Process:

My creative process is basically opening a word document and hoping for the best. My ideas often come from little things, images or memories or dreams or just something unusual, a stray thought out of nowhere. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Every story feels a little bit different and takes shape in a different way. Some turn out to be duds that go nowhere, but with others it’s like having a fish on the line — it tugs and tugs until you get it in the boat.

I do put them together a bit like puzzles — I used to think you have to start at the beginning and write until you get to the end, but the story never occurs to me in order, so I’ve learned to go with it. I write a bit here and there and then join it up into a narrative. That approach allows a lot of flexibility to incorporate the ideas that might pop up, and it makes it easier to end it in the right place too. I tend to pick an ending halfway in and shove it at the bottom somewhere. It functions as a finish line for when the going gets tough, as can happen sometimes! Ever felt like you’re writing and writing but not getting anywhere? The solution can be to just give yourself somewhere to go.

On Key Moments in Her Writing Career:

When I was 14, I published a novel online. It's awful and wild horses couldn't drag the link out of me, but thousands of people read it and it got hundreds of comments. Finishing it was a huge achievement and maybe one day I'll rewrite it, since I've learned a lot since that first fumbling attempt.

The first time I was told my work was of publishable quality by professors at university was really key. The nature of the publishing industry can be discouraging, but I've been lucky enough to receive encouragement from industry professionals that has made it seem like something achievable I could work towards, instead of just shooting for the moon. It's taken me a long time to work up the nerve for it, I'm 28 next month and in many ways feel like I'm just starting out. Still, better now than never!

Earning First Class Honours in my English degree at the University of South Wales was a huge defining moment, and so was my work being selected to win a prize from poet Tony Curtis in my second year of study.

I spent a little bit of time as an intern for a literary magazine and discovered quite quickly that the world of journalism isn't for me. It's what I was pushed towards in school because wanting to write creatively wasn't a realistic enough career goal.

I also took a Young Adult Fiction class at Cardiff University in 2019, and was nominated for an adult learning award. As part of that class, we met author Rachel Burge, whose advice about pursuing opportunities is ultimately what got me onto Vocal.

Then, winning third place in the Long Thaw Challenge in Vocal's Summer Fiction Series with "The Frozen Rabbit and The Fox"! It was the first time I entered a Challenge and actually earned money for writing. That was something I never expected to achieve. I floated on air for days.

"The Death of Small and Silent Things" was then shortlisted for the Vocal Fiction Awards, and I barely had time to feel smug about that before "Until the Rain Stops" won the Return of The Night Owl Challenge. It's definitely my biggest accomplishment to date! This last year has been the biggest one of my writing career thanks to Vocal, and hopefully this is just the start!

On How Her Writing Style Has Developed:

Well, I no longer write letters backwards and I’ve learned how to effectively use full stops, that has definitely helped. The biggest learning point for me has been to not overdo it. I’m naturally flowery and it’s been a bit of a learning curve to get that to work for me, instead of against. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is to temper my descriptions and to distill it all into a couple of great lines or imagery, to keep the prose as sharp as possible. I learned from Raymond Carver’s work — or the work of his editor, Gordon Lish, if you like — that less is more, and is often more powerful because of it.

On Her Goals as a Creator:

I am careful to have no specific goals when it comes to writing — to stay adaptable to whatever comes my way so I don't strangle all the joy out of it. It's hard work and most of the time there's no reward for it except your own pride in your work. It can be very easy to put too much pressure on yourself to succeed at it — and as I've learned from experience, nothing kills inspiration faster than pressure.

I would love to publish a novel one day, but it’s a bit of an old fashioned dream in this day and age. The way we consume media has changed so much, but the romantic in me would love to hold my book in print. Maybe one day.

In the short term, I will keep writing just for the hell of it and see where that gets me.

On How Becoming a Vocal Creator Helped to Develop Her Online Presence:

I had no online presence before Vocal, so it's definitely helping to develop that!

I'm an introvert. In this age of binge-consuming content, the expectation for aspiring authors always seems to be constant self promotion, networking, growing a social media following, generating online traffic, doing what's on trend for the sake of being a popular option — all because for the industry to take a chance on you, you need to be successful to become successful. None of that, as I'm sure it is for most people who are naturally inclined to write, comes naturally to me. In fact, it's alien. I wouldn't even know where to start.

That's why I love doing Challenges. It frees you up to forget all that and just occupy an authentic creative space, and there aren't many platforms that provide so many opportunities for new writers to do that. It carves a niche for all those of us who write not just to create content, but to practice an art. The road to finding success as a writer can be soulless, but Vocal has provided me with an opportunity to practice what I love to do in the way I love to do it, and I'm very grateful for that.

On Her Favorite Story She's Published on Vocal:

"The Window to Nowhere" was for the Foggy Waters Challenge and was my first stab at the horror genre. I was nervous about trying to write something creepy, it’s not my usual wheelhouse, but I had a blast — it was a lot of fun to try something out of my comfort zone. Objectively, it’s not my strongest but I’ve got a big soft spot for it.

One of my favorite stories is Stephen King's "Room 1408." I'm too much of a scaredy-cat to be a regular horror reader, but that short story creeped me out so badly that I've never been able to forget it! You have to admire his skill. He's a master.

Don’t think about it—first thing that comes to mind:

What is one thing you couldn’t live without?

It's cliche, but coffee! Pretty sure there's dark roast where my blood should be. And my loved ones, of course...

Favorite Musical Artist?

Florence and the Machine is pretty great.

Favorite Movie?

The Emperor’s New Groove. Because I’m an intellectual.

Favorite Author?

It’s a dead heat between Jonathan Stroud and Frances Hardinge — it’s never not exciting when they announce a release.

I waited up until midnight to read Deeplight and it was worth it.

Jonathan Stroud
Frances Hardinge - Photo by Frantzesco Kangaris/The Guardian

Favorite Book?

I have many that I love dearly and read time and again, but Harry Potter is my oldest go-to favorite.

Favorite Poet?

Robert Frost

Photo by Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Most Impactful Poem?

"What Do Women Want?" by Kim Addonizio

I want a red dress.

I want it flimsy and cheap,

I want it too tight, I want to wear it

until someone tears it off me.

I want it sleeveless and backless,

this dress, so no one has to guess

what’s underneath. I want to walk down

the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store

with all those keys glittering in the window,

past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old

donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers

slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,

hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.

I want to walk like I’m the only

woman on earth and I can have my pick.

I want that red dress bad.

I want it to confirm

your worst fears about me,

to show you how little I care about you

or anything except what

I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment

from its hanger like I’m choosing a body

to carry me into this world, through

the birth-cries and the love-cries too,

and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,

it’ll be the goddamned

dress they bury me in.

Cats or dogs?

Both! I have two of each, so I’m firmly in the middle camp.

Favorite travel destination?

Aberystwyth — my seaside home away from home!

Further abroad, Iceland, Hawaii, or California. I love to travel, so hopefully I haven’t found my favorite destination yet.

Day or Night?

Night owl, no question. Which is fitting ;)

Favorite local restaurant?

The Cinnamon Tree - Indian Restaurant. Would gladly eat myself into a coma there, and in fact I nearly have.

What’s your go-to late night snack?

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

What are you currently binge watching?

Ozark and The Office at the moment, it’s quite the contrast.

What are you currently reading?

The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James. Wonderful book.

If you could speak a new language, what would it be and why?

Welsh — I learnt a bit in school but I would love to be fluent in my native tongue.

Favorite story you read on Vocal by another Creator?

It's hard to choose, but Meg Anderson’s "The Last Walk" had me in tears and has stuck with me. It’s decorated with her own artwork, and is a touching story that is beautifully written.

Closing

Thanks for chatting with us, EJ! Keeping strict goals at an arm's length has served you well to this point — it's probably best to keep them there. Goals are only goals until they're accomplished, and it seems like you've got that second part down: accomplishment. Our team of curators and community of readers and creators will be here, on the edge of our seats, awaiting your future work. You've got us absolutely hooked. Congratulations again on winning the Return of the Night Owl Challenge!

If you're as big a fan of EJ as we are, be sure to subscribe to her author page here on Vocal and follow her on Twitter.

Thanks again, EJ!

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