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‘Moss Witch’ shortlisted for BBC award

02 Dec 2009

One of the stories published as part of a unique collaboration between scientists and authors has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award.

Sara Maitland

Sara Maitland’s the Moss Witch, written with the help of evolutionary ecologist Dr Jennifer Rowntree from The University of Manchester, describes a haunting encounter between a botanist and a witch in a patch of ancient Scottish woodland.

The witch displays the characteristics of a bryophyte -   a non flowering plant such as a moss.

It will be read by Hannah Gordon on BBC Radio Four today (Wednesday) at 3.30pm -  and the overall winner will be announced on R4’s culture show Front Row next Monday.

The Moss Witch was written for the anthology ‘When it Changed’, published by Comma Press and the brain child of University of Manchester lecturer and science fiction novelist Geoff Ryman.

Ryman paired off literary colleagues with scientists - mostly from The University of Manchester - to produce the book.

The BBC competition, in its fourth year, celebrates the best of the contemporary British short story.

Sara Maitland, who has been writing fiction and non fiction since the 1970s, lives and works from her home in South West Scotland.

She said: “The story, at a basic level, reflects the tension between the need to protect the environment and the sacrifices we are asked to ensure that happens.

“One illustration of this is the plan to site a wind farm on the moor where I live in South West Scotland.

“The wind farm will be the end of the moor as I know it.

“I chose moss because I find it very beautiful and very strange and there’s lots of it where I live.

“I released how profoundly meditative moss can be when I researched my recent book, ‘A book of Silence' (Granta, 2008).

“I also love ancient woodland  - a subject I’m looking at in my new book.”

She added: “Before I spoke to Jenny at Manchester University I didn’t really have a story  -  so I’d like to pay tribute to her. She  understood what I was trying to do and helped enormously.

“I’m delighted to be selected for this shortlist – it’s a vindication of ‘When it Changed’ -  which is the most exciting thing I’ve been involved in for 10 years.”

Dr Rowntree, who is based at The University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences said: “I spoke regularly with Sara about bryophytes and particularly mosses and suggested ways she could find out more about them.

“I think she reflected entirely what we talked about, and has created an interesting and haunting tale.

“It’s certainly been a most interesting project. I hope it will contribute to the efforts of us all to  make  science more accessible to the public - which is one of the aims of the book.

She added: “I thoroughly enjoyed Sara’s story. It did a great job of imagining an intelligent, human-like creature who has bryophyte-like characteristics.

“Bryophytes need water to complete their life cycle, as the sperm moves to the eggs across a film of water, but they can be found anywhere, even in very dry places.

“Many species can dry out completely, then rehydrate and start to grow again when water is available.

“They don’t have an internal water transport system like most plants, but water moves over their outer surfaces and they absorb it directly through their cells.

“That’s why the witch puts the water on her skin instead of drinking it.”

Notes for editors

Manchester based short story specialists, Comma Press - described as 'the literary equivalent of Factory Records' (The Herald) - have pioneered this project in collaboration with The University of Manchester, as part of a raft of anthologies challenging preconceptions about genre fiction. Comma's previous anthology in the series - The New Uncanny - won the Shirley Jackson Award 2008.

When it Changed authors are:
Geoff Ryman (Editor), Michael Arditti, Paul Cornell, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Patricia Duncker, Simon Ings, Gwyneth Jones, Ken MacLeod, Sara Maitland, Adam Marek, Kit Reed, Adam Roberts, Justina Robson, Liz Williams, Gwyneth Jones, Chaz Brenchley.

When it Changed Scientists are:
Professor Andrew Bleloch, Liverpool University and Director of the SuperSTEM Laboratory, Daresbury.
Dr Rob Appleby, Physicist, CERN, Switzerland ; Lecturer, Cockcroft Institute and the University of Manchester , UK
Dr Jennifer Rowntree, post-doctoral researcher, Faculty of Life Science, University of Manchester
Dr Kai Hock, Lecturer in Accelerator Physics at Liverpool University . He designs small accelerators that can be used for cancer therapy.
Dr Vinod Dhanak, Senior Research Fellow in the Physics Department at the University of Liverpool . He has published research in nanoscience and on the use of nanotechnology in body armour, and is currently working on the use of nanostructures on metal surfaces.
Dr Emmanuel Pantos has been leading heritage and archaeological science research at STFC, Daresbury Laboratory for the last ten years.
Professor John Harris: Lord Alliance Professor of Bioethics, and Director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation, University of Manchester . He is also author of On Cloning and Enhancing Evolution.
Dr Matthew Cobb, Programme Director Biology, the University of Manchester
Dr Tim O’Brien, the Senior Lecturer & Head of Outreach, for the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics. (two stories)
Dr Steve Williams is a Professor working in the Imaging Sciences Research Group, in the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, University of Manchester
Dr Sarah Lindley, Lecturer in GIS, School of Environment & Development, University of Manchester
Steve Furber, ICL Professor of Computer Engineering, the University of Manchester
Dr Rein Ulijn, Professor of Chemistry, the University of Strathclyde,

The BBC shortlist reflects the very best in short story writing in Britain today, and will be read by some of the nation's best-known actors on Radio Four. They are Miriam Margolyes, Penelope Wilton, Hannah Gordon, Jason Isaacs and Julia McKenzie.

Broadcaster Tom Sutcliffe chairs the panel of judges for 2009, which also includes award winning writers, Margaret Drabble, writer Helen Dunmore, singer songwriter Will Young, and Di Speirs.

This year´s winning author will receive £15,000, the runner up £3,000, and the other three short listed stories will each be given £500.

For media enquires contact:
Mike Addelman
Faculty of Humanities
Media Relations Officer
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567