Meet Our Short Story Writing Competition Winner: Heike Ellwood


We sat down with the winner of our Short Story Competition 2022, Heike Ellwood, to discuss her story, What Yuri Got, her inspiration and what is next.

Firstly, congratulations on this incredible win! What made you apply for the City Academy Short Story Writing Competition in the first place?

Thank you! I’ve always had a mini calendar on my computer for writing competitions that I have bookmarked, these are ones I have just found online. I did a Google search of a few competitions and a lot of them had hard deadlines and were quite long. This one came up and I couldn’t not apply!

Why was 'short story' the perfect form for What Yuri Got?

I’ve always loved short story as a format. I feel it is also easier for me, I have tried writing whole novels and I can never finish them…I always run out of steam! I love reading short stories, they are punchier and more engaging to me so I couldn’t imagine writing What Yuri Got in any other format.

What Yuri Got, tells the story of Christa celebrating her birthday but, in the background is this massive, historic moment of man going into space for the first time. Why did you decide to tell this intimate story on the backdrop of this monumental moment?

I am very obsessed with the Soviet story of space travel, a few years back I went to the Cosmonauts Exhibition at the Science Museum in London and it was just so inspiring. I grew up in East Germany myself, where Yuri Gagarin visited. I spoke to my mother to see if she rememberd his visit…and she said no (haha) so I had to do my own research! From my research I pieced together my story.

I have actually started two more stories based on East Germany, the war and mainly how the family trauma stays with you for generations, which definitely was the case for my father. It’s fascinating to see how people lived in those days with the Russians in East Germany and how people just lived their day to day lives with this always in the background. What astonished me, is amongst the horrible stories about rape, famine and violence in the occupied areas after the war, people were still so extremely, utterly excited when Yuri Gagarin came for his tour in East Germany. The people saw this as a positive thing, a time of reconciliation.

That is interesting that it came from a mix of lived experience and your own research! There is a strong theme of familial relationships, there is a warmth throughout it. What and who inspired that theme?

This is sort of my mother's story actually, she didn’t have the best upbringing. She grew up with her grandparents and she was extremely happy with them, but her mother didn’t take an interest in her life whatsoever. That part of my mother's story was always on my mind when writing.

Who inspires you as a writer?

My absolute favourite writer is Walter de la Mare, he writes a lot of Short Stories and Poetry. He is such a great writer, so luminous and so wonderful. It's just amazing to see what people can do with language, and for me, he exemplifies that. My favorite genre is horror and gothic literature, everything about ghosts and the supernatural so M. R. James is definitely up there as well with his collection of Ghost Stories.

What are your top 3 writing tips? What makes a winning story?

Number one is the importance of rewriting. I have done a few writing courses where people express that they don’t like the rewriting and reworking part of writing. For me, it is the other way round, I actually find the writing process daunting, but the rewriting process brings me great pleasure as I can really look into the work I have produced.

Number two is, trust in your ideas! Ideas I have now, a few years back i would have thought they were mental, ‘who would read about that’. Nowadays I trust myself a bit more in terms of originality of ideas. I feel like a lot of stories these days are quite humdrum, it’s just the life of a person, very mundane and nothing much happens. I think it is much more exciting writing about something ‘happening’ and everyone has the ability to write about that, everyone has a combination of experiences that can be written about and turned into something amazing.

My final tip would be, let go. People find it difficult to edit, start from scratch, cut out paragraphs ect. As a writer you depend on people wanting to read your work as you have to bear that in mind a little bit, it’s not all about you, it’s about the people that read and connect to your stories.

What do you hope the reader will take away from this story?

I hope they will be inspired to start pilfering history a little bit. I say this because I didn’t assume I would write about a historical event…I mean, it’s not the moon landing is it? But still an historical event all the same! You shouldn’t shy away from history, follow your heart to where it takes you, look for intrigue everywhere.

What is next for you?

I definitely want to carry on with writing, I am so grateful I won this competition and it has been a huge boost for ego and confidence! It’s been wonderful to see something come of this simple story, I just want to continue writing short stories and sending them out. As long as I enjoy it, that is all that matters.

writing competition winner

About Heike Ellwood

About Heike Ellwood

While my day job is spent in IT, I love writing short stories and silly poetry. I particularly enjoy writing in English, a language with great capacity for nuance and humour (and far fewer pointless compound nouns than my native German). In addition to writing, I love hiking, politics, local history, exploring tea shops with my husband and curling up with our two cats.