Books, Interviews

An Interview with 2021 Short Story Contest Winner Stefan de Koster

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Our first annual short story contest ended back in December, but we’re not done celebrating the winners.

I got together with First Place Winner Stefan de Koster to discuss his story “Lost Souls” and what it means to him. This interview is part of the prize package we offered for first place, along with $200 USD, a custom physical Atom Bomb trophy, publication of his story, and more!

Ultimately, I was curious about the origins of his short story. These types of tales are often very personal, but still fantastical. So what does the story mean to Stefan? “To me, Lost Souls is a story about two people who are a bit lost themselves, and the deadly adventure they are thrown into helps them confront their issues. And the tragedy is that their insights may be too late,” he said. “At least that was what I wanted to write! Maybe it just turned out to be a story about two little people fighting their way through a bunch of dangerous critters for which we humans wouldn’t give a second thought.”

If you’ve read “Lost Souls,” you might sense a hint of fantasy in this post-apocalyptic tale. Those are always some of my favorites as they’re way more interesting than those of (for example) a lone survivor walking down some train tracks (to me, anyway). And that’s a big reason why Stefan won this contest; his story is not only unique but very memorable.

“This probably comes as no surprise after reading my story,” Stefan remarked, “but my favourite genre is actually fantasy! Fortunately, one does not exclude the other, and I think they can complement each other. I like my fantasy a bit dark, and a post-apocalyptic setting accommodates that pretty well – I think Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series is a great example of such a setting where everything just works.

As for his inspiration, Stefan said that he pulled a great deal of it from a worldbuilding video by YouTuber and author Shad M. Brooks, aka Shadiversity. “It was just a short section on the power balance between people and animals; what if people were smaller or animals were bigger? How would people survive in such a dangerous world? That idea seemed pretty exciting, so I took it from there.

“At some point, I decided that this small, magical people would live in a world where humanity had disappeared. I thought it would be interesting to see what Earth’s new inhabitants would make of the things humans left behind. And it allowed me to take familiar places and run thought experiments on how they would change if nature took over. I might have been inspired by the Dr. Stone anime at the time as well.”

But when it comes to writing specifically for the contest, Stefan noted that he took a part from the main action as a side story. Maybe that bigger story will become a full novel one day? “I also wanted to show off a bit of the magic system I came up with,” he said, “but I did not want it to be the central focus, as that would just not work in a short story. That is why the story is told from Ánne’s perspective. I feel that it also created some mystery about Syluw’s powers and motivations, so it ended up working for me.”

Now I discovered something pretty interesting about Stefan during this interview: he’s actually good friends with 3rd Place winner Koen ter Horst. That one caught me by surprise! Of course, it’s not unusual considering the fact that they’re both really great writers, but it was certainly unexpected. Out of almost 20 entries in this contest, what are the chances that two of them would be friends?

Stefan explained: “Koen loves writing, and we often discuss ideas for stories. He knew I was working on this post-apocalyptic setting that I wanted to write stories for, so he invited me to enter together. I think he also wanted to motivate himself to finish and submit his story and, well, he did. You can probably imagine our shock when I took first place!”

Now that sounds like a story entirely on its own, right?

But the motivation that Stefan mentioned, for both him and Koen, is what makes me genuinely happiest. Stefan told me that he’s never actually finished a story before this contest, so we’re hoping that this will be the push that he needs to continue writing. “It feels like a really big step. I do have some ideas for other stories in the same setting, so I would love to work on those in the future,” he said.

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I decided to wrap up this interview by asking Stefan for some advice to other writers. Sure, he’s new at this and can’t offer years of experience, but his words are still wise.

“Find a proofreader! It can be anyone — a writing buddy, like me and Koen, or a family member, or a significant other — as long as they are not afraid to take up a pen and turn your pages red.

“When you know you are writing a story for someone else to read and criticise, you just look at the whole process differently — and it can motivate you and help you grow as a writer. I can’t speak of my own growth, but I have seen this happen for Koen.

“And as an additional tip; the first version of your story is nearly always going to be bad, so don’t feel down when you receive a lot of feedback. Lost Souls actually had a whole section of blatant exposition, with Syluw monologuing for a good full page. Fortunately, I deleted that part of the story, and I now feel it was for the better – but definitely not when I was told it felt out of place! Sometimes, someone just needs to point out the weak parts of your story that you cannot see.”

I want to thank Stefan for the interview and for his short story submission. I think I speak for all of us when I say that we really enjoyed reading it!

Be sure to check out “Lost Souls” for yourself, as well as the 2nd Place Winner “The Memory Store” by Mandy Shunnarah and 3rd Place Winner “Raiding the Broken World” by Koen ter Horst.

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Shawn has been infatuated with the post-apocalyptic genre since he wore out his horribly American-dubbed VHS of the original Mad Max as a child. Shawn is the former Editor-in-Chief at Joystiq's Massively.com, creator of the Aftermath post-apocalyptic immersion event, and host of the Through the Aftermath podcast for over 11 years. He currently resides on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere with his wife and four children.

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