Tasha Kavanagh, longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2016, talks about her experience at the Festival du Premier Roman
The Desmond Elliott Prize is the UK’s premier literary competition for debut novelists, and one very close to my heart. Each year, around 90 debuts are whittled down to a longlist of 10, then to a shortlist of 3, with one eventually announced as the overall winner. In 2016 Lisa McInerney’s brilliant The Glorious Heresies took the crown. However there is an added aspect to this competition: the longlisted novels are then sent to book groups and schools across Europe that, after six months, vote for their favourite titles. There are two categories – adult and young adult – and I was beyond thrilled to hear that Things We Have in Common had been selected as the 2017 favourite debut in both (a first in the history of the Prize).
In May 2017 then, I was given the extreme privilege of joining 24 authors from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany, to name a few, at the Festival du Premier Roman in Chambéry, France – a festival dedicated to debut novels from all over Europe:
Never have I been made to feel so welcome! I was entertained and cared for, with lunches, drinks and tours of the town and locale beyond, every moment of my four days there. Nor have I taken part in a literary festival so well organized and enthusiastically attended. This is not a festival within a town: during the week Chambéry is the festival, with everywhere from restaurants to shops involved and even its own ‘currency’ printed to spend in them. Enchantingly, wooden chairs designed by local artists, a selected novel attached to each with a ribbon, are placed outside shops, inviting passers-by to sit a while and delve into some literature.
Having been selected in both the adult and young adult categories, my days were hectic, each with two interview or translation sessions held in various key buildings around the old town. I was bowled over by the amount of thought and work that audiences had put into my novel. Besides insightful, thought-provoking questions, I was presented with paintings, pictures and poems relating to the story. One school even presented me with a book filled with collected objects, written responses and illustrations:treasured items indeed.
The nights were equally busy with dinners, concerts and dancing – yes: authors dancing! Most notable for me was the wonderful 30th birthday soirée at which sections of the winning books were performed as dinner was served around a magnificent sculpture made from extracts of the participating books and scripts of readers’ reactions to the works. Dessert was accompanied by darkness filled with sparklers, then celebratory gifts for the incredible team of organisers.
Two months on, and I am still experiencing first-hand the warmth and genuine love for literature that the Festival du Premier Roman inspires. Just this morning I received a letter from one of the young French writers I met in Chambéry, full of questions and requests for advice. There is surely no greater honour than this as an author? And I’ve loved being able to converse with them (albeit shamefully in English).
The unique partnership between the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Festival du Premier Roman is nothing short of magical, giving authors only on the threshold of the literary world an experience, in my view, both priceless and profoundly inspiring. I can never write a first novel again. This means I can never again be selected to talk at the Festival du Premier Roman. But other debut novelists will and to them I say savour every single moment! Just one more thing…
To the unique and innovative Desmond Elliot Prize – Festival du Premier Roman partnership, I can’t thank you enough. Santé!