The Desmond Elliott Prize is the UK’s premier literary award for debut novelists. Every year, around 90 debuts are submitted. These are narrowed down to a longlist of ten, then to a shortlist of three, before the winner is announced. In 2017 I was very proud to reach the longlist with my debut Little Deaths.
There is also a wider, international aspect to this competition: the collaboration between the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Festival du Premier Roman which brings together fifteen French authors with writers from Spain, Portugal, Romania, Italy, and Germany as well as Great Britain and Ireland. The first novels in English are provided by the literary director of the Desmond Elliott Prize, who adds another two titles to her longlist, bringing the Chambéry reading list to twelve. These two further titles are drawn from the Desmond Elliott Prize submissions and are selected on the basis that they are considered of particular relevance or interest to a young adult readership. Two sets of reading groups – one adult, the second comprised of senior lycée students – take some six months to read and debate all these debuts before voting for their favourites. The authors of the winning novels are invited to the Festival, held in Chambéry each May.
In a world where literary festivals are becoming increasingly popular worldwide, the Festival is therefore unique: it is the only literary event in France which uses reading as a means of discovering and promoting first novels. This approach makes the Festival a multi-faceted international one and an important landmark in the development of quality contemporary literature.
I was thrilled and very moved to learn in March 2018 that Little Deaths had been chosen as one of the winning debuts, by the lycée students, and that I was to attend the Festival as their laureate.
To reach Chambery, I flew to Zurich, where everything is clean and efficient and gleaming and polite, then boarded a coach that took me across the border into France. Despite the motorway, it felt we were entering another world: a magical, once-upon-a-time world. We travelled through blue mountains, past dark lakes and green forests and soft clouds, and into a medieval town bathed in golden evening sunlight, and poised to celebrate the power of the written word.
My first evening was a blur of impressions: wide tranquil streets; bright flags; an attic hotel room that exactly fitted my idea of an old-fashioned Swiss chalet; a fountain ringed with triumphant, trumpeting elephants; a dinner table groaning with local cheese, wine, pasta, and ringing with loud conversations, laughter and excitement that transcended all language barriers.
The following morning, I was collected from my hotel by the wonderfully warm and knowledgeable Joy Legat, an English emigre who has lived in Chambery for decades. When I asked her what had brought her there in the first place, she laughed and said, “Love.” Chambery really is a place where magic happens.
Joy showed me the town from the inside out: the past was still present, in the shape of cobbled streets, tall shadowy courtyards, a vast cathedral and the Savoy palace. Overlaying all this history were marquees and flowers and celebrations for the Festival. I’ve lived in London for twenty years: I had forgotten what it was like to stop in the street and talk; to walk slowly and smile at strangers. By lunchtime I was firmly under the Chambery spell.
I was scheduled to do three face-to-face events with senior lycée students. At each event, there were forty to fifty people in the audience, mostly aged fifteen to eighteen. Conscious of my terrible French,of potential cultural differences, and of the fact I had no experience of talking about Little Deaths to teenagers in any language, I realised there were a multitude of ways this could go wrong.
But those events turned out to be the most exhilarating I’ve ever done. The students were engaged: they had excellent questions, they’d clearly read the book thoroughly, thought about it carefully and with consideration. They wanted to know where the initial idea had come from. How long it had taken me to write. Where did I start? Why did I start?
They were reticent at first, but they listened to each other’s questions as well as to my answers. Gradually they made eye contact. They even laughed at my terrible jokes.
I asked how many of them wrote, or wanted to write: several hands went up. Facing me were future novelists, short story writers, playwrights, scriptwriters, poets. They asked for advice on how to write professionally: I told them to read. I suggested they read writing they liked and analyse it to work out why they liked it, and to read something they didn’t like and work out why it didn’t work. They asked me if I’d ever imagined I’d be sitting in a room of French students talking about my novel at a festival. I told them that two years earlier I couldn’t imagine I’d even finish the book.
Their enthusiasm was clear: after each event, most of the audience came up to me to have their books signed or, if they’d forgotten their copies, to ask me to sign their notebooks or bookmarks. One student shyly gave me a poem that Little Deaths had inspired him to write. Others told me they’d never read a crime novel, but mine had made them want to read more, and they asked for recommendations. A couple told me that they’d been dreading reading a whole novel in English, but they’d loved Little Deaths and it had improved their language skills. I left each event glowing and proud and inspired.
Chambéry is where magic happens.
In the end, those events, face-to-face with dozens of cool French teenagers, turned out to be the easy ones.
I did a joint event with David Savill, author of They Are Trying To Break Your Heart, which was unlike any author event I’ve ever done. Chaired by the quick-thinking and mischievous Rebecca Waters in front of an audience of adult readers, David and I faced a volley of rapid-fire questions, designed to reveal as much as possible – about us rather than solely about our work.
On my second evening in Chambéry I came down with a stomach bug. After a long and entirely sleepless night during which I convinced myself I was absolutely, positively dying, I managed to get dressed and stagger down to the hotel lobby. That morning, thankfully, I only had to do a Skype session with some students in Nepal. How difficult could that be? Well, we arrived at the venue to discover that the Skype connection wasn’t working.
The solution was to call the class teacher in Nepal using someone’s mobile phone, which was placed in the middle of the classroom. I was going to have to bellow.
And so we began. The students were fantastic: they came right up to the phone and camera, introduced themselves properly and asked their questions. They even bowed to me: this was an entirely new experience and one I will be insisting on at all future events.
Shouting loudly enough that I felt I had a good chance of being heard in Nepal even without a mobile phone, I attempted to answer them all. The students were shy and very sweet, and mine was the first novel they had ever read.
They wanted to know more about me: not just about my writing but about life in the UK. Who did I live with? Did I like animals? Had I ever been to Nepal? For an hour I forgot everything other than I was sharing ideas and impressions with children almost 7,000km away who had read and loved my work. It was an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime encounter.
And Chambery’s magic spell stayed with me long after I came home. The reception Little Deaths got from students in France and Nepal reminded me why I wanted to write in the first place. I talked to students who bravely held up their own dreams to me; and the idea that I’d inspired them in turn inspired me.