In the past ten years, the Prize has consistently discovered some of the most gifted writers of new fiction. Many of these authors have gone on to win other major awards and acclaim, and, importantly for the Prize, establish a career as an author with a second novel. Which is the core purpose and benefit of the Prize. But the second novel, it’s writing and completion, isn’t always the easiest of tasks.
Liz Thomson, Prize Trustee and journalist, has gone back to each one of the ten winners and to discover what impact winning the Prize has had on their writing careers and also, what happened next…
Ros Barber | Claire Fuller | Edward Hogan | Anjali Joseph | Nikita Lalwani | Eimear McBride | Grace McCleen | Lisa McInerney | Ali Shaw | Francis Spufford
Nikita Lalwani, Gifted (2008)
Leonard Cohen famously quipped “success is survival” when questioned about writerly acclaim in his early years, and I am mostly grateful to the Desmond Elliott Prize for this: its contribution to my own survival.
The Prize gave me a lot of things – publicity, visibility and audibility. But more than that, some kind of confidence, and sense of possibility regarding a tangible writing career, encouraged by those first Desmond Elliott judges a decade ago.
Prizes shouldn’t matter. There are always so many people left behind who might be more deserving of the award and, when submissions are high in number, there is naturally a random element to the choice of winner on some level. But prizes and prize lists for newbies can be transformative, not least because they can alert readers to consider work that might otherwise be off the radar.
I donated the prize money to Liberty. It was at a point in time where I felt it was important to support their huge impact on human rights in the UK. Since then, I collaborate with Liberty regularly, and continue to be inspired and informed by the process – we are lucky to have them safeguarding our rights at a critical time, through an awe-inspiring, diligent mix of legal aid, campaigns, and concrete impact on governmental policy.
If I won a prize like this now, I’d find the financial injection itself to be transformative too. It’s a big, solid sum, enough to help you create a dimension of space in your life and write your next book: a place to write, childcare, a laptop, flights – the possibilities are, of course, numerous, and I am heartened to see the longlist each year, and the list of writers emerging into the press, many of them from obscurity.
Leonard Cohen said a lot of other good stuff that is pertinent to the journey of an artist (“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often”; “My province is small and I try to explore it very very thoroughly”) but that’s for another time.
Till then, a salute to the Desmond Elliott crew for believing in me. I’ll never forget it.
Edward Hogan, Blackmoor (2009)
Last week, in my day job, I attended a library conference with a number of excellent speakers, one of whom talked about the pointlessness of writing long-term strategy plans in a changing business environment. “If you’re putting together huge documents with absolutely no relation to the world around you,” she said, “then you’re wasting your time.”
Ha-ha, it sounds like she’s talking about novels, I thought; and then, Shit. Is she talking about my novels?
I don’t think she was (statistics suggest there’s a good chance she hasn’t read them) but it begs the question: if the world is – as the speaker put it – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, how do we write about it in a way which is relevant? Is that even possible?
The generous sum of money I received from the Desmond Elliott Prize gave me precious time to write. Of course, the cash is long gone, now, but the psychological benefits of fluking a prize for my first novel endure. I have a full-time job these days, and if you’re going to wake up at five in the morning to write before work then you need compelling reasons and lots of motivation. I mean, it’s perfectly possible to be a novelist without pondering the difficult questions above. You don’t have to address the complex uncertainty of the modern world. You can write safe, easy novels. But when you get a little early recognition from a prize, it makes you want to try a bit harder. And if you don’t manage it with this novel, it makes you want to do a better job next time. It makes you think carefully about what sort of form and language you need to react to contemporary life. Then, maybe you go and read writers who do it better than you. Folk like Yuri Herrera, or Mary Robinson, or Terrance Hayes, or Keith Ridgway, or Desmond Elliott Prize Winner Lisa McInerney!
It also makes you think about how important it is for new writers to receive help and encouragement – especially writers from backgrounds under-represented in mainstream publishing. It makes you wonder what you might be able to do to help others, the way you were helped. In my case, the support I received from the Desmond Elliott Prize was confirmation that I could be a writer, and it continues to be a good reminder of the responsibilities that entails.
Ali Shaw, The Girl With Glass Feet (2010)
It was past midnight and I was halfway home, sitting on a night coach on the rainy motorway, when what had happened finally sank in. There had, of course, been the Prize ceremony and the potent Fortnum’s champagne, as well as some very kind words said, but those things had gone past in a blur. The first thing I remember – when I think back to winning the Desmond Elliott Prize – is that quiet bus ride, staring out of the window at the tail lights overtaking, a slow smile dawning on my sleepy face.
Novels are made in slow motion. Even after all the actual writing is completed, there are long spells of editing and waiting for the manuscript to clear the stages of production. Month by month, it all creeps together, with incredible milestones along the way – seeing the cover, flicking through the first rough proofs – as well as times of nagging doubt. Will anyone like it? Will anyone even read it? Such anxieties can wasp around long after publication, especially for debut writers whose books are rarely released to great fanfare. First novels take time to find their audience, while their authors wait with crossed fingers and hope they will be found. When the first responses come, both the good ones and the not-so-good, they hit you with the intensity of a sucker punch or a kiss.
To hear your name announced, then, as the winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize provides the kind of confidence boost usually only acquired via several bottles of that Fortnum’s champagne.Now the judges’ decision is something I can always reach back to, if I ever have doubts about my work.
I used the Prize money to carve out much-needed writing time, as well as space to research and imagine new stories. I’d thrown all of my creative efforts into The Girl with Glass Feet, and had only scraps of ideas for future projects. Having room to daydream felt almost luxuriously fortunate at first, but in that time I was not only able to devise and set to work on my second novel, but to figure out what kind of novelist I wanted to become. To that end, I had the chance to experiment, to try out new means of composition. I fell in love with handwriting everything (in harder grades of pencil, with each successive draft) and realised what a drain on creativity a computer screen can be. Without the space the Prize had given me, I might not have dared to take such detours, fearing perhaps that I’d waste precious time. Instead, I felt like the pressure was off whenever the story hit a narrative dead end. The things I learned about my methods and myself proved invaluable not just towards my second book, but towards my third one too, and the one I’m currently writing.
My advice to other novelists at the start of their careers is to learn the varying parts of their imaginations. No doubt everybody’s moves at its own pace, but I’ve found that mine is a kind of shambling herd. There’s the malleable beast at the front, who can keep time with reasoning and plotting but who can’t devise the bigger, more intuitive ideas. Then there’s the slower, ruminative one that announces ideas and characters almost fully-formed, but which keeps its mouth firmly shut whenever I try to quiz it on what to write next. Around those are other creatures with their own tics and habits, but each requires its own methods of goading and its own baits. So I say make a bestiary of your own imagination. Understand its members, and task each one with appropriate invention, shepherding the whole thing towards a completed journey.
I wish all the writers under consideration for the 2017 Desmond Elliott Prize the very best of luck. I hope that the achievement of being listed will spur them on through future work.
Anjali Joseph, Saraswati Park (2011)
One rainy, fresh evening in June 2011, I found myself at the Desmond Elliott Prize ceremony. I was nearly late because of traffic; soon after I arrived at the top floor of Fortnum & Mason and found a glass of champagne, the judges began the Prize announcement. I braced myself to smile and congratulate the winner. I was unprepared, though, when it turned out to be me. Amid more champagne, everyone congratulated me – my editor, and a clutch of other people from Fourth Estate, my publisher. “I’m very surprised,” I kept saying, and consumed a good deal more champagne.
Surprise and champagne aside, what has the Prize done for me? One of the benefits was moral: in the years that followed, I sometimes remember the kindness of the judges, Amy Worth, Fanny Blake, and Edward Stourton, all of whom assured me that they’d loved the book and had decided unanimously. Writing fiction is a strange business that mostly happens in private: alone, clad in pyjamas, while one feels like a child who forgot to grow up and stop daydreaming. For years at a time, there is little tangible to show, and it’s easy to get affected by external feedback and also by the lack of obvious progress at times. It takes faith and patience to write a novel, and sometimes it’s very heartening to know that the first novel I wrote was one that made a space for itself in the hearts of three people I hadn’t met before – the novel had worked, if you like.
Writing is also, famously, not the most profitable of industries. Yes, there’s J K Rowling but, in general writing fiction, especially the more literary kind of fiction which deploys language to slip under a reader’s skin, rewire his heart and mind, and change him subtly. Saraswati Park, the novel that won the 2011 Desmond Elliott Prize, was about two marginal men in contemporary Mumbai: a middle-aged letter writer, who dreamed of writing short stories, and his young gay nephew, furtively looking for love. Another Country, my second novel, followed a young woman just after she graduated, and lived out the next decade of her life in three cities, Paris, London, and Bombay, accumulating and shedding experiences: uncertain relationships, strange jobs, and an always slightly elusive sense of belonging. The Living, which I published in 2016, is a close-up of two shoemakers: a thirtysomething single mother working in the last shoe factory in Norwich, and a sixtysomething sandal-maker in a small town in the west of England. These are not thrillers, or blockbusters. Nor did I want them to be, but for those of us who make things that aren’t yet, or perhaps never will be, produced for a mass market – the kind of art you might have to learn to love, but which changes you even as you engage with it – success is a tricky concept. Publishers are essentially businesspeople in many ways, and they respond to two things: the market, and also the sanction of prizes. Winning the Desmond Elliott Prize gave me both the sanction of approval and the financial ability to spend some time writing the next two books while working part time, rather than having to relegate writing to an hour or two snatched from the working day. It has made a big difference to me, and I continue to be grateful.
Grace McCleen, The Land of Decoration (2012)
It was an honour to receive the Desmond Elliott Prize. It helped me enormously, in quite different ways.
Firstly, I would not have been able to buy my tiny but beautiful home without the money, as not being able to secure a mortgage I had to have a sum of cash in order to purchase a very unusual property and had only just enough funds do so. This little studio flat is my one source of stability, for which I am grateful each day. I badly needed a place that was entirely my own in which to feel secure, and secluded, in order to work, and thanks to the Prize money I was able (after much searching) to find that.
Secondly, although I had already written my second and third novels before I began looking for an agent, winning the Desmond Elliott Prize gave me confidence going into the publication of my second novel; confidence I had been sorely lacking till then because my first novel had been praised but also vilified and it had been ignored by every other prize jury. Winning the Desmond Elliott Prize was like being thrown a rope at the bottom of a very deep, very dark pit. I can still remember being so sure I would not be awarded the Prize that when my name was spoken it didn’t register for some seconds!
The Land of Decoration went on to win the Betty Trask Prize but I was much more overjoyed and astonished to win the Desmond Elliott.
Since winning the Desmond Elliott Prize, I worked for two years in a bookshop and, while there, designed and produced a range of greeting cards featuring the small models I made when I was younger. In 2016, I was writer in residence at the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, producing a body of poetry inspired by the Brontes. And, this year, I was a writing fellow at Manchester University, giving one-to-one tutorials and seminars to MA and PhD students.
My advice for debut authors has nothing to do with the actual writing of a novel: it is to do with managing the rollercoaster of publication and becoming – however small – a public figure.
You need to be grounded in something other than the success or failure of your work before sending it out into the public domain. Secondly, you need adequate support in the form of people and activities in order to weather the buffeting of “world” opinion, good and bad. And lastly, you need a solid sense of self in order not to become fractured: “success” can be just as destabilizing as “failure”.
As to the second novel, with anything challenging it’s best not to think about it too much: just jump in. The agony of deferral and procrastination is inevitably worse than the dreaded endeavour itself.
My one top tip for authors is to ensure you are writing because you enjoy writing – the process itself, not simply the end result. Only then is the undertaking worthwhile.
Ros Barber, The Marlowe Papers (2013)
The Desmond Elliott Prize is very dear to my heart. It’s a wonderful prize to win, and not only for the very obvious benefit that £10,000 represents when you’ve been writing fiction “on spec” for many years. I’ll be honest and say that the most important benefit of winning the Desmond Elliott for me was probably more to do with my own need for external validation! I’ve been shortlisted for quite a few prizes in the past, and my work has come joint first no fewer than four times, but I had never been the only name on the ticket. It felt like breaking a spell to win the Desmond Elliott Prize outright.
It was a special night, properly lubricated with Fortnum & Mason’s extraordinarily good champagne, and I shall never forget it. Before I’d even left the venue my phone was buzzing with texts and tweets from people who’d seen the news via the BBC website. Which is the other big deal, of course. The publicity that goes along with the Prize is invaluable to a new author. It not only means your book and your name will be known by more potential readers, but it also encourages people who have been hesitant to buy your book to take that step, out of curiosity if nothing else!
Winning the Desmond Elliott Prize put a little pressure on my second novel because everyone was keen to know what I would write next. My wish not to produce some kind of pale imitation of The Marlowe Papers (and find myself in a box marked “historical novelist”) led me to write something deliberately different. Devotion was a risk, but thanks very probably to my winning the Desmond Elliott, it managed to grab its own column inches: it had a couple of cracking reviews in the papers and was shortlisted for the Encore Award. The Desmond Elliott marks you out as “one to watch” and that is immensely helpful in an industry that’s packed with talent.
Do I have advice for debut authors? Or those embarking on their second novel? It’s always the same advice I think. Persistence and self-belief are everything. Be courageous, and write what you love and believe in, rather than trying to cater to the market (which will have moved on by the time your novel reaches it anyway). Accept your own fear; it means you’re doing something you haven’t done before, which is a good thing. Writing doesn’t get any easier, even though you think it will: the second novel is just as hard as the first. Or harder. If the first didn’t achieve all you hoped, because of that; and if your first was successful, because everyone’s watching you closely. You’re up there like a trapeze act, somersaulting in the air, and you don’t know if you’ll make the catch. I guess if you’re lucky enough to have won the Desmond Elliot Prize, you’ve got a bit of a safety net. But if you haven’t, you can still do something extraordinary, so long as you keep your nerve.
Eimear McBride, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2014)
I was delighted to win the Desmond Elliott Prize. After all, it had taken me only six months to write A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing but nine years to get it published, so the belief that “no one cares about first novels” was thoroughly ingrained in me. Publication of the first novel is a bit like an actor’s first job, you just need to get it in order to believe you really are a writer and belong in the literary world. After so many years of rejection, to then find myself winning the best first novel award around was a real turn-up for the books. It not only fixed up my ceiling and all the many things wrong with my house, it also gave me heart for continuing on with the “difficult second novel.”
The Lesser Bohemians took nine years to write but then very little time to be accepted for publication and this was in no small part due to winning the Desmond Elliott. Prizes help you find a readership and, especially when your writing leads you down unusual alleyways of form and language, that introduction to a readership is invaluable.
So God Bless the Desmond Elliott Prize and all who sail in her, then, now and to be.
Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015)
My second novel, Swimming Lessons, has now been out in the world for some months and I’ve been busy speaking at literary festivals, meeting with readers at book clubs, and talking at events. When I’m introduced, the fact that my first novel won the Desmond Elliott Prize is always mentioned, and never fails to give me a little boost to help me stand up straight, look the audience in the eye and think: yes I can do this – I can speak in public to a room full of strangers (because, maybe surprisingly, it is still daunting).
Without doubt, winning the prize has opened doors for me, and meant that event organisers, reviewers and publishers have taken my second book more seriously but, even more importantly, it has given me the self-confidence to continue writing. When I was writing Our Endless Numbered Days I thought that surely writing my second book would get easier; at least I would know what I was doing. But that hasn’t been the case. And now my third novel is nearly finished I know that each time it is like starting again – I’m unsure where the story is going, whether this novel will work out, how it will end. But remembering that my first won such a wonderful prize continues to keep me going.
Lisa McInerney, The Glorious Heresies (2016)
Publishing is a daunting sphere for an emerging writer. For a short, delicious time after she gets her first book deal, she thinks her mountain’s climbed. Then she realises that the book world is crowded and vibrant and challenging, and she and her publisher will have to fight to find space for her novel. This is all great news for readers, of course, who are spoiled for choice. But for first-time novelists it can mean new anxieties and doubts. Was this the story I was meant to write? Will my book find readers who’ll love it? Did I do the right thing?
So the Desmond Elliott Prize does two wonderful things for debut novelists. First, and most obviously, her work being longlisted gives the novelist validation when she most needs it: at the start of her career. For me, it was proof positive that I was on the right track. I wasn’t a bad storyteller, and I wasn’t fooling myself. But also, in focusing on debut novels, the Prize creates a space for engaging with new work, introducing readers and writers to each other, and celebrating vitality, tenacity and innovation in the form. As a writer I was spurred on so much by being listed for the Prize and lifted powerfully by winning it, both professionally and personally. And as a reader, the Desmond Elliott Prize longlist delights me.
My second novel – The Blood Miracles – is out in the world now. I remember a piece of advice from when I got my first book deal: have your second novel drafted before the first is published. Thank God I listened! It can be incredibly difficult trying to write while promoting a published novel, especially if a writer’s been lucky enough to have captured something that grabbed readers. I only wish that piece of advice had also included something about writing your third novel at the same time…
I’m on the first draft of my third now, and trying to remember what’s most important: following my characters instead of the plot, being bullish about taking the room I need to write, and making time to daydream.
Francis Spufford, Golden Hill (2017)
As the most recent winner of the prize, I can’t really say much about my life since, because so few weeks have passed. I’m still in the jubilant aftermath – excited, dizzy, immensely grateful to the judges and full of regretful sympathy for my fellow shortlistees Kit De Waal and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. Nor do I know what I am going to spend the money on, though I’m having fun turning over the possibilities in my mind. Something frivolous? Something beautiful? Something practical? Something high-minded?
Or, of course, there’s the research for my next novel. It’s a book about London over the last few decades, and will therefore mostly be set within the reach of a TfL Travelcard. But there is going to be one contrastingly-coloured section, chlorine blue and burning orange rather than the rain-grey of London stock brick and the dusty green of London trees, like a sudden interposed frame by David Hockney, when a character spends a chunk of the 1970s in Los Angeles. By now, with my long previous history as a non-fiction writer, I know how to squeeze the perspectives I need out of a limited budget and publicly available materials. You can get a surprisingly solid visual sense of ‘70s LA by watching the first series or two of The Rockford Files on YouTube, and keeping on paying attention to what’s in view to the left and right of James Garner’s ears. But my character’s LA is going to be quite a lot more louche than that: the music-business city, the rock ‘n’ roll city, the place where Joni Mitchell drove home at dawn with her reel-to-reel in the back of the Porsche. And it occurs me to that, thanks to the Desmond Elliott Prize, I could actually go and stay in the Chateau Marmont hotel, Keith Richards-style, or set my laptop up beside a pool in the Hollywood Hills. I almost certainly won’t. Temperamentally, I am the least Hollywood person you ever did see. But I could. And this is very startling.
What I am certain of is that, thanks to the Prize, my career as a novelist has been given a marvellous, confidence-building endorsement. One day, I may go back to non-fiction, at least to visit, but for now I know I want to go on writing novels; to go on working in the form where you get the freedom of all cities, imaginatively speaking, and Stockwell Tube Station shimmers into Laurel Canyon Drive, and back again.