On Saturday, I dothed both my professional and blogging hat as I attending the Sunday Times and Peters Fraser Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award bloggers event in Soho. The venue was beautiful, warm and welcoming for all involved.
Firstly a little bit about the award itself. After being suspended in 2008, the award has now been reinstated (thanks to generous sponsorship from PFD Agency), making this its 26th year! Previous winners include Zadie Smith, Adam Foulds, Sarah Howe and Patrick French. It recognises literary talent in British or Irish writers aged 35 or under. The award has always been open to submissions of poetry, fiction and non-fiction and has recently opened their submissions to allow self-published authors a chance at the prize! This year the shortlist will also by judged by a shadow panel of bloggers which goes to illustrate the ever increasing presence of bloggers within the industry.
This year’s shortlisted titles are:
Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter (Faber & Faber)
A debut written after the death of the family’s mother described as ‘part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief’. From the voices of Dad, The Boys and Crow.
Physical by Andrew McMillan (Cape Poetry)
This collection of poetry is an exposé on masculinity, male love and male friendship.
An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass (John Murray Originals)
A collection of short stories ranging the world, past and present. Stories of those who are ‘lonely, or estranged, or out of time’.
The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood (Scribner)
Elspeth Conroy is an artist, set in her routines and hard at work on her latest masterpiece. When a young boy disturbs her peace, she must figure out this mysterious turn of events and how it relates to her.
The event started, as all good book events do, with a glass of wine and some mingling. Once everyone was seated each author was introduced and read a small section from their work. Unfortunately Max Porter wasn’t able to attend so Andrew Holgate, Literary Editor of the Sunday Times and event chair, kindly took his place. Jessie chose to read from the shortest story in her collection, divulging that the piece had actually been written after a visit to a secret nuclear bunker. While Andrew chose to read Urination and Benjamin explained that if he tried to put on the voice of Elspeth it would simply come out sounding like Mrs Doubtfire; unfortunately, he decided against it.
After having read from their respective titles, Andrew Holgate began the first segment of the Q and A, asking each author a series of questions in turn.
Q & A
Jessie originally studied philosophy and was asked how she shifted across to writer. She explains that there is a tradition of philosophers writing fiction. Jessie hadn’t intended to write a collection of short stories and when she sat down to write each of them, she thought they were each a novel. There is a variety of present day and historical fiction in Jessie’s short stories, she felt there was an expanding world that she could explore through historical fact.
Explaining the inspiration behind her title story, Jessie reveals reading about the great Auk being burned at the stake as a which. The last official sighting of the Great Auk was in the 1800’s and she felt there was a fully formed story ready to be written. Once she had the voice of the narrator, the story came very quickly.
Moving over to Andrew McMillan, Andrew Holgate expresses that Andrew is now ‘the poet of masculinity’ and Andrew explains that he sees himself in two lights. One is an incredibly shy person and the other is poet Andrew.
Having been born in a household of contemporary poetry, which is unusual in this day, Andrew was surrounded by a whole host of poets. When he turned 16 he came out to his father. His father said well done and to gave him a copy of Thomas Dunn’s poetry to read.
Andrew states that ‘there was a real sense that I felt I’d fallen in love with him’ and that ‘poetry should be lived sincerely in the world’. It is his belief that poetry should be useful and this draws to question the utility of literature in everyday life. (Possibly the topic of another post.)
Andrew sees it as the poet’s job – not just reflect but distill life for something that is understandable to the reader.
Andrew Holgate then turned to Benjamin Wood, asking if he had anyone in mind when creating the character of Knell. Benjamin responded;
‘Her voice came to me fully formed as a Scottish person representing a female working class artist of that time. I wanted to give voice to that. Her artistic background is similar to Alastair Gray and Paula Rego’s paintings and other painters of that time – an amalgamation of those painters.’
There are lots of twists in The Ecliptic and it changes pace half way through. Benjamin admits he was pertified. His editor commissioned two more books after the first one, not knowing anything about the books. ‘I keep everything in my head until I’m happy to share. I knew I was taking a risk but that was sort of the point. I wanted to challenge myself. There was one point I almost pulled the rip chord on it and I went for a walk and talked myself out of it.’
Benjamin admits to being a novelist who works against himself. ‘I have the most dramatic point in my head and know how I want the reader to feel. I never write down whats going to happen in between point A to point Z because I find it really restrictive.’
The word Ecliptic is an astronomical term, which means its as banal as saying the equator. The ecliptic in the book is how we understand the stars. Its a celestial path that the sun takes. Benjamin first wrote the word down and didn’t look at it for over a year. He says it’s always worth writing things down. 99% won’t be useful but its worth it for the 1%.
Benjamin explains that he’s written two novels about creativity – it is an obsession – he wanted to write about artistic integrity and what that means. He also admits to quitting his A levels at 17 to become the next Jeff Buckley and get a record deal. He feels that life has a funny way of imitating art and vice versa.
Each author was then asked about the role of gender in each of their works.
Jessie discusses how the historical stories where often around a real figure and were therefore tied into gender. When it came to the other stories she kept non-specific as much as she could, which was a purposeful choice. She wanted to describe personal experience without name, gender or description.
While Ben similarly said he tried not to have it at the forefront of his mind. ‘I wanted to have an aggressively creative person.’ Also explaining that he is inspired by more females than men and tried to channel those women in his writing.
Whereas Andrew revealed that a lot of his poems began in personal fact, having loved and slept with men
Historically there is the theme of the male gaze on women and he was interested in a male gaze on men. ‘When you look at men closely the fragility of masculinity is high. We have to rediscover masculinity.’
After a brilliant conversation with each author, Andrew Holgate spoke a little about the opportunity provided by the award. ‘Young writers needed support and we started the award for this allowing young writers to take risks. The sheer variety of your books shows that it’s not true that everyone is reading the same things.’
I had a brilliant time at this event and came away devouring Max Porter’s book and will shortly be moving on to Andrew’s poems. Who do you think is likely to win and what did you think of each book in the shortlist?
Comment below or tweet me @HowlingReviews.