2017: the year I won a Betty Trask Award

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I was in Spain when I got the news, on the way to Ferrol to start the Camino Inglés to Santiago de Compostela. My brother and I had spent all day on a very slow train from Oviedo: along the north coast, through mist and eucalyptus trees, eating bread and cheese. We’d spent the previous day on a very slow train, too, and the day before that on a ferry from Plymouth. I’d turned the data off on my phone to avoid roaming charges, and there probably wouldn’t have been any coverage anyway.

So when we were checked into the Ferrol hotel and I connected my phone to the wi-fi, all my emails came in at once. Most of them were boring. But there was one that was from Paula Johnson, and it had the subject line Betty Trask Prize.

I did not have my author hat on. I had my pilgrim hat on. I’d sent the latest draft of A Spoke in the Wheel off to my specialist editors and put it out of my mind, and so far as I was concerned Speak Its Name was minding its own business. I’d been using the literary part of my brain for reading T. S. Eliot and translating between English and Spanish. At that moment I did not know what the Betty Trask Prize was.

Then I read the email about it, and I remembered. I remembered that it was awarded to the best debut book by an author under the age of 35. I remembered putting my book in for it. And now, it seemed, my book had been shortlisted for it.

I said, ‘Holy fuck,’ and showed the email to my brother. He was equally impressed, but pointed out that the email said that this was strictly confidential. So, rather than tell anyone else, we went downstairs and had a drink in the hotel bar.

There followed six days during which I could not talk about it with anybody other than my brother, who, obviously, already knew. It was just as well that I had a walk of 116 kilometres to keep my mind off it.

We’d reached Santiago and begun our journey home again by the time the news broke. I spent a scorching Palencia afternoon watching the Twitter notifications roll in and understanding that everything had changed. I hadn’t realised what a big deal it was, what big names had won it, what big names had said very complimentary things about my book. I hadn’t realised that I would come away with an award whatever happened.

I’d brought Four Quartets with me thinking that Little Gidding would have the most to say to me (‘We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started from/and know the place for the first time’), but really The Dry Salvages seemed much more apposite:

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ‘the past is finished’
Or ‘the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.

When I returned my life was different, and so was I.

*

Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.

I’m not quitting the day job. (I like the day job!) Sales have settled down to where they were before, and I’m still self-publishing. No contract has materialised as a result of the award, and I have to say that I’m really quite relieved about that. Going back through journal entries from the last couple of years, I’ve found at least three instances of ‘they turned me down… and it was a massive relief, because the longer I went without hearing from them, the more I knew I wanted to do my own thing!’ You’d think I’d have learned by now.

Finishing the next book has been difficult: I’ve had to keep clambering over the conviction that this one won’t and can’t be as good as the last. Perhaps it would have been difficult anyway. Second novels are notorious, after all. Certainly all the palaver around the prize slowed up the publishing process for A Spoke in the Wheel. I’d meant for it to come out in July, but I’m glad it hasn’t. The extra few months have helped me get some perspective – and get several more edits in.

Being shortlisted for the prize gave me a credibility that I hadn’t had before. But I’d already had to move beyond worrying about credibility. I had to develop a strength of belief in the quality of my own work before I was able to self-publish. Having said that, it’s been a massive ego boost. The last lingering doubts that whispered maybe Speak Its Name wasn’t as good as I thought it was… they’ve been dispelled. Gone.

And it’s made it easier to talk about being an author. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience very little scepticism or hostility regarding my self-published status, but it’s always been at the back of my mind as something that might happen. These days I can introduce myself as an author, secure in the knowledge that I’ve got one hell of a comeback if it does.

So I’m going to keep on doing my own thing. I always was going to. But it’s very good to know that my decision to do so has been vindicated.

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