2017: the year I won a Betty Trask Award


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.

Second novel syndrome


I thought I’d escaped second novel syndrome. By the time my first novel was out, I already had the first words of the second novel queuing up in my head, clamouring to be written down.

Speak Its Name didn’t make much of a splash, and that was something of a blessing. I was able to keep plugging away at A Spoke in the Wheel, here a word, there a paragraph, and by about April I had something that resembled a first draft.

Then I won a Betty Trask Award. And that was amazing and brilliant, and I am at this moment planning to spend my prize money on an epic Interrail trip around Europe, but it hasn’t half given the monsters a lot to talk about.

Here is a sample of some monster views on A Spoke in the Wheel:

  • this one’s not going to win you any awards, you know
  • it’s not as good as Speak Its Name
  • it is NEVER going to be as good as Speak Its Name
  • and everyone who reads both will know that and you will DISAPPOINT THEM
  • you’re a one-hit wonder
  • everyone who was impressed by the award? NOT IMPRESSED ANY MORE!
  • you have to create a COHERENT BRAND!!!
  • write what you know!!! why are you not WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW???

But that’s monsters for you. They don’t want you putting a substandard product out there, because then PEOPLE WILL LAUGH AT YOU.

And you know, it’s a reasonable point, if only they could make it without all the screaming. Nobody wants me to put a substandard product out there.

What I’d forgotten – what I always forget, every time – was that I’d been here before. I’d already run into moments of self-doubt, several times over the course of writing that first draft. I’d always been able to talk myself out of them. I thought this time was different, that this time it really was going to turn out to be unsalvageable.

That always happens, too. I always think it’s going to be unsalvageable, and it never is.

Second Novel Syndrome was only a recurrence of what had happened during the writing of the first. It’s always the same. I get a horrible sense of its not being good enough.

Then I see what’s wrong with it.

Then I see how to fix it.

And then I remember that all that the yelling really means is this:

It isn’t finished yet.

Three links

2013 September 031

Firstly, an interview with crime writer Don Massenzio. You can read my thoughts on ego (and why it’s necessary to have one), the pseudonym I’ll probably never use, and who I’d like to invite for dinner in the name of musicological research. It’s all here: Perfect Ten with Kathleen Jowitt

Secondly, the Society of Authors have put up a link to a recording of the Authors Awards ceremony from June. If you don’t want to listen to the whole thing, the presentation of the Betty Trask Prize and Awards can be heard beginning at 08:14, with specific reference to Speak Its Name at 13:20. But I’m really linking it for Ben Okri’s absolutely stonking speech, which begins at 25:35. Highly recommended for any author who occasionally (or often) finds themself wondering what the point of it all is…

Thirdly, I’ve now set up a Facebook page for me and my works. If you use Facebook for that sort of thing, wander over here and give me a like.


The Authors’ Awards


On Tuesday evening, after much fretting over whether my shoes were classy enough for the Army & Navy Club, I headed across London to the Authors’ Awards.

As you can see from the photograph, I came away with a Betty Trask Award (and a cheque for £3000, not pictured).

The winner of the Betty Trask Prize was Daniel Shand, and very well-deserved. Fallow is a seriously good book, funny and creepy and very difficult to put down. Actually, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of the books on the shortlist. They’re all very different from each other, but they’re all of a very high quality.

I got to meet four of my five fellow shortlistees, and they’re all lovely people. In fact, everybody I talked to was absolutely charming. I was half-expecting some snottiness about my being self-published, but in fact my having got so far under my own steam seemed to impress people. And what people! Names that I knew from my bookcase and from my Twitter feed turned out to belong to real live human beings. I tried not to gush too much…

There was wine. There was water. There were little canapés, though I was too nervous to eat much at all. My book was for sale on a table with other people’s books! (Since all my books are sold via print-on-demand, this was something that I’d never seen before, and if I was being flippant I’d say that it did almost as much for my self-esteem as the fact that I was there to receive a very prestigious award…)

Ben Okri, who presented the prizes, gave a speech that affirmed the role of the writer as a person who touches truth, ‘the mystery and the miracle’, and talked about the way that a prize gives you ‘the quiet strength to go on being crazy’. Certainly that resonates with my experience so far…

Well, here’s to the mystery and the miracle that is writing. Tuesday evening, whether it turns out to have been my fifteen minutes of fame or the beginning of the rest of my life, was an event I’ll never forget. And my shoes were fine.

Celebratory giveaway

I am still celebrating Speak Its Name being shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize.

When I first heard the news, I got a glass of red wine for myself and a glass of Estrella Galicia for my brother.

When the news went public, a week later, we went out for dinner and I got a bottle of white Rioja. (This was a mistake. I’ve drunk and liked white Riojas in the past, but this one was disgustingly sweet. Perhaps the name – Diamante – should have been a clue.)

When I told my team at work I bought cake.

Now I’m celebrating with a giveaway at Goodreads. Wander over there if you’d like to be in with a shot at winning a copy of my book. Some people whose work I admire very much thought it was rather good…

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Speak Its Name by Kathleen Jowitt

Speak Its Name

by Kathleen Jowitt

Giveaway ends June 20, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


Getting used to the idea (of being the first self-published author shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize)

It’s been ten days since the news broke, and I’m gradually getting used to the idea. Ideas, plural. That my book has been shortlisted for a major literary prize. That, whatever else happens, I have won £3000 to spend on foreign travel. That people whose writing I admire a huge amount have read my book. That people whose writing I admire a huge amount liked my book. Joanne Harris. Michèle Roberts. Simon Brett.

I’m pretty sure that this will turn out to have been life-changing, but in the meantime life goes on. I cycle to the station and I catch my train; I reset some passwords and I design a flyer or two. And I get used to the idea.

So do the people around me: the ones who knew before that I’d written a book, and the ones who didn’t. I’d kept it reasonably quiet at work, at church, in the extended family. People who followed me on Twitter probably knew; people who didn’t, probably didn’t.

And I have to admit that it’s suddenly become a lot easier to tell people. It’s not just, ‘I’ve written a book.’ It’s ‘I’ve written a book, and some very good writers think it’s good.’

One of the most important requirements of self-publishing, and one that I really didn’t appreciate until I did it myself, is a sheer bloody-minded refusal to give a damn what anybody else thinks. Or, less aggressively, the willingness to accept that every aspect and defect of the book is my own responsibility.

I appreciate the apparent contradiction between those two paragraphs, believe me.

I can only speak for myself, but I found that the bloody-mindedness didn’t land until just after I turned thirty. (Which may go some way towards explaining why I’m the first self-published author to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. The upper age limit is 35.) Up until then I was looking for somebody else to affirm my sense that my book was good, that it was worth putting out into the world. I was looking for somebody else to take responsibility. In the end, I had to do it for myself.

Of course I can see now that it would always have been my responsibility, no matter how many other people were named on the acknowledgements page, no matter who took the final decision to put the thing out into the world. It’s come into starker focus for me, that’s all.

I have this sense that I’m trying to get to the point where I genuinely, honestly, don’t care what anyone else thinks, no matter who they are, no matter what their qualifications. In the meantime, however, a judging panel composed of Joanne Harris, Michèle Roberts, and Simon Brett likes my book. I think that’s going to keep me smiling for a long, long time.