Yesterday, I went to a special bloggers reception for the Young Writer of the Year Award at the Groucho Club in London. Sponsored by the Sunday Times and literary agency Peters Fraser & Dunlop, the prize recognises the best literary work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish writer aged 35 and under, with £5,000 awarded to the winner for outstanding literary merit.
The first winner of the Sunday Times / PFD Young Writer of the Year was short story writer Helen Simpson in 1991 and it was last awarded to Ross Raisin in 2009. The prize has recently been relaunched and self-published authors are now eligible to enter. The judges for this year’s award are author Sarah Waters, literary editor of the Sunday Times Andrew Holgate and chief fiction reviewer Peter Kemp.
Previous winners of the prize include Sarah Waters, Zadie Smith and Robert Macfarlane so it already has a strong reputation for spotting exciting new talent and it’s very encouraging to see the prize being relaunched. In his introduction, Holgate said that in his view, this was the strongest ever shortlist and the selected books had been whittled down from a list of over eighty entries.
The first author to give a reading was Ben Fergusson from his historical fiction debut ‘The Spring of Kasper Meier’ which has already won the Betty Trask Prize and the Historical Writers’ Association 2015 Debut Crown Award. Set in Berlin in 1946, the title character is a one-eyed gay man in his fifties who is blackmailed by a young woman into helping her search for a British pilot. Fergusson talked about creating an older main character who wasn’t “dealing with” questions about his sexuality in the same way that many younger gay characters have been portrayed in other novels. At the age of 35, he only just qualifies for the award this year and unlike many other young writers, he isn’t tempted by writing in other forms of media having previously tried his hand at scriptwriting.
I tend to prefer listening to poetry and more experimental prose read out loud rather than reading it from the page and I really enjoyed hearing Sarah Howe give a powerful reading of ‘Tame’ from her first collection of poetry ‘Loop of Jade’ which was written over the course of almost a decade. The “loop of jade” of the title refers to a bracelet which was given to her by her mother when she was an adult, although the object itself is a sacrificial talisman for toddlers. Howe talked about how poetry was the perfect medium for exploring her dual heritage, particularly her mother’s life and her own early childhood in Hong Kong although she has been nervous about her parents’ reactions to her poems.
Next up was Sunjeev Sahota reading from his second novel ‘The Year of the Runaways’ which was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It tells the story of migrant workers living in Sheffield and their experiences as illegal immigrants in the city. Sahota said ‘The Year of the Runaways’ was more of an “ensemble” novel compared to his debut ‘Ours are the Streets’ which was very intensely focused on the mindset of one character. He talked about how he feels his writing evolves as much as his reading tastes which should naturally prevent his work from being pigeonholed in the future.
Finally, Sara Taylor read from the opening pages of her debut novel ‘The Shore’ – a collection of interlinked short stories which has been longlisted for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award this week. The chapters move back and forth across two centuries telling the stories of characters from different generations of the same family living in Virginia by the Atlantic coast. Taylor is currently completing a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia with a focus on censorship. ‘The Shore’ evolved from exploring different voices of other family members related to the initial character. Taylor talked about how she was surprised people thought she was taking “risks” with her writing, was tired of being told what to do and had felt pressed to do something different. It was lovely to meet the shortlisted authors as well as other book bloggers including Naomi from The Writes of Woman, Erica from The Bookshop Around the Corner blog, Eric from Lonesome Reader and Pip from the PippityBop YouTube channel.
Another event for the Sunday Times / PFD Young Writer of the Year Award will be taking place at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London on Monday 23rd November where Ben Fergusson, Sunjeev Sahota and Sara Taylor along with previous winners Helen Simpson, Adam Foulds and Andrew Cowan will be giving readings and discussing their books – do come along if you can.
The winner of the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year award will be announced on Thursday 10th December. Many thanks to FMcM Associates for the event invitation and review copies of the shortlisted books.
Have you read any of the shortlisted books? Which one should I start with first?