What Happens When You Win? Mary Hamer on The Virginia Prize
When I saw the subject heading ‘The Virginia Prize for Fiction’, that October morning back in 2011, I braced myself, hardened to rejection. Hey, I wasn’t just a writer with a novel, Kipling & Trix, that 30 or more editors and agents had turned down, I was a convent girl, used to being squashed. I’d only been entering it for prizes in the hope that someone would consider it with attention. But elation burst over me, as I read. These people at AuroraMetro liked what I’d written. They got it. My novel had been awarded the prize of one thousand pounds and publication.
My immediate response was of simple physical relief: I could stop rolling that bundle of words uphill towards the gatekeepers. It had got through and been welcomed. A sense of quiet triumph came later: my bold, not to say reckless move had succeeded. I’d moved from the sobriety of writing as an academic to the shameless exercise of imagination, to writing scenes and dialogue, pages that couldn’t be warranted by any footnote. For this was my fifth book, though being my first novel made it eligible for the Virginia Prize.
There wasn’t a complete disconnect with my work as an academic. Writing my previous book had made me think hard about what causes lasting damage to children. Exposure to terror, for instance. Already interested in Rudyard Kipling, absorbed in research about him, I began to think I could see just such damage and just such long-term consequences being played out in his life. To make readers see this too, I’d have to use fiction. Persuade readers by engaging their imagination with my own. Get them to believe in the world I was creating and to accept that the characters and their actions made emotional sense.
That email, my own little annunciation, was of course only an introduction to what AuroraMetro were offering. Cheryl Robson and Rebecca Guilleron promptly handed me a sheet of notes with suggestions for improvements and queries about the relevance of some material. Above all, they felt I needed to make Kipling’s sister, Trix a good deal more prominent. Because I’d started out by being mainly interested in Rudyard, the efforts I’d already made to include Trix felt quite substantial. My editors, good feminists, wanted more and they were absolutely right.
It meant a huge amount of work. I must have added at least 60 pages to the final paperback but it was exhilarating: ideas came easily. I seemed to be primed for it.
Not that the editing process was a cinch. As it stood, my story was broken up into scenes rather than chapters. And Cheryl wanted chapters. But my short scenes resisted grouping. We compromised on division into five sections. And section by section I received editorial suggestions via Track Changes. In a publishing world where editing has virtually disappeared and writers are left to sink or swim without the help of a discerning and experienced editor, this line-by-line attention was a huge luxury. Also at times a tussle. Always a lesson in discriminating between resistance based on justified confidence and pique at being challenged or corrected.
(‘Conduct: Fair, resents correction’, wrote Sister Patrick on my report when I was eight years old.)
AuroraMetro is a small press. All the advantages for the writer that you’ve heard of, like being more important to small outfits and receiving more attention from them proved true. Plus their set-up in a former stable seemed to offer a romantic link with the prewar publishing world of modest out-of-the way offices. Even a link with Virginia Woolf, after whom the prize is named. Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out was completed and published when she was living in nearby Richmond. (But of course it does no harm if people think it’s the state of Virginia that’s behind the prize . . .)
Having chosen Kipling & Trix as the winner of their new prize for first-time women novelists meant that AuroraMetro devoted considerable thought and effort to promoting it. Anyone will tell you how difficult it is to get your book noticed once it’s out, that these days publishers don’t make the slightest show of marketing any but the work of the big names. Even in the past, my academic books, for CUP, Rutledge or Polity were not pushed: nothing hung on my particular book for those outfits. But it was in the best interests of AuroraMetro that the novel advertising the name of their prize on its cover should succeed.
The move away from academic writing meant dropping the voice of authority in favour of the voice of pleasure. That felt immediately freeing. But I couldn’t quite give up my old habits. Some of this was positive: research, learning what I didn’t know, has always been one of my greatest pleasures. In fact, if I’d appreciated how much research goes into writing fiction, I might have turned to novels a long time ago. The research for Kipling & Trix took up several years and remained ongoing even as I was writing. But some scrupulous scholarly habits got in my way. I was so anxious to be historically accurate that in drafts every scene was headed with a date and location, such as ‘ 1891 Calcutta’. It meant I wasted an enormous amount of time double-checking facts. Both afraid of premature decisions that might pin down my imagination and ignorant of the fiction–writer’s tools, I’d created no time-line, no plan of campaign before I set out.
When I come to give talks about my novel, my time as a teacher helps: I’m used to standing up in front of people and trying to interest them .You might think that moving from that world to the isolation of the fiction-writer would be tough: but I can tell you that readers respond to a story with a lot more enthusiasm and warmth than they do to an argument. They really want to let you know when they’ve enjoyed your work.
Praise for Kipling & Trix