Anna Mackmin reflects on the Desmond Elliott Prize

As another cycle of the Desmond Elliott Prize draws to a close we asked shortlisted author Anna Mackmin to share her experience and memories of this year’s Prize.


2019 Desmond Elliott Prize shortlisted author Anna MackminI’ve been asked to write about what being nominated for the Desmond Elliot prize 2019 felt like/meant to me.

Being on the long list felt like – vindication. The longest sigh escaping lungs aching with having held their breath too long.

Its meaning was – hope. A small fist punching the solar plexus. Adrenaline, electric shock sparking.

I wrote Devoured at night. Mostly. Once I knew how the story had to be told, I wrote fast. Didn’t allow myself to attempt sleep until a thousand words a night had been written. I made myself laugh medicinal amounts. Didn’t imagine it would be a book. Realise now, I’d never dared to think it might be a book. I grew up with writers. One of them told me, when I was sixteen, if all else failed I might consider writing. But only for kids. My style was too purple. So that’s what I did. I wrote for the children I knew best. My sister. And myself. And, yes, Devoured is a novel. But. It is powered by memory. Events, flavours, splinters of people I was compelled to record. To make us laugh. My sister and me. But then, it made some other people laugh. It also made them cry and best, to think. And even though I was fifty, this was it. My grown-up job. But. A job is work you get paid for and nobody wanted to buy Devoured. It wasn’t even that publishers didn’t read it, one of the people who’d laughed, cried and thought is a first class agent. So. Devoured was read. And then rejected. Too funny. Too alternative. Meaning too buried. Too. Too. Too. Purple? But. One fine day a publisher said a yes. I was paid one thousand pounds. One thousand, posh paperback pretending to be a hardback, copies were printed. One review was published. One year went by. I wrote a second book. And then. I was nominated for the Desmond Elliot award for a first novel. There was a party. Drinks at the top of Waterstones on Piccadilly. No Devoured on their shelves.

The short list felt like – hope. Spiked with resignation.

It’s meaning was also – hope.

What if I won? If just for once it was me? That a thing I had peeled my soul for might make me some money? A living? What if I got to make a speech? I’m good at talking. I could make that big important room laugh. Offer them the paperback rights at a bargain price. But not as much of a knock down as they’d have got five minutes before the announcement. I could tell my dad that yes, Devoured is a novel, but also there are shards of him in there, pretty large hunks in actual fact, and they are good things and I am grateful to him, as well as full up of all the other stuff. I could say sorry, in public, to the ghost of my dead mother. And then make a good joke about there being no such thing as ghosts. But then do a funny mime of having just seen one. I’d do that so well one or two people would believe me. And then they’d buy the paperback rights. I could tell my sister to trot on. Like we always used to, when things were tough but we had to make them funny, when we were kids.

And. I also knew it wouldn’t be me. And I was very glad indeed to be in such a pretty room at such a spectacular location knowing that Alan Hollinghurst, a writer who has meant so much to me, had read my book, twice, and argued its toss. This is a great thing. And I also got to tell two of the judges how gutted I was but also how pleased.

So then. The day after I didn’t win the Desmond Elliot prize I peed premier cru all day. I dived to the bottom of a very cold pond. I put my second novel in a drawer – too hard, too real. I re-wrote the opening to my third novel. I helped my son make a nest for his toy chicken out of the straw from the Fortnum and Mason’s loser’s hamper. I put my neck out. I cooked some pretty good macaroni cheese. I checked my emails over twenty times. Because you never know.

And. I was grateful. And fine. Not winning is normal.