Among the hundreds of literary prizes handed out each year, the Desmond Elliott Prize is a real favourite of mine. The hope with first novel awards is that they will identify not just a fine book but a fine author at the beginning of a memorable writing career and the Desmond Elliott Prize seems to hit the mark every year.
When I was working at the legendary Foyles bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road, I was thrilled to be asked to judge the award. I joined critic Viv Groskop and author Louise Doughty in trimming a longlist of ten remarkably varied debut novels to a shortlist of three and then to one alone.
As I made my way through the longlist, I noticed one book stood taller than the others. When I saw our chair Louise for the first time after I’d read the longlist, she’d quietly observed that she’d also been drawn to one book in particular. ‘You know which one?’ she said, and I nodded. Without naming it, we somehow knew we were thinking of the same book.
Weeks later, after much detailed scrutiny and convivial wrangling, that book was revealed as the 2015 winner: Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days.
One of the great pleasures of judging an award is the requirement to reread and then discuss books in depth, a process which often reveals greater subtleties. Louise guided our discussion at the meeting where we made our final decision with wisdom and diplomacy, making sure that all perspectives were scrutinised.
The most experienced writer among us, Louise explained that for her final reading of Our Endless Numbered Days she had taken its two time frames in isolation and examined how well they had been zipped together. She showed us how the dramatic conclusion of its present-day narrative had been deftly and flawlessly set up by earlier events – each element of how the novel played out sang with truth and clarity.
It was as fine a novel as our instincts had first suspected. Claire Fuller’s career has continued to flourish since and if our award has played a part in that I feel that we have fulfilled its purpose as best we could – echoing the manner in which Desmond Elliott launched the careers of numerous hugely successful authors.
When we met again at Foyles not long after the prize ceremony, Claire Fuller told me about working with her agent on the manuscript before it was acquired by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin.
She’s represented by Jane Finigan at Lutyens & Rubenstein – she had taken her through four substantial redrafts before it was sent out to publishers. Jane’s advice had been comprehensive and insightful, said Claire, and their working relationship offered a considerable boost to her confidence.
Of course, she benefitted further from the editorial involvement of Juliet Annan, legendary publisher at Fig Tree, but Jane’s input had enabled the transformation of a promising manuscript into something memorable and accomplished.
A year or so later, I found myself pondering my next move.
I’d been involved in many areas of the book business over two decades. I’d immersed myself in contemporary writing and built relationships with many editors to the point that I knew their taste and they mine.
I’d helped readers choose books at five very different retailers, giving me insight into what had sales potential beyond the big names and the on-trend titles. It also taught me how what was selling now was a clue to what would sell in the months and years to come, as the market evolved to keep readers interested and reflect broader cultural changes.
Most of all, I’d had the chance to talk to hundreds of writers, from debut novelists to the legends of the literary stage, interviewing them on stage and in print or just chatting when they visited Foyles to sign their books. I’d loved discussing every aspect of their writing and I enjoyed their company so much that many had become friends.
I found myself thinking about how Claire Fuller’s agent had been so involved in shaping Our Endless Numbered Days, encouraging her to rework it until it came together seamlessly. And so the pieces of my own puzzle fell into place: I would become a literary agent.
The Ruppin Agency was founded and I began the eternal search for new writers. The slush pile swiftly delivered two outstanding writers, and an author I had championed since her first novel recommended a third. The editorial side of things began.
The prospect of reading a manuscript over and over again might appear tedious, but to reread something and find it even better than before is a delight – it literally brings a smile to my face. One of my clients talks about the draft where a book first develops a ‘heartbeat’, and to play a small part in that Promethean transformation is a thrilling privilege.
My experiences in unpicking Our Endless Numbered Days with Louise Doughty’s guidance and then learning from Claire Fuller how her agent had helped her assemble it showed me the path I should take. So the Desmond Elliott Prize has contributed to the careers not just of the writers it rewards but of one of its judges too; perhaps one of my authors will soon join its list of winners.