Monday, October 11, 2010

The Virginia Prize for Fiction

A guest post by Guild member Cheryl Robson

Aurora Metro is an independent publisher originally established in 1989 by a group of women writers based at The Drill Hall Arts Centre in London. To celebrate our twentieth anniversary in publishing last year, we wanted to create a project that would both reflect our humble beginnings as a company and give something back to the world of books.

Today we are based in a building that was once a stable, in the leafy borough of Richmond, so we looked to our local literary heritage for ideas. We noticed that Virginia and Leonard Woolf had once lived in Paradise Road in Richmond and had set up the Hogarth Press there.

In 1915, Virginia Woolf published the first of her novels, The Voyage Out, while living in Paradise Road. She not only went on to make a significant contribution to modern literature but has continued to be an inspiration to women writers around the world.

We came up with the idea of establishing the Virginia Prize for Fiction and were granted permission from The Estate of Virginia Woolf to name the prize in her honour. The competition is open to women writers over the age of 18, who have written a full-length unpublished novel in English. Writers who have had work previously published are eligible to apply. With sponsorship from a local company, ea Consulting Group, we were able to launch the prize in July 2009.

Remarkably, we received over 120 entries from all over the world, and we set about the enormous task of reading and writing reports on the many scripts that arrived through the post on a daily basis. Over a period of four months we managed to long-list around 30 of the submitted manuscripts and then came the difficult process of reducing that number to a short- list of five.

In November 2009, we invited the short-listed authors to The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond as part of the Book Now Literary Festival where the winning novel Pomegranate Sky was finally announced. Debut author, Louise Soraya Black was presented with a cheque for £1000 and a lighthouse shaped award by novelist Fay Weldon.

Black had spent six years previously writing and rewriting her novel, while battling
with ME. She had also worked as a lawyer in the City for seven years before leaving to have her first child. She later described the experience of winning the Prize as a ‘life-changing moment’.

In Pomegranate Sky, Black tells a complex story from the viewpoints of the main female characters in an unexpectedly accomplished way. Black, who is from a British Iranian background, and has lived in Iran, sets the novel in post-revolutionary Tehran and focuses on the story of Layla, who refuses to bow to the ayatollahs’ rules, resisting her mother’s relentless attempts to find her a suitable husband. Instead, she embarks on an illicit affair with her art teacher, Keyvan, which leads to love, loss and the revelation of dark family secrets.

In January, next year we will be accepting entries for the Virginia Prize for Fiction 2011 and will be hoping to discover and promote other remarkable new voices to enrich the literary landscape of fiction in the UK.

You can meet Louise Soraya Black on 23rd October at the Guildford Literary Festival or on November 6th at Orleans House, Twickenham as part of Richmond’s Book Now Literary Festival 2010 where she will be in conversation with journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

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