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The Bridport Prize as a platform for new authors

PUBLISHED: 14:02 27 November 2013 | UPDATED: 14:02 27 November 2013

Winners and Judges from Bridport Prize

Winners and Judges from Bridport Prize

Archant

From humble beginnings, the Bridport Prize has become a highly-respected literary accolade which helped launch the career of numerous best-selling authors and a Poet Laureate. Now in its fortieth year, it continues to attract new talent around the world.

“The Bridport Prize is the Booker for unpublished authors,” says Tracy Chevalier. “It really is as important as that.”

And Tracy – whose Girl with a Pearl Earring has, to date, sold more than four million copies in 38 languages, spawned an Oscar-nominated movie and single-handedly rejuvenated historical fiction – should know.

The novelist - who lives between London and Dorchester - is a patron of the great literary prize that this year proudly marks its 40th anniversary. The 40 years have certainly been kind. A competition that started with just a few hundred half-crown entries and £5 prize money now attracts 17,000 applicants, all hungry for a career kick start and a share of the £15,000 pot.

As organiser Frances Everitt, who took over in 2002, says: “There are plenty of awards out there for established writers. This is specifically to promote young and fresh talent. It’s very, very hard to compete out there. The Bridport Prize gives writers a tremendous platform.”

Authors who have cut their teeth by winning the prize include Kate Atkinson and Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

Bridport – once infamous for its production of hangman’s rope – is now, of course, a celebrated hub for the arts. But that reputation has been hard won, galvanised by the late Peggy Chapman-Andrews, who lit the town’s cultural revolution in the 1970s. After convincing a clique of benefactors – locking the doors at the meeting until they all agreed – to turn the defunct Wesleyan chapel into a theatre, the future Bridport Arts Centre, she launched the fund-raising literary prize three years later.

The initially parochial competition – though still headed by the Bridport Arts Centre - today receives entries from all over the world. The latest 33 winners – who have just been announced – include five from Australia, two from the USA and one from Canada.

Judges have ranged from Zoe Heller to Margaret Drabble and in 2006 Fay Weldon became the sole patron. It is a sign of its success that, this year, she was joined by Tracy and 10 fellow literati including Booker nominated author Jim Crace, former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, novelist and short story writer Ali Smith and multi-award-winning author Rose Tremain.

All 12 patrons share a contagious zeal. Motion brands the competition “one of the most cherished”. Tremain declares: “This is an excellent prize…the short story is a demanding and petulant form…and difficult to master.” Smith says simply that the Bridport Prize is a “trusted gauge for writing and quality”.

But a truly great institution must never stand still and the Bridport Prize is no exception. In 2010, a new “flash fiction” category was introduced – for fiction of 250 words or less. Next year, there is another addition: The Peggy Chapman-Andrews First Novel Prize.

“You’ve got to keep moving,” says Frances, who has been involved since 1994, “because the landscape is always changing. We were one of the first to go online, back in 2001. Now we get 12,000 entries online and only 5,000 postal. There’s been a complete reversal.”

She adds: “We wanted to launch a new category in Peggy’s name because she started it all. She was the doyenne.”

Work is already underway for next year’s competition; you can apply now online. But competition is fierce. This year, the three judges - Wendy Cope, Michèle Roberts and David Swann - had to tackle 8,000 poems, 6,000 short stories and 2,500 flash fiction entries. The judges change each year, for 2014 they will be Liz Lochhead, Andrew Miller and Tania Hershman.

As Tracy, who was a Short Story judge in 2007, says: “It’s a huge amount of work but incredibly satisfying. So often you just don’t know if you’re on the right track when you start out. For unpublished authors, this is the number one prize.

“It’s an opportunity to stand up above all the rest, to get noticed - because it’s getting harder and harder to do that. Although there are now more platforms – self-publishing, eBooks - than ever before, people are actually reading less of this vast sea of writing. But agents keep an eye on the Bridport Prize: it’s a fantastic shop window. Take Vanessa Gebbie, who took third prize six years ago. She’s just published her first novel.”

For her own part, Tracy won the WH Smith Fresh Talent award for her debut novel The Virgin Blue in 1997 before making her breakthrough with her second and most famous book two years later.

“Girl with a Pearl Earring just hit a nerve at the right time,” she says. “It’s a good book, I guess, and a cracking painting. But mostly it was luck.”

The American author is now a quarter of the way through her eighth novel: “a story about emigration between the UK and the US and people’s love of trees. There’s a sliver of Dorset in there too.”

She adds: “I love Dorset. I’ve been coming here on holiday for 20 years but we’ve had the house for nine. It’s quintessential rural England for me - it doesn’t have a motorway and it’s got a human scale that I love. It might not be as dramatic as Devon or Cornwall but it’s a landscape I can actually live in: beautiful, near the sea and with a wealth of literary connections.”

Tracy’s protégé, Vanessa, is - despite living in Sussex - also devoted to Dorset. Essentially, Bridport made her. After her win in 2007, she was signed up by a London agency.

“That was an extraordinary moment, huge validation for a project that was fast growing into a novel. It took me a couple of years to complete The Coward’s Tale but it was then bought by Bloomsbury and published last year. A N Wilson selected it as his novel of the year in the Financial Times,” she says.

“Life is very different, thanks in huge part to the Bridport Prize and Tracy Chevalier. It was such a turning point. Many writers struggle to find representation but I bypassed that entirely.

“When I won, I had no books out there. I now have a novel – with a second on the way - and two collections of short fiction. A book of my poetry comes out this month.

“And I have been awarded an Arts Council Grant, a Hawthornden Fellowship and a Gladstone’s Library residency but, really, it all started in Bridport.”

Vanessa’s subsequent achievements neatly underline Frances’ point that this prize aims to champion both young and fresh talent: Vanessa is in her fifties.

But youth is, as it should be, equally rewarded.

Jenny Danes, highly commended in the poetry category, is just 18, the youngest-ever winner.

“My old creative writing teacher suggested I enter, so I did,” she says. “But I didn’t tell anyone and I almost withdrew my entry. I never expected to be successful.” Jenny, reading English and German at Newcastle University, adds: “Now I dream of becoming a professional writer.”

And why not? Daisy Behagg - a one-time waitress, whose poem, The Opposite of Dave, took first place - is now a full-time poet. Winning has given her a much-welcomed fillip.

Daisy, 26, is now working on her first collection. “Writing poetry as a woman under 30, living outside London, without a first collection published yet, can sometimes feel like standing alone in front of a stone wall, trying to pummel it into an exact replica of the David using only your fists - in the dark.

“Prizes like this are so important, because everybody needs a little recognition now and then - it helps you mentally mark progress made. Like small chips in the wall,” she says.

“I’ve written poetry for as long as I can remember. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Poetry is always being described as a luxury but I don’t see it that way at all - I think art is essential, and all the other things we do to try to get on as a species would be pretty pointless without it.

“But I was extremely surprised to win. I’ve had a hard time in the past from various people who think that autobiographical writing - particularly about one’s love life - is not something women should be doing - that it makes us seem trivial. So I was thrilled that this poem particularly was chosen. It’s been a huge encouragement.”

Writing has been dubbed God’s punishment for having the best job in the world. But these winners would surely have it no other way.

Maiden Newton’s Virginia Astley, 50, was presented with - as the county’s highest-placed winner - the Dorset prize, after being highly commended for her poem - How did I ever think this would be OK?

“It’s obviously lovely to win,” she says, “but first and foremost, I write because I’m driven to.”

Indeed. That compulsion is what the Bridport Prize so richly celebrates.

For more information and details of how to apply for next year’s competition, go to bridportprize.org.uk

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