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Announcing the Discoveries Prize shortlist

BY Discoveries
18th May 2021

We're delighted to share the inaugural Discoveries Prize shortlist. This list features six works-in-progress from unpublished women writers currently residing in the UK and Ireland.

Over 2,300 women submitted their works of fiction to the inaugural Discoveries prize for an unpublished first novel, 73% of whom live outside London. Sixteen authors were initially longlisted by a judging panel that included chair of judgesKate Mosse, author Abi Daré, literary agent Lucy Morris, Curtis Brown Creative's founder and Managing Director Anna Davis, and Director for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature Sandeep Mahal.

Chair of judges Kate Mosse says: 'It was a tough decision to whittle down our longlist to only six, but it was a discussion full of admiration, of celebration and of excitement. We were looking for promise, for imagination and distinctive voice, for diversity of genre and experience, age and background, but most of all for writers at the beginning of their writing journeys with something special to say. Some have been writing for a while and so are the right place to take things forward, others picked up their pens for the very first time as part of Discoveries. We're delighted that Curtis Brown literary agency and creative writing school are offering a range of mentoring and writing support initiatives and look forward to seeing what each of these six writers will do next. A huge thank you to my fellow judges – Abi Daré, Anna Davis, Sandeep Mahal and Lucy Morris – and congratulations to all the authors on our inaugural Discoveries shortlist.'

Read on to find out more about our six shortlisted writers, their novels-in-progress and what our panel of judges have to say about their writing.

Lorna Elcock, Under the Light, Yet Under

Lorna Elcock’s first novel Under the Light, Yet Under is the opening instalment in a literary trilogy set in Scotland. Her short fiction has appeared in Ambit, and has been listed in the Top 60 entries to the BBC National Short Story Award. She has an MA in Creative & Life Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London.

'Lorna Elcock takes us on a wonderfully rich and evocative journey across Loch Rannoch and gives an impressive insight into human relationships. Under the Light, Yet Under is beautifully written, understated yet incisive; the opening story is sad, raw and honest but also warm and hopeful. We loved every single page and can’t wait to read more.' – Sandeep Mahal

Lucy Keefe, Pantheon

Lucy Keefe writes urban fantasy characters who sound like the women she knows, and eat like the woman she is, living vicariously through her characters' stomachs. Raised in Dorset, Lucy made it through five years in London, before settling in Kent with her cat, Detective Inspector Fred Thursday. Her influences are John Wick, Jill Mansell, Mario Puzo and Taylor Swift.

'Lucy Keefe delivered her story with a confidence that demonstrates her mastery of the genre. We loved the world building, the sharp and at times funny prose and the quirky characters. We are very excited for the future of this book and for Lucy.' – Abi Daré

Nana Afua Pierre, A Boy Called Silence

Nana Afua Pierre is a British-Ghanaian writer based in Gloucestershire. Her manuscript, A Boy Called Silence was longlisted for the 2019 Mslexia Novel Competition and shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2020. In 2021, she was awarded a mentorship with award-winning author Sara Collins through the Curtis Brown Creative Breakthrough Writers' Programme.

'We loved Nana Afua Pierre's vision and imagination, we loved the beauty and skill of her language and the quality of her description – we were transported utterly to a very different place and time.' – Kate Mosse

Emma van Straaten, Heartstring

Emma van Straaten was born in London and raised in West Sussex, receiving her degrees in English from Durham University. A swiftly abandoned career in law led her to the V&A Museum where she now works in fundraising. She lives in Putney with her husband and baby daughter.

'Emma van Straaten is such an exciting new talent. Heartstring presents a deliciously sinister premise, told with dry humour and precise observation – and her lead character’s voice is one that echoes in your head long after reading.' – Lucy Morris

Niloufar Tabatabai, Say My Name

Niloufar Tabatabai is a British-Iranian 28 year old based in London. Despite always aspiring to be a writer, Niloufar only took up writing during lockdown in between training to be a solicitor. She has never taken a creative writing course, but hopes to in the coming months. This is the first writing competition she has entered.

'Here is a writer picking up her pen to write for the very first time, which is what Discoveries is all about. Nilofaur Tabatabai has such a fresh voice and a distinct point of view, with a really engaging protagonist and clear sense of purpose – we can't wait to see how this novel develops.' – Kate Mosse

April Yee, Dosage and Control

April Yee is a writer and translator. A Harvard and Tin House alumna, she reported in more than a dozen countries before moving to the UK, where she contributes to Ploughshares online and mentors for UAL’s Refugee Journalism Project. She is shortlisted for the 2021 Fitzcarraldo Essay Prize and the University of East Anglia’s 2021/2022 David T.K. Wong Fellowship.

'April Yee’s writing is an unusual and intoxicating mixture of intensity and detachment. We loved her wry, sidelong humour and skilful storytelling. ' – Anna Davis

The Discoveries Prize winner will be announced on Wednesday 9 June, and will receive an offer of representation from Curtis Brown literary agency, £5,000 and desk space in a NatWest Accelerator Hub. The runner-up will win a fully funded place on our flagship three-month Writing Your Novel course (worth £1,800).

Interview with our shortlisted writers

How does it feel to be shortlisted for Discoveries?

Lorna Elcock: I must say I feel a bit nervous about it. It’s absolutely fantastic and I can’t believe my luck. But I’ve been writing this novel for nearly four years, much of that time in more or less complete isolation. Being shortlisted is a bit like emerging into the light, and your eyes won’t quite adjust.

Lucy Keefe: It’s very exciting to find out that something I wrote is good. In early 2020, I realised that I wanted to write books that I enjoyed writing, regardless of whether anybody else liked them, so it’s pretty vindicating to find out it isn’t just me! Being shortlisted makes me say, ‘Wait, no, I really am quite good at this then.’ Being able to say I was shortlisted for Discoveries will be a mood-booster probably for the rest of my life, even if shouting ‘You can’t bite me I’m shortlisted’ does not have any impact on my cat.

Nana Afua Pierre: I still can’t quite believe it. When Viola got in touch about the longlist I was in such a state of disbelief I didn’t read the email properly. With the shortlist, I just about managed to read the text in bold. Honestly, I feel overwhelmed and have to break the experience down into digestible chunks. It will probably take me a day or two to fully process the impact of making the shortlist.

Emma van Straaten: I am staggered and delighted. When I started writing Heartstring, I did so in the knowledge that nothing might come of it – it was perfectly possible that no one would find merit in my writing or would be interested in the story I wanted to tell (other than my husband, who thinks everything I write is wonderful). It can sometimes feel lonely and purposeless, though – writing is hard! It is therefore extremely buoying to discover that the first 10,000 words have piqued the interest of this incredible judging panel, and it has given me the confidence boost I need to keep going.

Niloufar Tabatabai: I am in complete shock! I am incredibly honoured to be on the inaugural shortlist amongst such talented women writers. These words started off as jumbled thoughts in my head and landed on the page as my submission for the Discoveries prize. I wrote these words in my bedroom alone with only the flicker of my candle to keep me company, so the fact that they have been read by such an incredible judging panel of extremely talented women is such an honour. To be shortlisted for the first writing prize that I have entered gives me so much encouragement to follow my passion and keep on writing.

April Yee: I’m delighted and honoured to be among so many women brave enough to send stories into the world.

What initially inspired your novel-in-progress?

Lorna Elcock: My novel began as a short story about three children in the 1950s, being got ready for bed in their cold basement room by their fierce grandmother. I was writing another story then about a woman walking in a forest in central Scotland in the 1980s, and I began to see that she was the eldest of the children from the 1950s. She was also, I realised, loosely based on my brilliant mother, who had spent part of her childhood living in youth hostels. Here, then, were three children growing up in a youth hostel, and here was one of them as an adult. What had happened in between?

And so it became apparent that I wasn’t writing short stories at all. What I was looking at was a novel about how this woman in the 1980s came to be living the particular life that she did.

It was a bit worrying – I didn’t want to write a novel. I had failed at novels before.

Lucy Keefe: I had been writing a series of fan-fiction stories on my tumblr called Taylor Swift: Demon Hunter, and I realised I wanted to explore the urban fantasy genre further. I also loved the idea of somebody waiting for everybody else to leave the room before shouting “You can come out now” to a ghost. I decided I needed to write a female character who was allowed to be rude, to eat badly, and to turn red when she talks to dishy men, because that’s how real people are. I used to walk an hour and ten minutes across London every day, listening to reputation because it was the album that made me feel confident enough to walk through the city without fear, and I decided my lead character would capture that confident energy so that in low moments, I (and anyone who might end up reading Pantheon) can put my headphones on and pretend to be her for a little while.

Nana Afua Pierre: My inspiration for this novel came from a conference I attended in Accra, Ghana about 11 years ago. Historians, cultural heritage shapers and academics from Europe and Africa discussed Africa’s potential in shaping its own cultural heritage and refocusing the lens of history. An image of nomadic merchants leaving their journals buried in the sand near abandoned wells sowed the seeds for this story and some other stories I’d like to work on once I finish this novel. There are also loose ties to my own family history in terms of the plot development.

I think there is something powerful in telling stories from the African continent before Trans Atlantic slavery took hold. I wanted to recreate the beauty, hardness, and tenacity of the times through these characters and their environments.

Emma van Straaten: When I first moved to London, I became a casual cleaner for a couple who lived in the same block of flats as me. I’d advertised in the communal post-room, and after a five-minute interview with Sarah, was hired to pop round twice a week. They left cash on the counter, and communicated by the odd note, so I never saw her again, and never met her husband at all.

Arriving often minutes after they’d left for work, it wasn’t long before I felt I knew them. Their surroundings seemed to give me clues as to their personalities and I grew oddly fond of them. I began making all sort of involuntary judgements and assumptions from this strangely intimate relationship I had with their belongings, as I washed up their breakfast bowls, straightened the books on their bedside tables and folded their clothes. They eventually moved away (which I’d known would happen because of the twelve-week pregnancy scan that appeared on their corkboard and the subsequent estate agent brochures spread on their kitchen counter), but the experience stayed with me.

Several years later, I signed up for an evening creative writing course for which I wrote a short story, drawing on this uneasy knowingness. My classmates found my depiction of an obsessive cleaner who blindly loves the inhabitant of a flat she cleans unsettling. I wanted her story told more fully, her fixation made more frightening, so I started writing Heartstring.

Niloufar Tabatabai: I often don’t come across people like me, with my British Iranian background, in many of the books that I read. I wanted to write a novel that I could pick up and relate to that tackled growing up as an immigrant in the UK and living as a young woman in today’s society but from a fresh, witty perspective. I also wanted to write a novel that was a love story between a young woman and herself, rather than (spoiler alert) the heroine finding herself through a man at the end.

April Yee: I sometimes meet online with other writers to freewrite. One prompt was the David Bowie lyric, ‘My brain hurt like a warehouse.’ What came to me was a scene of a drunk man shooting in the outskirts of Austin and his wife, including her very specific first-person voice. The novel-in-progress fills in what came before and after.

What is your favourite novel by a female author?

Lorna Elcock: I have a romantic attachment to Mrs Dalloway.

Lucy Keefe: I really love The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting by Holly Bourne. I brought this to a book club where I was the youngest person by about a decade, and the oldest member was in her 80s. Everyone loved it, because it captured the experience of teenage life so perfectly, and regardless of what decade we were born in we all related to that experience. I also loved the fact that the protagonist is not always right. She makes enormous mistakes which leave you shouting “why are you doing that” at the page. It shows how aware Bourne is that her character is not perfect and doesn’t know everything, she’s flawed in just the same way I was at 16.

Nana Afua Pierre: I really love Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. When I read it, I thought she had such a mastery of negative space. She can take you to such depths of loss and wanting that it makes your stomach churn. In some fantasy world, if I could combine that with the opening of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God and the punchy impact of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I’d be a writing superhero.

Emma van Straaten: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, which has been my favourite for years and will probably never be usurped. When I first read it at school, I loved the romance between Jane and Mr Rochester and the gothic excitement of the madwoman in the attic. All subsequent readings have just added layers to this enjoyment; it still feels comforting to read but throws up new challenges: explorations of violence and oppression, and troubling depictions of class and gender. Nevertheless, I recognise in all the female characters I love in fiction this unapologetic, fierce heroine who refuses to simplify herself to seem more acceptable to others. It has also coloured my own writing in unexpected ways – I have only just realised that the physical connection, the tightly knotted string, that Mr Rochester imagines between his and Jane’s hearts has directly influenced my manuscript and its title.

Niloufar Tabatabai: I think this question is the same as picking your favourite child, impossible. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf did leave a lasting impression on me when I first read it. I can re-live that day in June again and again with Clarissa Dalloway. Every time I return to the novel, I find some new hidden meaning in between its pages or something that I hadn’t spotted before to be inspired by.

April Yee: My most recent favourite novel is Raven Leilani’s Luster, which I found radical in the way it delivered the interiority of a woman on New York’s margins. Its themes are large: capitalism, motherhood, desire, what it means to be an artist.