Strange Experiences with the Dundee Book Prize (Episode 2)

My novel The Curiosity Cabinet, started out as a radio play in three parts. I wrote it many years ago. Back then, I was an 'Award Winning' radio writer. Still have trophies, which are useful for hanging things on: rubber bands, bits of string, notes to husband... It was a very nice production, by Hamish Wilson, another Good Thing who sadly became surplus to requirements at the BBC (Moira Stuart by no means the first...nor will she be the last.) but I was dissatisfied with my part in it, ie plot, characterisation etc etc .
Years pass. In my spare time, I write it as a novel, changing everything about it including plot, characterisation etc. Rewrite it. Rewrite it again. Pare it down as far as I dare. Seems like poetry to me. But it's a love story. You know how critics, especially male critics, feel about love stories. Will anyone look beyond the love story to the poetry?
The setting is an island not a million miles from the Isle of Gigha. The Curiosity Cabinet of the title is inspired by a stunning Stuart embroidered box in The Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Box and contents link past and present day women. Wish owned similar box. Could sell it and write only what I want to write.
Lovely agent says she likes book very much so she sends it out. A string of encouraging rejections come back, the gist of which is that they like my writing very much as well, but the novel is too 'quiet' to survive in the bear pit that is modern publishing. Do more rewrites. Agent suggests entering it for Dundee Book Prize, biennial competition for new novel, with guaranteed publication by Edinburgh publisher, Polygon. Send in manuscript and promptly forget all about it. That was about 2004 though memory not what it was. Brain cells destroyed by age, frustration, white wine, sitting in front of PC for hours at a time...
Some months later, I am phoned by charming young man. Can I come through to Dundee to have dinner aboard the Discovery? It's very short notice, I say, huffily. If I'm honest, I can't bear driving all that way to applaud somebody else's success. Selfish I know, but there you go.
'You really should come', says charming young man. 'You will learn something to your advantage', he adds, sotto voce. No, I made that bit up.
Would genuinely love to see Discovery. Book last double room in Travel Lodge and go to Dundee with husband. Am royally entertained aboard wonderful ship, courtesy of Dundee Council. Have always loved this city, ever since I lodged with the parents of a friend in Broughty Ferry while I was working as community writer for the Arts in Fife and looking for a flat. Realise that was back in the late 1970s. God, have I really been writing for such a long time?
Husband eats in the Travel Lodge and then wanders over to ship where - like a Dickensian hero - he can watch us favoured folk being wined and dined. Somebody apologises for exclusion of partners. No room.
Husband gets illicit glass of wine on deck. I am one of three writers: the others being Claire Collison and Malcolm Archibald. We are entertained by two of the judges: Ian Rankin, and a broadcaster / journalist whose name I have shamefully forgotten, but who totters up and down the gangways, wearing the highest pair of killer heels I have ever seen. Mind you, doubt if she would remember me either. There are assorted dignitaries. And a couple of people from Polygon. Poet John Burnside, the third judge, and somebody I very much wanted to meet, isn't there. He liked my book, love story and all.
Ian stands up and makes an encouraging speech, of the 'work hard and you too may one day be up here, judging the work of others' variety. We three compare notes afterwards, and realise that we have all spent long years on various forms of writing : plays, history, articles, poems, etc etc as well as - possibly - far too much time judging the work of others for workshops, competitions, literary awards...
But perhaps that's the problem. All of us are 'tainted by experience' to quote a friend of mine, another ex-BBC producer . That's how come we can write a proper full length novel. What they are looking for is the emerging genius, young, clever, preferably beautiful (female) or provocative (male) and unexpectedly brilliant. What they get, year after year, is people who are just writers.
Gist of evening is that a decision has been taken to publish all three books instead of one. So no final winner is to be announced yet. (Why? Could the judges not agree?) Once published, they will be circulated in proof form to various book groups throughout Scotland (which?) These groups will vote on final winner who will get the dosh. (Is this not shifting goalposts in mid comp? Didn't know we were going to be subject to the vagaries of Book Groups.) Bemused, I rejoin husband at Travel Lodge for nightcap. What is going on? See the next thrilling installment as soon as I can remember it. It seems like an awfy long time ago.....

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