Winning the Prince Maurice Prize for East of the Sun was a terrific and unexpected thrill for me. The whole affair could so easily have been the perfect set up for an Agatha Chrtistie: 'Three short listed authors are flown to a remote island together- only one can win.....' but it wasn't like that at all . Everyone felt they'd won simply by being shortlisted- the hotel was divine and we had a week of great conversations, good laughs, and what is dryly called cultural exchange- in our case teaching in local schools.
On day two as Sadie Jones and I swam through brilliant blue sea towards an island we looked at each other and burst out laughing. What part of the struggling writer script was this ? Sadie, author of the Outcast and Small Wars, had arrived after a fourteen hour flight with drunken Germans from the Hay Festival. (Germans so drunk I have to add, that they had to be lassoed to their seats). I'd come from raining Wales, and here we were at this five and half star hotel .(Did you know they existed over five stars ? - me neither), with the infinity pool stretching out to the Indian ocean, the floating restaurant, wonderful rooms. thermal spa. For me, the most nerve wracking moments of the week came on day one. Each author had to talk to the judges on the theme of love in our books. I was first to go. During my presentation, I was sitting about two and half foot from Sebastian Faulk (a hero because he wrote Birdsong). In the end, I enjoyed myself : Viva, Rose and Tor, the characters in my book felt very present as we sat at dusk with the sun setting over the Indian ocean behind us.
A spirited discussion followed in which we all agreed that to write convincingly about love without sounding sentimental, half witted or unreal, is one of a writers more difficult challenges. Talking to the other writers about their work and their lives was a rivet - although the intellectual discussions did slip a bit on the night we all murdered a few of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Beatles hits on the beach. Classic song book stuff. Teaching at local Mauritian schools was another highlight. The British Council ran a short story competition while we were there- the prizes included lap tops, and language lessons and a master class with the English and Mauritian writers who were part of the judging panel. During one class I taught, I asked the 15-16 year old girls to write a letter to themselves at 20 ,to say where they'd hoped to be. One girl wrote that she wasn't all that keen on herself at 16, and she didn't imagine much would change when she was 20 either. The next day, when her name was called out for a major prize in the short story writing competition, I watched her face split into the most incredulous and incredible grin. Dreams can come true, as I was well aware because the most surprising moment of the week for me was during the gala evening on the last night, when my name was read out as the overall winner. I had convinced myself that Sadie would win for her wonderful book,'Small Wars.' and had no speech prepared.