Our editor-in-chief, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou, looks ahead to some of the highlights of the first ever Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize Festival, taking place this Saturday.
In the acknowledgements to her magisterial debut, Swan Song, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott includes a note about Lucy Cavendish College. Addressing her whole Lucy ‘family’, she thanks the judges of the college’s prestigious Fiction Prize and recognises its importance for female debut novelists. Greenberg-Jephcott is not the first writer – or person, for that matter – to consider the college a second family, another close community to which she’ll always belong. Students, academics, alumnae and fellows alike all hold the college in such esteem. But the novelist’s words resonate for another reason. Having entered the Lucy Cavendish community via a different door, her words touch a deeper cord. Neither student nor recipient of the prize in 2016, Greenberg-Jephcott still felt, still feels, part of the community; she still attributes some of her growth and immense success as a novelist to time spent at Lucy as a shortlisted entrant for the prize. She still claims Lucy as her own – and rightly so.
Part of what makes the college an encouraging, familial-like space, to use Kelleigh’s notion, is its promotion and love of literature. English Literature remains one of its strongest, most over-subscribed courses and many of its graduates leave with at least a 2.1 or 1st. Creative writing workshops are seen as an invaluable supplement to the degree. Both have helped to maintain the college’s reputation as a nurturer of talent, a place that furthers the careers of women from all walks of life. In 2010, this reputation grew with the launch of a new competition to support women novelists. Established by Professor Janet Todd OBE, then president of the college, the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize opened to female debut novelists around the world. The extension of its family – a literature loving, female-centric one – had begun. This prize has gone from strength to strength and is now in its ninth year, but it has also planted seeds for new creative ventures in the wider Lucy community. Last year saw the college hold its first residential Creative Writing Course led by respected authors Miranda Doyle and Jo Browning-Wroe, with support from Fiction Prize winners, literary agents and editors. And last term a new Fiction Prize for students was announced. This term sees an expansion of the Fiction Prize into a one-day literature festival, designed to support aspiring authors through inspiring workshops, panels and one-to-one mentoring sessions with many of the publishing world’s finest.
Greenberg-Jephcott will also be present, leading workshops and speaking on various panels. After the immense success of her dazzling debut, based on the scandal around Truman Capote’s gossipy Esquire story ‘La Côte Basque’, she returns to her Lucy family to inspire and guide a whole new cohort of debut novelists. Speaking to the Lucy Writers for a soon-to-be-released interview, Greenberg-Jephcott notes how crucial the Fiction Prize was to her career. For her, the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize built a reputation for her book and offered ongoing support well after the announcement of the winner. Pre-publishing prizes are, for Greenberg-Jephcott, ‘game changers’. Many prizes are judged blindly, placing the focus on the entrant’s prose, not their race, gender, class, education etc. This, to her mind, means such prizes are ‘fair, egalitarian’ and the best opportunity to showcase your work pre-publishing deal. Although Kelleigh didn’t go on to win the Fiction Prize, she secured her agent, Karolina Sutton, and a six figure deal with Penguin Random House imprint, Hutchinson, for her debut. Just before Christmas her novel was chosen as one of The Times’ Books of the Year 2018, alongside titles by Pat Barker and Sally Rooney amongst others. She has certainly had a brilliant few months since the publication of her novel. She brings all this and a desire to see other debut novelists thrive to the Fiction Festival this Saturday.
Another debut novelist shortlisted with Greenberg-Jephcott in 2016 is Sara Collins. At the Fiction Festival she will discuss her hotly anticipated debut, The Confessions of Frannie Langton. Like Greenberg-Jephcott, Collins returns to her Lucy family, once a one-time shortlisted entrant of the Fiction Prize and a graduate of Cambridge’s Creative Writing MSt, now as a successful soon-to-be published author. Her novel tells the story of a young slave woman, Frannie, brought over from Jamaica to Georgian London to serve as a maid in a Mayfair mansion. Accused of murdering her master and mistress, the Benhams, Frannie must recount her life story and in doing so remember if she was to blame for their deaths. Collins has been candid in recent interviews and articles about her reluctance to write a female protagonist who was a former slave. Angered by past novels dealing with enslaved characters – in particular Mark Twain’s Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – and frustrated with how many nineteenth-century slave narratives were read and written for white consumption (thus compromising a full exploration of an author’s personhood), Collins wanted to ensure she addressed issues of slavery and race with emotional honesty and sensitivity. She wanted Frannie’s whole story to be heard, her feelings as vivid and passionate as a Brontë or Austen heroine’s to sing off the page, irrespective of her former slave status. In short, slavery wasn’t to be the end all of her story, the one experience to define Frannie; slavery alone didn’t provide the psychological and narratological coordinates of her heroine. Influenced by the likes of Jean Rhys, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters and Victorian gothic literature, Collins has created an eighteenth-century Jamaican woman whose ‘moral complexity and passionate, all consuming romantic love’ rival that of a Jane Eyre, Antoinette Mason or Grace Marks.
Other past Fiction Prize shortlisters and recipients to speak at the Festival, alongside Sara, are Lesley Sanderson (The Orchid Girls), Laura Marshall (Friend Request and Three Little Lies) and Frances Maynard (The Seven Imperfect rules of Elvira Carr). Leading the talks will be international bestselling author, Sophie Hannah, an honorary fellow of Lucy Cavendish College. But aside from the wise words and suggestions of the Fiction Prize authors, the festival will offer one-to-one mentoring sessions with Editorial Director for Sphere Fiction (Little, Brown), Lucy Malagoni, Deputy Publisher of Virago, Sarah Savitt, and Editorial Director at Viking UK (Penguin Random House), Kay Loftus. The Fiction Prize Festival, on Saturday the 19th January, is sure to be a culturally rich one; a day where women writers come together, celebrate their talent and move forward in their ambition to be published authors. Thanks to this new festival the Lucy Family will grow and treble in size, and it’ll be all the better for it.
The Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize Festival will take place in the college on Saturday 19th January.