Orange Prize for Fiction 2009

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Orange Prize for Fiction 2009

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Summary: Dawn Powell didn't manage to get to the awards ceremony of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009, but she did manage to get to the shortlist event at the Southbank Centre the day before (2nd June). She reports on the highlights of the event.
Date: June 2009
Author: Dawn Powell

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Dawn Powell didn't manage to get to the awards ceremony of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009, but she did manage to get to the shortlist event at the Southbank Centre the day before (2nd June). She reports on the highlights of the event.

Radio 4's Fi Glover, who was chair of this year's judging panel, started proceedings by saying that the most difficult thing for her and her fellow judges wasn't the sheer volume of books that they had to read but the fact that they couldn't savour the ones on the shortlist. It was like doing a big grocery shop and seeing six treats going down the conveyer belt and thinking I want to eat them now. But, thankfully, we did get a chance to savour them at a later date and they are just magical books. They are the type of books that you want to press into the hands of strangers; they are the type of books that really expand your mind and—potentially—change your life.

In alphabetical order, each shortlisted author read a passage from their book and then took questions about their work. First up was Ellen Feldman

Ellen Feldman, Scottsboro

Scottsboro is based on the true story of nine black boys who were imprisoned after they were falsely accused of raping two white girls on a freight train in Alabama in 1931. It took 50 years and numerous trials before the last of the boys was pardoned.

Feldman looks at the case through the eyes of Ruby Bates, one of the girls who made the accusations and who kept changing her testimony — first she was raped, then she wasn't, then she was. Feldman says: Ruby is a very unpleasant character when you read the bare bones of this terrible racial injustice that dragged on half a century. But when you begin to look at the case from her point of view, you can understand her terror and how she was turned. That is when it becomes very interesting to me as a writer to plumb these depths.

The other main character is the book is Alice, a fictional journalist who is based on two real-life journalists who were the only women allowed into the courtroom at the time of the trial. Feldman explains that she created Alice because she wanted to look at what makes a liberal. What makes people risk their life if they don't have to? The people who defended the Scottsboro boys were risking their lives because of the racial animosity that surrounded the trial.

Read the Bookbag's review of Scottsboro

Samantha Harvey, The Wilderness

Iris Murdoch was the inspiration for The Wilderness, which is the story of a man who is in his early 60s and is in the grip of Alzheimer's disease. Harvey says: Because I was a fan of hers, I was fascinated by what was happening to her. I watched the film and remembered thinking that there cannot be nothing left inside of her brain. She was such an intelligent person. Over the years, I became interested in what happens to people when they lose their minds — where do they go?

In the book, as the disease progresses, Jake begins to lose touch of what is his memory and what is his imagination. According to Harvey, this loss of identity is something that affects all of us at some point. I think the issues in the book haunt me because the issues of knowing who you are quite general issues.

Read the Bookbag's review of The Wilderness

Samantha Hunt, The Invention of Everything Else

Similar to Feldman, Hunt writes about real and fictitious characters. A young woman called Louisa meets the scientist Nikola Tesla during the final week of his life. Through Louisa, we learn about Tesla's achievements (he created AC electricity) and his eccentricities.

One reviewer (Fi Glover claims) said that the book was about the different types of love, which Hunt agrees with. A lot of investigation for this book was looking at what other types of love there are apart from human love. Tesla never had a partner or traditional love of his life — except for a pigeon... but Tesla certainly had a love for his inventions and he had a love for humans even though he couldn't get close to them.

Read the Bookbag's review of The Invention of Everything Else

Deirdre Madden, Molly Fox's Birthday

According to Madden, Molly Fox's Birthday was the most laboured work she has written. The novel is a day in the life of a playwright who — while struggling to write her latest work—reflects on her own life and that of her actress friend Molly. It was getting into the mindset of an actor that caused Madden so many problems. Acting is something that is completely alien to me. I have never acted, not even at school, but I love going to the theatre. I wrote a book called Authenticity, which was very much about painters. I felt that I could easily enter into the imaginative life of art and found it easy to imagine what it is like to be a painter. But, I found it much more difficult to get into the world of being an actor.

She adds that writing the story was so difficult that completing the novel came as an enormous relief. Right up until I finished the novel and I was happy with it, I was very worried that I wouldn't finish it.

Read the Bookbag's review of Molly Fox's Birthday

Marilynne Robinson, Home (WINNER)

Home revisits the characters in Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead, but Robinson insists the book is not a sequel. They [the events in both books] take place in the same town and among the same characters, but it is not a relationship of first novel and second novel. They actually occur simultaneously.

In Home, Jack returns home after a 20-year absence and Robinson explores his relationship with sister Glory (who has also returned home), his father, and his father's friend John Ames (the main protagonist of Gilead). It is a book that at first, Robinson did not want to write. For some months after writing Gilead, I said I wasn't going to write anything about the town again. But, the characters stayed so strongly in mind that they simply felt like characters that wanted a novel to themselves, so I thought I might as well as give it to them.

Previously, Robinson intentionally started writing novels without knowing where they were going because she didn't want to kill the vitality of the fiction by over determining it. She says: With Home, I didn't have that option because it follows the plot of Gilead. But within that general framework, there is a great deal that is new to the book that I did not anticipate when I began writing it.

Read the review of the Bookbag's review of Home

Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows

Burnt Shadows is an expansive novel that starts with the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 and ends up in the present day. The burnt shadows of the title refer to three crane-shaped scars on heroine Hiroko Tanaka's back, the remains of a kimono she was wearing on the day of the bomb. Shamsie looks how events such as the bombing of Nagasaki influences our lives.

She says: There is a really interesting interplay between these historical events [the ones in the novel] and the pressure that they perhaps put on us to think a certain way or believe a certain thing. But, I don't think that lets an individual off the hook because there is always a point where you realise you are the one making a choice and that there are other forms of morality that are available. Even if we are not always sure of the consequences of our actions, we know that if we were a better human being, we wouldn't doing this thing.

Read the Bookbag's review of Burnt Shadows