The Women’s prize was created because women were excluded from the world of literary accolades; in the last 25 years there has been tremendous progress, but female writers still face unique challenges. I am proud to have won. The shortlist was formidable and I was buoyed merely to be in the company of such artists and thinkers.
Winner’s pick: The Street by Ann Petry. It’s an amazing novel – a pioneer in the category of the literary thriller, written in the 1940s – and it is being reissued this year.
When news of the shortlist came I was driving along an American highway. My phone was on the dashboard giving me directions and I saw a call come in from my editor. I had to keep driving for another 15 minutes before there was somewhere to pull over. I’ve been shortlisted twice before – I know that’s the point when you really should just enjoy it, because winning a prize is always a far more unlikely than likely event. Still, I won’t pretend the winning didn’t feel really wonderful.
It still feels profoundly moving. But these days I’m in the early stages of writing the next novel, and when you’re at your desk, it really doesn’t matter what happened with the last book. You are, as always, that writer looking at the blank page, wondering how to fill it.
Winner’s pick: Jazz by Toni Morrison. Just sheer genius at every level.
Winning is a seal of approval; the prize has gravitas and seriousness. Foreign publishers suddenly found me much more interesting. When trying to sell The Power internationally my agent had heard from one Scandinavian publisher that “we don’t need any more feminist science fiction in our country, we have Margaret Atwood”. Suddenly they found they might have room for two pieces of feminist science fiction.
Winner’s pick: A brilliant book by a genderqueer writer, Trans Like Me by CN Lester. In its pages I found a compassionate, intelligent and thoughtful exploration of gender and sex that is feminist to its core.
The Glorious Heresies was my first book, and to be honest I wasn’t sure it was any good. It’s surprising how quickly the whirlwind’s upon you. It’s not meant to mean so much, but when it’s your first novel, and you’ve been far, far outside the publishing world all of your life, it means an awful lot. It marks a turning point. Writing is such a solitary, uncertain occupation. I spend more time doubting myself than feeling sure about myself. But when it gets really bad, I can look at Bessie [the trophy] and think, “Well, no one can take this away from me.”
Winner’s pick: Han Kang’s Human Acts. Anna Burns’s Milkman. Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Mariana Enríquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender Is the Flesh. Mary Costello’s The River Capture. I could go on for ever.
It was as if someone had put me in the basket of a hot air balloon. The Women’s prize for fiction is the prize that gets to the places that other prizes don’t get. It always has. It has a radar out on the world that the other prizes sometimes just miss.
No one thought I’d win. I certainly didn’t, so I had a grand old time the night before at the readings, and was feeling rather the worse for wear on the day of the ceremony. I thought it would be a last hurrah for the book and that I should enjoy it, which I was doing until the moment my name was read out. Then I thought I was going to keel over. Everything changed after that. It changed the public aspect of my working life enormously, for better and worse. Mostly for better. But, more importantly, it bought me time to write.
Winner’s pick: The book I recommended on the night of the Women’s prize readings was The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien and I’m going to stick with her.
It was thrilling and unexpected – and that was before I won. Hilary Mantel was on the shortlist, and had already won the Booker and the Costa prize that year. There was every reason to think she or any of the other wonderful writers would win. The Women’s prize is one of the major highlights of my career, and in some ways it still doesn’t quite feel real. It came at a time just after my father had died, and things were difficult with my family, so the vote of support by others meant an enormous amount.
Winner’s pick: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Carter was one of the founders of the prize and my teacher at the University of Iowa. She was so smart and warm and wise. I give her work to all my students.
I heard I was on the shortlist on the day I was speaking at Ann Patchett’s bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books. Ann was also shortlisted for State of Wonder, and she was so generous and supportive – right down to lending me her orange dress to wear to the ceremony (it was the Orange prize at the time). When I won, I felt a knee-buckling gratitude, but I didn’t even know then how significant it was going to be. Now, nearly a decade later, I can see the tremendous impact on my life and work. It gave me credibility, confidence, and a passionate community that I am honoured to be counted among.
Winner’s pick: I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé; Pachinko by Min Jin Lee; Washington Black by Esi Edugyan; and Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis all knocked my socks off recently.
I’m a very superstitious person. When The Tiger’s Wife was shortlisted, I was touring with the book, and I remember having to tell myself to really feel this moment, even if it led to my being struck by a falling anvil (as good fortune always seems to). At the prize ceremony, I felt out of body, looking over at myself in surprise and disbelief. Winning gave me the emotional licence to think of writing as my work. That was invaluable.
Winner’s pick: Helen Oyeyemi’s collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours.
I was shortlisted for the prize in 1999, for The Poisonwood Bible, and unable to attend the ceremonies because I had a baby and overwhelming family duties at home. It felt like a bittersweet nomination for those reasons, especially for a prize meant to support female writers. But I did what we do – continued to care for my family, and to write. When The Lacuna was eventually shortlisted, and I was able to travel, and I won the prize, you can be sure that I felt like Cinderella at the ball.
It is a wonderful institution and it’s certainly the most elegant, brilliant platform for women’s literature that I can really imagine … I just write what’s on my mind and I’m extremely grateful for the fact that other people seem to find it meaningful to them also; it seems almost miraculous to me.
I was shortlisted in 2003, for my novel The Colour. That year, the prize rightly went to the late Andrea Levy for Small Island. But it was good to carry the prize home in 2008. That our times have produced so many great female fiction writers doesn’t mean we don’t need a Women’s prize to celebrate our collective endeavours. And new young female writers are following us.
Winner’s pick: Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, author of Swan Song (2018), is a brilliant upcoming star.
I remember being happy about being on the longlist. I told myself I shouldn’t hope too much, so I could protect myself from disappointment. But of course, I hoped to be on the shortlist. And when I heard I was, I remember thinking: this is wonderful validation. It’s enough. And in some ways it really was. Still, to hear my name announced was an utterly glorious experience. I couldn’t wait to get off stage and call my father.
Winner’s pick: Negroland by Margo Jefferson.
Winning gave me a sense of stability and acceptance, but also a great desire to keep moving in a different direction. I suppose public acceptance makes me a feel a little nervous – and that’s a good thing. Anxiety and fear fuel creativity, at least in my case. It gave me confidence to move ahead.
I’d never been shortlisted for a prize in my life. After now having been shortlisted for more than one major literary prize, I can testify to the obvious in hindsight: winning is better than losing. The instant someone else’s name is announced, it’s suddenly an ordinary Wednesday evening (and you want to go home). Instead, 2005 was exhilarating. My husband and I stayed up until 6am.
Winner’s pick: I just finished Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and it was wonderful. I also think Elizabeth Bowen is too often forgotten.
Bill Mayblin, husband: Sixteen years have passed since the win and Andrea is no longer here to describe it herself, but I know just what she would have said. The prize ceremony took place in a massive marquee hastily erected on a piece of open ground just across the road from the Royal Festival Hall. Many times after that night Andrea and I would pass by that spot (now a car park) and she would say to me: “This is where my life changed.” The change was much more than book sales and media attention. It was a profound shift in her sense of self. Her writing had always been her way of struggling to make visible her Caribbean heritage and to challenge its marginal place in British society. Winning the prize felt like a recognition, from that very society; and that massively boosted her confidence and widened her ambition.
The week before the prize lives in my memory as a very bright and bubbly adventure. I truly didn’t expect to win. The night of the award ceremony, my fellow American finalist Donna Tartt and I found ourselves standing near the stage, drinks and purses in hand. We shared our anxiety about going on the stage carrying a purse. Quickly we agreed that if she won I would take her purse and if I won she would take mine. When the winner was announced, the speaker’s voice was so low I couldn’t hear it. Donna said, “It’s you,” and reached for my purse. I was truly surprised and enormously pleased. Somewhere along the line I had made a list of names to say thank you to and tucked it into my waistband. Excellent foresight!
I was on the shortlist three times and fully expected to lose again. My husband and father and stepmother were with me, and my two elderly English cousins came from Yorkshire for the award ceremony. One cousin was a Catholic priest, Father Bernard, and he and his sister Marie were staying in a convent in London. He told me just before the ceremony that he had asked all the nuns to pray for me to win. I felt I’d cheated because I had a whole flock of praying nuns and the other finalists didn’t. At least not that I knew of.
Even now, I’ll be dusting in the living room and I’ll pick up that little statue and think about what a happy moment that was. My father is dead now, as are the elderly English cousins. I think about how happy they were that night. I had begged them not to come because I thought they’d be sad when I lost, but then I won and they were there. It was beautiful.
Writer’s pick: The Resisters by Gish Gen. It’s about a girl in a dystopian future who’s a baseball genius. I can’t say enough good things about it.
I’d published five novels to critical acclaim, but modest sales. I was facing the fact that for financial reasons I’d have to give up writing and become a full-time teacher of creative writing. The other shortlisted books that year were by supremely good writers (including Ali Smith and Margaret Atwood) and it never crossed my mind that I might win. That meant I could relax and enjoy the fact that the humour of the book obviously spoke to British audiences as well as Australian ones. The prize gave me a breathing-space. In quite a direct way, it enabled me to go on writing, when without it I would have had to stop.
Winner’s pick: Germaine Greer’s books – especially The Female Eunuch and The Obstacle Race – are still, unfortunately, very relevant today.
I’d been at the very first Orange prize, when Helen Dunmore won. Even then, I thought: “Yeah, I want this.” When I Lived in Modern Times had only been out a couple of months when the surprise of the longlist arrived. The night of the party was spectacular. I vaguely remember that there were acrobats. When my name was announced I remember walking into a blaze of flashlights, and the roar of the photographers calling my name. I hadn’t prepared a speech. I said something about how what writing is really about is getting up on a cold morning and putting on your leggings and sweater and staring at a blank screen. The moment of winning a prize might be a culmination of that, but the gulf between the two states is vast.
Winner’s pick: Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann. I read it this year and it was revelation.
Everyone should get one truly thrilling experience in life, and the few days I spent in Britain before the prize was awarded were mine. It was fun and exciting, very much a “once in a lifetime” moment. I think it was the first time I really saw myself as a novelist. Not as a student or teacher or mother or an “aspiring” anything, but as a novelist.
Winner’s pick: A book that holds all sorts of clues about how to make characters seem like real people, and how to make the past feel immediate, is Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth.
The Shields family: Carol had been on prize long- and shortlists before the winner of the prize was announced in 1998. Larry’s Party had been shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Giller prize and nominated for the Guardian fiction prize. But Carol viewed winning this prize for Larry’s Party as a crucial milestone in her career, and a considerable factor in expanding interest in her work and in the ideas that were important to her.
I was astonished to be shortlisted and felt complete shock at winning. After the ceremony, I was overwhelmed by the sudden realisation that this book, which had taken everything, might now find a readership. I cannot express the gratitude I felt at this, and the hope it contained. The encouragement of the prize to this day moves me more than I can say.
Winner’s pick: The two volume memoir by Nadezhda Mandelstam – a work of astonishing witness – Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned.
A trustee of the estate: A Spell of Winter was Helen’s third novel and the prize brought her writing to wider audiences. At a personal level she regarded the prize as a vote of confidence and, of course, the prize money and increased sales provided the increased financial security that all writers and artists need to be able to dedicate their time to their work. Were she alive now Helen would no doubt be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Women’s prize, and would still feel gratitude for the encouragement and inspiration that the prize gave her,
• The 2020 Women’s prize shortlist will be announced on Wednesday 22 April.