I cannot believe almost a week has gone by since Eimear McBride was announced as the winner of the first Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014. What a night.
I think most of my friends and family would testify that I am a big fan of parties. I’m not talking ‘let’s-go-on-the-lash-and-get-horendously-wasted-and-embarrass-ourselves’ party (though it’s important to have a few of those for life experience…right?), I’m talking a well-organised, slick event, where all requirements are catered for and all expectations exceeded. Having left the Durham University environment last summer, where balls and formals were a regular part of my weekly schedule, I soon realised that publishing was the perfect industry to enter in order to continue enjoying such events. However, no book launch or reading had ever quite matched the grandeur I so enjoyed, so when I received an invite to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction awards party, ‘excited’ simply doesn’t cover it.
At this point, I really must make a public apology to my dear Perks. Despite all efforts to acquire an extra ticket, and believe me, there were many attempts which resulted in a desperate aura hanging over me, I failed in my mission and our friendship was tested, severely. Perks, I am sorry. And to any other envious readers out there, now is the time to stop if you fear jealousy may become all-consuming. You have been warned.
As soon as I had arrived at Royal Festival Hall, Baileys cocktail placed in hand, I realised that confidence is key when attending an event solo. Having scanned the room full of unknown faces, I took a gulp and introduced myself to the first person I saw who seemed to be in a similar predicament. This lady was Karen from the Reading Agency and my ‘lovely person radar’ gave itself a pat on the back. With pleasantries covered, we got to the important things such as:
Me: I’m not sure I really like this Baileys cocktail as it has a coffee element to it.
Karen: I really want to try the chocolate Baileys. They’re at the bar.
Me: I think I’ve seen champagne circulating…
Me: Oh my goodness, this champagne is Moët?!
Having been joined by Seonaid from the Publisher’s Association, the night was fully underway, and it was time for the announcement to be made. As true keen beans, we placed ourselves at the front of the crowd (and apparently we were spotted on BBC news. Just saying.)
With all shortlisted authors awaiting the result on the side (bar Donna Tartt who was represented by her UK agent), we were treated to some wonderful speeches from prize co-founder, Kate Mosse, Baileys chief marketing officer, Syl Saller (who gave far more than a traditional sponsor speech much to the audience’s delight), and finally Helen Fraser, whose clue-ridden introduction to the winner initially had me second-guessing my (ultimately correct) prediction with ‘accessible’, but seemed to satisfy the audience as demonstrated by the great cheer and series of whoops.
Receiving her prize having been described by Fraser as ‘a truly original voice’, ‘that old-fashioned thing, a genius’ and ‘a truly worthy winner’, Eimear McBride delivered the speech of the night:
‘I hope it will serve as an incentive to publishers everywhere to take a look at difficult books and think again. We are all writers but we are all readers first. There is a contract between publishers and readers which must be honoured, readers cannot be underestimated…
…To win the Women’s Prize is particularly wonderful because to be a woman is a very fearless thing these days’
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing has delighted literary critics but has divided public opinion, as my review explains in more detail here.
With official proceedings completed and the night still young, it was time to work the room – a room filled with incredibly talented individuals. My priority was to see Hannah Kent, readers of the blog will know that I am a huge fan of Burial Rites, and having met Hannah twice before, I was also a mega-fan of hers too. So when opportunity struck, I seized it, and my support for her grew even more. Hannah is the kindest and most humble author I have ever met – she welcomed me as a friend and having endured my tumble of praises she explained that she was simply delighted to have been considered for the prize and was revelling in the moment of being part of a select group of authors whom she highly admired. She went on further to describe how her fellow shortlisted authors all agreed that McBride was the winner – something that seems quite unusual but further testifies the quality and originality of McBride’s long unrecognised work.
Seeing as this post now resembles a short essay, I shall adopt the rather snappier form of bullet points to summarise the highlights of the night:
- I discovered that I went to university with Mary Beard’s daughter and subsequently had a chat with Mary Beard
- The lovely ladies from The Bookseller (Anna, Alice and Sarah), Karen and I were all adopted by Adele Parks
- I met fantastic industry people including Philip Jones of The Bookseller, Joe Haddow of Radio 2 Book Club, Andy Quinn and Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles and many more
- I had a chat with Helen Fraser supporting their choice and also singing Hannah’s praises (of course) whilst she stressed ‘I f***ing did!’ read all the Baileys Prize submissions
- I chased Caitlin Moran, told her I loved her and that I am a feminist. Simultaneously was and was not my proudest moment.
For me, this was one of the best nights of 2014. A combination of the finest literature, incredible people and copious amounts of Baileys & Moët (not the best mix in hindsight) makes for a highly entertaining evening. And when you’re sent home with a goodie bag which includes a copy of The Goldfinch and two bottles of Baileys – who can complain?