Nicola White: Literary Prizefighter

Fending off competition from 350 other entrants, Nicola White's In the Rosary Garden is the winner of this year's Dundee International Book Prize. She discusses the road to success and the controversial themes of her novel

Feature by Ryan Rushton | 28 Oct 2013
  • Nicola White

Offering £10,000 and a deal with Cargo publishing, the Dundee International Book Prize is unique in what it offers a writer attempting to get a work into print. No other award offers such a large cash sum for an unpublished book, with the opportunity to get copies into the hands of a waiting readership surely just as attractive. On the 24th of last month, on the opening night of the Dundee Literary Festival, the announcement was made that Nicola White had won the coveted award for her tale of sexual politics in the Catholic backdrop of 1980s Ireland, In the Rosary Garden.

"I’ve been aware of the prize for years," White tells me. "But I thought the more conventional route – to find an agent who would approach publishers – would be easier. It didn’t prove to be. Publishers praised the book, then gave wildly various reasons why they couldn’t commit to it. I think it’s not an easy time for debut writers – mainstream publishers are not wild about the untried or untested."

“I don’t think an agenda is a good starting place for a novel. You need to surprise yourself” – Nicola White

It is undoubtedly true that finding a publisher with faith in an original voice is one of the largest obstacles a debut novelist has to overcome these days. One only has to look at the boom in self-publishing and the path trodden by authors such as Sergio De La Pava (whose self-published book, A Naked Singularity, ended up winning the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize) to see that worthy work is struggling to find a home. White had almost given up hope before submitting In the Rosary Garden to the all-star judging panel: "I was disappointed, but not discouraged, and decided I’d just get on with writing a second book. Yet all the time, the fact of the first book’s existence niggled at me. I entered the prize on a whim, to be honest – I didn’t expect to get this far."

Fortunately for White, judges as diverse as Brian Cox (actor, not physicist), Lorraine Kelly and AL Kennedy agreed her book was the best of three strong finalists. In the Rosary Garden begins with the shocking discovery of a dead baby in the grounds of a convent school and weaves in and out of various genres, while exploring the contentious issues of abortion and sexuality as a whole within Ireland at the time. "I left Ireland in 1984," White explains. "So that time is particularly resonant for me; a time of bitter debates over reproduction and women’s rights, and also the year when the book is set. It was prompted by my interest in a case known as The Kerry Babies, also from that year, which involved the finding of two dead infants in close proximity. My book doesn’t mirror that story at all, but the germ of the idea started there."

With a subject that continues to be so contentious, the question of a specific agenda or intention in White's book is the obvious one: "I don’t think an agenda is a good starting place for a novel. You need to surprise yourself," she says. "In the Rosary Garden started with an image, a scene that came to me of a child finding a dead newborn hidden away in a box, and not really understanding what it was. The story spun out gradually from there." No doubt questions of this kind will abound as reactions to the book begin to trickle in. For now, though, White is enjoying the award, telling me: "It feels a tremendous piece of good fortune, and I hope that the book will find its audience over the coming months." On the subject of the cash prize, she answers as a writer in it for the long haul should, thinking in terms of the precious commodity of time and the freedom to keep on writing: "What’s definite," she says, "is that the money will buy me a precious chunk of time to press on with other ideas stacking up in my head."

Read our review of In the Rosary Garden