"Original and unforgettable": Liz Hyder wins the 2020 Branford Boase Award for Bearmouth

Published on: 09 September 2020

Author Liz Hyder and editor Sarah Odedina of Pushkin Children's Books have won the 2020 Branford Boase Award for their outstanding debut novel for children, Bearmouth. Liz talks to us about the prize and worrying about writing a 'Marmite book'.

In praise of the unsung heroes

The Branford Boase Award is special for many different reasons; it celebrates and supports debut authors at the start of their career and it’s also the only award that recognises the special relationship between author and editor. In the publishing world, editors are too often unsung heroes, but in truth an editor will have helped shape every single book that you’ve ever read. They will have nudged it and cajoled it and improved it, they will have brought fresh eyes and expertise to the text and examined everything from the overall structure to small matters of grammar and punctuation. They are the equivalent of the person standing on the other side of the room whilst you try to put a picture up on the wall telling you, in the kindest possible way, that it’s wonky or perhaps even on the wrong wall entirely.

For Bearmouth, I was incredibly lucky to work with Sarah Odedina, she’s a legend in the publishing world for a very good reason. Her, frankly ridiculous, track record working on the likes of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon and countless others meant that, to be honest, I was absolutely bricking it when I first spoke to her over the phone. I needn’t have. She’s magnificent. She makes me laugh like a drain, has a wickedly sharp eye and is comically frank in a way she knows that I can absolutely take on the chin. Working with her was an absolute joy and to have had her championing the book right from the start was a blessing.

 A Marmite book

To be honest, I’d always thought of Bearmouth very much as a Marmite book. Told first person and in a dialect that draws from many different UK regions (along with a smattering of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Blake) despite the fact that it’s a thriller, I knew it would not be to everyone’s tastes. Over the many decades that I’ve been scribbling away though, I’ve developed skin like a rhinoceros and felt fairly well prepared for people to hate it. What I didn’t expect was that some people might like it, even love it – and that these people wouldn’t just be kindly relatives or friends, but actual strangers. I also didn’t expect how surreal and yet glorious it would be to be able to walk into a bookshop and see my own name on a book staring back at me.

Before Bearmouth, I’d written six other complete books, plays, short films, poems, all sorts. I tried on different writing hats over many years before deciding that books were, after all, where my heart lay. None of that time was wasted though, I learnt an awful lot on each and every project. I made short films, developed a TV series for Channel 4 Scotland and came runner-up in various competitions. So I kept going. I always kept going. And now here we are.

Reading by streetlight

Winning the Branford Boase for Bearmouth feels both glorious and surprising. But it feels like something else too, it feels like vindication for my compulsion to make up stories and scribble them down. It feels like all those hours in which I ruined my eyesight as a child, reading by the faint glimmer of the streetlights outside when I should have been asleep, were not in fact wasted. It feels like all the books I’ve ever read, all the notepads I’ve filled with ideas and snippets, all the stories I’ve made up when daydreaming by windows on trains or at school, each and every one of them had a little part to play in keeping my dream of being a writer alive.

I never expected to win the Branford Boase. I was over the moon to be shortlisted for it, not just for me but for Sarah too whose input was so crucial in every way. So thank you to the Branford Boase judges, thank you to the amazing Sarah Odedina for having faith in me. And if you’re reading this and you’re a writer too, keep going. Don’t stop and never give up. Because one day, you might just end up walking into a bookshop and seeing your name on the cover of a book too….

Read our review of Bearmouth

Read about the other books shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award

Liz Hyder and publisher Sarah OdedinaL-R: Liz Hyder and publisher Sarah Odedina

Topics: Features

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