Winning the Exeter Story Prize remains one of my fondest memories. Not just a writing moment, a life moment. Coming to creative writing in early middle-age, I was still very much on the learning curve. I’d completed my MA the year before so had lots of stories but no publications. My wife and I drove from Sussex and made a weekend of it, wondering at my chances of making the top three, but of course you have no idea. When Cathie read out my name, I was genuinely shocked and I still am. Luckily, I’ve won competitions since, but nothing quite compares with that moment.
It meant that I could write stories that people might enjoy. For all the kind words of friends, relatives and tutors, you never really know. To be judged the top story by three successful novelists mattered a great deal. It also gave me confidence in my method. Battle Town was born on a grey day in Perryville, Kentucky. I went there to find a story with no preconceptions. I just experienced the battlefield, the museum and crucially the town. As I was driving away the core of the story bubbled up, so strong that I turned around and drove back. That approach, of travelling in search of a story, of being open to finding one, I’ve used ever since.
Edit: You can find out more about Richard on his website HERE. His award-winning novel Whirligig Part 1 of his epic US civil war series is available HERE
You're all winners! It's a phrase I've heard so many times, and I've said it myself to those shortlisted at every Exeter Novel Prize ceremony, but how can that be really? Having had both my novels, Secret of the Song, and Notes from the Lost shortlisted for competitions, and then not win, you're allowed to think that I'm making excuses, but I can certainly say that being shortlisted is hugely thrilling, whereas not winning is not so hugely disappointing.
Having had more than a decades-worth of experience as a judge, that's exactly how it seems. Why one novel receives the big prize money over another is can be for one or many of a myriad of reasons, often it's a decision on the day that may be different the next.
For me, the cancellation of the London Book Fair award ceremony was almost more of a shame than not winning, as I would love to have met everyone. Ah well, it's a small price to pay in these worrying times. I'm in awe of all the people in the front line helping to keep us safe and in good health. Being a novelist doesn't seem to be much of a contribution, but if I can stay at home, do no harm and not be a problem to anyone, then that is the best part for me. If my novels can entertain or our textbooks be of use to those stuck at home, even better.
A few months ago, I submitted Notes from the Lost for the 2020 Selfies. This is a competition run by BookBrunch, which is a daily journal for the publishing industry. The competition, seeks to find the best independently published fiction in the UK. So - are you already anticipating what's coming? - you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover that darling Alfie and all the cast in Notes from the Lost, had made it to the shortlist! You can find out HERE, how they judged the book. Yes, the writing and story had to be good, but I also had to tell them about my marketing campaign, and I want to shout out loud to the wonderful Berni Stevens who designed such a great cover.
A disappointment was the cancellation of the London Book Fair. I'd been invited to go for the announcement of the winner. Oh well - a shame to miss meeting my fellow authors, and of course, all those photo opportunities! Who will win? I don't know yet, but have all my fingers and toes crossed. I may know tomorrow.
Researching for a novel is always a joy, although it can be problematic. What to use, and what not to use? In Notes from the Lost, two captured soldiers, Alfie and Frank, escape from the train taking them to a WW2 POW camp in Germany.
I based the story on the experience of my friend Martin’s father. Captain William Wright was sheltered by a very brave Italian family who lived in a mountain village near Avezzano. Eventually, he was recaptured, but in my story the young soliders have a very different fate. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happened to them.
This different outcome meant that I couldn’t use one of the most touching things I found amongst William’s WW2 letters and journals. It was a letter written by the man who had sheltered him to William’s father in 1944. Clearly whilst in the German camp, William had written to his father about the Italian family and his father had then written to them. What we have to remember is that one day William left the Italian family to try and make his way to the Allied line. Whether he lived or died, they didn’t know. This is the reply, and it still brings tears to my eyes.
Captain Wright did return to Italy after the war, and the photo of the family group was taken during that visit.
I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked when there was going to be a literary festival in Exeter. Every other city, town and village has one, so why not us? Well, that's one of the problems, especially as we have the reknowned Dartington Ways With Words and Budleigh Salterton festivals practically on our doorstep.
The other major problem, is who on earth would take on such a mammoth task?
I first met the amazing Maggie Bonfield when I gave a talk to the U3A way back in October 2017. To my surprise and delight, she announced to the audience that there would be a literary festival the following year and would I be willing to help? Yes, of course! Maggie and her tech whiz husband, Rob, assembled a steering group that reflected the broad range of literary knowhow in the city. Todd Gray, Simon Timms, Emma Dunn, Lee Rawlings and lucky me all volunteered to do our bit.
What soon became apparent, was that the Festival was going to be HUGE! Not only author talks by a famous few, which are the backbone of most festivals, but a celebration of the literary talent and enthusiasm that abides in and around Exeter. Major cultural venues across the city hosted events - the Cathedral, D.E.I, Central Library, Barnfield Theatre, the University to name some. Those aged tiny to ninety, and of every diversity Exeter has to offer, took part in listening, reading and writing.
Yes, it was a lot of work, but when the seats began to fill up, and the enthusiastic responses came loudly and from all quarters, I could not have felt more proud to be involved. Exeter, you are a wonderful city! Roll on next year!
The festival website is HERE and there are lots of photos from all the events HERE
What they did next...
Scroll down to find out about our previous winners.