Prize-winning author Catherine Chanter talks to us about her novel The Well
Winning a fiction prize at any age is inspiring – at the age of 52 it’s proving hugely uplifting for this year’s winner of the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize, Catherine Chanter.
“I have always written in one way or another, but this is my first novel. I’m thrilled to win this Fiction Prize - a few years ago I entered a more public arena with my writing, having a short piece accepted by Radio 4; I thought ‘that’s great, perhaps I can now write for other people’.”
Growing up in the West Country, Catherine Chanter’s rural background has influenced and informed her novel: “The Well imagines a recognisably contemporary rural Britain, and pictures a world where drought takes an increasing grip, as a gradual encroachment rather than as any dramatic apocalyptic event. A couple, needing a fresh start to their relationship, pursue their dream of a rural idyll and take on a smallholding. However, once established and seeming to have their dream it rains ceaselessly and continually just on them. So it’s looking at the grass is greener on the other side scenario - what is it like to apparently have paradise when it turns out to a living nightmare?”
As a published poet and short story writer Catherine’s influences are wide ranging, from poets Seamus Heaney, TS Elliott and James Harper to Thomas Hardy and more contemporary novelists: “I like the narrative structure of writers such as John Banville and Penelope Lively, using past and present tense, with the use of voice in the structure. I was also looking back at Hardy’s books and wondering how much do we read about rural life these days? There is the claustrophobia of isolation in Hardy’s rural lives but these days the internet has changed the way many people actually live now – still isolated and yet connected.
“And then the idea came to me when I was looking at visual representation of The Annunciation, and I wondered what it would be like to be ‘the chosen ones’, so played around with that idea.”
Having studied English at Oxford, after several years as a lobbyist in the UK and abroad, Catherine re-trained as a teacher, specialising in supporting children with behavioural difficulties and for the last 20 years has worked with adolescents in inpatient mental health services. Catherine has previously written poetry and short stories, one a collection Rooms of the Mind, published by Cinnamon Press; her short story ‘A Summer of Findings’ was shortlisted for the 2009 Asham Award, and appeared in the Bloomsbury anthology Waving at the Gardener (2009) alongside stories from Margaret Atwood, Esther Freud, Alison MacLeod and Yiyun Li.
The Fiction Prize judges, Allison Pearson, bestselling novelist, newspaper columnist and commentator, and Dr Chloe Preedy, Cambridge Lecturer in Renaissance Literature and Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, were unanimous in their acclaim for The Well, commenting: “The Well was so astoundingly assured that we wondered if AS Byatt had adopted a pseudonym to see if the judges would overlook a brilliant writer. But we didn’t. This riveting story of Ruth and her family has the pulse of a thriller combined with a futuristic evocation of a Big Brother society and a fable of humans faced with limited resources.”
Lucy Cavendish College Cambridge has a particular interest in supporting female writers and hosts the annual Fiction Prize as a competition for unpublished female authors over the age of 21, who successfully combine literary merit with ‘unputdownability’ in their entry. The prize, now in its third year, is supported by several large publishers, and some former finalists and winners are now published in their own right. Recent successes include Vicki Jarrett’s 2011 entry Nothing is Heavy published by Linen Press in 2012, and Sophia Tobin, whose 2011 entry, The Silversmith's Wife, was published as part of a two-book deal with Simon and Schuster. Kathryn Simmonds, shortlisted last year, is looking forward to the publication of Love and Fallout, by Seren Publishing in 2014.