A few weeks ago I accidentally made a grand entrance at the Luke Bitmead Bursary presentation... carrying a miniature tree:
Because that is how I roll.
I'd made my husband promise that he wouldn't let me demonstrate my incredible talent of making an utter tit of myself in this particular social situation - he didn't seem all that confident but assured me he would try. Surely it was a simple task to play it classy: be calm, mingle a bit, talk about my book, meet the other shortlisted authors and judges and, you know, be cool. And then the bartender passed me a small tree so he could identify our table when our food was ready. Marvellous.
I'd been shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary - an amazing fund organised by Luke's family and Legend Press with the aim of supporting emerging authors to get a leg up in the industry. When I got the news I did my customary happy dance and then promptly tried to forget about the possibility of winning. My book had made it onto another shortlist earlier in the year but when nothing came of it I was well and truly gutted, and I didn't want to approach this opportunity in the same all-or-nothing way. Making the bursary shortlist was a fantastic notch on my literary bedpost and if that's as far as things went, so be it. I was content, and very chuffed.
And then there I was - tree in hand - introducing myself to Tom Chalmers of Legend Press and Luke's step-father Chris at the presentation in London. I met a couple of the other authors and their families too - all of them friendly, chatty and slightly anxious (let's face it - busy social events aren't the natural habitat of a writer) - and started to wonder if I was really meant to be there. "Hey, we get travel expenses and a few free glasses of wine," was my mantra. A few judges came past to wish me well, including the lovely Ruth Dugdall (previous Bitmead winner and author of The Woman Before Me) who told me what a supportive team Legend Press were, and said I needed to get a 'finalist' sticker so everyone could point and stare. "They keep looking over at you," my husband kept telling me, which was ridiculous, obviously. Obviously.
Then: the results. Lauren and Lucy of Legend Press began reading out the six runners-up and the crowd closed in, our view obscured by a wall of suits. My husband and I perched up on the back of our seating booth and clapped enthusiastically for each writer as they were called up to be congratulated. And as each one passed I mouthed my own name, expecting it to be read out next. But it wasn't.
"Top three!" my husband said quietly, and I began to shake a little bit. Sue Luddem, who we'd been sitting with all evening, was also waiting for her name to be called, and I thought it best to poke her in the arm to see if she was as gobsmacked as I was. (She was.) But neither of our names were next - Liam Brown received third place for his novel Fade to White and the applause got louder until:
"Second place: Susan Luddem - Getting Away With It."
And that left just one place and one name, and somehow they were both mine. Someone in the crowd turned around and shook my hand. Whispers spread and fingers pointed to our little booth. My husband started bouncing up and down, whispering: "You did it, you did it!" and all I could do was slap him across the chest and hiss, "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" I'm used to challenges, rejection, not-quite-getting there, you see. I'm good at recharging my stoic resources and soldiering on, but success is a bit of an unknown. I have no idea how to react to coming first in something, let alone finally seeing my biggest dream come true. This book is my second completed novel (my first is languishing away in a drawer, as so many first novels must do, waiting for better days, better skills, better ideas) and has been my paper-baby for getting on for six years. I've always been a great believer in the power of optimism and determination and it wasn't ever that I *knew* I'd get published one day, but I was damn sure going to keep trying until it happened. And now... a crowd was gently nudging me towards the front of the room and I sort of fell into Elaine's arms for an enormous congratulatory hug.
"Meet your publisher," she said, passing me to Tom, whose face had turned into one massive grin, and I proceeded to repeat "Thank you, thank you, what the hell is going on? Thank you," to everyone I spoke to for the following couple of hours, laughing because it was so utterly surreal. A publishing contract with Legend Press. And an oversized comedy cheque. And a general feeling of being very, very drunk without actually having had more than one glass.
Eloquence and articulation are lost in the face of such things. Instead I'm left with: "My book, story, baby, thing, is gonna be a proper thing. Like a book. I mean, a BOOK. With pages and a cover and you can hold it in your hands and it will have words in it. My words. Stuff wot I wrote and stuff. And you're gonna buy it, yeah? Cos I'll be a writer. With a book. A real papery book! Why are you looking at me like that?"
Yes, I am flying on clouds of awesome right now, but in all seriousness, there are thank yous and nods and points to be made. The bursary was created in honour of Luke Bitmead, author of White Summer, The Body is a Temple, and co-author of Heading South, all published by Legend Press. After Luke's tragic death in 2006 his family set up a fund "to support and encourage the work of fledgling novel writers" in association with Legend, which now offers the largest literary prize for new writers in the UK.
At the presentation evening Luke's mother Elaine gave a speech about the importance of making personal connections, of inviting in new experiences, and relieving the isolation in which writers often find themselves. I was drawn to the Luke Bitmead bursary because of what it stands for - not simply the support of emerging authors in a tough financial climate, but also the attempt to break down the stigma attached to mental health issues. There are far fewer than seven degrees of separation between you and someone with mental health problems, I guarantee it. And yet it's very hard to talk about, or acknowledge, or find peace with. But when lines of communication do open up, the taboo quickly becomes something of a norm - people sympathise, empathise, sidle out of the woodwork to admit that they, too, have experienced similar problems, and it's not such a lonely place after all.
At the core of my book lies a battle between whatever normality the characters are hoping to achieve, and the psychological problems that are fundamental parts of their personality. A father with dementia, a son with depression, and a splintered family in between, grappling to retrieve lost connections - because sometimes the people closest to you can feel the furthest away.
White Lies will be published by Legend Press in 2014.
(Oh my... Did I say that out loud?)