Reigniting flagging confidence

Arifa Akbar

It is a story that could reignite the flagging confidence of the most dejected aspiring novelist. The frustrated efforts of Catherine O’Flynn, a former postwoman who tried and failed 15 times to get her work published, were finally rewarded last week when her first book was shortlisted for the £25,000 Costa Book Awards.

O’Flynn, 37, whose novel, What Was Lost, was turned down repeatedly before it secured a publishing deal, began writing while working long hours at a shopping centre. The plot revolves around a security guard with a sleep disorder who goes on a quest for the truth after seeing a child who had disappeared 20 years ago on a CCTV camera.

The book—on the shortlist for first novels, with an all-female list of nominees—"pulls the rug from under your feet from the very first page", the judges said.

O’Flynn, who has also worked as a teacher, web manager and civil servant, said she wrote her novel almost accidentally. Her creative side was awakened by her work at a shopping centre in the West Midlands.

"There were many things about it that made me want to write. The trance-like state of the shoppers consuming everything in their wake, the eeriness of the empty centre at night, the constant awareness of surveillance, the differing experiences of staff and shoppers, the industrial past buried beneath it.

"I kept writing about it—almost obsessively, I really wanted to pin down the essence of the place but at that stage there was no plan for this to be a novel.

"Then I heard a story doing the rounds among the centre security guards of a child being seen on one of the CCTV monitors in the middle of the night and that image stayed with me."

O’Flynn’s book was also longlisted for the Booker and the Orange prizes. The other nominations in the first-novel category are dominated by writers born abroad. They include the Bangladeshi-born Tahmima Anam, with A Golden Age, about the country’s liberation war; Indian-born Nikita Lalwani, for Gifted, about a 14-year-old maths genius; and Roma Tearne, originally from Sri Lanka, for Mosquito, a love story set against the Civil War.

— By arrangement with The Independent