1 December 2010 was a good day for Stefan Mohamed. The 22-year-old Powys writer was awarded the inaugural Sony Reader Award, the all-new category of the Dylan Thomas Prize for talented unpublished British writers under the age of 30. He wins £5000 and the chance for his debut novel Sweet Sixteen to be published in eBook format. The award was judged by a distinguished panel of experts including that well-know novelist ex-Catatonia front woman Cerys Matthews who said of the judging process: ‘The quality of entrants has been extremely high and it has been a joy to experience firsthand the level of unpublished literary talent in this innovative new category.’
Stefan first drafted his novel at the age of 16. He has since graduated from Kingston University with a First Class degree in Creative Writing. Sweet Sixteen tells the story of Stanley Bird, a solitary, eccentric teenager who lives in a quiet town in Wales where nothing ever happens. Then, on his sixteenth birthday, he is gifted with superpowers and, with the help of his talking beagle Daryl, he becomes a superhero. It isn’t hard to see where the basic premise appeared from for the Powys writer.
He tells me he had started many stories and potential books as a child before writing this one, but this was the first that got finished: ‘I wrote Chapter One at the top just because that is what I always do, but this time I actually got to Chapter Two. The idea had already changed a lot before I got to the end of Chapter One. It was originally going to be a much darker story. In the book the main character has no friends, but originally he was going to have a big group of weird friends. The character led me when I was writing, for example, suddenly at the end of the first chapter he started to fly, out of nowhere and that is what led the novel off in the direction that it went.’
He stumbled upon the prize: ‘I’ve been sending the novel to agents already, but I haven’t sent in to any other competitions because there aren’t many for novels, in comparison to the number for short stories and poetry. This was the first one I came across, to be honest.’ As part of the prize Stefan has the opportunity for his novel to be published as an eBook by Sony, which could happen as quickly as the end of the month. When I ask him about this he becomes more wary: ‘I don’t feel that the book is finished. The current draft that has won the competition is nearly two years old. So I guess we’ll need to talk about when it will come out, because I want to get an agent and I want to get a professional editor to look it over also. I do know that the likelihood of getting it in a fit state that I am happy with before Christmas is unlikely.’
Stefan is keen not to get pigeon-holed as a novelist. He is also a musician, and was in a band before he left Powys for uni and London, and has since played solo and lists his influences as The Beatles and Radiohead. He is also a poet, and a scriptwriter. ‘I just feel like a writer really...I like anything that deals with words.’ Up to university he kept his poetry private, but now he is more open with it: ‘I love poetry; it has got a kind of immediacy and a soul to it that is different from any other discipline. I’m hoping that another opportunity I might be able to get with this prize is to be able to go somewhere with poetry, because agents and people won’t touch it usually because there’s no money it.’
He isn’t going to let the award go to his head though: ‘It is funny, really, I was actually on the front page of our local paper, and usually it is something like ‘Sheep Found’ or ‘Strimmer Stolen’ but this time the headline was ‘Write On Stefan!’ so now I can’t go anywhere in town without someone yelling ‘Write On.’ It keeps my feet on the ground as people just take the piss! I mean, you know, they are proud and they are nice... and it is nice, Powys is such a nice place to come back to, after spending three years at uni in London, the people are just in a time warp there.’
In January Stefan will escape the time warp to move back to London and seek his literary fortune. Hopefully, by then, he’ll have an agent in tow.
The Runners Up
28-year-old Claire McGowan was shortlisted for the Sony Reader Award for her literary thriller The Fall. Originally from Northern Ireland, the young writer now lives in Kent after studying English and French at Oxford University. The Fall is her second penned novel: ‘I started writing seriously about two years ago. I began on one book, and it took me about a year and a half, a bit of a labour of love. So I decided that I really had to write something else, I think The Fall is probably much more commercial and I found it much easier to write. It took me about four months because it came out really easily.’
‘It was very organic, there was a dream I had, and quite often I have my ideas in my dreams and they just develop from there. I think longer fiction just comes quite naturally to me, I seem to be an overwriter rather than an underwriter – 80,000 minimum is no problem.’ Claire has an agent and has started work on her third novel: ‘The award has all been distracting me, but I’m looking forward to getting back to it.’
29-year-old Benjamin Wood was also shortlisted for his unpublished novel The Bellwether Revivals. Benjamin grew up in northwest England and is now a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, where he teaches and develops undergraduate programmes. When I chat to him I fin Benjamin is, much like Stefan, keen to stress he is not just a novelist but is also a short story and screenplay writer and a musician. This is the second time he’s almost been signed to Sony, the first was when he quit his A levels for his band at 18.
Benjamin studied for an MFA in Vancouver, mainly because he couldn’t afford to study in the UK and he was awarded a Commonwealth grant which allowed him to go overseas instead. He cites mainly American novelists as his main influences, especially Richard Yates and William Styron: ‘I write very linearly, I think the book has a very old fashioned feel to it, my favourite writers tend to be old fashioned.’
The Bellwether Revivals is, at heart, a love story: ‘I started writing it in 2007, so took about three and a half years. I started writing it the wrong way first, and then I had to rethink it. It was a different story, the characters were all there but they were connected in different ways – it took me a while to work out how to tell the story.’ Benjamin has an agent and is currently writing another novel, he would like to see his work in a physically printed book soon.
THE SONY READER AWARD
Introducing three as-yet-unpublished British writers