Rosie Alison vindicated for not exploiting Waterstone link to get The Very Thought of You published

It might be thought that being married to one of the best known and most influential names in the British books industry could open a few doors for a debut novelist. Even just a tiny bit. But first-timer Rosie Alison faced the same repeated heart-sinking rejection by publishers as many others, which perhaps made her shortlisting today for the 2010 Orange prize all the sweeter.

Alison’s novel The Very Thought of You is, she said, a “slow-grown labour of love”, written over eight years while raising a family with her husband, Tim Waterstone – the founder of the Waterstone’s book chain – and having a full-time job in TV and film production.

It is becoming something of a sleeper hit, yet it was repeatedly rejected by publishers and then ignored by the literary establishment. Alison recalled today how she did two rounds of submissions. Her first draft – “which I knew wasn’t ready but I hoped I might work with an editor” – was turned down by 10 publishers. Her second attempt went out to nine publishers, eight of whom said no and one – the small independent Alma Books – said yes. “All you need is one,” said Alison.

“To be honest I’m not in the least bit bitter, I’m completely philosophical about it. It’s par for the course.”

She did not exploit her marital connections. “My book is far too precious to me to contaminate it with that sort of thing,” she said. “You can’t expect everyone to be positive, it’s a very unfashionable book, I think. I never wrote it with any market considerations, I just wrote it in a private bubble for myself.”

Alison’s novel was one of two debuts – the other was Attica Locke for Black Water Rising – to make it to this year’s shortlist for the only UK prize dedicated to rewarding fiction by women writers. The list was completed by Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall, Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna, Lorrie Moore for A Gate at the Stairs, and Monique Roffey for The White Woman on the Green Bicycle.

Alison said she was “beyond thrilled” to be on the shortlist, nominated for a novel which follows a young girl’s wartime evacuation to Yorkshire and the unravelling relationship of the couple who put her up. “I allowed myself no expectations for anybody liking it or reading it. It’s certainly not going to be everybody’s cup of tea but people who do tune in to seem to get very moved by it, so that’s very rewarding.”

Alison’s book had had little fanfare and not even a national newspaper review before it appeared on the Orange longlist. Short paperback reviews since then have been mixed.

The Times called it “melancholic, mysterious and heartbreakingly gorgeous” while the Guardian said it sometimes read as “artless melodrama”.

The Orange jury chair, Daisy Goodwin, said: “Everybody who reads it seems very moved by it and even though it has been ignored by the literary establishment, readers absolutely love it.

“It’s a real word-of-mouth book, I think, and I was surprised by how strong the reactions in the room were to it.”

Goodwin, one of the UK’s leading TV producers, made headlines last month when she said the whole Orange prize judging process had been quite gruelling, with too many grim, depressing novels out there. “The Lovely Bones has a lot to answer for,” she said today.

Goodwin said she had been heartened by the positive response to her comments, so many people agreeing that the pleasure of reading was lacking in so many novels.

She said the judges were genuinely proud of the list and even though they had only, as a panel, completely agreed on one book – “not the one you think it is” – each novel was there on its own excellent merits.

The inclusion of Locke’s novel is striking for different reasons to Alison’s. It’s a thriller, a genre that rarely makes it to the finishing post of major literary prizes. “It’s a fantastic book,” said Goodwin. “It’s a book you can give anyone and they would enjoy it. It works both in literary terms and page-turning terms.”

High-profile novelists such as Sarah Waters and Andrea Levy did not make the shortlist but the Man Booker prize-winning Mantel did. “We’d have been insane not to include it,” said Goodwin. “We have been judging on merits and it would have been a mistake for us to ignore it simply because it had won the Booker. It is a sensationally good book.”

The only contemporary book on the list is Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, her third novel. “It has a funny and fresh take on post-9/11 America that I find completely beguiling,” said Goodwin.

After Mantel, the best known writer is the American novelist Barbara Kingsolver with her first novel in 11 years.

Goodwin said she thought The Lacuna, which moves from the Mexican revolution to postwar McCarthyism, was a better novel that Kingsolver’s best known book, The Poisonwood Bible: “It’s an extraordinarily moving, complex book that delivers on so many levels.”

Finally, Roffey’s story of an English couple who move to Trinidad is, according to Goodwin, in with as strong a shout as the others. “Again, it’s a book that hasn’t had a lot of attention but is a fantastically good read. It’s a sexy book.”

The judges – who also include Rabbi Lady Neuberger, journalists Miranda Sawyer and Alexandra Shulman and novelist Michèle Roberts – will now re-read the six. A winner will be named on 9 June. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds