One of Zadie Smith's first students, Maggie Shipstead, has won the £30,000 Dylan Thomas prize for her debut novel, Seating Arrangements.
Set on a fictional island off New England, Seating Arrangements skewers the pretensions of local society as patriarch Winn Van Meter prepares for his daughter's wedding. Judge and novelist Allison Pearson compared Shipstead to John Updike and Jane Smiley, and predicted that the 28-year-old Californian author would win a Pulitzer before she turns 50.
"At the age of 28, Maggie Shipstead has imagined herself inside the head of a 59-year-old male in the grip of an erotic infatuation," said Pearson. "This is territory that has been covered by the greats of American fiction, including John Updike and Jane Smiley. Maggie Shipstead doesn't just follow in their footsteps; she beats a distinctive and dazzling path of her own. The world has found a remarkable, humane new voice to explain us to ourselves."
"I wrote the first draft in about nine months," said Shipstead. "I was on the island of Nantucket. I had no friends there, so I was very efficient."
A graduate of Harvard, Shipstead took an MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she was taught by Smith. "It was the first time she'd ever taught and I think she had fairly mixed feelings about it," said Shipstead. "She was only 30, and she was writing On Beauty. She was brilliant – a little frightening as she was really hard on us, which caught everyone off guard. But for me it was a really good thing – I realised this was supposed to be difficult."
A full-time writer, having recently completed a fellowship at Stanford and spent some time travelling, Shipstead said the £30,000 which comes with the Dylan Thomas prize "wouldn't go amiss". "I'm really, really thrilled to win the prize," she said. "Coming into it I thought I had absolutely no chance. When they announced I'd won, my publisher, two seats away, almost tipped over the table."
The Dylan Thomas award is for a published author writing in English under the age of 30, in honour of the Welsh poet who wrote much of his best work in his 20s, and has been won in the past by Lucy Caldwell and Nam Le. At 28, Shipstead was the oldest contender for this year's prize, and up against authors including the 21-year-old Chibundu Onuzo and the 24-year-old Tom Benn. This year's judging panel featured Pearson, singer Cerys Matthews, journalist and author Carolyn Hitt, artist Kim Howells, Guardian journalist Nick Wroe, Hay festival founder Peter Florence and prize chair Peter Stead.