Costa first novel award winner recalls 'awful' time writing his book

Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle wins £5,000 honour, alongside Sally Rooney who is the youngest author ever to win best novel

His debut The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle might be being praised as an “ingenious, intriguing and highly original mindbender of a murder mystery” by judges after it landed the Costa first novel award, but author Stuart Turton says that the process of writing it was “just awful”.

On Monday night, Turton was announced as the winner of the £5,000 award for his genre-bending debut, in which Evelyn is murdered hundreds of times at a party thrown by her parents. The only way to break the cycle is for Aidan – who wakes each morning, Groundhog Day-style, in the body of a different guest – to identify her killer.

Chosen as winner from 117 entries, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is, said judges, “fresh, enticing and completely unputdownable”. “We were all stunned that this exciting and accomplished novel, planned and plotted perfectly, is a debut,” said the panel.

The prize has previously gone to massive bestsellers such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

Turton, a 38-year-old freelance journalist from Widnes, Cheshire, never had a burning desire to be an author, but as an Agatha Christie fan since childhood, he had always wanted to write a golden age crime novel with a “Roger Ackroyd kind of twist”. A “phenomenally bad” attempt when he was 21 pointed him elsewhere, travelling the world and working in bookshops, airports and goat ranches, even cleaning toilets, until he became a journalist.

He was working as a travel writer in Dubai when the idea that would become Evelyn Hardcastle struck him. “It was the body-hopping and the Groundhog Day loop. I didn’t have anything else, the characters or murder, I just had that concept. The moment I got it, I thought: ‘Oh crap, now I’ve got to go and do that, and I’ve got to be in England, I need that atmosphere, those stately homes. I need to be lost in drizzly forests, I cannot do that in the desert,’” he says. “I was terrified the entire time, from the moment the idea came and I knew I had to follow through on it.”

Back in London, the novel still didn’t come easily. “The more I planned it, the more I tried to wrap these knots together, the more complicated it became. It was just awful for about a year,” he says. “I must have been horrible to be around because my mind was being pulled in about 18 directions. I’d given so much up, convinced my girlfriend to come [to London], and I didn’t think I could pull it off. Eventually I started having fun with it. The second year, I saw a glimmer in it that it could actually work, and that was amazing.”

Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney: at 27, she is the youngest ever recipient of the Costa best novel award. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Guardian

Turton’s debut is one of five winners in the Costa awards, which go to the “most enjoyable” books by authors resident in the UK and Ireland. Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People, about the relationship between two youngsters in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, has taken this year’s Costa novel award, beating 172 contenders including Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher.

Rooney’s win makes the 27-year-old the youngest ever recipient of the novel category, for a book that judges called a “trailblazing novel about modern life and love that will electrify any reader”.

Bart van Es, an Oxford professor, won the biography award for his memoir The Cut Out Girl, which centres on the true story of a young Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis with a network of foster families in Holland during the second world war, and which judges called “the hidden gem of the year”.

The poetry category went to the Scottish poet JO Morgan for Assurances, which draws from his father’s role as an officer in the RAF involved in the “Airborne Nuclear Deterrent” during the cold war. “We were all gripped by this polyphonic book-length poem and dazzled by its originality and inventiveness,” said judges.

The Costa children’s book award, won in the past by Philip Pullman, was taken this year by Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War. Set during the first world war, it is “as perfect a novel as you could ever want to read,” according to judges.

Chosen from 641 entries in total, the five category winners will now go on to compete for the Costa book of the year, which is worth £30,000 and was won posthumously last year by Helen Dunmore with her final poetry collection Inside the Wave. This year’s winner, chosen by a panel of judges chaired by BBC journalist Sophie Raworth, will be announced on 29 January.

Costa book award 2018 category winners

Best novel: Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber)

Best first novel: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (Raven Books)

Best biography: The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es (Penguin)

Best poetry: Assurances by JO Morgan (Jonathan Cape)

Best children’s book: The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay (Macmillan)

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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