A failure at film – but heading for Orange glory?

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Literary prizes can provoke passion, tears and shouting matches among judges, and this year's Orange Prize for Fiction is apparently no exception.

Daisy Goodwin, chair of the jury, revealed that of the shortlist of six novels announced yesterday, only one did not divide the panel. "And it's not the one you think," she said, alluding to the presumed front-runner, Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning Wolf Hall.

Speculation quickly mounted that it was the thriller Black Water Rising, a debut work by Attica Locke, an African-American screenwriter-turned-novelist, with rumours that all the judges had given it the thumbs-up.

Locke, 36, a Texan who lives in Los Angeles, yesterday revealed that she had started on her novel after taking a break from the Hollywood film industry, which she had worked in for 10 years. It was a frustrating decade as none of her screenplays were ever made into films.

"People in the industry have great intentions but, ultimately, I came to a place where I needed a break from it," she said. The idea to write fiction came to Locke while she was wandering around a bookshop in Los Angeles. "I kept reading the first pages of novels and thinking 'I can do this'."

She took out a second mortgage on her home and gave herself a year off work to write the novel. The story revolves around Jay Porter, a lawyer with a secret history involving violence, an FBI file and a trial that nearly destroyed him. He runs a fledgling law practice whose most promising client is a low-rent call girl.

Jay's hopes of making a fresh start are compromised when he saves the life of a drowning woman whose own secrets ensnare him in a murder investigation that could cost him his life. The book has also been nominated for the Edgar Award, the NAACP Image Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Goodwin expressed her admiration for Locke's debut work, along with the five other selected novels. "It is a wonderful thriller which owes more to Roman Polanski's Chinatown than to James Ellroy [to whom it has been compared]. It has great literary merit but it is also a satisfying page-turner."

Goodwin praised Rosie Alison's debut work, The Very Thought of You, along with Mantel's Wolf Hall, Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs and Monique Roffey's The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. Both Kingsolver and Mantel have previously been shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

Goodwin confirmed that passions were stirred among the jurors – the novelist Michele Roberts, journalist Miranda Sawyer, Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman and the rabbi Baroness Neuberger – in the debate leading to the shortlist's announcement. "There were no tears but there were pink cheeks. I had to go and freshen up at one point," she said.

The prize was set up 15 years ago to celebrate the best in women's fiction. The winner will be announced in June.

On the shortlist

The Very Thought of You, Rosie Alison

Alison, 46, who lives in London, grew up in Yorkshire and spent 10 years directing TV documentaries before becoming a film producer. Her novel is about a girl evacuated to the country during the Second World War.

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver, 55, is best known for The Poisonwood Bible. The Lacuna is set in the US and Mexico during the McCarthy years. It entwines the worlds of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky.

Black Water Rising, Attica Locke

Locke, 36, lives in Los Angeles and is a screenwriter. Black Water Rising is about a lawyer with a dark past who stumbles upon a murder investigation which leads him to a chain of corruption that could cost him his life.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Mantel, 57, is the author of 12 books, including Beyond Black, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2006. Wolf Hall is based in England in the 1520s and is about the rise of Thomas Cromwell.

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore

Award-winning author Moore, 53, teaches English at the University of Wisconsin. This book focuses on Tassie Keltjin, a farmer's daughter from the Midwest who moves to a university town and encounters politics and culture.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, Monique Roffey

Born in Trinidad and educated in the UK, Roffey, 44, published her debut Sun Dog in 2002. Her second book is about a couple from Trinidad who move to England and their struggles to settle in.