Raphael Selbourne had started to write a novel twice in 20 years and abandoned the endeavour both times because he had “nothing to write”.
Instead, he worked as teacher, a night watchman and a scooter salesman in Italy. It was only when he moved to Wolverhampton four years ago and began teaching illiterate, jobless adults that he met a Bangladeshi woman who had escaped a forced marriage – and inspiration finally struck.
Tonight, his dream to be successful writer was realised when he was announced the winner of the Costa Book Award in its “debut novel” category, for Beauty, inspired by his friendship with the unnamed Asian woman.
“I didn’t consciously start out to write a novel inspired by the people I met, but what I was seeing and hearing made me want to stay in Wolverhampton, and then, after a couple of years, I decided I had the necessary material and the voices I needed to realise a long held dream,” he said.
“I had wanted to write for a long time, but by the time I went to Wolverhampton, I’d given up on it. I’d started once or twice in my 20s and 30s but realised I had nothing to write.
“But through my job as a literacy teacher in places like care homes, I met people who inspired me with their tales, and I met a muse for my main character.”
The woman, he said, was Muslim, and her dilemma presented a story that he had never before witnessed.
His book, published last September, revolves around the story of Beauty Begum, who aged 14 is married to a 45-year-old mullah in Bangladesh and escapes this arranged marriage by feigning madness. Aged 20, she finds herself in disgrace at her parent’s home in Wolverhampton, and is forced to learn how to read at the local job centre in order to claim unemployment benefits. There she meets a working-class man, recently released from prison, who becomes her unlikely saviour.
Mr Selbourne, 42, from Oxford, comes from a family with a rich literary history. His father David Selbourne is a historian, philosopher and expert on South Asia and the Middle East who has written several books. His grandfather, Hugh Selbourne, was a renowned doctor, bibliophile and diarist. This, he admitted, did not help his writer’s block when he first attempted to start a novel.
“I’m happy to continue the family tradition and there was relief all around [with the publication of Beauty],” he said. “I had a sense of underachievement and coming here [to Wolverhampton] has made me.”