Cancer helped me make shortlist, says novelist

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The former rock musician turned publisher Michael Cox had toyed with the bare bones of his novel for 30 years. But it was not until he was diagnosed with cancer that he wrote it, spurred on by the threat of impending surgery and a burst of energy from a course of steroids.

The Meaning of Night was snapped up in a publishers' bidding war which ended in a £430,000 deal for the British rights alone and was yesterday shortlisted for a Costa book award - the successor prizes to the long-established Whitbreads.

Four books are nominated in each of five categories - first novel, novel, biography, poetry and children's - with the £5,000 category winners then pitched against each other for an additional £25,000 top prize, awarded on7 February.

This year's nominations include two previous book of the year victors, Seamus Heaney and Mark Haddon, and a number of former nominees and category winners including William Boyd, Meg Rosoff and David Almond.

But no shortlisting could have been sweeter than that for Cox, who has gone blind in one eye because of the cancer and was recovering in hospital from a heart attack when he heard of his Costa honour.

"I'm 58, a balding white bloke who's got cancer and just had a heart attack. I never thought it might happen to me," he said from his home in Northamptonshire yesterday. "I was felling pretty sorry for myself in a ghastly NHS ward when my wife [Dizzy] told me the news. It really lifted my spirits."

His book tells the story of Edward Glyver, a man who always believed he was destined for greatness and then discovers he is the lost son of a wealthy lord.

"The steroid drug gives you an oomph and with the energy came a kind of confidence. And just as important was the thought that if the surgery wasn't successful, I might go blind. There was a motivation to use the window of time."

Cox's rivals include James Scudamore, whose novel The Amnesia Clinic, was previously shortlisted for the EDS Dylan Thomas Prize and Marilyn Heward Mills, whose book, Cloth Girl, so obsessed her she gave up her legal career to write. "Once I started the ball rolling thinking about the novel, it became overwhelming," she said.

But even prize veterans are pleased by recognition. Mark Haddon, who won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2003 with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is shortlisted for A Spot of Bother against William Boyd, Neil Griffiths and the much-award-nominated David Mitchell whose Black Swan Green was a surprise omission from the Man Booker shortlist. "It's really nice to get something for this book," Haddon said. "There is something rather wonderful about the Whitbread/Costa because of its benign preposterousness - the Beowulf versus Harry Potter scenario - that just get lots of publicity because of its format."

Boyd, who won the Whitbread first novel prize in 1981 for A Good Man in Africa, returns after 35 years with his spy novel, Restless, while Neil Griffiths wrote Saving Caravaggio.

Julia Golding, a former Foreign Office diplomat and Oxfam policy adviser who is nominated in the children's category for her first novel, The Diamond of Drury Lane, said she was thrilled. "I did lots of other things I'm really pleased about. But being a writer is a dream come true."

The other children's nominations are Clay by David Almond, whose first novel Skellig won the children's award in 1998; Just in Case, the second novel from Meg Rosoff, and Set in Stone, by Linda Newberry.

In the biography category, only Brian Thompson has been published before. His childhood memoir faces competition from the academic John Stubbs' warmly received biography of the poet John Donne. The other contenders are both journalists. Maggie Fergusson has written The Life of George Mackay Brown, the Scottish writer, while Jo Tatchell has produced the story of Nabeel Yasin, an Iraqi poet whose life was turned upside down by the rise of Saddam Hussein.

This year's awards attracted 580 entries, the highest number since they began 35 years ago.

The shortlists


William Boyd for Restless (Bloomsbury)

Neil Griffiths for Saving Caravaggio (Viking)

Mark Haddon for A Spot of Bother (Jonathan Cape)

David Mitchell for Black Swan Green (Sceptre)


Michael Cox for The Meaning of Night (John Murray)

Marilyn Heward Mills for Cloth Girl (Little, Brown)

Stef Penney for The Tenderness of Wolves (Quercus)

James Scudamore for The Amnesia Clinic (Harvill Secker)


Maggie Fergusson for George Mackay Brown: The Life (John Murray)

John Stubbs for Donne: A Reformed Soul (Viking)

Jo Tatchell for Nabeel's Song (Sceptre)

Brian Thompson for Keeping Mum (Atlantic Books)


Vicki Feaver for The Book of Blood (Jonathan Cape)

John Haynes for Letter to Patience (Seren)

Seamus Heaney for District and Circle (Faber and Faber)

Hugo Williams for Dear Room (Faber and Faber)


David Almond for Clay (Hodder Children's Books)

Julia Golding for The Diamond of Drury Lane (Egmont Press)

Meg Rosoff for Just In Case (Puffin)

Linda Newbery for Set in Stone (David Fickling Books)