Debut novelist shortlisted for Orange Prize

Even my editor was surprised, says writer

A first-time novelist who divides her time between writing, running an environmental website and managing an astronomy museum has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Samantha Harvey, 34, declared she was daunted and delighted to be one of just six authors selected yesterday for the final stage of the international prize.

She earned her place with her first published novel, The Wilderness, about a man with Alzheimer's struggling to hold on to his memories and identity.

The list, said to have gone down to the wire, includes Americans Ellen Feldman, Samantha Hunt and Marilynne Robinson, the Irish writer Deirdre Madden as well as the Pakistani/British author Kamila Shamsie.

The bookmaker William Hill has rated Feldman as the favourite at 2/1 with her novel Scottsboro. Madden, who is running with her seventh novel, Molly Fox's Birthday, was previously shortlisted in 1997.

"We were right down to the wire on several of the books and choosing just six was far harder than I had imagined, but we all left the judging room proud of the list we have chosen," said the broadcaster and chair of the judging panel, Fi Glover.

Harvey said it had come as a complete shock when her editor called to say she had been shortlisted for the prize, now in its 14th year, which celebrates fiction writing from women around the world.

"I was flabbergasted. My editor even said 'I am quite surprised' as it is a difficult novel for them," she explained.

"Everybody on the shortlist is quite daunting to me. I don't feel immensely confident. I am quite confused how I could have made it on to the shortlist. I keep thinking surely there must have been a mistake."

The daughter of a builder and a therapist, Harvey grew up in Kent with her older sister. She did not start writing until her late twenties while teaching English in Japan. Inspired by the dedication and diligence her mother showed in penning novels, she decided to put pen to paper too.

"My family is absolutely thrilled. My mum has written a few novels that aren't published. She has been so gracious about it, so pleased."

Harvey began writing The Wilderness while completing an MA at Bath Spa University. It focuses on Jake, a man in his 60s, who has lost his wife, has a son in prison and is battling against Alzheimer's. She researched her novel by speaking to carers and nurses at centres across Bath.

At the moment she is undertaking a PhD while writing another novel, a modern-day take on the life and death of Socrates.

She said: "I think anxiety comes when you have success with a first novel. You think 'Can I do it again?' It is a bit of hurdle to overcome.

"I am very aware this is one novel and a career is made of many novels."

The winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction will be announced in London on 3 June and will receive a £30,000 cheque and a bronze statue known as "the Bessie", created by artist Grizel Niven.

Orange Prize: The contenders

* Ellen Feldman, 67, American, for Scottsboro, about a journalist's fight to save nine black youths from the electric chair in 1930s Alabama.

* Samantha Hunt, 37, American, for The Invention of Everything Else, about a Serbian-born scientist and a woman he meets at the end of his life.

* Deidre Madden, 48, Irish, for Molly Fox's Birthday, in which a playwright reflects on the life of her friend, a celebrated actress, and questions why she never celebrates her birthday.

* Marilynne Robinson, 62, American, for Home, which tells the story of a prodigal son as he returns home to make peace with his past.

* Kamila Shamsie, 35, Pakistani-British, for Burnt Shadows, about a Japanese woman whose world was obliterated at Nagasaki, following her family over 50 years from India to Pakistan, America to Afghanistan.

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