A former motorcycle gang member and a mother of 12 who wrote her first novel after she was widowed were among 20 authors on the long-list for the £30,000 Orange Prize for women's fiction announced yesterday.
Joolz Denby, 49, drew on her experiences after marrying into the Satan's Slaves biker gang to write Billie Morgan , the story of a woman trying to forget her past. And Ursula, Under is the debut novel of American writer Ingrid Hill, whose experience of motherhood has informed her saga of a two-year-old who falls down a well.
They illustrate the diversity of a list containing many names which will be unfamiliar even to the judges, who include Jenni Murray, the presenter of BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour , Joanne Harris, the author, and Jo Brand, the comedian.
A record number of British writers, led by awards veteran Kate Atkinson, have made the long-list in the 10th year of the prize. The prize is open to women writing in English, and British writers are often outnumbered by rivals from North America and the Commonwealth.
A third of the contenders are first-time novelists and about the same number are aged about 50 or older.
Murray said: "I think we have a really terrific range of stuff there, both from the nationality of the writers and the subject matter, whether first-time novelists or experienced writers like Anita Desai.
"We all seemed to agree on what kind of books should be Orange Prize books. All had to be books that were really enjoyable reads. I don't mean by that low-brow or anything. The brow didn't come into it, but we wanted books that really grabbed us."
Harris, the author of bestsellers such as Chocolat , admitted she was sceptical about the prize which she considered "patronising". But she said the experience of judging had been wonderful. "It has broadened my perspective on contemporary writing. It's been very good for me and if it's worked for me, it will work for the public too."
Kate Mosse, the prize founder, said that about eight on the long-list were aged at least 50, including three of the debut novelists - Marina Lewycka, Tricia Wastvedt and Ingrid Hill.
"We're not interested in age as such, but it did seem an interesting trend that people who have lived their lives ... were coming through instead of those who were at the beginning of their life experiences."
Two themes were common - the questions of identity, and what it means to be a parent. Two on the long-list - Anita Desai and Joyce Carol Oates - have been previously long-listed for theprize but neither havemade the short-list.
Kate Atkinson (British), Case Histories
Clare Clark (British), The Great Stink
Kira Cochrane (British), Escape Routes For Beginners
Joolz Denby (British), Billie Morgan
Anita Desai (Indian), The Zigzag Way
Christine Dwyer Hickey (Irish), Tatty
Patricia Ferguson (British), It So Happens
Melanie Finn (British), Away From You
Jane Gardam (British), Old Filth
Sue Gee (British), The Mysteries Of Glass
Miranda Hearn (British), Nelson's Daughter
Ingrid Hill (American), Ursula, Under
Sheri Holman (American), The Mammoth Cheese
Marina Lewycka (British), A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian
Nell Leyshon (British), Black Dirt
Michelle Lovric (British), The Remedy
Maile Meloy (American), Liars and Saints
Joyce Carol Oates (American), The Falls
Lionel Shriver (American), We Need To Talk About Kevin
Tricia Wastvedt (British), The RiverReuse content