Here's something novel – backing for first-time writers

High-street chain Waterstone's will champion books from 11 authors making their fiction debut
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The Independent Culture

The story of the publication of Stephen Kelman's first novel is worthy of a book in itself. But it is his debut story of murder that is set to keep bookworms happy after it was tipped for literary success this year.

The 34-year-old writer's book, Pigeon English, is one of 11 debut novels in a new initiative launched by the bookseller Waterstone's to champion the best fiction from first-time authors.

The novelist hit the headlines when a 12-way bidding war broke out between publishers for the rights to Pigeon English. He sold the book in February last year, only months after losing his job as a council administrator.

Kelman said last night that he was "very pleased, very honoured, very surprised" to be included on the list. "I was actually made redundant from my job just after I finished the first draft of Pigeon English," he added. "Looking back, it's a bit of a blessing in disguise I had the time to get the book finished.

"I think having the public validation that someone has read and enjoyed your book and feels able to include it gives you a lot of encouragement you are on the right track. I hope it will give exposure not only to my own work but also to other first-time novelists."

He tells the tale of 11-year-old Harrison Opoku, recently arrived from Ghana with his mother and elder sister to live on the ninth floor of an inner-city block of flats. Kelman took his inspiration from the violent knife crime that pervades communities in Britain, including his own housing estate in Luton.

Helen Garnons-Williams, editorial director of publisher Bloomsbury, said he had "written about an important, urgent subject in a way that is funny and terrifying, entertaining and heartbreaking".

Other first-time writers included on the list are former Holby City actress Sarah Winman, author of When God Was a Rabbit, Ivy League university lecturer Téa Obreht (The Tiger's Wife) and film-maker David Bezmozgis (The Free World).

Author Sam Leith said he was "thrilled" his book, The Confidence Engine, about the disappearance of an eccentric mathematician, had been recognised. "As an ex-literary editor I've got quite a lithe sense of how many first novels go unnoticed and what a struggle it is to get any sort of publicity or shot of people seeing the book and a chance to pick it up," he said. "I am all too aware of what a really great stroke of good fortune and privilege it is. It will make a hell of a difference to have the book near the front of Waterstone's, rather than one copy at the back."

The selection, whittled down from about 100 submissions from publishers, include tales of war, futuristic cities and cricket, their writers hailing from countries including Sri Lanka, Latvia and Canada. Dominic Myers, Waterstone's managing director, hailed "one of the most exciting and remarkable collections of debut novels".

The magnificent 11

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, Bloomsbury

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, Jonathan Cape

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht, W&N

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry, Jonathan Cape

The Free World by David Bezmozgis, Viking

The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages by Sophie Hardach, Simon & Schuster

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson, Fig Tree

The Coincidence Engine by Sam Leith, Bloomsbury

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud, William Heinemann

The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed, Viking

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman, Headline Review

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