It is a story that could reignite the flagging confidence of the most dejected aspiring novelist.
The frustrated efforts of Catherine O'Flynn, a former postwoman who tried and failed 15 times to get her work published, were finally rewarded yesterday when her first book was shortlisted for the £25,000 Costa Book Awards.
O'Flynn, 37, whose novel, What Was Lost, was turned down repeatedly before it secured a publishing deal, began writing while working long hours at a shopping centre. The plot revolves around a security guard with a sleep disorder who goes on a quest for the truth after seeing a child who had disappeared 20 years ago on a CCTV camera.
The book – on the shortlist for first novels, with an all-female list of nominees – "pulls the rug from under your feet from the very first page", the judges said.
O'Flynn, who has also worked as a teacher, web manager and civil servant, said she wrote her novel almost accidentally. Her creative side was awakened by her work at a shopping centre in the West Midlands. "There were many things about it that made me want to write. The trance-like state of the shoppers consuming everything in their wake, the eeriness of the empty centre at night, the constant awareness of surveillance, the differing experiences of staff and shoppers, the industrial past buried beneath it.
"I kept writing about it – almost obsessively, I really wanted to pin down the essence of the place but at that stage there was no plan for this to be a novel.
"Then I heard a story doing the rounds among the centre security guards of a child being seen on one of the CCTV monitors in the middle of the night and that image stayed with me."
O'Flynn's book was also longlisted for the Booker and the Orange prizes.
The other nominations in the first-novel category are dominated by writers born abroad. They include the Bangladeshi-born Tahmima Anam, with A Golden Age, about the country's liberation war; Indian-born Nikita Lalwani, for Gifted, about a 14-year-old maths genius; and Roma Tearne, originally from Sri Lanka, for Mosquito, a love story set against the civil war. The shortlist for novels features Skin Lane, about a man whose nightmares overwhelm him, by Neil Bartlett, as well as Day, by A L Kennedy, and Rupert Thomson's Death of a Murderer, about a police constable summoned to guard the body of Myra Hindley in a Suffolk mortuary. The Road Home, by Rose Tremain, about a migrant from eastern Europe who hopes to find a new life in Britain, completes the list.
The biography section includes a story of the wartime double agent, Eddie Chapman, entitled Agent ZigZag, by Ben Macintyre, which is to be turned into a film.
Winners of the five categories in the awards – for first book, biography, poetry and children's writing – will be announced on 3 January 2008. They will then be pitted against each other for the overall book of the year accolade on 22 January at an awards ceremony in London.Reuse content