A nurse who spent more than 10 years on the wards of Great Ormond Street children's hospital has been propelled on to one of fiction's most prestigious shortlists only three years after quitting her job to study creative writing.
Christie Watson, 35, who overcame a crisis of confidence on her way to writing her first book, has been shortlisted for the £5,000 2011 Costa First Novel Award for Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, which was published in March.
The novel is a tale of domestic upheaval in Lagos, as told by its 12-year-old Nigerian central character, Blessing. "Every little helps and I've been really delighted and surprised by this," said Watson yesterday, before the shortlist was officially announced. "I don't know who else has made the list but I know from previous years that I'll be in good company."
The former nurse said her life was transformed when she quit in 2008 to study an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. "I'd always wanted to write when I was growing up but didn't have the confidence and then fell into nursing," she said.
"I turned up at Anglia with my rough draft, having left school with no A-levels, and met some life-long friends. It was all about confidence."
The award's judges said the book was "funny, heartbreaking and utterly real: the characters lodge in your imagination long after you finish the book".
Watson credits her husband, a Nigeria-born Muslim, as a source of inspiration for the novel. "After we met, I began travelling back and forth to Nigeria," she said. "I started the story from the point of view of a white oil worker. But the support I got from the Nigerian community gave me the courage to begin writing from Blessing's point of view."
Watson is joined on the shortlist by the Irish novelist Kevin Barry for City of Bohane, a novel set 40 years into the future about warring factions on the west coast of Ireland. Patrick McGuinness, a French and comparative literature professor at St Anne's College, Oxford, has won a place for The Last Hundred Days, set in Bucharest in 1989. They are competing against Jamaica-born Kerry Young, whose novel Pao explores a 1960s Jamaica wracked by gang warfare.
The shortlist for the £5,000 best novel award includes Julian Barnes's Man Booker winner The Sense of an Ending, alongside John Burnside's critically-acclaimed horror-suspense novel A Summer of Drowning. They go up against Andrew Miller for Pure, set in an 18th-century Parisian cemetery, and Louisa Young's First World War novel My Dear I Wanted to Tell You.
The overall winner across all categories, announced on 24 January, will receive an additional £30,000.