When I'm 64: social worker is literary hit – after 20 years of trying

Debut novel about Dickens makes second literary prize long-list

From churning out a first novel between shifts as a social worker to being listed for two of the most prestigious literary prizes; Gaynor Arnold still can't think of herself as a critically acclaimed author.

She has been writing short stories for 20 years for pleasure, but last night, the 64-year-old, who has two children, was celebrating being long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction, the UK's annual book award for fiction written by women.

It is the second time judges have picked the the West Midlands writer to go head-to-head with the world's best authors. Last year, her debut novel, Girl in a Blue Dress, was long-listed for the Man Booker prize.

Speaking to The Independent yesterday from her home in Edgbaston, Arnold said she never thought her book, a fictionalised account of Charles Dickens' unhappy marriage to his wife, Catherine, would cause such a buzz.

"Being nominated for these prizes is the sort of thing you might let yourself occasionally dream about but you never expect it to happen," she said. "Of course I wanted the book to do well but I never even thought about the prizes.

"What's particularly satisfying about the latest nomination is that it proves to me that my book is not just a fluke. Two different sets of judges seem to like it which is lovely."

Her debut book imagines what life was like for Catherine, a demure and docile middle-class Victorian who gave the author 10 children but was treated appallingly. They eventually separated and by the time Dickens died he was all but estranged from his wife.

In the book, Arnold has changed the names of Dickens and his wife in the book to Alfred and Dorothea Gibson but she makes no secret that the author is the main inspiration.

"I've always enjoyed Dickens and after reading his books I also picked up quite a few biographies on him. He was a fascinating person, a very sociable and cheerful person who enjoyed a good family life. But suddenly he began behaving appallingly towards his wife. There was something in the psychology of that change that interested me."

The book begins after Alfred Gibson's funeral in Westminster Abbey, to which his estranged wife is not invited. As his fans watch his cortege arrive, Dorothea mulls over her life married to the greatest author of the age. Over time, she begins to confront the passivity which left her alone and scorned and eventually confronts her husband's mistress.

"I think the most difficult aspect was to get the voice of Dorothea right because she is the one who narrates the novel," Arnold said. "I wanted her to sound plausible as a Victorian woman but I didn't want her to come across as a pastiche of Victorian writing."

Her long-listing is also a coup for the equally little-known independent publishing house that brought out her book.

Producing six novels a year on average, the Birmingham-based Tindal Street Press is a minnow compared to the publishing houses in London, yet judges seem to love its authors; 11 of the 42 novels Tindal has nurtured over the past decade have made literary prize lists. The Booker and Orange prizes have nominated a Tindal Street author for the past two years.

Arnold has been writing for 20 years with the Tindal Street Fiction Group, a small collective of West Midlands authors founded in 1983 by Alan Mahar and including the writers Joel Lane and Annie Murray. The publishing house that shares its name came from the group but remains independent of it. Only when Arnold joined the group did she find the confidence to start writing.

"If you haven't written for a long time you do wonder whether you have it in you to start writing again so joining a group is a very good way of building up confidence in yourself.

"Writing is a very lonely profession, you're sitting in a room all day with all these thoughts buzzing around your head and sometimes it's good to get out and talk to other authors.

"To be honest your family are never best placed to look at your work because they don't want to offend you so fellow writers are always good at critiquing your work honestly."

Late bloomers: Authors who took their time

Mary Anne Evans Known by her masculine pen name George Eliot, Mary Anne Evans was 40 when her first novel, Adam Bede, was published. Crippled by self doubt, Evans was already a highly-respected scholar who belonged to radical literary circles but it took her years to get the courage to write a novel. Adam Bede met instant success and over the next six years she churned out four more novels before releasing her most famous work, Middlemarch, in 1872. She is regarded as one of the Victorian era's literary greats.

Mary Wesley An MI5 worker during the Second World War who had three sons by three different men, Mary Wesley was nicknamed "Wild Mary" by her family. She once said that "60 should be the time to start something new, not put your feet up", which would explain why she decided to publish her first adult novel at age 70. She had tried to get her work published many times before but her belated achievement later became her unique selling point. She is often described as the quintessential late bloomer. In the last 20 years of her life she went on to publish nine more books and is thought to have sold at least three million copies of her work worldwide.

Diana Athill A mover and shaker in the publishing world for the past 50 years, Athill is not technically a late bloomer but her Costa Book of the Year win this year for her autobiography about old age, Somewhere Towards the End, shows that age is no barrier for producing prize-winning work. Aged 91, she is the oldest winner of the Costa (formerly the Whitbread) awards. She has vowed to continue writing.

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