Young writers come of age on shortlist for Thomas prize

It was founded to encourage the raw, creative talent of young writers in the English-speaking world. But announcing the shortlist for the inaugural £60,000 EDS Dylan Thomas Prize yesterday, Andrew Davies, the television screenwriter and award chairman, hailed all six authors for the sophistication of their fully fledged works.

"I thought we were going to get a lot of clearly autobiographical novels that were all about 'my struggle with my parents' and 'the affair that broke my heart', but they're much cleverer than that. They're all so sophisticated," he said.

The prize has been set up by a consortium of public authorities and private companies, led by EDS, a technology-services company, as part of a drive by Wales to develop its cultural life in an international context. The inspiration was Swansea-born Dylan Thomas, whose first book of poetry was published when he was 21.

Writers under the age of 30 in the English-speaking world were eligible and a long-list of 14 books was whittled down to six by a judging panel including Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of The Independent, and Menna Elfyn, the Welsh poet.

The chosen authors are James Scudamore for The Amnesia Clinic, Lucy Caldwell for Where They Were Missed, Liza Ward for Outside Valentine, Rachel Trezise for Fresh Apples and Ian Holding for Unfeeling. The sixth author, Nick Laird, was long-listed both for his debut novel, Utterly Monkey, and his first poetry collection, To A Fault, and won through to the final with his prose.

A win for Laird would represent double the prize money that his wife, Zadie Smith, took home earlier this year at the Orange Prize with On Beauty. Laird, 30, said the prize was a huge sum which would enable him to give up reviewing to concentrate on writing full time.

Whereas American writers were sustained by a generous system of grants and retreats, in Britain there were far fewer opportunities like that and prizes bridged the gap, he said. "It would give you space to write. If you write poetry, as well as prose, you don't make much money from that."

Scudamore, 30, a former advertising executive from London, said the award was exciting not least because it made you wonder what the Man Booker Prize would look like if opened up to American talent as well as writers in the British Commonwealth and Ireland.

He added: "It's an amazing leap of faith on the part of the people who set up the prize. These are very untested novelists. But the opportunity to grow with this enormous amount of money behind you is really extraordinary. It's a life-changing sum."

Caldwell, 25, who was born in Belfast and has won awards for her theatre work, expressed a soft spot for Swansea because it was where her first play was staged.

Trezise, 28, the only Welsh finalist, was particularly proud of the Welsh connection. Despite admitting she was no great Dylan Thomas fan, she said: "He's in my blood. I grew up with it."

Her own collection of short stories is set in the Rhondda Valley where she was born and still lives. The prize would enable her to see more of the world.

"I'm already getting criticism for just writing about the Rhondda," she said. "I can't afford to go anywhere else at the moment. I write about the Rhondda because that's what's accessible."

The winner will be announced in Swansea on 27 October, Dylan Thomas's birthday.

The shortlist was announced in Hurst House, the London club owned by Neil Morrissey, the actor. A huge Dylan Thomas fan, Morrissey also owns Brown's Hotel in Laugharne, where the poet used to drink.

Peter Stead, the prize's founding chairman, said: "In commemorating Dylan Thomas, it seemed not inappropriate to be in a central London drinking hole. We hope the spirit of Dylan Thomas is here."

Contenders for the £60,000 prize

* James Scudamore, 30, for The Amnesia Clinic

The story of an English schoolboy in South America, by a former advertising executive who had a globetrotting childhood. He lives in London.

* Lucy Caldwell, 25, for Where They Were Missed

A brave teenager confronts the lies of family life against the background of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Belfast-born Caldwell now lives in London.

* Liza Ward, 25, for Outside Valentine

Based on the true stories of murders in 1958 which inspired the film Badlands. Ward was born in New York City and now lives in Massachusetts.

* Rachel Trezise, 28, for Fresh Apples

A collection of short stories set in the once vibrant coal mining valleys of the Rhondda in south Wales, where Trezise was born and still lives. Says the prize would let her see more of the world.

* Nick Laird, 30, for Utterly Monkey

Danny Williams is doing well in London but cannot shrug off his native Northern Ireland. Hints of autobiography from Laird, who was born in Co Tyrone.

* Ian Holding, 28, for Unfeeling

A novel based on what happened to a pupil at a school in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, where Holding, a schoolteacher, lives, works and writes.