What's it like winning £10,000 as a young debut author? Omar Robert Hamilton opens up about winning the Betty Trask Prize in 2018, and life after publishing your first book.
Looking back one year on, what impact has the Betty Trask Prize had on you as a debut author?
The prize, of course, bought me more time to work on my next project – which I am grateful for. It was prize money for a short film that bought me much of the time I needed to write The City Always Wins. And now, thanks to the Betty Trask Prize, I’ve had time to get pretty deep into my next project.
But as well as time it took another kind of pressure off me. For me the timescale of book publishing was quite a shock. Nearly everything I’d ever done before had been published online – where you have instant access to stats, data and feedback. Book publishing, at least my experience of it, was the inverse. Long months before publication and then, one day, the book has been released. Some reviews arrive, some friends send you photographs from bookshops and that’s about it. It’s months before you get any information beyond Goodreads reviews and those insane, meaningless Amazon internal rankings. I found this incredibly frustrating and couldn’t quite believe how cut out I was from the industrial process. But the prize somehow freed me from those frustrations. The fact that it was awarded by the Society of Authors, by a panel of writers, helped me leave City behind and get on with my next work.
How important do you think these awards are for writers, particularly at such a young age?
I don’t know really. I think it’s great that within the UK industry there are several chances for a book to get a boost beyond publication. Anything that keeps us away from a box-office style model in which a book’s success is made or broken on its opening week in the shops is good, ultimately, for our general cultural health.
On the other hand, there is too much press focus on prizes – the big ones in particular – which I’m sure ultimately narrow how much gets read. Prizes are a form of soft power – anyone can set up a prize if they have enough financial backing and there is an inherently anti-democratic potential in that. The ability to guide what people read is no small thing.
If I were to imagine an idealised publishing ecosystem I would like to see author/publisher collectives paying out decent advances and shared dividends to everyone rather than a few people getting lucky (and it is luck – of timing, the make-up of the jury, their taste etc.) with prizes each year. Writing is already so individual, it would be nice to think about more collective opportunities to help each other out after publication.
What advice do you have for debut authors who are looking to get their work/name out there?
Forget about your name. Autobiography is haemorrhaging in to too many other forms. Forget about building any presence on social media – it’ll just waste your time and break your attention span. Only write what you really feel is important, and look for new language for those feelings. We are in a cultural war: be engaged in that war. There’s just no time for anything less. Do good work, put it out there.
Photograph: © Sam Waxman
About Omar Robert Hamilton
Omar Robert Hamilton is a writer and filmmaker. His debut novel, The City Always Wins (2017), is a chronicle of the rise and fall of the Egyptian Revolution a process he has been closely involved with since 2011. He is a co-founder of the Palestine Festival of Literature, an annual international festival that takes place in cities across Palestine. He is currently working on a multi-disciplinary narrative about migration and anti-migration.
About the Betty Trask Prize and Awards
The Betty Trask Prize and Awards are presented for a first novel by a writer under 35. The Betty Trask Prize 2018 winner went to Omar Robert Hamilton, who received £10,000 for his debut The City Always Wins (Faber & Faber). Five authors also received prize money for the Betty Trask Award.
This year's shortlists have just been announced, with judges Ben Brooks, Elanor Dymott and Vaseem Khan. Past winners include Zadie Smith, David Szalay, Hari Kunzru and Sarah Waters.