This time last year, my diary tells me, I was reading The Bookseller and saw the writers listed for the Joan Hessayon New Writers’ Award. It gave me a warm glow then. It still does, remembering.
That warm glow is one of those really solid jobs, like thinking about Christmas. It has a lot of history, some of it personal. Well, quite a lot of it personal, actually. And it includes people crying with happiness, a huge amount of generosity and some seriously good parties.
The list for this year’s Joan Hessayon contenders is due to be published on 20th June. So I thought I would try to share some of the history and a little of the glow this week.
RNA New Writers’ Scheme 1960 style
The Romantic Novelists’ Association came into being in 1960 with two objectives: to promote the genre (which actually meant facing down public disparagement of many kinds) and to encourage good writing in the genre. As a result of the latter, they offered membership to so-called “Probationer Members”.
It occurs to me that the label reflected that of student nurses at the time i.e. people who did the work while learning the job. Several of the first 116 members were ex-nurses and wrote hospital-set romances.
Experienced full members read the draft novels and suggested revisions. Thus, the only educational element came from that feedback.
A promising ms would go to a second reader and then, possibly, a publisher.
It is evident that the new organisation took their ground-breaking project very seriously. Mary Howard was the the Committee member responsible for organising the scheme. As it happened, she won the first Romantic Novel of the Year Award in 1960 for More than Friendship. She clocked up another two wins in 1979 with Countess, an historical, writing as Josephine Edgar, and again the following year for a contemporary, Mr Rodriguez, again as Mary Howard.
Volunteer readers then, as now, seem to have been anonymous. But the the first book to come through the scheme to publication carried the dedication: “To Norrey Ford, with gratitude and affection”.
Ford, multi-published by Harlequin Mills & Boon, was one of the RNA’s founders, another Committee member and the second chairman after Alex Stuart retired. She wrote contemporary stories, so probably wasn’t the reader for that first winner, The Generous Vine. But who knows? Elizabeth Renier clearly felt her support very keenly.
As Cathy Clugston said on Gardeners’ World only last week, experts delight in passing on their experience to the next generation. The New Writers’ Scheme has genuinely seen a lot of that, over the years.
First Award Winner – The Generous Vine
It is a cracking eighteenth century story about a lady smuggler in Dr Syn country. By day, she is the village schoolmistress but by night she rides with the Gentlemen.
The author had clearly done her research – she thanks an expert on “the customs, dress and manners of the eighteenth century”. And the thought-provoking title (note the important commas to isolate the adjectival phrase, by the way) comes from the third Epistle – on Man and Society – in Pope’s Essay on Man.
Man, like the gen’rous vine supported, lives;
The strength he gains is from th’Embrace he gives.
Publishers and Pen Names
I bought The Generous Vine as a secondhand paperback which Arrow had published in 1968. That was probably thirty years ago. The story is sufficiently compelling for it to have survived many, many culls (moving house! collapsing bookshelves!) since.
As you see, the author chose Elizabeth Renier as her pen name. The Award set her off on a twenty-four year career, producing 28 books. I can’t see that she ever achieved best seller status but her books can still be found at Bookfinder.com. She remained a member of the RNA and served on the committee.
Before the Joan Hessayon New Writers’ Award
The scheme itself got plenty of attention, but the Award was something of a scramble. In Year 1 it was the Pauline Warwick Award, at the suggestion of the founders. Beyond the fact that she wrote a novel called The Welsh Widow, published by Cassell in 1948, I have found out nothing else about her. In Year 2 it was called after Ruby M Ayres, a best seller in World War 1 and into the thirties. By Year 3 it was the Kathryn Blair, the 1950s Mills & Boon superstar who also published as Rosalind Brett, Celine Conway and, her real name, Lilian Warren. She had died in 1961.
But then, very sadly, Netta Muskett, one of the founders who had been in ill health for some time, died in 1963 and it became the Netta Muskett Award thereafter. Her son Peter presented a trophy in her name which was held by the winner for 1 year.
Publishing changed unimaginably in the following 40 years. Over the same time, word processing innovation made novels easier both to set out on the printed page and edit. With the coming of the Internet, it was much less complicated to research one’s plot and backgrounds, too.
Numbers of Probationers (or New Writers as they were called from 1984) grew from 10 in 1960 to somewhere shy of 70, when Elizabeth Harrison, a former Probationer herself, took over. Not all NWS members submitted mss. Even so, by 1992, 160 typescripts were going through the scheme.
Renamed Joan Hessayon New Writers’ Award
She wrote historical romantic novels set in a variety of periods and places. Lady from St Louis (1991) for instance was set in 1875 with London society turning a cold shoulder on the American interloper. Belle’s Daughter, of the same year, treats the adventures of Carlotta, a courageous young woman who inherits responsibility for her prostitute mother’s employees and takes them all on the Great Trek West, accompanied by a classic challenging hero.
In the mid 90s Joan changed direction with her novels and began a series with a strong gardening background.
Joan was brought up in Missouri but on her first trip to Paris she met newly graduated botanist David Hessayon. As their friend Diane Pearson wrote, “it was to be the beginning of a lifelong partnership and a marriage that lasted fifty years.” Hence the books with gardening background. For Dr D.G. Hessayon OBE is the originator and author of the Be Your Own…. Expert gardening books and a major phenomenon in the world of books as a result. There are more than 20 “Expert” titles and they are published in 22 languages.
Di Pearson again: “I have often thought that every romantic novelist should have a Doc in their lives. For Joan’s publications the Doc would give the most wonderful parties – one at the Chelsea Flower Show… and they were generous hosts to the RNA, giving the most wonderful summer party to all the members of Joan’s East Anglian chapter at their home in Essex – champagne, a marquee on the lawn, a three-course lunch and a guided tour of the huge and beautiful garden.”
So it was like a family gift when, after Joan died in 2001, he took over sponsorship of the Award as she had done so much for the New Writers’ Scheme.
Winning the Joan Hessayon Award
And a debut novel is a strange animal, especially when you’re young. You may produce a cracker of a gothic romance first out of the gate, and then discover you want to write cosy crime.
Of course some people are like Sheila Walsh, who went through the New Writers’ Scheme, won the Netta Muskett Award for The Golden Songbird (1975), did most jobs on the RNA Committee, including Chairman (1985-87), won the Romantic Novel of the Year in 1984 with A Highly Respectable Marriage and did it all in the sweet end of the Regency genre.
Taking three authors who won during my years on the Committee and I have followed since, I feel that Phillipa Ashley (2007) found absolutely the right voice for her characters and world with her debut Decent Exposure. I return to it with much pleasure.
Fiona Harper had a cracking debut with Blind Date Marriage, published by Mills and Boon in 2006. In her recent books, however, I feel ready to go on a completely different journey every time, with sometimes unsettling characters – exciting.
Jan Jones’s multi-storied novel set among amateur theatricals, Stage by Stage, packed a real punch on first reading. It made me laugh, cry, sigh, worry and generally sink into, like a surround-sound experience.
I don’t think she’s repeated that. But in every one of her books, I find a little something that was there in that first one, which has now gone off on a new path. Then I start to feel comfortably at home – but then again something may well jump me when I least expect it, as it did in Mystery on the Princess Line. Immensely satisfying.
So I am really looking forward to the new crop of Joan Hessayon contenders. Not just the book for this year, but all those exciting possibilities for the year to come. This reader’s Heaven.