Talking with Anietie Isong, McKitterick Prize 2018 winner

Anietie Isong on winning the McKitterick Prize 2018 – for a debut novel from an author over 40 – and the bumpy ride on his journey to publication.

Looking back over the last year, what impact do you think winning the McKitterick Prize has had on your work and career?

I believe that winning the McKitterick Prize has, in a way, bestowed external validation on my work, and attracted new readers to my novel. Being a small press, my publisher could only do so much to promote my book. The Society of Authors’ Awards ceremony helped draw much attention to Radio Sunrise, including significant media coverage.  

As a debut author, winning any kind of prize can be overwhelming. What was the experience like for you, and how important do you think literary prizes and awards are for authors?

As a debut novelist, and in particular a late bloomer, being awarded a prestigious literary prize is extremely exciting. My writing style is a little different, and the setting perhaps a bit unfamiliar to many readers in the UK, so I was genuinely surprised to be shortlisted in the first place. I had no idea I was going to win until my name was announced during the awards ceremony. It was a most exhilarating experience, and I am deeply grateful to the SoA and the judges for the honour. My previous awards in short story and poetry inspired me to consider writing a longer piece – even though my novel has been described as a slim volume! I think literary prizes are important for many reasons, including rewarding excellence, and promoting lesser-known authors. 

Tell us about your journey to publication – was it a relatively smooth process, or did you face any particular challenges as a new author?

My journey to publication wasn’t entirely a smooth process. I started writing Radio Sunrise around 2009, after I was offered a book deal by an independent press that had previously published my short story. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned, so I abandoned the novel for years to focus on my career in public relations. I revisited the manuscript in 2016, and Jacaranda Books offered to publish it immediately.

What or who are you most excited about in fiction at the moment?

I am excited about the diversity of voices and stories. It is great to see new novels addressing fascinating themes – from different parts of the world – with great plots and memorable characters, and written by established as well as emerging authors. I recently finished reading one of the books shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for FictionAn American Marriage, by Tayari Jones – and was blown away by the plot. 

A few weeks ago we talked about how authors could look after their mental health in a solitary profession. How do you try to look after your own mental health?

As an author, looking after my mental health is critical to achieving a rewarding career. In recent times, I have started exercising more – running, walking, and occasionally working out at the gym. These physical activities have helped me feel more relaxed and positive about myself and my life. I also make it a point to not become too tied to technology and actually speak face-to-face to people every day. That said, thanks to new technologies, I am also able to easily interact with my friends and families who live in different parts of the world. I get involved in church activities too; reading the Bible and listening to inspirational sermons give me a great sense of wellbeing. 

Photo © Tom Pilston

About Anietie Isong

Anietie Isong has worked as a journalist, speechwriter and public relations manager in the UK and abroad. His first novel, Radio Sunrise, won the 2018 McKitterick Prize. He is currently working on his second novel. Anietie holds a PhD in New Media and Writing from the School of Computer Science and Informatics, De Montfort University, Leicester.

About the McKitterick Prize

Tom McKitterick, the former editor of Political Quarterly and author of an unpublished novel, endowed the McKitterick Prize which was first awarded in 1990. It is given annually to an author over the age of 40 for a first novel, published or unpublished. Find out more about our Society of Authors' Awards.

See the 2019 McKitterick Prize shortlistees here.