The Blackhouse is the book that British publishers rejected en masse 6 years ago. Today it is at No.7 in the bestselling UK paperback chart – its 7th week in the Top Twenty. And yesterday it won one of the most prestigious literary prizes in France.
The Prix Litteraire Cezam Inter-CE, is notable for having one of the largest juries in the world of literary prizes. Throughout the year more than 3500 jurors meet in 330 reading groups across France to read, consider and discuss a shortlist of ten books from around Europe before voting using a points system. The votes are collected, verified and counted by the librarians and bookstore owners responsible for leading the groups.
The prize is in two parts, regional and national. Votes are counted first at a local level with prize winners being declared in each of 26 regions; then the points are amassed across France to calculate the winner of the National Award. “L’île des chasseurs d’oiseaux”, which is the French translation of “The Blackhouse”, won 21 out of the 26 regional prizes, making it the runaway national winner.
I picked up the national award in Strasbourg yesterday in the amphitheatre of the Faculty of Medicine, in front of an audience of 250 – participants in the vote who had come from all corners of France without knowing who the winner was.
On an enormous screen behind the stage, the ten nominated books were counted down one by one, according to their place in the vote, until only two remained. The winning book was then heralded by the arrival of a piper who entered through a door at the back of the amphitheatre. I was ushered on to the stage to the accompaniment of Scotland the Brave, proudly sporting my kilt, to receive a cheque, a hand-crafted fountain pen, bottles of wine, and a huge Alsation crockpot.
Following my thank-you speech, I was interviewed in front of the audience for an hour by Strasbourg bookstore owner, Gilles Million. The session ended with questions from the floor, the last of which was an enquiry about my age. I had to reveal that I would be 60 in two months, but added – to thunderous applause – that in the anglo-saxon world 60 was the new 40, and that life now begins at 60.
The presentation was followed by a two-hour signing session, which achieved a sellout of both The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man.
From today I will be embarking on a two-month tour of France to attend regional award ceremonies across the country. The tour is being combined with appearances at bookstores to promote “The Lewis Man” (L’homme de Lewis), the follow-up to “The Blackhouse”.
I recently had an email conversation with one of those British editors who originally rejected “The Blackhouse”, and who generously wrote to congratulate me on its success. She said, “At the time, I didn’t see how to sell it. Obviously I was wrong.”
I wrote back to say that I was not unhappy, since the book had found its time, and its place, with the right publisher – Quercus. But if it wasn’t for my French publisher, Le Rouergue, who rescued it from obscurity by buying world rights and selling it across Europe, the book would probably never have seen the light of day.
So it was particularly sweet to win this award in my adopted country – vindication for the French publisher who had faith in the book when no one else did.
Here is a list of the places I will be visiting between now and mid-December:
Bourg en Bresse
Villefranche de Rouergue