Sydenham student wins book prize during lockdown

A postgraduate student has beaten 1,600 other entries to win a prize for his first novel, which was completed during lockdown.

Joe Pierson’s book ‘Helen and the Fires’ tells the story of a woman who quits her job to write, only to become caught up in a series of climate change related suicides.

The Kingston University PhD who lives in Sydenham was having trouble balancing his studies and his job as a catering manager at the Tate Modern – until lockdown started.

Mr Pierson, 34, said: “While not wishing to underestimate how difficult the lockdown was for many people, it did give me the time to write.

“Helen and the Fires is written in a very spare, precise and clipped-down style and I produced the first draft quite quickly. The longest process was the editing, which is what I did during lockdown, to make the language as tight and clear as possible.”

He will receive £1,500 as well as professional help from agents and publishers for winning the Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award For A First Novel in the annual Bridport Prize International Creative Writing Competition.

The judges, who included British novelist Emma Healy, described the novel as “ambitious in its scope, but sharp in its detail, full of surprises, beautiful observation and insights into the nature of story-telling.”

Mr Pierson also credited his tutor, Dr James Miller, with providing valuable support and advice.

He said: “He encouraged my writing to be more experimental and to submit my stories to literary journals and quite a few were published.”

Dr Miller, senior lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University, said he was thrilled that Joe had won the award.

He said: “Joe is an outstanding writer and understands that to write well requires hours of honing, editing and revising. He is a brilliant stylist with a unique voice and an exacting, minimal style. He’s also very experimental, willing to be bold and take risks.

“Our creative writing course provides an environment that is supportive and critical, allowing writers to develop and hone their skills, find their voice and the confidence to express that voice and take risks. It enables them to get a sense of where their writing sits in terms of peers and the wider market.”

Mr Pierson is now working on his next book about four people working on a film set while the pandemic spreads.

He said: “It’s very different to Helen and the Fires. “It’s a very strange book and it will be interesting to see how it turns out.”


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