‘There are bad men outside who want to come in, and Mammy has said not to answer the door. From behind the big chair, Tomos waits, trying to make himself small and quiet. He doesn’t think it’s Santa Claus this time.‘
Today writer Sara Gethin joins me with a very open and honest post about her fantastic achievement of reaching the shortlist for the Not The Booker Prize
Sara’s novel Not Thomas is a book about a young five year old boy called Tomos. Described as “Heart-wrenching, captivating and beautiful” by Irish best-selling author Caroline Busher, Sara now awaits to see what a certain ‘major reviewer’ will think.
Read on to find out more…
Not Thomas & Not the Booker:
How do you force a major reviewer to read your novel?
by Sara Gethin
It’s a question every writer ponders at least once in their career. And the answer is: you can’t – unless…
This is my story about that ‘unless’.
It begins with a surprise. At the end of July and out of the blue a lovely book blogger, Anne Williams, nominated my novel, ‘Not Thomas’, for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize. The British national newspaper has been running this competition for nine years, alongside the actual Man Booker prize. Books have to meet the same criteria for both awards, but there’s one major difference – winning the Booker is worth £50,000, while winning the Not the Booker gets you a Guardian mug.
Still the guaranteed publicity is reward in itself, so I was delighted by the opportunity.
The longlist consisted of a variety of authors – from major-prize-winners to unknowns like me.
‘Not Thomas’ is my first novel for adults. It’s about child neglect and hope. The central character is Tomos, who’s constantly referred to as ‘Thomas’ by his English social worker. He’s been sent to live with Mammy, his neglectful teenage mother, but he longs to return to his beloved foster parents, Nanno and Dat.
One reviewer said it should be written on plastic paper so the reader’s tears wouldn’t spoil the print.
But it’s also been called ‘ultimately uplifting’. And it has an odd quirk – it’s written from Tomos’s five-year-old point of view, from start to finish.
Some reviewers have been kind enough to compare it with Emma Donoghue’s wonderful ‘Room’.
When ‘Not Thomas’ was published in June, my tiny women-only Welsh publisher, Honno, decided to employ a free-lance PR, Liz, to promote it for a few months. She tried to interest the London newspapers and felt the Guardian reviewer would like it – if only he’d read it.
A novel about child neglect set in Wales, though, is a hard sell. Time and time again, Liz apologised to me for failing to get ‘Not Thomas’ through the English barricades. I told her: “If they don’t want to read it, we can’t make them.”
But being on the longlist for the Not the Booker gave me a chance to force Sam Jordison, of the Guardian book club, to read it.
If ‘Not Thomas’ made it through to the next round, he’d have no choice in the matter – all I had to do was get Not T onto the shortlist of five. Easy!
But easy it most certainly was not.
The shortlist was decided by public vote. To ensure it’s a fair process, voters had to choose two books from different publishers, out of the 192 titles on the long longlist, and write a hundred-word review about one of their chosen books.
There was one week only to rally votes, so I began as soon my name appeared on the longlist. I knew I could rely on five Honno authors for their support. Their votes, along with those of the small Honno committee, would give me ten in the bag. By my reckoning, I’d need at least another fifty.
So I put out a message on Facebook and Twitter asking people who’d read ‘Not Thomas’ and liked it if they’d please consider voting for it. I asked if they’d share my posts too, and help me get Tomos across the Severn Bridge and beyond.
The response was overwhelming – in every way.
Immediately people began promising votes. Two local book clubs that had read Not T voted, then encouraged others to read it and vote too if they liked it. Some book bloggers who’d been part of a ‘Not Thomas’ blog tour did the same. A group of teachers from a school where lots of the staff had read it encouraged their colleagues to vote. And, most touching of all, people from my small town of Kidwelly rallied round making sure that everyone who’d read the book knew I needed their vote.
Put into the mix my friends and family, and we had a formidable army. The common cause of getting Tomos out of Wales and beyond had really struck a chord. I was thoroughly exhausted as the deadline for voting approached. The very last vote for ‘Not Thomas’ came from my lovely niece, Freya, at 23.58. At midnight, I went to bed and crashed.
At lunchtime the next day, I was still asleep when my neighbour rang – we had done it. ‘Not Thomas’ had not only made it onto the shortlist, but had topped the table with 87 votes.
Our massive team effort had paid off. Tomos had actually crossed that Severn Bridge and was just starting his big new adventure.
And best of all, Sam from the Guardian had no choice now but to read ‘Not Thomas’.
Biography – Sara Gethin
Sara Gethin is the pen name of Wendy White. She grew up in Llanelli, an industrial town in west Wales, and studied theology and philosophy at Lampeter, the most bijoux of universities.
Her working life has revolved around children – she’s been a childminder, an assistant in a children’s library and a primary school teacher. She also writes children’s books as Wendy White, and the first of these, ‘Welsh Cakes and Custard’, won the Tir nan-Og Award in 2014.
Her own children are grown up now, and while home is still west Wales, she has swapped industrial living for a small town with a large castle. She and her husband enjoy travelling to Ireland, and spend much of their free time in Dublin.
‘Not Thomas’ is her first novel for adults.