Donning our finery and heading to the hostelry below Manchester’s best-kept library secret for canapés and chat seems like aeons ago, but it was only at the end of January when we were ushered upstairs for the glittering ceremony to award the Portico Prize 2020. The gong – and a tidy sum – went to debut novelist Jessica Andrews, born in 1992, thus making her the youngest author to receive the honour. Quite an achievement, not least because she pipped other more well-known names – such as literary power couple Benjamin Myers and Adelle Stripe – to the so-called Booker of the North.
Described as “lyrical and boundary-breaking”, Portico Prize-winning Saltwater (published by Sceptre) is a coming-of-age novel that explores mother-daughter relationships and identity in relation to place and social class
Like the protagonist in her debut Saltwater, Jessica grew up in Sunderland. In a recent Guardian column, she said: “At 24 I sat down to write my first novel and the raucous bars and rusty bridges of my hometown rushed out of me with a bright, hot urgency.” She has swapped one port city for another; she now lives in Barcelona, where she teaches literature and creative writing to adults, young people and children, and is working on her second novel. She also co-runs and organises events with literary and arts magazine The Grapevine and co-presents literary podcast Tender Buttons, a nod to another expat, Gertrude Stein.
Described as “lyrical and boundary-breaking”, Portico Prize-winning Saltwater (published by Sceptre) is a coming-of-age novel that explores mother-daughter relationships and identity in relation to place and social class and also to the body. It follows a young woman, Lucy, as she leaves behind her working-class northern roots and heads to university in London, where life turns out to be rather more overwhelming than she anticipated. She winds up seeking solace in Ireland, trying to piece together who she really is while living in the quiet of her late grandfather’s cottage and the wild landscape that surrounds it. Author Daisy Johnson (whose Man Booker Prize-shortlisted debut Everything Under and latest novel Sisters also explore female relationships) called the book “sublime”. “Powerful” said the Observer, while the Evening Standard went with “lyrically poetic”, the Independent “stunning” and the Sunday Times described it as “raw, intimate and authentic”.
Jessica will be discussing, among other things, the freedom she finds in writing fiction and how identity and community influence her work. She is joined in conversation by award-winning writer, journalist and broadcaster Anita Sethi, who has written for newspapers and magazines including the Guardian, Sunday Times and Vogue – and who interviewed the six Portico Prize finalists (who also included Glen James Brown, Graham Caveney and Ray Robinson) for January’s Observer piece discussing why “a north-specific prize is more important than ever”.