Five years ago Heather Mottershead, a quiet, middle-aged accountant, went along to a Dean Friedman concert in the West Midlands with one of her grown-up sons.
Although she liked the American singer, she wasn’t a huge fan, so you might have expected her to be completely terrified when he asked for someone in the audience to join him on stage to sing — and pointed at her.
But Heather is a great believer in seizing the moment. So even though she’d never sung in public and didn’t even know all the words to that particular number — The Deli Song, not one of his more famous ones — she went up to join him on stage.
‘I just got up there and sang!’ she says. ‘I’ve never done anything like that before but I do think you should always have a go — what’s the worst that can happen?’
It is that same courageous streak that led her to enter the Mail’s hugely successful annual first novel competition which we launched last July, inviting budding authors to submit a synopsis and an extract of 3,000 words.
Heather Mottershead has won the Daily Mail First Novel competition. She will receive a £20,000 advance and a publishing deal
Even though Heather had never sung in public and didn’t even know all the words to that particular number — The Deli Song, not one of Dean Friedman’s more famous ones — she went up to join him on stage
Heather’s entry, a powerful historical novel entitled No Women Were Harmed, stunned the judges with its moving and compellingly written story of Lily Day, found guilty of the attempted murder of her ex-lover who forced her into an abortion.
After a year in prison, Lily is transferred to a lunatic asylum where we learn, through her psychiatrist’s clinical notes, of her troubled and tragic past.
Heather’s prize is a £20,000 advance, a publishing contract with top publishers Little, Brown and the services of leading literary agency Luigi Bonomi Associates.
Now aged 60, this is not the first time she has tried a new career. In her mid-40s she found herself with an increasing urge — familiar perhaps to many of those in middle-age — to do something different with her life.
Her marriage had broken up in 2004 and as her sons became more independent, she decided to do a history and English degree, with the aim of becoming a teacher.
‘People think turning 60 is difficult but actually it was at 45 that I struggled.
‘I had started applying for different jobs and somehow wasn’t making it through to interview stage even though I knew I could do them. I suspect it was my age and the fact I was a woman.’
So instead she applied to Wolverhampton University, and was accepted. She found she enjoyed being a student, even though some of the lecturers were younger than her, ‘which felt quite odd,’ she admits.
‘But the good thing about being older is that you aren’t afraid to speak out or to ask questions. Younger people seem more afraid of making a fool of themselves but I just didn’t care. I just thought, “I can do this.” ’
What the judges thought…
Ed Wood, publishing director at Sphere, Little Brown:
‘Heather has nailed one of the hardest parts of fiction writing: having a relentlessly compelling voice you are dying to follow. Combine that with the evocative, moody setting of a Victorian asylum and plenty of mystery and emotional turmoil and you have a delicious concoction.’
Darcy Nicholson, editorial director at Sphere, Little Brown:
‘Her sample was utterly unignorable; the voice so arresting and the premise so intriguing. I was desperate to read on and I cannot wait to see how readers take to this brilliant novel.’
Sandra Parsons, Literary Editor, Daily Mail:
A chill sense of menace coupled with two strong, believable central characters and first-class writing made this a story I wanted to keep reading. It promises to be compelling and powerful and I look forward to reading the finished novel.
Luigi Bonomi, literary agent and director of LBA:
‘From the opening lines of this novel I found myself gripped and wanting to know more about our young innocent narrator locked up in a Victorian asylum. Taut, dark, and well-written, this novel absolutely deserved to win!’
Hannah Schofield, literary agent at LBA:
‘Heather Mottershead’s deliciously atmospheric and incredibly timely novel drew me in immediately — her protagonist Lily’s voice leapt off the page, and I felt bereft when the sample ended. I know this will be a firm favourite for all historical fiction lovers (of which I am one!).’
Clare Mackintosh, bestselling author:
‘An intriguing setting, complex characters and evocative writing; Heather’s submission has all the ingredients of a bestseller, and I can’t wait to read the finished novel.’
She threw herself into the academic work. ‘I think when you’re an older student it feels less like school. You know why you want to study and I knew I was doing this for me and my future. I feel proud of myself for making a decision in later life that was empowering.’
She particularly relished the historical research that came with her studies, and it showed. ‘At the end of my degree I won the history prize for the year,’ she says.
However, she decided against becoming a teacher, after realising that her new-found love of history had provided the unexpected inspiration for her to write a book.
While researching something on the Ancestry website, she came across a woman who had been imprisoned then subsequently transferred to a Victorian psychiatric hospital.
She was captivated. ‘I started researching the Victorian attitudes to mental illness. Although the popular idea is that people were treated badly in asylums, chained up and beaten, that was mainly because the hospitals became overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of patients. But in fact, the Victorians did believe treatment was possible; they pioneered new therapies and as a result, psychiatric methods advanced. There are lots of records and documentation of the time, which was fascinating to find.’
Heather was also keen that her psychiatrist character, Dr Fairchild, should be a woman, although this was very unusual in Victorian times.
‘In the mid-1800s it wasn’t always possible to actually graduate unless you were a man. Oxford and Cambridge allowed women to study but not to graduate with a degree — in fact it wasn’t until 1948 that Cambridge allowed female graduates. So my Dr Fairchild studied at and graduated from Durham, one of the first to do so.
‘I did a lot of research into the sort of therapy that was on offer then. Tragically, many of the women were locked up in their 20s and never came out — yet some of them may have been suffering from anxiety, hormonal problems or post-natal depression, things we accept and understand a lot more about these days.’
A few years ago Heather decided to leave Wolverhampton and move back to her roots in Shropshire, living with her sister while she decides where to settle.
‘That’s another big life change — when you’ve lived somewhere for such a long time and have friends and the children grew up there, it’s not easy to uproot yourself. Although when I look out of the window and see the beautiful hills, it really helps.’
Returning home has also reunited Heather with old friends. ‘They know I’m writing — but they won’t know until they see this that I have actually won the prize. They’ll be shocked,’ she laughs.
‘I think it’s so important to try new things. I can seem quiet and I do like to be alone to write. But,’ she smiles, ‘I can also surprise people.’
And with a publishing contract and a writing career ahead, it seems she’s about to.
- The judges were so impressed by the standard of entries that they also awarded prizes to two runners-up. Nicola Whyte, from Wiltshire, caught their eye with her novel 10 Marchfield Square in which an abusive husband is found shot dead in his gated community, and no one is sorry he’s gone. An elderly heiress recruits a team of amateur investigators, and deadly secrets are uncovered.
- And from Norfolk, Nicola Knight’s The Jukebox won praise. Elodie grew up invisible to her family, but when she goes to university her life transforms: she discovers her intellect, a love of books . . . and men.
On the ward we live and die by the bells – the extract that will have you hooked
I wake bone cold: a thief has stolen my bedclothes. It is as black as hell in here save for the paltry white glow from the attendants’ station.
I feel my way down my bed and find the covers wedged between my bedframe and mattress.
I drag them up to my chin and swaddle myself as best as I can. The sheets are stiff and offer little comfort, but at least they are clean.
Matron is very particular about the cleanliness of her linen; but the blankets being woollen, invariably smell of second-hand death.
On the wall of the laundry, a framed sampler proclaims that ‘what cannot be boiled must remain soiled’.
Both matron and the superintendent favour the embroidered adage; matron leans towards the practical, the superintendent the spiritual.
When I have inherited the earth and am in my shroud, it will undoubtedly be starched and laundered.
I stretch my legs and touch another’s skin: it is Elise. She has pushed her bed next to mine, but the attendants have chosen to ignore this transgression.
Elise is a hopeless case; the best sanatoriums in Europe have failed, force feeding has failed, and so here she is, at the foot of a lunatic’s bed, curled up like an emaciated foetus.
Since her committal she sought only my company whereas I, in all my years here, have sought none. I think she derives some kinship from my accent, and I cannot deny her that comfort. I put my arm around her and stroke her flame hair, like a child.
By six o’clock, daylight will no longer be denied; it creeps from behind the blackout curtains with its false promise of a glittering day. From the infirmary come the renewed sounds of coughing and moaning.
In the bowels of the building, screams and rantings are supplanted by a sudden silence. Soon the first bell will sound.
On the ward we live and die by the bells: bells to get up; bells to eat; bells to pray; bells to work; bells to sleep; and bells to s***.
The fourth bell has already sounded when matron strides into the ward and walks over to my bed. Elise continues her staccato sleep.
‘Day,’ she says, turning her head from Elise, ‘report to my office.’
‘I am due in the laundry,’ I say.
‘I have told Mrs Jones that you are excused those duties for a few hours. Five minutes,’ she says, with a jerk of her neck.
Matron looks like a chick that has fledged too early. She is less than five feet tall and all bone and wire and jet-black hair.
‘Of course,’ I say, to the top of her head.
Matron’s office is in the oldest part of the building. It was the morning room in the old days and is situated at the end of a long wood-panelled corridor lined with portraits of the great and the good of the asylum; the attendant hurries me along under their manly gaze.
We are ten minutes late. We stand outside matron’s door and listen to the hushed female voices within.
‘Come in,’ says matron, before the attendant has an opportunity to knock the door. We enter two abreast and loiter in the doorway until matron says, ‘That will be all Davies. Come back in half an hour. And be on time.’
Turning to me she says, ‘Now Miss Day, Lily, please sit,’ indicating a chair by the door.
Matron’s room smells of sunshine and beeswax, not the miasma of carbolic that we must endure. She remains seated behind a walnut desk that threatens to swallow her. The interloper, a girl, stands silhouetted against the window.
‘This is Dr Fairchild,’ says matron. ‘The superintendent has requested that you spend time with Dr Fairchild to accelerate your recovery. She is a psychiatrist.’
She enunciates every consonant, rolling the letters on her tongue to convince me of its import.
The doctor bounds over to my chair and extends her hand. She is a new breed, recently qualified from Durham University.
She is my age but is unlined and unsullied whereas I, with my death’s head skull, have lived a thousand of her lifetimes. I grasp her hand until she pulls it away.