Fully booked for the year

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 November, 2010, 12:00am

Verner and Gillian Bickley aren't your average emeritus academics. Sharp and full of energy, they act more like start-up entrepreneurs. The couple run a small publishing house from their Discovery Bay home - Proverse Publishing, which releases about 10 books annually - and now sponsor an international prize for unpublished literature.

The idea for the Proverse Prize came up a couple of years ago as the husband-and-wife team were discussing literary prizes over breakfast one morning.

'As writers ourselves, we'd try to enter prizes,' says Gillian Bickley. 'You read all the instructions and are about to enter when you come to that one point that disqualifies you. It could be anything - age, prior publication, residency, nationality. And so, we thought it would be a really good service to have a prize where there were no regulations whatsoever. Our only stipulation is entrants must be over 18.'

A former English literature lecturer at the Baptist University, Gillian set up Proverse with her husband in 2002 after self-publishing a book about education. The name, an amalgamation of 'prose' and 'verse', reflects the range of their catalogue.

Losing no time, the Bickleys drafted the rules, set aside money for the prize, spread the news through personal networks and their website, then waited for the first batch of entries.

'The response was surprisingly good and the standard very high,' says Verner Bickley, a former assistant director of education. Entries have come from Andorra, Australia, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Britain, Hong Kong, Mauritius, New Zealand and the United States. They've received novels, short stories, poetry, non-fiction and, this year, an epic.

The prize aims 'to encourage writers and promote a range of excellence and usefulness in writing'. Winners are awarded HK$10,000 and have their manuscripts published. Although the prize can't compare with the US$30,000 awarded to winners of the Man Asian Literary Prize, the Bickleys' venture serves as a catalyst.

'This prize is unusual because there aren't many prizes for unpublished works and it really helps a writer,' says Marysia Juszczakiewicz, who runs the Peony Literary Agency representing writers such as Su Tong. 'It's so difficult to get published these days and winning a prize enables writers to get some kind of profile with agents and publishing houses. Once the prize has reached a certain level, people know what to expect and it really helps. For unpublished work, publishers, editors and agents will look at it and know it's already been through a process of sifting through submissions.'

Two people shared last year's inaugural Proverse Prize: New Zealand-based Laura Solomon and Rebecca Tomasis from Hong Kong. The publishing house will launch their winning novels today, along with the release of their long list for this year's prize.

'Winning has done tremendous things for my writing confidence,' says Tomasis, a 29-year-old Briton who has lived in Hong Kong since she was 11. It's her first literary prize.

'When I first sent off my manuscript to enter the prize, I believed that winning was a long shot - hence my surprise and elation when it was on the long list, then the shortlist and a joint winner.'

Her winning novel, Mispacha, takes its name from the Hebrew word for family. Set in Israel, it revolves around four women living together as wives of the same man, and looks at the role they play within the home and what the family means to them.

Solomon, 36, has been shortlisted for other prizes but this is the first prize she's won. Her novella, Instant Messages, is told through a 15-year-old computer geek named Olivia Best. Set in London, it follows the lives of Olivia and her twin, Melanie, who must learn to cope when their mother leaves them for her lesbian yoga teacher.

'I was so excited when I found out that I was a winner,' Solomon says. 'I was very happy to have a book distributed in three countries - Hong Kong, the UK and New Zealand. This kind of prize is important because it helps writers to build up a readership, and it's also great for keen writers to get feedback on their work.'

For its first three years, the Man Asian Literary Prize, the most prestigious award in this region, also went to an unpublished novel. From this year, however, the prize will be awarded for published fiction.

The chairman of its board, Professor David Parker, explains the decision. 'Our aim is to make Asian writing more visible in Asia and around the world. To achieve that we need ordinary readers to become much more engaged in the award cycle than they can be when we are dealing with unpublished work,' says Parker, who heads the English department at Chinese University.

'We want them to be able to read the long and shortlisted books, as they do with our sister prize, the Man Booker, and to become caught up in the intense discussion - in the press, on book programmes, among friends - over which book will win.

'This cannot happen when the public has to wait over 18 months between an award announcement and the publication of the winner.' Even so, Parker welcomes the Proverse award. 'Literary prizes help to support and promote literary talent, and so new ones are always good news. In my view there cannot be too many of them,' he says.

Judges for the Proverse Prize, who remain anonymous, serve for three years. For the past two years, they have met in Andorra, a principality on the border between Spain and Italy, for an intensive two weeks of reading and adjudication during the summer. Entries are whittled down to a long list of 10, and the shortlist of five or six works is released the following spring.

'For some people it may provide a platform for building a writing career,' Gillian Bickley says. 'I think we're also giving them an experience of the publishing process so they know more about what they have to do - that there's more to it than just creation.'

Tomasis appreciates the exposure the prize gives budding writers. 'It gives us a chance to share our work with people who are in the know when it comes to writing and publishing books,' she says. 'It gives unknown writers a foot in the door, of what is to many an unknown and seemingly unreachable world of publishing.'