Bookworm: Uncommon success | Toff tones

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THESE are heady days for Lisa O’Donnell, the Rothesay-born writer who was yesterday handed a £10,000 cheque by John le Carré at the Hay Festival for winning the Commonwealth Prize with her debut novel, The Death of Bees.

That would be impressive enough, as no Scot has ever won the prize (apart from Aminatta Forna, who left Scotland as a baby). And given that a third of the people on the planet could, theoretically, have entered the competition, being top of the pile really counts for something.

But no: there’s far more going on in O’Donnell’s life right now than merely writing a prize-winning bestseller. Next week, she’ll head back to Scotland from LA, where she has been working as a scriptwriter for the last eight years, and visit her folks in Rothesay, where she grew up on the Ballochgoy council estate.

On Thursday – her 41st birthday – she and her two children should be toasting the start of a new life just north of Treviso in Italy. The cottage she is moving into is where she wrote her second novel, Closed Doors, a rites of passage story set on her native island that is going to be published next month. “I don’t speak a word of Italian,” she says. “I’ve been staring at the Rosetta Stone CDs while at home in LA, but so far that’s about as far as I’ve got.”

Toff tones

And while Lisa O’Donnell prepares for a new life in Italy, spare a thought for sister Helen. She was the original model for Nellie in The Death of Bees – although, as Nellie (12) and her sister Marnie (15) bury their drug-addled parents in the backyard of their Maryhill flat, I’d better emphasise straight away that only a small bit of the real-life Helen crossed over into the fictional character of Nellie. That small part is the way 
she talked when her gran visited. In the novel, Nellie (a 12-year-old growing up in poverty in Maryhill who speaks like the Queen) might seem a bit of a challenge when it comes to suspending disbelief.

Not so, it turns out. “Helen used to speak in a posh voice to impress my gran, who had taken elocution lessons to better herself and who such had notions of grandeur that we used to call her The Countess.

When Helen was five, she made her say things like ‘I absolutely adore Tchaikovsky’ to cure her lisp. It worked 
too.”