A former apprentice painter who was rejected hundreds of times by publishers has won a coveted literary award for a novel inspired partly by the tensions of the Scottish Referendum.
Lanarkshire-born writer Brian Conaghan, who worked as a decorator after leaving school with only two O-Levels, spoke of his delight at winning the Costa Children’s Book Award tonight for his third novel The Bombs That Brought Us Together.
Hailed as “a dark, powerful tale of survival, morality and loyalty” by reviewers, the book chronicles the friendship between Charlie Law, a teenager living in ‘Little Town’ and refugee Pavel Duda, who has fled the conflict ‘Old Country’.
Conaghan, 45, was inspired to explore the consequences of nationalism by the annexation of Crimea and the events of the Arab Spring in 2014, as well as the atmosphere leading up to the independence vote.
Conaghan, who now lives in Dublin, told The Scotsman: “The Scottish Referendum was very divisive at the that time and it threw up lots of interesting issues.
“The book is about how a big power can overwhelm a less powerful country. In some ways it is an imagining of what would happen if Scotland went independent and England just decided one day as a big superpower that they were going to take it back.
“People say that it is a dark and challenging book. It’s also a book about friendship, family and survival.
“Living in Scotland, you find darkness and humour is closely linked.”
The former teacher only started writing in his mid-thirties, enduring 217 rejections before he secured a publishing deal with Bloomsbury.
His second novel When Mr Dog Bites, about his diagnosis with Tourettes syndrome, was shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 2015.
Conaghan said: “Winning this award was absolutely the last thing on my mind so I am completely overjoyed.
“It is overwhelming and thrilling to have been chosen.
“Keeping going after all those rejections could seem a bit stupid. I just thought people have hobbies, don’t they?”
Irish novelist Sebastian Barry won his second Costa Novel Award for Days Without End, which the judges described as a “miracle of a book” set during the wars in 1850s America.
Non-fiction writer Francis Spufford was awarded the First Novel Award for Golden Hill, a historical novel set in New York in 1746, while debut non-fiction writer Keggie Carew, took the Biography Award for Dadland, a memoir about her father’s battle with dementia.
Multi-award winner Alice Oswald triumphed in the poetry award with her critically acclaimed collection Falling Awake.
The five winners will go on to compete for the £30,000 Costa Book of the Year award, which will be announced on January 31.