WHEN Christie Watson found out that her debut novel had been nominated for a Costa prize, she had to Google the awards to find out what they are. “I didn’t really know about it,” she says. “People were phoning and saying, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s fantastic.” It was only when I looked at the list of other writers that I thought, ‘Wow, this is a big deal’.”
Watson has been shortlisted in the First Novel category. Nominees on the awards shortlists include Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes and the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, but it is this 35-year-old nurse who has garnered most attention. If she wins her category she could also win the main Book of the Year award. Yet all Watson had written before the short story which became the novel Tiny Sunbirds Far Away was “some really dodgy” poetry as a teenager.
“It was full of angst and blessed never to see the light of day,” Watson laughs. “It’s in my parents’ loft. In a suitcase. Locked.” What was it about? “Love, life. Nothing I had actually experienced.”
The same charge could theoretically be levelled at Tiny Sunbirds, which is set in Nigeria and is about the oil industry. How could a London nurse (Watson has worked at Great Ormond Street, St Mary’s in Paddington, and Guy’s and St Thomas’s) know about the Niger Delta?
The answer lies largely in her rainbow family. Her partner, a doctor with whom she has two children, grew up in Lagos: “I had to make a lot of visits and talk to a lot of people for research but we go there anyway. I felt I would be in a good position to set a story there and translate it for a western reader.”
Watson wrote the novel from the perspective of 12-year-old Blessing, in the voice of her seven-year-old daughter Ella, and it draws heavily on her family life. Their south London home is a mix of cultures: Watson’s partner is a Muslim, she is agnostic and they celebrate both Eid and Christmas.
“We tell the children about every culture, every religion. We are trying to raise them to celebrate them all, to embrace difference.”
Tiny Sunbirds has a strong political message: “Most people are living in absolute poverty [in Nigeria] and yet the country is so rich from oil. The government and western oil companies work together so anyone in the West who is filling up their car [is] collaborating, really.”
Watson, who says she felt “compelled” to address these issues, has always been a woman with a cause: “I was one of those children who always had a banner and was protesting about something – anti-vivisection, anti-testing cosmetics on animals.”
She stole a rat from school – naming him Frank – because he was about to be dissected: “I kept him as a pet but he bit me all the time. My mum and dad had this stuffed chick in the living room – a Seventies thing. I refused to go in the room and would sit and eat my dinner on the stairs. That lasted about a month before they got rid of it.”
Home then was on a council estate in Stevenage. “Have you read those books: Crap Towns, or whatever? It always features highly.”
She left school at 16 with no A-levels, volunteering at Scope (then the Spastics Society) for a year before going into nursing. But the difference for her, it seems, was that her parents (her father worked for British Aerospace, her mother was a nursery nurse and is now a social worker) loved reading and their home was packed with books.. “The whole time I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t express it to anyone.” She did try to write a novel in her mid-twenties, “swanning around” India for six months with that sole purpose. She didn’t put a single word to paper.
It seems she simply hadn’t found the right cause to inspire her. When she eventually did write, the short story won her a place and bursary on the renowned creative writing course at the University of East Anglia for 2007-8. She only applied “on a whim” and when she was accepted, Watson was so shocked that she phoned the university office to check they hadn’t made a mistake.
Arriving at UEA, she says she felt “exactly like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde rocking up at Harvard”, which seems a fitting analogy because with her bright blue eyes, platinum blonde hair and petite frame Watson is almost a doppelganger of the actress Sheridan Smith, who played Elle in the stage version.
“It was a tough year,” she recalls. “I’ve never been around academic people and I was petrified – I knew that the people who went there were double-first-from-Oxbridge types, but I made lifelong friends.”
Watson was still nursing two days a week, doing palliative care in children’s homes to keep money coming in. She commuted the three hours from London to Norwich, staying over one night a week and had her own way of cutting down the long reading lists: “I used to put my daughter in the bath and sit on the toilet seat and read the first three chapters and the last chapter of every book. The first three to get an idea of the style and the last to see what happens. I did the whole year like that. It was totally nuts.”
But she kept working hard on the book: “I was a bit of a workaholic. UEA was a place where other people were experimenting, waiting for a muse and daydreaming, but I was there like a blue-collar writer, working my socks off. My family had sacrificed so much for me to be there that I didn’t want to waste a second.”
That was not the only inspiration that finally made her put pen to paper: more than a decade before, a close friend who loved writing had committed suicide: “I’ve always wondered if that pushed me to become a writer. I still think about him all the time – what a waste of a life. I guess [my friend] was ill, why else would you do it?”
Her eyes light up when she speaks of her partner. They met working at a hospital and had been friends before the relationship started 11 years ago: “The day after we went on a date, when I got up the next day, his toothbrush was there – and he never left.”
Watson has nearly finished the first draft of her second book, set between Nigeria and London, and hopes it will be published next year. Despite her success, she says she remains a “nurse first, writer second” and is returning to a hospital soon, working in resuscitation three days a week, while writing on the other two.
The Costa winners will be announced on Wednesday and Watson says she doesn’t expect to win but feels “she has won already”. Certainly her parents think so: “They have a scrapbook going - which is like, “Oh my goodness, how embarrassing’.” She jokes: “If your mum has a scrapbook, you’ve hit the big time.”
• Tiny Sunbirds Far Away is published by Quercus, £12.99. The winners of the The Costa Book Awards are announced on 4 January.