From the Women’s Prize Archives.

Maia Jenkins is a writer currently living and working in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the Women’s Prize x Grazia First Chapter Prize and the GQ/Norman Mailer Student Writing Award. Her short stories and writing have appeared in the Threepenny Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, British GQ, Grazia, Litro and Storgy Magazine. She is currently working on her second novel.

Maia gives us an insight into her First Chapter experience and encourages other women to enter the award, open now.

Top tip to other writers considering entering the 2020 First Chapter competition?

Go for it! I’ve never regretted a single chance I’ve taken when it comes to my writing. It’s an utterly subjective art form and you never know how someone is going to respond to what you put out there. Imagine if you win!

How it all started with First Chapter

I was 24 and had just finished an MA when I entered the First Chapter competition in 2014. I had always written for fun but never studied creative writing. With cheerful naivety, I had started a novel a few years previously, but never really thought about writing professionally or getting anywhere with it. One weekend, I was scrolling through Twitter and saw Caitlin Moran had posted about the First Chapter competition – something about how her career had been kickstarted by entering prizes. This particular one seemed so unique to me: placing an emerging or new writer in conversation with an established novelist by having them complete a chapter they started. I loved that. I really responded to Sarah Waters’ opening sequence – and was a huge fan of hers – so I thought I’d give it a go. I never in a million years thought I would win.

The winning experience

I was getting ready for work when I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognise. I quickly punched it into Google and saw it matched with Grazia offices in London. My heart started racing and when I answered was I was told I’d won – I think I burst into tears! I don’t think it could have been any better. In a way, it was nice I didn’t hear about the shortlist. The whole thing was a massive surprise.

Everything about the award ceremony was amazing, meeting people like Mary Beard, Kate Mosse, Jojo Moyes and Sarah Waters. I was nervous before the awards ceremony, but in the end the night itself went by by a bit of a blur and everyone was so friendly, supportive and encouraging. Couldn’t have been better.

On the night itself, I met many industry professionals and made some great contacts who gave me an insight into how the publishing world works. It was so useful in helping me build a network of really wonderful people I could talk to about my career, as I was pretty clueless about how it all functioned. I quit my day job to work on my novel for a little while, but I wasn’t able to support myself full time. I’ve since published a number of short stories. Last year I was lucky enough to win a Pushcart Prize. Of course, the monetary side was a huge help too. Six years on, I’m still working on that novel!

Confidence boost

The personal impact and sense of validation was immense. Beyond the confidence boost, it was amazing that Sarah Waters, one of my favourite novelists, read a small part of my writing and thought it was good enough to win a prize. If you try to make it as a writer, there’s going to be endless amounts of rejection, disappointment, self-doubt and uncertainty. It’s par for the course, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. Incentives like the First Chapter prize give emerging writers a strong bedrock or foundation of validation, something that spurs you to keep going when you feel like giving up.

Looking back now

Reflecting on it all now, I strangely feel less confident as a writer than I did that night. Maybe that comes with getting a bit older and seeing the realities of trying to make it as a writer – or achieving any dearly-held but far fetched dream. It’s hard!

I’ve since moved away from the buzzing metropolis of London and live in a fairly rural part of the United States. In my day-to-day life it’s surreal to think of the glamour and nerves of the awards ceremony itself, almost as if it all happened to someone else. But it was undoubtedly one of the best nights of my life.

Thoughts on the Women’s Prize

The year I won, 2014, was also the year the masterly Eimear McBride won for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Correct me if I’m wrong (and I’m not implying one award necessarily leads to another in a domino effect) but McBride went on to win a number of other huge prizes that year, rightfully so. It seems to me a prize of the stature of the Women’s Prize really helped to catapult McBride to the success she had so long deserved.

As far as I’m concerned, the Women’s Prize is urgent and necessary for the direction in which it shifts people, the way it gets them talking and thinking about books and writers they might not otherwise have heard of. Plus, it’s such a unique venture. A prize for women judged solely by women encompassing an entire range of genres and countries and cultures and ideas: where else does that happen? It’s great it’s lasted as long as it has. For me, it was also lovely to have a night devoted solely to women. The energy in the room was one of the most supportive, lively and optimistic I’ve ever encountered.

What else?

I would say the two things writers need most (apart from an income) are time and a community, so anything that can support them in this endeavour would be incredible. Whether this takes the form of residencies, meet-ups, etc… I’m not sure.

Book recommendations

Most recently, I’ve been in awe of Sally Rooney’s two novels. I also read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and was blown away. Of all time, I’d say Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is my favourite novel of all time.

Follow Maia @jenksym on Twitter and @maiajenkins on Instagram.