Newcomer Karen Osman wins Montegrappa prize for writers in Dubai

Karen Osman won the prize by submitting a synopsis and a 2,000-word opening extract for a novel in just two days, and at the last minute.

British writer Karen Osman. Antonie Robertson / The National
Powered by automated translation

Karen Osman had never entered a writing competition. The last time she dabbled with fiction was a few short stories, written more than two decades ago, while still at school.

But the British author walked away with top honours at the region’s most high-profile competition for would-be novelists, the Montegrappa Writing Prize, hosted at the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

Osman took first prize after impressing judge Luigi Bonomi, a top UK literary agent who praised her work as “exactly what publishers and readers are looking for”.

“It’s not really sunk in yet – it’s a bit surreal,” says the 37-year-old mother, whose novel will be featured at the London Book Fair this year.

“It’s strange, because novel writing is never anything I thought I would do.”

Osman won the prize by submitting a 400-word synopsis and a 2,000-word opening extract for a novel provisionally entitled Dear Michael – work she doesn't mind admitting was knocked out in just two days, at the last minute.

Osman had no grand plan to enter the world of literature. Visiting the festival’s website to apply to be a volunteer, she spotted the competition, which was closing in a few weeks, and decided to have a go.

“The hardest part was coming up with a really good idea – as soon as I had it, I just wrote. I spent a weekend and really went at it,” says Osman. “I was under pressure because of the deadline – I had to get it done.”

That “good idea” was a thriller that charts a written relationship between a community minded mother, Catherine, and a convicted murderer, Michael. The pair exchange letters as part of a voluntary prison outreach programme, but the relationship it not as simple as it first seems, soon descending into “a world of plotting, deception and revenge”.

The storyline was inspired by Osman’s experiences as a student at the University of Durham, in the north of England. The town is home to a notorious prison, which dates back to Victorian times.

Combined with her recent motherhood, this sparked her imagination.

“The two stories kind of merged together,” she says. “She’s a mother, like me, but she’s writing to this inmate who was involved in a murder of someone. I brainstormed ideas endlessly. I knew what I wrote had to be based on my own experiences, and my time at Durham was so memorable – it’s a city with a lot of imagery.”

While she calls it a drama, Bonomi has already pitched the story as a fashionable “domestic noir”.

Osman’s fast work-rate can be put down to her professional life as a copywriter, running her own content and translation business for the tourism and hospitality industry. She has also written travel articles for magazines – but writing fiction presents a singular set of new challenges.

“I’m used to writing every day,” she says, “but it’s always been for clients and marketing – this is very, very different. My challenge will be the character development of writing a whole novel.”

She’s halfway there – literally. Osman estimates 50 per cent of the manuscript is complete and hopes to have the book finished by summer and on shelves by the end of the year.

Her dream is to return to next year’s Festival of Literature as a published author. It is not an unrealistic goal – previous winners Rachel Hamilton and Annabel Kantaria have done just that.

“It’s a real opportunity that I want to make the most of, to challenge myself in a new format,” says Osman.

“It’s great to be able to say I’m an award winner. As a writer, you don’t get many opportunities for your work to be judged by people in the industry, so this is a real confidence boost.” ​