Novel, described as 'one of the best books about mental health', goes on to compete for overall prize
Nathan Filer still does the odd Sunday shift as a registered mental health nurse, although they may well become less frequent after his debut novel – originally the subject of an 11-publisher bidding war – was on Monday night named winner of one of the UK's leading book prizes.
The comedian Jo Brand has called The Shock of the Fall "one of the best books about mental illness" and judges for the Costa book awards said it was a novel "so good it will make you feel a better person".
It was named as one of five category winners for the Costas and will go forward to compete for the overall book of the year prize, to be decided later this month.
Filer, 32, won in the best first novel category for a story about a young man's dramatic descent into mental illness, although the author said he hopes it is about more than that.
"It's a story about a family coming to terms with grief and it is a character study of Matthew Holmes and one of the things about him is that he's got schizophrenia. But it's not a novel about schizophrenia and it's not a novel about the NHS," said the author.
Having said that, Filer admitted a responsibility not to propagate myths around schizophrenia, a condition that is still "misunderstood and misrepresented", he said. "If you ask the man in the street you will still get lots of people taking about split personality, which is completely bogus … and violence which of course can be associated with it but more often isn't."
The book, which took Filer three years to write, is based on his MA at Bath Spa University where he now lectures in creative writing. But the story has been on his mind for far longer. "I first started thinking of the main character when I was training as a nurse in 2003 so I've been mulling over it for years," he said.
Filer, also a regular fixture on the stand up poetry circuit, said being a mental health nurse was fulfilling as well as frustrating. "It is not a terribly good time to get unwell at the moment or need NHS services for mental illness. There are a lot of cuts and beds closing. It is a difficult time to be a nurse, it's a very difficult time to be a patient," he said.
The novel made book world headlines last year when 11 publishers bid for it, a "dizzying and unexpected" experience, said Filer. The winner, with "a substantial six figure sum", was HarperCollins.
Aside from Filer, the 2013 Costa winners were named as Kate Atkinson in the novel section, for Life After Life; Lucy Hughes-Hallett for her biography of the Italian fascist writer Gabriele D'Annunzio; Chris Riddell for his children's book Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse; and Michael Symmons Roberts for his collection of poetry Drysalter.
The Costa awards are open only to authors resident in the UK and Ireland, and openly celebrate the "enjoyability" of books. Bookmakers William Hill have made Hughes-Hallett 2/1 favourite to win the overall prize, to be decided by a panel chaired by writer Rose Tremain.
All the winners receive £5,000 at this stage and entry into the book of the year award, with a prize of £30,000.
Atkinson's category win was for her eighth novel, and comes 20 years after she made such a splash with her debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which won the overall prize when it was known as the Whitbread book of the year.
Life After Life tells the multiple stories of Ursula Todd, born in England during a snowstorm in 1910. It has won praise for its inventiveness, with the narrative starting over and again, in a Groundhog Day fashion, exploring the question of what happens when we get the chance – time after time – to do the right thing. The book, shortlisted for last year's women's prize for fiction, was described by Costa judges as "astonishing"." They added: "This book does everything you could ask for in a work of fiction and so much more."
Hughes-Hallett's book The Pike has already won her the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. Her subject, D'Annunzio, was an early 20th-century poet and demagogue who in 1919 tried to set up what he saw as a utopian modern state called Fiume in what is now Croatia. Judges called the book "an unexpectedly seductive biography which brilliantly transports the reader into the mind of a monstrous talent who was at the heart of Europe's dark past".
In poetry, Symmons Roberts won for his sixth and most ambitious collection, in which all 150 poems have 15 lines. The judges described it as "contemporary life filtered through the form of common prayer with a musicality sustained across a memorable body of work".
The children's book winner, Riddell, is a political cartoonist whose work regularly appears in the Observer and the New Statesman. His work for children is substantial, illustrating many picture books and, with Paul Stewart, creating Muddle Earth, which became an animated series on CBBC. The judges called his Goth Girl novel "an instant classic for children of all ages".
If it were to win that it would be a rare thing with only one children's book, Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass in 2001, winning the overall prize since the award was created in 1985.