A collection of short stories inspired by strong North Staffordshire women has been awarded this year’s Arnold Bennett Prize.

It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s, written by Baddeley Green-born Lisa Blower, was revealed as the winner in an online ceremony.

The book had been shortlisted alongside Deborah McAndrew’s play The D Road, Peter Cash’s poetry anthology Pitying The Planet and John Shapcott’s Arnold Bennett and Frederick Marriott Parallel Lives.

“I’m pleased as punch to win, chuffed to bits, in fact I did have a little cry,” Lisa said. “As part of the awards ceremony the shortlisted writers each read out an extract of their work. I was so completely mesmerised by the others that I was convinced I wouldn’t win. When they said my name I was so shocked I just literally hadn’t thought it would be me in the face of such strong opposition.”

Lisa-Blower
Lisa Blower

The 46-year-old receives a £500 prize and the prestige of following in the footsteps of previous winners such as Guardian culture columnist Charlotte Higgins, who was awarded last year for Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths.

Lisa, who was a pupil at Greenways Primary Academy in Stockton Brook, is now a senior lecturer and course leader in creative and professional writing at Wolverhampton University. After studying at Sheffield, Manchester and Bangor universities, Lisa began her career lecturing in creative writing at Bangor University.

She taught the first course in working class fiction at a UK university and has been a guest
lecturer on the topic at Staffordshire University . Lisa’s debut novel, Sitting Ducks, was shortlisted for the inaugural Arnold Bennett Prize in 2017 and longlisted for The Guardian’s Not the Booker in 2016.

It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s features strong, working class women including Lisa’s own grandmother, Nellie Edwards, who died in her 90s after a lifetime of working as a dipper for various potteries across Stoke-on-Trent.

Lisa said: “After she died I sat down to write the eulogy for her funeral and began remembering all the things she used to say to me when I was a child. She was a witty and outspoken woman. If she fell out with a shop steward at work she’d walk across the road and start working for another potbank instead.”

That funeral tribute turned into a short story which won Lisa The Guardian National Short Story Award in 2009, was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award in 2013 and was longlisted for The Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2018. It was only natural then that it should form part of a collection of short tales featuring the likes of Ruthie the ‘happy hooker’, sleep-deprived Laura and young mum Roxanne.

“It’s fiction but there are some autobiographical moments in there, like the journey my family used to make to Barmouth during the Potters Holidays every year, adds Lisa. “They’re mostly stories about women but I remember growing up with a lot of women around me. I was surrounded by chattering matriarchs who were always telling stories and gossiping.
“The women of that time didn’t think they were doing anything interesting or significant or contributing to history, but of course they were. I remember telling my nan that I’d like to write her life history and she said whatever for as
she hadn’t done anything. Those women were accepting rather than expecting. They worked their whole lives, they made armaments during the war – but they didn’t think they’d done anything interesting.”

The title of the book is a phrase that Lisa’s nan used to often say to her. It means that it
looks like rain is on the way.

Lisa adds: “It’s Gone Dark over Bill’s Mother’s felt like an apt title for a collection of stories that mine the pits, pots and poets I grew up with, where I played in the backs behind the Leek New Road, or sat listening to my nan’s stories and scruffy wisdom. We’d spend weekends walking the towpaths around Stockton Brook before heading home
to tape the charts, a pan of lobby on the stove. It was a peachy childhood, despite the smog, strikes and Thatcher gunning for the unions back in the early 80s my mum making us all wipe our feet on a Vote Conservative board
before she put it out for the dog to do his business on.

“The stalwart citizens of the Potteries working class owned neither a car, passport or a mortgage but were the vital participants in its industry. Any potter worth their salt will flip over a plate seeking Made in Stoke-on-Trent because at least someone in their family will have had a hand in making it. And that’s what I wanted to capture.”

The chair of the judging panel, freelance lecturer Morag Jones, said: “I am so pleased to have finally been able to make the presentation for this year’s Arnold Bennett Prize, albeit virtually, after being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Lisa Blower’s book, It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s, is a very worthy winner drawn from a particularly strong shortlist.”

The judging panel also included Dr Leslie Powner, an honorary research fellow at Keele University and chairman of the trustees of the Arnold Bennett Society, journalist Jenny Amphlett plus Penny Michell and Pat Marshall, also both trustees of the Arnold Bennett Society.

This year’s prize is for books published during 2019 by authors who were born in or are currently living in North Staffordshire. The prize is also open to writers living anywhere in the world if their work deals with life in North Staffordshire. Books can be of any genre, fiction or non-fiction, and of any length. The books must exist in physical form, rather than purely digitally, and must have an ISBN. It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s is published by Myriad and priced £8.99. Lisa’s novel Pondweed will be out in paperback in April 2021.

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