‘Reluctant Thief’ scoops Montegrappa First Fiction prize

UAE resident Claudine Pabst’s tale featuring a dog, a parrot and a fantasy landscape with pirates has won the author the Montegrappa First Fiction Competition

Claudine Pabst’s surrealist story has won her the prize of a trip to London Book Fair and lunch with a top literary agent. Her synopsis and the first 2,000 words of her manuscript ‘The Reluctant Thief’ “just blew me away,” said literary agent and competition judge Luigi Bonomi. “I loved it.”

The competition, held each year at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, offers a rare chance for unpublished writers to get their work before a literary agent. Past winners have gone on to land multi-book publishing deals.

“I didn’t expect to win at all. I didn’t even tell anyone I’d entered the contest,” Pabst told Vision, minutes after the win. “I’m overwhelmed.”

Pabst, who said she had only written half the first chapter of her intended book, now plans to pen the remainder in the hope of publication. “It’s thrilling and terrifying at the same time,” she said.

litfest montegrappa dubai
The three winners were presented their prizes by leading UK literary agent Luigi Bonomi, Annabel Kantaria and Rachel Hamilton, former winners, and Mr. Haytham Nasr of Montegrappa Middle East

Dubai’s literary scene may be newer and less heralded than those in London and New York, but the city is fast making its mark as a hub for new writers. A mix of bookish events, literary workshops and prizes, and the rise of sites such as the international Writers’ Centre in Dubai has helped trigger an outbreak of aspiring authors, eager to capitalise on the emirate’s emerging literary status.

Among those that have captured the attention of international publishers are crime novelist Tom Callaghan, whose two thrillers were snapped up by UK-based Quercus, and British-born Lucinda Martin, who is set to release her debut novel with Chicken House, the publisher behind J.K. Rowling’s mega-selling Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 

“The world’s spotlight is very much on Dubai at the moment,” says local author Annabel Kantaria, whose own debut novel is on the cusp of publication. “I’m glad to see so much talent being picked up by international agents and publishers.”

At the heart of this wave of new talent is Dubai’s annual literature festival, launched in 2009, and today a glittering global success. From 3 to 7 March, at the city’s InterContinental Hotel, bestselling international authors such as Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the UK’s David Nicholls will brush shoulders with dozens of writers from Dubai’s own vibrant literary scene, amid a hectic schedule of writing workshops, readings and poetry performances. The annual Montegrappa First Fiction competition is a particular highlight; scouting out unpublished fiction writers in the UAE and leading to spectacular results for both winning and shortlisted authors.

Kantaria landed a three-book deal with the publisher Harlequin, after netting the inaugural Montegrappa prize at the 2013 literature festival. “I sincerely doubt any of this would have happened – and certainly not in such a condensed time – had I not entered the competition,” she says.

litfest montegrappa dubai
The three winners were presented their prizes by leading UK literary agent Luigi Bonomi, Annabel Kantaria and Rachel Hamilton, former winners, and Mr. Haytham Nasr of Montegrappa Middle East

A regular visitor to the event in previous years, she credits its workshops with helping her to shape her voice as an author. “Without doubt, these classes helped me hone my writing,” she says. “EAFOL is a world-class literary festival, yet it’s accessible to everyone. There’s no elitism or literary snobbery there.”

Other authors cite Dubai itself, and its reinvention from a dusty trading outpost to a fizzing hub of global business, as a source of literary inspiration.

“The biggest opportunity Dubai has to offer is its atmosphere,” says children’s author Rachel Hamilton. British-born Hamilton, a former teacher and copywriter, won a two-book deal with US publishers Simon & Schuster after being named runner-up in the 2013 Montegrappa competition. “There is something about this place that encourages people to aim high, and believe anything is possible.”

For Callaghan, the emirate is a blank canvas, unhindered by the long literary traditions seen in other cities that, conversely, can hinder fresh creativity.

“It’s very hard to write an original book in settings such as London, New York and Paris,” he says. “Dubai is such a new place, that it hasn’t yet created a literature about itself.  Writers here have a tremendous opportunity to write in every genre, in a setting that perhaps projects an idea of what the 21st century will be like.”