This year’s HWA Crown Awards coverage in Historia has an exciting boost: guest contributions by four students from Bath Spa University who are studying publishing and journalism. They add fresh voices to Historia’s content and we hope that working with us will be useful to all four of them in their future careers. Our first guest is Imogen Deacon, who reports on 2020’s awards celebrations.
The Historical Writers’ Association (HWA) held their annual Crown Awards ceremony on Wednesday, 25 November, with the winners being announced at a virtual event. For those new to the HWA, it was founded by Amanda Scott and a number of other writers to help published historical fiction and non-fiction authors share their common interest in research, promote each other’s work, and to connect authors in a shared and supportive community.
The HWA’s annual Crown Awards epitomise this by showcasing some of the best historical fiction and writing of the year. The Debut Crown was first awarded in 2012, with the Crowns for best Historical Fiction and Non-fiction being introduced in 2017.
Recent winners have included novelists Diane Setterfield, Beth Underdown and Ian McGuire and historians Ben Macintyre and Leanda de Lisle, to name just a few. In fact, many of the fresh voices discovered through the Awards have gone on to much critical and commercial success. Last year’s Debut Crown winner, Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Blood and Sugar, was named Waterstones’ January 2020 Thriller of the Month. Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring, winner of the Gold Crown in 2018, received shining reviews from the likes of the Guardian and The Sunday Times, who said his novel was “a Bosch-like vision of hell… The horror of war and the deep damage it does to people… is not always handled as well, or as powerfully, as this.”
This year, after months of reading and some tough decision-making, three authors were crowned the recipients of the 2020 awards. The Debut Crown winner, The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey, is a captivating novel set at the start of World War II that “embraces tales of family madness, long-buried secrets spoken and unspoken and hidden desires.”
The Non-fiction Crown went to A Fistful of Shells by Toby Green, an “engrossing book with incredible archival research and very readably written, which changed our view of West Africa,” Alex von Tunzelmann, chair of the awarding judges commented. The Gold Crown winner was The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor, “a great read, rich in historical detail and engaging characters, and that we wanted to recommend to everyone,” said Jason Hewitt, chair of the judges for the Gold Crown Award.
Jason Hewitt said after the event that “picking a winner is an almost impossible task. Historical fiction is so broad. We had almost 80 entries for the Gold Crown. Our longlist alone took us from Ancient Greece to 1940s New York, from London to Ethiopia, via medieval castles and Germany’s Weimar Republic. And the stories, characters and voices were incredibly diverse. There really was something for everyone. In the end it came down to finding a book that we all just genuinely loved… It was very tight, but Andrew Taylor’s wonderful novel really delivers on all fronts.”
While the event may have not been able to go ahead this year as usual due to coronavirus, the pandemic didn’t put a stop to the celebration of these fantastic authors. The awards were broadcast as a YouTube Premiere which is still available to watch on Historia’s YouTube channel.
Frances Owen, editor of Historia magazine, said: “After months of waiting to find out who the HWA Crown winners would be, it could so easily have been a let-down for book lovers, publishers and – above all – the shortlisted authors when we weren’t able to celebrate the awards in the usual way with a party.
“But HWA members and judges, especially our chair, Imogen Robertson, created a sparkling online event announcing the winners. It was a shame we couldn’t hear from the three winners, but I’m hoping they’ll all talk to Historia! And the most exciting thing about the event was that everyone who wanted to could join in online. It was a party for all lovers of historical writing, wherever they are.”
In response to this year’s entries, Imogen Robertson said: “I’m delighted to see more diverse stories coming through. We’re seeing publishers putting the weight behind stories from fresh perspectives. And I’m glad to see more writers from minority groups or from different traditions, telling different stories of historical fiction that you maybe wouldn’t have expected to see in the United Kingdom 20 years ago.”
Recently, there have been huge shifts in society, particularly within the past year, with movements such as Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community gaining momentum and deserved recognition. Our horizons as a society are broadening, and this is something that Robertson acknowledges in regard to this year’s entries. “It’s great to see those coming through and it injects new blood into fiction writing in general, and also into historical writing. It’s really good because a lot of readers are realising how they’ve been living in a particular bubble and a particular idea of history and are now looking for ways, fiction and non-fiction, to get outside that bubble.”
Despite the awards having to adapt to the current situation, the ceremony was certainly a magnificent spectacle of talent and a wonderful celebration of historical authors. Something a pandemic will struggle to dampen.
Imogen Deacon is a second-year Bath Spa University journalism student. She’s the first of Historia’s guest reporters from Bath Spa; three more students’ work will appear soon.