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13 November 2019

Lucy Ellmann wins the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize with Ducks, Newburyport

The Illinois-born author wins this year’s prize for “fiction at its most novel” with her 1,000-page epic.  

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Lucy Ellmann has won the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize for Ducks, Newburyport, a 1,000-page novel written almost entirely as one sprawling sentence. The author was announced as the winner of the £10,000 prize, which runs in association with the New Statesman and rewards “fiction at its most novel”, at a ceremony at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, on Wednesday evening.

The chair of judges, Erica Wagner, called Ducks, Newburyport “that rare thing: a book which, not long after its publication, one can unhesitatingly call a masterpiece. In her gripping and hypnotic book, Ellmann remakes the novel and expands the reader’s idea of what is possible with the form. We are lucky to have such a winner this year.”

The epic novel, published by Galley Beggar Press, is narrated by an anonymous woman from Newcomerstown, Ohio, who raises her four children alongside running a bakery from her family kitchen. Her everyday thoughts, each one preceded by the phrase “the fact that”, run over its pages as she ruminates on memory, motherhood and the commonalities that fill daily life. Earlier this year it was also shortlisted for the 2019 Booker prize.

Alongside Wagner, the judging panel comprised video journalist and previous Goldsmiths Prize nominee Guy Gunaratne, the NS’s culture editor Anna Leszkiewicz, and the poet, novelist and lyricist Sjón. 

In an interview with Anna Leszkiewicz, Ellmann said she “wanted to create a different kind of reading experience. I know how to be concise, but that was not the object here. I wanted a long soft slow book that the reader can float around in for some time, to sink or swim, engulfed in one woman’s thoughts. You’re on your own with this book, no nursemaid. 

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“I think we’re all adults, and capable of much more adventurous reading than we’re usually offered. I sense people are hungry for something new, and sick of fiction that lazily kowtows to the reader or, God help us, the ‘market’. Anyone who thinks writing is easy really isn’t trying hard enough.”

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Born in Illinois in 1958, when she was 13 Ellmann moved to England with her parents, the literary critics Richard and Mary Ellmann. She now lives in Edinburgh and is the author of eight novels, including Sweet Desserts, which won the Guardian Fiction Prize. This is the first occasion on which Ellmann was eligible for the prize: the rules were this year extended to allow entry to authors of any nationality, provided they have been resident in the UK or Republic of Ireland for at least three years. It was previously open only to those born in the UK or Ireland.

Former winners of the Goldsmiths Prize, now in its seventh year, include Ali Smith and Nicola Barker. It is the second Goldsmiths win for the Norwich-based husband-and-wife team Galley Beggar Press, who also published the 2013 winner, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. Of the six shortlisted books, four were from small, independent publishers. The other five shortlisted books were: Amy Arnold’s Slip of a Fish, Vesna Main’s Good Day?, Isabel Waidner’s We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise, and Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything.

Lucy Ellmann will be in conversation with the NS’s culture editor Anna Leszkiewicz at Cambridge Literary Festival on 30 November. Tickets are available here.