Positive Season: The Luke Bitmead Bursary

In 2006 Elaine Hanson’s world was turned upside down when her son Luke sadly passed away. After his battles with depression Luke had taken his own life. ‘My blood froze in my veins,’ explains Elaine. ‘I watched my much loved, handsome and talented son, die. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move. All I could do was look in horror at Luke, unable to really take in what had happened.’

Luke was a creative soul who loved the arts. A talented writer and musician who played the drums in various bands when growing up, he enjoyed exploring the world. He travelled and worked in various countries, including Hong Kong, Australia and Uruguay. Inspired by his favourite novel, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, Luke penned two of his own novels, The Body is a Temple and White Summer, the latter of which was set mostly in Gloucestershire where Luke lived from 1998 until 2006.

In May 2006 Luke moved to Summertown in Oxford. He tragically died just five months later. At the time of his death Luke was working on a collaborative novel with Catherine Richards, whom he met through the BBC Writers Forum. Their novel, Heading South, is a fast-paced rom-com, which the novelists worked together on through email and telephone; they never actually met and James didn’t live to see the work published 12 months after he moved to Oxford.

Recalling that heart-breaking episode in her life Elaine says, ‘Nobody said anything. The medical team seemed to melt away until it was just me, Chris – Luke’s stepfather – and Luke. We stayed with him for five hours. I begged for his forgiveness and promised him we would do all we could to improve care for people suffering from depression.’ It was then that Elaine remembered a conversation she had had with her son.

‘It was amazing how quickly we decided to set up The Luke Bitmead Writers’ Bursary,’ explains Elaine. ‘It was Luke’s idea. He knew how difficult it was to get published. He had many compliments about his writing style. After receiving positive comments but continued rejections [for The Body is a Temple] Luke decided to write another book, White Summer. It was then Luke met Tom Chalmers who runs Legend Press. They connected immediately and White Summer was published.’

The idea behind the Bursary is to offer support to struggling writers. In conjunction with Legend Press the Bursary allows entrants to submit their work for consideration whereby the winner wins £2500 and a publishing contract with Legend Press. Now entering its sixth year Elaine says, ‘After Luke had died we worked with Tom to set up the Bursary and now, together with Lucy and Lauren at Legend Press, we are tremendously proud to have five Bursary winners.’ The winners are Andrew Blackman, Ruth Dugdall, Sophie Duffy, J.R. Crook and Joanne Graham.

Andrew Blackman was the first winner of the Bursary in 2008 with his novel, On the Holloway Road. Talking about his win Andrew describes his win as ‘the breakthrough that changed the whole direction of my writing career.’ Like so many other aspiring writers, Andrew recalls what it was like before he submitted his work to the Luke Bitmead Bursary, ‘All I had was a dream, a stack of rejection slips and the knowledge that with millions of people chasing the same dream as me, the chances of landing a publishing deal were slim.’ Since winning the prize Andrew has had a second novel, A Virtual Love, published by Legend Press.

For Ruth Dugdall, who won the prize in 2009, her writing career had at one point seemed fruitful. Four years prior to her win her novel, The Woman Before Me had won the Debut Dagger. But after going through two literary agents and countless submissions mainstream publishers were in agreement that her writing was too dark for commercial success. ‘I sensed that Legend Press would not shy away from controversial subjects, and would not be afraid to take a risk,’ explains Ruth on her reason why she chose to enter.

‘Winning the Bursary was my absolute breakthrough moment,’ continues Ruth. ‘But even knowing that my novel would be published I could never have been prepared for what happened next. Readers told me how moved they were, how the story lingered long after they closed the cover; such feedback is a gift for any writer. And other gifts followed with foreign rights being sold, and the championing of the novel by Amazon.

‘Every time I am invited to speak to a book club or writers group I talk about Luke’s Bursary, and urge unpublished writers to enter. It might just change your life.’

The Luke Bitmead Bursary is accepting submissions until August 1st. For more information visit www.lukebitmead.com.

Words: James Massoud

Illustration: Mtimac