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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 June, 2003, 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK
Author deals with dark past
Stephen Dowling
By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Valerie Martin
Valerie Martin is an established author

Valerie Martin won the Orange Prize for Fiction 2003 on Tuesday night, beating Zadie Smith and Donna Tartt. BBC News Online spoke to her about her success.

Orange Prize winner Valerie Martin said she had no idea she was going to win the literary prize for women on Tuesday night.

Her competition included the much-fancied Zadie Smith, with The Autograph Man, and Donna Tartt, with The Little Friend.

"I was so astounded," the author of the novel Property told BBC News Online.

"All six of us, of course, prepared for both events... but it feels so surreal.

"I had that feeling, and I told the others, that my party dress was going to turn into rags!"

Martin, 54, is an established writer, having written several novels, including the well-received Mary Reilly, and a biography of the Italian St Francis of Assisi.

Her book, she said, is part of a new wave of historical revision in the US.

"There's a need for us to look at all this again and stop making excuses," she said.

"I'm wouldn't say I'm in the vanguard of this, but I'm playing my part."

'Vicious and difficult'

Property is the tale of Manon Gaudet, the wife of a sugar plantation owner near New Orleans, who is struggling to escape from her loveless marriage.

The plantation is threatened by a rumoured uprising led by escaped slaves. At the same time, her personal servant has become an unwilling mistress to Manon's husband.

Manon is hardly a sympathetic character - in fact Martin herself describes her as "vicious and difficult". She treats her servants with a casual racism that was commonplace.

The book has allowed Martin, who moved from Missouri to New Orleans with her family when she was three, to address some of the dark secrets in the city's past.

Property by Valerie Martin
The book was prompted by tales of the Deep South's slavery era

Louisiana was one of the epicentres of America's enormous slave trade.

Slaves toiled on the sugar and cotton plantations in Louisiana, tied to their owners plantations, with no prospect of freedom or of leaving their master's property.

The echoes of New Orleans' slave past are still easy to find, Martin said.

"There was a really big auction house that used to sell slaves," she said.

"By the time I was living in New Orleans it had been turned into a bar and me and my friends used to go and have drinks there."

New voice

She said New Orleans tourism often glorified the surviving plantation houses, raising images of idyllic days, barely even mentioning the slaves who worked - and died - for the owners.

Martin was determined to bring forward a different voice from America's slavery-era past.

"I don't think I've ever read a book from the point of view of a woman slave owner," she said. "I was lucky enough to find books of letters from a lady slave owners, and you can really hear the voices of the people."

Valerie Martin: Photo by Jerry Bauer
Martin joins the list of outsiders who have won the Orange Prize

"It's interesting to imagine what one would do in that situation."

One of the catalysts for the book was the detail of a large slave uprising near New Orleans in the early 19th century.

More than 500 slaves took part, and it was only quashed with the help of local troops.

One grisly detail was that the ringleaders' heads were cut off and displayed on poles on the roadsides.

Martin said her prize - 30,000 - would "certainly make a difference to her life". On Wednesday she was leaving the UK to holiday with friends in Italy.

Martin did not believe the Orange Prize belittled women's literature because of its exclusion of male writers.

"It's a question that keeps coming up. People have actually asked me 'how does it feel to have won having got rid of half the competition?'

"It's not a particularly complimentary thing to come up with. There's plenty of different books by women to read. The six books in the shortlist this year are all very different."

Haunting tale of Orange winner
04 Jun 03  |  Entertainment
The fiction of women's writing
03 Jun 03  |  Entertainment
Martin is surprise Orange prize winner
03 Jun 03  |  Entertainment

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