When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked for some time in Botswana. On a rare visit to Johannesburg, I picked up North of South, a collection of travel essays by Shiva Naipaul. I didn’t know Shiva’s name, but once I had devoured the book, I knew his Africa. It was recognisably the continent I inhabited. From most African stories, I couldn’t recognise it at all.
Some years passed. I moved countries, and had two novels published. They were well-reviewed, but produced no income. I returned from abroad: no job, no contacts. What was I to do? How could I become a professional writer?
The previous year, Shiva had died suddenly. He was only 40. A gifted life had been cut short. Just as I was pondering my future, The Spectator announced a memorial prize in Shiva's honour, an essay competition. I entered it. I wrote as if I were writing for the man whose sardonic vision I admired. I won. The Spectator offered me a weekly film column. It made me visible, and soon, I had as much work as I could handle.
I wrote the column for four years, and my boss at The Spectator was Jenny Naipaul, Shiva’s widow. When I wrote my own book about Africa, A Change of Climate, I dedicated it to her, in a small expression of gratitude to an author, now silent, who had helped me find a voice.
Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ has been shortlisted for the 2015 BBC National Short Story Award with Book Trust, the winner of which will be announced on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row from 7.15pm on Tuesday 6 October 2015.