So it was just a question of holding one's nerve."I knew that who came to the first party would be a pretty good indication as to whether the press was right and it was a terrible idea, or whether a lot of people thought it was rather a good idea. Almost the first to arrive was Iris Murdoch and I thought: 'That's OK.' A little bit later Cherie Blair came and I thought: 'That's interesting.'"I think the obvious shift was in the third year when it had suddenly become an accepted part of the publishing culture Carol Shields was just thrilled she had won. She was an iconic writer, brilliantly reviewed, but she said winning the prize made a massive difference to her sales."Now I think everybody involved in the prize - and it's a big group effort - is very proud It's very satisfying. Each year it just gets more embedded in the general consciousness."All the winners The Independent spoke to last week agree that the prize has had a transformative effect on their work and lives. Kate Grenville, victor in 2001 with The Idea of Perfection, said: "Winning the Orange Prize was a life-changing event for me. The prize money - plus the sales the prize generated - meant that I could become a full-time writer of fiction instead of a part-time writer subsidising her habit with teaching creative writing."Even better, she added, was the reassurance that she had written a good book. "It had suffered a tepid critical reception here in Australia.
Perhaps the fact that it's a comedy made it hard for it to be recognised as a book about ideas as well; we Australians like our ideas to come in solemn packaging, I suspect."Valerie Martin, the 2003 winner with Property, said the prize was not yet as well known in her native United States as it had become in the UK, but it had made a big difference to her sales in Britain "It's been miraculous. Mary Reilly was probably the book of mine that had done best in Britain, but a few of my back-list had never even been published there and they were all out of print Now they're all back in print It's made a big difference to the availability of my books. And there was an immediate big leap in sales of Property."The novel has also sold well in France, where it did not have a publisher until she won. And she is now writing a play based on the novel for a Californian theatre producer-director, Peter Schneider, who read it in his book club, which only reads prize-winning books. She is hoping the work might premiere in London."It's not easy turning something that is so internal into something where everyone has to say what they think," she said. "But it was a good result of the prize and is directly a result of the Orange Prize."Martin admits she never understood what the problem with the prize was for its opponents "I think it's a wonderful thing," she said "I think prizes are by their nature exclusive.
There's a prize in the US, the Janet Heidinger Kafka prize for the best book written by an American woman, but there's never been any fuss about it [but] that prize is not as heavily funded as the Orange. I think it must be about money."The results for Helen Dunmore, the first winner back in 1996, were, perhaps, less dramatic than for some It was her third novel and had been brilliantly received But she said winning was very exciting. "You didn't know what to expect," she said."There are so many books out there and if yours has a sticker saying it won something it has an acceleration effect that is very helpful to an author The battle is to get the book in people's hands. That's a great struggle and it's where winning a prize helps."She too was baffled at the opposition. "It was explicitly set up to be a prize for women and that was clear from the start. Benjamin conducted the Grisey and the Abrahamsen, both difficult works, with his usual acumen.