THE American author Lionel Shriver last night won the £30,000 Orange Prize for Fiction for a novel she admitted "many people will hate".
We Need To Talk About Kevin, about a career woman who hits her son, was not, she said, an obvious choice.
"It's difficult, it's dark and it's about someone whom people will have no difficulty in loathing," she said. "There are a lot of people out there who will hate this book."
The novel, she revealed, was turned down by 30 publishers before being bought by Serpent's Tail after she gave an interview on Radio 4's Women's Hour. The programme's presenter, Jenni Murray, was not only the chair of the judges for this year's prize but has written a glowing endorsement on the novel's jacket.
The most controversial book on the shortlist for the coveted prize, open only to female authors, Shriver's novel has opened up a debate about women who resent the way in which motherhood restricts their lives.
In the novel, Eva is a high- flying entrepreneur in her late thirties who reluctantly becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, Kevin. When he is 15, he walks into his school one morning and casually kills seven pupils and two adults.
What has turned him into such an unfeeling monster is the subject of the book, in which Eva reveals her hatred for the way in which her son, as a baby and throughout his childhood, has restricted her life, making her dislike him.
Murray said last night: "This is a book that acknowledges what many people worry about but never express - the fear of becoming a mother and the terror of what kind of child one might bring into the world.
"It is a very courageous book that will resonate with everyone who has had a child or thought about having one."
In the United States, some conservative critics have carried over their loathing of Eva on to her creator. "But it's a naive reading of the novel to say I'm her," explained Shriver.
"Making the mental leap to motherhood wasn't so different from imagining being 59 years old [as the protagonist was in her first novel] or being a man - as many of my main characters have been."
Last night, at a ceremony in London, after receiving the award, Shriver said she started writing her novel when she was in her early forties, coming to terms with the fact that she would never have children and wondering what she was so afraid of.
"Meanwhile, there are all these stories about kids shooting up their schools," she said. "I thought: 'That (among a host of other things) is what I am afraid of'."
Shriver had contemplated giving up writing if We Need To Talk About Kevin had flopped.
Sunset Song is leading the field in a survey to find Scotland's favourite novel. Figures released today by Orange show that with more than 3,000 votes counted, Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic is ahead of the pack.
THE winner of the Orange Prize was born Margaret Ann Shriver.
At 15, she changed her name to Lionel. Hemmed in by the patriarchal society of North Carolina, the place of her birth, the author decided she had no future with the name Margaret Ann.
Although the author of seven novels, Shriver has earned her living primarily through freelance journalism, writing for the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among other publications.
Shriver was first published at 29, but her novels have not sold well, despite many positive reviews.
In an article for the Jerusalem Post in April, she wrote: "In my frequent penury I've been urged countless times to knock off a crass novel to finance more serious work. I balk not because I'm too hoity-toity, but that I don't know how. I don't have the talent. I write hopelessly 'serious' fiction because I have a ponderous, killjoy nature". Shriver lives in London and New York.