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Bestselling female authors who nailed their biggest hit novel under the age of 30

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Anna Brech
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It's slightly depressing to think that while we squandered our college days on endless rounds of Snakebite, some of our contemporaries were signing their first book deals. 

Award-winning novelist Helen Oyeyemi secured rights for her first novel The Icarus Girl when she was studying for A-Levels at school. Mary Shelley wrote her gothic masterpiece Frankenstein at the tender age of 19, inspired by a holiday with friends that was spent telling ghost stories. And at 25, Téa Obreht became the youngest person ever to win the Orange prize for her Balkans war story The Tiger's Wife.

These young writers and others like them breezily implode the myth that you have to have had years of life experience behind you to become an established author. Their fresh and original voices conjure up imaginative, sharply observed prose that easily rivals that of veteran literary heavyweights. 

Meet the bright young things of literature, both past and present, who have set the publishing world alight: 

Words: Anna Brech, Images: Rex Features and Getty Images

  • Zadie Smith

    Zadie Smith was just 24 when her seminal debut novel White Teeth was published, to a chorus of literary acclaim. 

    Growing up in Willesden, north-west London, Smith's passion for writing began early with the stories and poems she wrote aged five or six. By the time she was a teenager, she was creating pastiches of Agatha Christie and having finished studying at Cambridge aged 21, she sold the rights to her first novel in the region of £250,000 based on the first 80 pages alone - a fairy-tale deal in the cut-throat world of publishing. 

    She says: "These freak events happen in publishing. Next year it will happen to someone else."

  • Téa Obreht

    Téa Obreht's novel The Tiger's Wife, a mythical, imaginative story of former Yugoslavia during the Balkans war, made her the youngest ever person to be awarded the prestigious Orange prize at 25 years old, in 2011. 

    In the process of writing the book, Obreht spent hours at a zoo in Syracuse, New York, staring at the tigers. In the first chapter, the narrator sees a caged tiger maul a zoo worker, in a prelude to the tale of the tiger who stalks through her grandfather's life.

    She says: "When I first wrote the book and it was sold in 2008, my reaction was, 'I can't believe somebody read the book and wants to put it on the shelf.' Now I look at the box of my books and I still can't believe it."

  • Helen Oyeyemi

    Nigerian-born novelist Helen Oyeyemi was still at school when she signed her first publishing deal, and her first novel, The Icarus Girl, came out when she was 22 years old. 

    A ghost story about a girl torn between her British and Nigerian identities, it received rave reviews. By the time she turned 29, she had written four more critically lauded and award-winning novels (mostly around a motif of gruesome re-worked fairy tales), as well as finding time to study social and political sciences at Cambridge. 

    She says: "I sometimes get asked, 'How come the men in your stories don't have such strong characters?' And I'm like, 'I don't care.' I just want to find out about all the different lives a woman can live."

  • Emily Brontë

    Emily Brontë was 29 years old when her 1847 novel Wuthering Heights came out, just three months after the publication of her sister's book Jane Eyre.

    First reviews were mixed and sadly, Brontë died from tuberculosis just one year later - far too early to see her brooding, imaginative tale of love on a Yorkshire moor become a defining work of English literature. 

    Several early reviewers, however, were impressed by the force of the book and, in a sign of the times, believed it had been written by a man.

    She says: "If I could I would always work in silence and obscurity, and let my efforts be known by their results."

  • Eleanor Catton

    Aged 28, Eleanor Catton became the youngest ever person to win the Man Booker prize in 2013.  

    It was awarded for her 828-page novel The Luminaries (also the longest book in history to win the prize), which draws heavily on astrology to tell the story of the lesser-known gold rush in 1860s New Zealand.

    She says: "I have always written, as far back as I can remember. I find writing incredibly sustaining as an activity. It's that idea of being in conversation."

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was 29 years old when she won the Orange prize for her epic novel Half of Yellow Sun

    Set during the Biafra’s turbulent struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria during the 1960s, it tells the story of twin sisters whose relationships and families are gradually torn apart by the conflict. 

    She says: "I cried a lot when I was writing this book. I would often stop and just leave it alone, and just cry, because I would think, 'My God, this actually did happen.'" 

  • Samantha Shannon

    Oxford graduate Samantha Shannon was 21 years old when she scored a seven-book series deal and a six-figure advance from Bloomsbury in 2013, on the basis of her dystopian sci-fi novel The Bone Season.

    The first person in her family to have attended university, Shannon also sold book rights in 21 countries and secured film rights to a London-based production company.

    The story to have created this furore is based around a 19-year-old clairvoyant who, after accidently killing two policemen in London, is kidnapped and taken to Oxford, which has been taken over by an otherworldly race.

    She says:  "I don’t like rigidly planning, because I think it takes the fun out of it if you know what happens. I know what I want to achieve in each book and the major points, but I don’t plan right down to the chapters. I think that the characters write themselves in some degree."

  • Mary Shelley

    Mary Shelley started writing her gothic masterpiece Frankenstein aged 19 and was 21 when it was published, as an instant success. 

    It was a summer spent with Lord Byron and friends in Switzerland that gave Shelley the first idea for her horror-based pièce de résistance.

    Bad weather confined the group indoors and they entertained themselves talking about ghost stories, prompting her first Frankenstein sketch. 

    She says: "The beginning is always today."

  • Hannah Kent

    Debut author Hannah Kent was 17 years old when she stumbled upon the idea for her best-selling Scandi crime novel Burial Rites.

    On an initially miserable year-long exchange trip to Iceland in 2003, she came across the real life tale of servant Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was beheaded almost 200 years ago for her uncertain role in a double murder.

    Back in Adelaide, she began digging and filled in the gaps of the story using her own take on Agnes's voice. Kent's lucky break came when she won a national competition for unpublished manuscripts and her book published in 2013, when she was 27, to a wealth of critical plaudits. 

    She says: "I always had a strong sense of who this woman might be. It was very gratifying as I did research to realise that I was more or less on the money."

  • Nicole Krauss

    A 28-year-old Nicole Krauss received glowing reviews for her 2002 debut Man Walks Into a Room, which tells the story of a Columbia University English professor found wandering the Nevada desert with a cherry-sized tumour in his brain.

    Krauss studied English at Stanford university and Oxford, but an epiphany came much earlier, aged 13, when she was taught One Hundred Years of Solitude at school and realised she wanted to write about nostalgia. 

    She says: "Great books force people to engage in the human conversation. They teach empathy and they teach compassion. They remind us of all the words there are beyond whatever." 

  • Jane Austen

    One of the 19th Century's greatest novelists wrote her first complete version of Sense and Sensibility - then titled "Elinor and Marianne" - aged 20, soon after her dashed romance with young Irishman Tom Lefroy (he was sent packing, as the match was felt unsuitable).

    Her father wrote to a publisher in 1797 offering Jane's work, but in what must surely count as one of the biggest mistakes in publishing history, they turned it down. 

    It was not until 1811, almost 20 years after she had written it, that Sense and Sensibility finally hit British bookshelves as Austen's first published novel

    She says: "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."

  • Marina Keegan

    Yale graduate Marina Keegan was an emerging talent being mentored by literary critic Harold Bloom in May 2012, when she wrote her game-changing essay The Opposite of Loneliness. Published as a cover piece for the special graduation edition of the Yale Daily News, her heartfelt plea to fellow students to "make something happen to this world" quickly went viral, as she struck a chord with a generation of graduates faced with uncertainty, possibility and hope. 

    With a job lined up at the New Yorker and a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival, Keegan's own future was bright. But tragically, she was killed in a car crash aged 22. The Opposite of Loneliness harnessed her optimism and drive in a posthumous collection of her collections and essays, and quickly became a bestseller. 

    She says: "We’re graduating from college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have."

  • Emma Healey

    Emma Healey started work on Elizabeth Is Missing during her lunch breaks while working at a London art gallery seven years ago, aged 22.

    The story is based around an octogenarian-turned-sleuth with dementia, in a tale inspired by her paternal grandmother, who suffers from dementia, and her other grandmother, who loved storytelling.

    She developed the book while studying creative writing at UEA and went onto spark a nine-way bidding war between publishers for the manuscript.

    The resulting book came out earlier this year and quickly stormed the fiction charts, with the now 29-year-old Healey winning the prize for best first novel at the 2014 Costa Book Awards. 

    She says: "I was a 20 something woman living in London and didn’t want to write about a 20 something woman living in London! It’s an area well covered already and people would probably have thought it was about me."

    Photo credit: Martin Figura

  • Lauren Weisberger

    It's the book that won over millions of fans with its hilarious and uncomfortably realistic depiction of life on a high-flying fashion magazine.

    Lauren Weisberger was 26 years old when The Devil Wears Prada came out. She had previously worked on Vogue as a personal assistant and the character of Miranda is widely acknowledged to be based on that of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.

    Her sharply observed account became an overnight sensation and was later made into a film starring Meryl Streep. 

    She says: "I was just excited that someone wanted to publish the book and that I could tell my family they could actually buy it in a store. But for it to sell and have it made into a film, too, was a complete whirlwind for which I wasn't prepared."

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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