Five emerging Australian authors talk about writing their breakthrough novels
RN’s The Debut Writers is an ongoing series introducing the new voices in Australian literature. (Unsplash: rawpixel)
Some of Australia’s best known authors managed to reach literary fame with their debut novels: Kate Grenville with Lilian’s Story, which won the Vogel Literary Award in 1984; Richard Flanagan with Death of a River Guide, which won several awards, including the National Fiction Award in 1996; and Andrew McGahan with Praise, which won the Vogel in 1991.
But the writing journey is different for every emerging author; some labour for years on the one book, while others write their first draft quickly, in just a matter of months.
Fear of failure and procrastination are common experiences, and can be crippling.
There were some lyrical and powerful additions to the Australian literary landscape in 2018, and their origins are part of the story.
Story about childhood trauma becomes bestseller
Trent Dalton is a Brisbane-based writer and journalist for The Australian. (Supplied: Lyndon Mechielsen)
Boy Swallows Universe (4th Estate) is one of the literary success stories of the year — let alone for a debut novel. After it was published in June, it went straight to the best-sellers list; in 2019, it will be published globally.
For Walkley Award-winning journalist Trent Dalton, this first novel took a year to write — but was a lifetime in the making. That is because it is based, in part, on Dalton’s life.
Boy Swallows Universe is about Eli Bell and his mute brother August, growing up in a housing commission on the suburban fringes of 1980s Brisbane, surrounded by drugs.
For Dalton, it was “electrifying” to write, in part because it was a world he had not seen in fiction before.
“It was BMX bicycles, INXS on the radio — and in my world, it was heroin as well.”
He also said his protagonist, Eli, helped him confront his past.
But when Dalton set out to write the book, he was adamant that it would not be a memoir.
“I wanted to write a story that did talk about good and bad, and I wanted to take people to the edges of the universe, all the way to the profound things of life that we all ponder. I couldn’t do that in [a] memoir.”
His ambition was to tell the story for other young people growing up on the fringes of Brisbane, otherwise forgotten by literature.
“I genuinely wanted that unlucky kid in Bracken Ridge housing commission to go, ‘Hang on, this is my world — and bloody hell, this is just a rollicking adventure that this kid’s on’.”
First novel published at 21
It took 19-year-old Melbourne writer Jamie Marina Lau just two months to write her first published novel; she was 21 when it was released in April 2018.
Pink Mountain on Locust Island (Brow Books) is about Monk, a 15-year-old girl who lives in Melbourne’s Chinatown, and her unusual friendship with an artist who she meets in a chat room.
It is an experimental novel that eschews traditional storytelling and format; many chapters are just one page and some are only one sentence long.
This made it a risky proposition for most publishers — but less so for Melbourne indie Brow Books, which started publishing fiction in 2016.
Lau sent in her manuscript on spec, and after a month waiting for a reply from publisher Sam Cooney, she followed up.
“Even though I was quite young and didn’t know what I was doing, I emailed Sam back — and he replied saying ‘I was just thinking about your novel this morning’,” she recalled.
“So I met up with him and talked about it, and we were on the same page — and it just happened!”
Pink Mountain was not Lau’s first foray into fiction: she wrote five fan-fiction novels during high school, “just for fun” — each inspired by a popular film at the time.
But with Pink Mountain, she was writing for the first time from her own experience and perspective as a second-generation Cantonese woman growing up in Melbourne.
The novel began as a writing exercise at university, after Lau had an epiphany: “That’s when I realised what I was doing every day … when I was in high school, was actually something that I could use to talk about things that I worried about and things that I cared about as well.”
Serial novelist finally gets published at 40
Robert Lukins grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland with “resolutely British” parents. (Supplied: Eve Wilson)
Like Jamie Marina Lau, Melbourne-based author Robert Lukins wrote prolifically before being published — but while for her it was fun, for him it was almost torturous.
“I’ve written a novel a year since I was 17,” said Lukins, who at the age of 40, finally got one published in 2018.
The Everlasting Sunday (UQP) is set in 1962 England during what was known as “The Big Freeze” — a season so cold that Premier League football was cancelled. The novel is about 17-year-old Radford, who has been sent away to a boarding house for troubled boys, and his relationship with fellow trouble-makers in this claustrophobic setting: a crumbling English manor, hemmed in by snow.
David Malouf described it as one of the best novels he has read in recent years.
Lukins lived in England in his 20s (where he saw the manor that inspired The Everlasting Sunday, in Shropshire) and has worked in various roles at the Wheeler Centre, the National Gallery of Victoria and Museums Victoria over the years.
All the while he was setting himself impossible writing tasks, convinced it was the way to learn:
“Can I write a whole novel set in a room with no furniture and no characters and it’s written in the second person? The answer is ‘Yes’, but it’s a terrible novel,” he said.
Not only were none of these novels published, but Lukins said none of them were publishable. Some of them do not exist anymore — sometimes he would delete the file from the computer as soon as he had finished.
He eventually realised he was frightened of failure.
“What do you do if you’ve constructed your entire personality around the idea that you’re a writer — which is something I did my entire life — and then you write that novel, and you can’t do it? What if it stinks?”
This realisation helped Lukins approach the task of novel writing afresh and cast aside the negativity he had come to associate with it.
“I just went to a blank page, and for the first time I let all that go — and I just thought, ‘Where does my mind want to take me?’ And it it took me to this house.”
Bereavement clears writers’ block
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is set in Thornfield: a property that grows native Australian flowers and is also a retreat for women recovering from domestic violence. (Supplied: Giulia Zonza)
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart (HarperCollins) became an overnight bestseller after it came out in March — but it had a long gestation.
Author Holly Ringland decided she wanted to be a writer at the tender age of 3, after reading May Gibbs’s Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.
“I said to mum — apparently with my hand on my hip — ‘When I grow up, this is what I want to do’,” she recalled.
Since that age, Ringland said, stories have been her “safe place, they’ve been escapism, they’ve been healing and medicine”.
But it took her years to find the courage to write the novel.
In her 20s Ringland worked at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory as a media officer and later travelled to England where she enrolled in a masters of creative writing at Manchester University, but still the inspiration did not come.
“I’d moved to England in 2009 to do this, but by 2014 I still hadn’t done it, I was still too scared.”
Five years is a long time to procrastinate and it was a death in the family that spurred her to finally start writing just four weeks later.
“I had the idea in my mind that I wanted to start with a little girl, and I wanted to follow her through,” she said.
With a fountain pen, she wrote the first line of the book then and there: “At the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window, and dreamed of ways to set her father on fire.”
“And then Alice had arrived and I was obligated to her, more than me,” said Ringland.
What followed was a coming-of-age tale about trauma and grief.
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is now set to be adapted to television by Made Up Stories, which previously adapted Australian author Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies for the screen.
Engineering career is perfect counterbalance to writing
Katherine Collette said she liked that her engineering work “doesn’t steal any creativity — it really is that left-brain right-brain thing.” (Supplied: Nicole Cleary)
When it was published in Australia earlier this year, The Helpline kicked off an international bidding war, with publishers outside Australia trying to out-bid each other — much like a house auction — to gain the publishing rights to the book in their region.
Melbourne author and engineer Katherine Collette said the results exceeded her expectations.
“You spend so long writing a book thinking, ‘The only people who will probably read this book are my husband and my parents’,” she said.
The Helpline is about a 30-something-year-old woman who is great at maths but not so great at interpersonal skills. After she loses her job at an insurance company, she finds herself working for the council, manning a senior citizen’s helpline — and unwittingly embroiled in neighbourhood politics.
The book fits into a growing genre of feelgood literature called up lit (a good comparison is Australian author Graeme Simsion’s novel The Rosie Project).
For Collette, her day job, working as a sewage engineer, was grounding.
“Because you can sit in a room with writing sometimes and you can think, ‘Well is it red or is it scarlet?’ But then at work, someone will call up and say, ‘I’ve got sewage spilling across my yard, what are you going to do about it?'”
The Helpline will be published in Canada, the US and the UK with Simon and Schuster, and in Italy with Garzanti.