The writing life is a strange and rollercoastish thing. This time last year I was about to put my first adult novel, 'The Things We Tell Ourselves', away and concentrate on my new book.
It was a hard decision to make after 2011, when I felt I was getting somewhere. I’d been awarded a mentorship through the ASA and an Asialink Writer’s Residency to Cambodia and, while there renewing my love affair with the country and undertaking research, had been contacted by a publisher who was interested in seeing the completed manuscript. Publication didn’t seem an impossible dream.
I began writing 'The Things We Tell Ourselves' in 2009, not long after my family’s return to Melbourne from several perfect years in Cambodia. I could have howled with how much I missed the country and its people and my life there, and my intense nostalgia fuelled my writing.
In the beginning I didn’t know my characters or what was happening to them, and I had no faith in my ability to find out. Cambodia is a country of darkness as much as beauty and the novel that emerged is in some ways a lament. Told by a young expat woman, Seph, the book explores her friendship with a child beggar – the target of a paedophile – and Seph’s efforts to save her.
The effort involved in writing a novel, quite apart from all the technical stuff, is huge – swimming down through the layers of fear: of failure, of what people will think, of the gap between imagining and what ends up on the page. I was lucky to have the input of thoughtful teachers and incredibly talented writing peers in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing program. Soon the book was all I thought about. I dreamed of it at night, waking with a start to scribble bits of dialogue. I wrote and rewrote over the next two years. Dear writerly friends and a couple of shortlistings for Varuna fellowships encouraged me to keep going. Occasionally I remembered the innocent days when I imagined that redrafting involved little more than taming a reckless use of commas.
Back in Australia after the Asialink Residency, the publisher who’d earlier shown an interest in my book passed on it. It was as nice and as positive a rejection as you could get, but a blow nonetheless. Soon my manuscript disappeared into another publisher’s slushpile and I decided to put it away for a while. We were both ready for a break.
Despite these setbacks, I had what US agent and blogger Betsy Lerner calls “a certain amount of quixotic self-belief”. I started a new novel and some short fiction, and working on these I finally began to see what distance and objectivity felt like. When I opened my novel again I saw where scenes replicated each other or moved too slowly, or when darlings needed to be killed (not to mention an embarrassing number of adverbs).
Things began to turn around. A short story was accepted for publication and the confidence boost that gave along with the looming submission date for the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award (WAUMA) helped me carve 10,000 words from my manuscript to leave what I hoped was a more accessible 86,000. The day after I sent it off a writer friend tentatively asked me what the book was like these days, as you might a relative with a chronic, possibly terminal, illness. “No idea,” I said. All that mattered was that it was out of my hands for a while.
Then, early this year, at the end of a week in which one of our dogs died (old age) and a son was hit by a car while riding to school (scratched and bruised but otherwise fine), I was phoned with the news that I’d been shortlisted for the WAUMA. I stood by the phone shaking. Within days warm emails arrived from publishers and the next week an agent had agreed to represent the book. At that point I didn’t hope for more. To be rung a few weeks later with the news that I’d won the award seemed utterly unreal. It still does, especially when I think of how intriguing the other shortlisted manuscripts sound.
I’m in a holding pattern now. The mentor that is part of the award is being decided and after that there will be work to do on the manuscript – lots more work, I’m sure. The bidding war surrounding last year’s winning manuscript – Hannah Kent’s stark and beautiful Burial Rites – has created a different kind of pressure. The likelihood of that happening again is unimaginably remote, as I keep telling people.
The WAUMA doesn’t just have practical benefits – the money to buy writing time, a mentor, bringing my work to the attention of the writing world – it has another effect too. In a way it is a light marking the route, showing me that I’m heading in the right direction. For these things I will always be grateful. Joyce Carol Oats once described her writing as “like an enormous rock that I’m trying to push up this hill”, a feeling I understand. When people ask if I like writing I don’t know what to say. The truth is I often don’t like it, but that’s not really the point. There’s nothing else that gives me the same feeling of satisfaction or engagement. Writing, this writing life, has me in its teeth.