Katelin Farnsworth is a writer whose work has been published in various newspapers and magazines and won her an award mentorship with the Australian Society of Authors. In 2020, her novel Found Again was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize, and she was shortlisted again in this year’s prize for her novel Helen Hope.
Bianca Breen, one of Writers Victoria’s Online Learning Administrators, recently chatted to Katelin about her writing, what it’s like to be shortlisted in a major literary prize twice, and her next steps.
Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize again! Can you tell us what ‘Helen Hope’ is about?
Thank you so much! I was completely shocked to find out the manuscript was shortlisted and I’m so excited to see where Helen goes next.
The story follows Helen and her daughter, Poppy, as they move to the coastal town of Mana hoping for a fresh start, after Helen’s firefighter husband Jerome recently died in a bushfire. But in Mana, things are not as they seem and there are secrets everywhere.
The story is, at its heart, about the power of female friendships, the bonds we make in the darkest of times, and how life is always worth living.
What was the inspiration behind the story?
I started writing the story in a notebook on a camping trip during the 2019-2020 bushfires. The bushfires were really distressing, and I was finding it so difficult to process what was happening around the country and the ongoing trauma and grief people were dealing with. The images in the news were so vivid and visceral and I couldn’t stop thinking about the fires. In early 2020 there was smoke everywhere, and the moment I stepped out of the house it was all I could smell. It was very confronting. Thousands of homes were lost in the fires and many communities are still recovering from what happened. The impact on the land and wildlife is devastating and these impacts will be felt for a very long time. So I knew I wanted to write about the fires in some way – writing is my way of understanding the world and regulating my emotions – but I didn’t want to make the story about the bushfires.
‘Helen Hope’ has the fires as a backdrop, but the story takes place in a coastal town and attempts to examine some of the ongoing trauma Helen and her daughter deal with. It’s really a story about friendship and how Helen learns to trust again. The story has changed a lot from the initial idea, but I reckon this is normal because sometimes you don’t really find out what a story is about until you’ve finished it and are going back to redraft.
I’m also really inspired by Elizabeth Strout and the way she writes characters. I took some inspiration from her books, particularly ‘Amy & Isabelle’. I love how Strout writes the female friendships in that book. She’s such a beautiful writer. My writing is (obviously) nowhere near as good as hers but I think about the way she uses language all the time and am really in awe of her.
What made you decide to submit to the Penguin Literary Prize a second time? How did you find out you’d been shortlisted again, and what was your reaction?
I wasn’t sure I wanted to submit again to the prize because a part of me thought ‘oh well, last time it was just a fluke!’ and I really didn’t believe I could ever get shortlisted again. I think I ended up submitting on the last or second last day and was so nervous to do so. I stared at my application for ages before hitting submit. Penguin Random House are someone I’d dearly love to be published with and I love that they run this prize so in the end I thought…why not, you have nothing to lose and if you don’t make the list, well, nobody other than you will know you entered.
When I saw that ‘Helen Hope’ had been shortlisted, I couldn’t believe it. I received a lovely email from Penguin letting me know and I think I just stared at the email and said what three or four times. I then called my husband, who was at work, and I burst into tears. Helen means a lot to me and it’s a wonderful thing to have the work shortlisted and receive this sort of recognition. Writing is such a solitary thing, and even more so with the last two years in lockdown, and this means a great deal to me. It signals to me that I’m still on the right track.
What did you learn from being shortlisted the first time, and did it inform any decisions submitting a second time?
To be honest, I learnt the most about pressure and expectation. The first time I was shortlisted (for my manuscript ‘Found Again’ in 2020) I really thought publication was going to happen and I was so bitterly disappointed when I couldn’t find a home for the manuscript. This time I’ve hardened more and am not so starry-eyed. I’m not expecting a book deal and I understand there are so many reasons why a book doesn’t get accepted. I’ve realised I haven’t failed or let myself or the book down if it doesn’t get published. Of course, a book deal is the dream and what I’m striving for – but I think last time I placed so much pressure on myself and it made me a bit mentally unwell. I really thought I was so close to getting a book deal and when it didn’t happen, I felt like a huge failure. So honestly, I’ve learnt about taking a step back and acknowledging that getting shortlisted is a huge accomplishment and I need to be proud of myself for that. I need to stop putting so much pressure on myself to ‘be’ more or ‘do’ more or get to the next step – and just enjoy this moment for what it is. When I decided to submit a second time, I told myself that it didn’t matter what happened next – what mattered was that I’d written a manuscript I liked. The writing is what keeps me going, not the promise of a publication, and I know I will always write, regardless of whether I get that elusive book deal.
How are your manuscripts currently looking and what are your future plans for them?
I’m currently rewriting the 2020 shortlisted manuscript ‘Found Again’. I won an Australian Society of Authors mentorship last year and have been working with an incredibly supportive mentor on it. She’s helped me a great deal to get to the heart of my story and I’ve really been enjoying this rewriting process. It’s a complete rewrite, changing perspective and point of view, but I’ve loved making the changes (something I didn’t think I’d ever say!) and I’m so happy with how it’s looking now. I feel like I’ve found my story again. I’ve nearly finished it and once it’s complete I’d like to (gently) start pitching it to publishers and agents again.
I’ve also been editing ‘Helen Hope’ since it was shortlisted and if it doesn’t win the Penguin Prize, I will continue revising it and then look at where to send it. I’m hopeful it can find a place somewhere!
To keep myself distracted while I wait for the Penguin announcement, I’m working on another manuscript too and while it’s very much early days, I’m enjoying losing myself in a new story with new characters – it’s so much fun getting to know them!
You’re obviously doing something right when submitting! Do you have any advice for writers looking to submit to the prize next year?
Ha, I’m not really sure! My main advice is write what you want to write, don’t try to be like anyone else or try to write to what the market wants – the market changes all the time – so you really need to stay true to yourself. My good friend always tells me that we need to remember to cultivate the joy and I think this is excellent advice.
Regarding submitting to prizes, hone your synopsis and brief pitch, know what your story is about, and as hard as it can be, be confident in yourself and your work. Publishing is hard and there’s so much rejection but even though it can feel like it is, the rejection truly isn’t personal. Even if you don’t make the shortlist, it doesn’t mean your work isn’t worthy or that people won’t love and connect with it. It’s all so subjective. Whatever happens, keep writing and keep entering prizes because you never know what will happen.
Honestly, as cliched as it sounds, believe in yourself. That’s something I struggle with but I’m working on being kinder to myself and I think that’s something we all could do a bit more of.