Six degrees of storytelling

19 May 2023

The competition for this year’s Fogarty Literary Award is strong. Julie Hosking takes a closer look at the creative forces vying for a publishing contract.

One is a kind of love letter to the hottest place on Earth, another is inspired by an obscure album. Comedian Magda Szubanski provided the spark for the third, while the fourth’s roots lie in the combination of a burning question and a powerful image. Yet another was part of a thesis on Australian coastal gothic literature, while the final began as an experiment in world building. 

As diverse as their authors, six compelling stories are all vying for the same prize: the Fogarty Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. The winner walks away with $20,000 and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press. 

Half of this year’s finalists are in familiar territory – Emily Paull, Patrick Marlborough and Josh Kemp have all been in the running before. Katherine Allum, Prema Arasu and Karleah Olson make their debut, with Fremantle Press publisher (and one of the award’s judges) Georgia Richter attributing the number of finalists — double that of previous shortlists — to the quality of the submissions.  

“No manuscript is flawless, but raw material can still shine with promise,” Richter says. “We know this writer knows what they are doing: we trust how sentences are put together even if the larger work requires more editing time.” 

Among this year’s gems are YA fantasy, crime fiction, and historical romance but let’s take a peek inside the pages (and share some of the Richter’s thoughts on the work).

Josh Kemp takes readers into an outback riddled with secrets.

Josh Kemp, Jasper Cliff

Driven by a desire to experience what it would be like to hike in extreme heat, Kemp headed for Marble Bar – the place often referred to as the hottest town on the planet. The heat tourist, as locals like to call his ilk, found himself stranded there for a week, and it wasn’t long before he was smitten. “Just about everything I write is a love letter of sorts to the place which inspired it. This novella is a love letter to Marble Bar.” 

In Jasper Cliff, Lachlan ventures into similar territory in search of his missing brother. Like his creator, Lachlan is marooned in Jasper Cliff when his car breaks down, but his overwhelming feeling is of unease. “Lachlan isn’t stuck at the Cliff long before he realises just about everyone in this dying town has lost someone, that Jasper Cliff might be a place where people go missing all too easily,” Kemp says. “It’s a place where just about everyone has secrets … And some of these secrets are terrifying.” 

Richter was riveted: “These sentences have gothic noir written all over them – timeless battles, unforgiving landscapes, strife brewing. The world conjured by this author is tense and troubling.” 

Karleah Olson creates a different kind of gothic.

Karleah Olson, A Wreck of Seabirds

“I wrote this novel as part of a PhD thesis about entrapment and liminal space in Australian coastal gothic literature, so it is inspired by those concepts, and by the gothic in general,” Olson says. “Each of the protagonists are trapped in one way or another, whether it be physically trapped on an island, or emotionally trapped by an experience of loss or grief.”  

A Wreck of Seabirds follows Briony and Ren who meet on the shore of a small coastal town, one waiting for the return of her missing sister, the other having just returned to care for a father with whom he has a difficult relationship. Their stories are intertwined with those of Aria and Sarah — Briony’s older sister— who are trapped on an isolated island, and young Ren and Sam, who struggle with their changing family life.  

“The brooding sea and a deserted island conjure a different kind of Australian gothic,” says Richter. “From the moment of encountering Ren standing knee deep in the ocean, I am like the character Briony – I need to know what’s wrong.”

Katherine Allum creates a sense of unease.

Katherine Allum, The Skeleton House

Richter was hooked two pages into this manuscript. “I know where we are, the weather, the geographical and cultural landscape, and some tantalising details about the speaker. Already I feel uneasy, but I don’t know why. I buckle up and read on.” 

The Skeleton House takes us to the dusty American town of St Stephens, where Meg lives with her two children, a controlling husband and a secret that keeps her from leaving. When she finally starts to claw her own path, her marriage starts to unravel with dangerous consequences. 

Allum was inspired by a question and an image. “The question: “What if someone a little like me (introspective writer/debate geek), someone who would have been either my best friend or arch nemesis in school, had terrible bad luck, lacked support, and found herself stuck? What would she do?”

The image is powerful: “Crickets and creosote. A teenage boy and girl on a red quad bike, roaring down a dirt road into nowhere, their pale throats exposed as they holler to the thick indigo desert night. They disappear and the sun rises. There’s a skeleton house, its timber frame silhouetted against the dawn sky.” 

Patrick Marlborough has written an action-comedy.

Patrick Marlborough, Nock Loose

Six years ago, Marlborough had an idea for a film like Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, but starring Magda Szubanski. “I had the opening image in my head for years, the hero, the villains, the setting, but little else.” 

Realising they didn’t have the money for a film Marlborough decided to write instead, although the book he initially planned to submit for the Fogarty was “too naughty”, so they started on another just two weeks before the deadline. Nock Loose, which Marlborough describes as Kill Bill meets A Song of Ice and Fire meets McLeod’s Daughters, is the result. 

Set in a small town with a 150-year tradition of hosting a medieval-ish festival, it’s the story of a former Olympic archer and stuntwoman out to avenge her granddaughter’s death. The action-comedy sends up “the small town with a big secret novels” Marlborough clearly has no time for.  

Nock Loose has an innate confidence in the way it delivers its material,” says Richter. “I know as soon as I encounter it that the ride is going to be wild.” 

Emily Paull, The Dreamers

Set in Fremantle in the shadow of World War II, The Dreamers was inspired by Search/Rescue’s album The Compound, which Paull first heard in Japan in 2008 and listened to adfinitum as a teenager. “I could imagine a book being suggested by each track and I wrote out a chapter by chapter plan,” she says.  

While it began life as a murder mystery, there have been many drafts and years since its inception, with the budding author discovering Kate Morton’s novels and deciding she wanted to become an historical novelist. “I’ve always been interested in early 20th century history and I can’t seem to get enough of World War II novels.” 

Working class Winston has never dared to dream until he meets the privileged Sarah, whose family life is complicated. The teens fall in love against the odds. “We think we know how the story goes – but do we really? The pleasure here is in finding out, and finding all the ways it doesn’t,” Richter says. 

Prema Arasu was influenced by Terry Pratchett’s work.

Prema Arasu, The Anatomy of Witchcraft

“This manuscript is shooting off welcoming sparks in all directions,” says Richter. “A boy by the name of Hemlock Widdershins? A mother who is also a disgusted admiral? A rugby-battered boy in an infirmary? All the promise and allure of boarding school magic with fresh new characters.” 

The Anatomy of Witchcraft began as a worldbuilding exercise at UWA, where Arasu started to create the Morganverse, the book’s physical setting. “The story came much later, when I was thinking about how alternative worlds can get us to think about gender in different ways,” she says.  

Lock has always been interested in witchcraft but is warned off it at boarding school. As he tries to figure out who he is in the real world, his friend Leo has other plans for him. What ensues is a comic take on manners and growing up where everyone is a villian in their own way.  

“Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels were a huge influence, as he uses high fantasy to disrupt and queer fixed notions of identity,” Arasu says. “Sir Terry was always against the notion that fantasy is escapism, and was clear about his writing being highly political. But he used comedy to achieve this, and I’ve also found that comedy can be powerfully subversive.” 

While all the Fogarty finalists would undoubtedly love to conjure up a bit of witchcraft to snare the award (and contract), previous winner Brooke Dunnell (The Glass House) says there is so much more to the prize. 

“It gave me confidence,” Dunnell says. “It strengthened my connection with the literary community. It gave me a sense of purpose and identity because it solidified my notion of myself as a writer. It opened me to all sorts of industry opportunities: travelling, meeting other writers, training in podcast presentation and social media, and insight into the way things work.” 

So, young writers, maybe that’s the inspiration you need to start work on a submission for the 2025 Fogarty Literary Award? In the mean time, good luck to all this year’s finalists. 

The winner will be announced as part of Fremantle Press’ Great Big Book Read at Edith Cowan University’s Speigeltent on 25 May 2023. Tickets are free but places are limited, so RSVP on Eventbrite. 

Pictured top: Emily Paull’s Fogarty Literary Award submission was inspired by a little-known album she discovered as a teenager. Photo supplied

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

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