Too old for the Vogel: on turning thirty-five
It’s not easy being an emerging writer in Australia, or probably any other country for that matter. Arts budgets have been slashed, bookstores are closing, even the Australia Council is under threat. In this landscape, The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award is a beacon of hope, offering Australian writers under 35 the possibility of breaking out of obscurity and earning $20,000 as part of the bargain. For a long time it was my overriding literary ambition to one day win the Vogel, and I knew that my final, final deadline was May 31st, 2016. By 2017, I’d be too old to enter and thus for the best part of a decade I’ve seen thirty-five as my expiry date, Logan’s Run style.
I had a plan, one that I first concocted in 2008. I’d churn out a novel every two years in the twelve weeks of annual leave afforded to me in my role of English teacher in WA’s Wheatbelt. For the most part, I kept my end of the deal. I entered my dystopian novel Yellowcake Springs in 2010, and while it didn’t get anywhere in the Vogel it later won the IP Picks Award and was thus published by IP in 2011. I didn’t enter Yellowcake Summer, reasoning that it was a sequel and not likely to feature, but I was unperturbed. I had another far off date in mind, Jan 31st 2016, by which time I’d have completed ten years of teaching and thus would be entitled to thirteen weeks Long Service Leave. I’d take this as soon as it became available, in Term 1 2016. This would give me the opportunity to give the Vogel one final crack.
Unfortunately, but seemingly inevitably, it didn’t work out like that. In 2012, I spent the best part of the year working for the State School Teachers Union of WA, which made for a welcome break from teaching but blew my Long Service Leave date out to October 2016. I knew exactly what this meant: there’d be no last hurrah in 2016. If I was going to win the Vogel, I’d have to do it the hard way. The novel that materialised, my first crime novel, was Thirsty Work, which was written in part during my Katharine Susannah Prichard residency in 2013. I put what I thought to be the finishing touches on the novel in April 2014, during a second residency at the Fellowship of Australian Writers WA. I sent off my Vogel entry a month before the deadline and then, reasoning that it was folly to put all one’s eggs in the one basket, sent an extract of the novel to Fremantle Press. I went back to work with high hopes.
Six months later, Thirsty Work hadn’t been shortlisted for the Vogel, Fremantle Press had rejected it (albeit with words of encouragement) and my marriage of twelve years was over. In the summer of 2014/15 I had two choices: to stick with Thirsty Work and try to make the changes Fremantle Press had suggested, or twist and try to write a new novel in time to enter it into the Vogel in May 2016. I stuck, and struck out: Fremantle Press rejected the revised version of Thirsty Work, the novel was rejected by at least a dozen other Australian publishers, and I’d be turning thirty-five in less than eighteen months.
I did have an idea for a subsequent novel, City of Rubber Stamps, but it failed to cohere in time. I produced an abortive 10,000 word start on the novel in 2015, but in my heart I knew I wasn’t ready. During these months, I produced a handful of short stories when I had the chance and had some success in publishing these. Writing short stories seemed an altogether happier task than slogging my way through drafting novels that’d likely never see the light of day anyway. In the summer of 2015/16, I wrote only two short pieces: ‘Hard Travelin”, which will appear in November 2016 in Writing the Dream, and ‘The Not-Bird’, a retread of an earlier story. I was, and quite probably still am, at a low ebb.
Now, in July 2016, a month shy of my thirty-fifth birthday, I have that Long Service Leave up my sleeve, but by next year I’ll be too old for the Vogel. My last day of school for the year will be September 23rd, my daughter’s eleventh birthday. Thereafter I’ll have four glorious months to get cracking on City of Rubber Stamps. I’m getting married again in that time, too. My partner and I will be spending two weeks trekking around Tasmania in a campervan, but I’ll have my laptop handy. I might be too old for the Vogel, but with any luck there’ll be other dawns and new horizons.