Four writers under 35 have been chosen as Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelists for 2018, and for the first time one author has been included for the second year running.
Emily Maguire and Sonya Hartnett have been chosen on two previous occasions, but Jennifer Down is the only writer to be named in successive years. In 2017 she was chosen for her novel, Our Magic Hour; this year she has been picked for her collection of short stories, Pulse Points.
Marija Pericic, who won the Vogel Award last year, is included for her prize-winning novel, The Lost Pages, a reimagining of the relationship between Franz Kafka and his friend and editor, Max Brod.
Shaun Prescott is chosen for his novel The Town, which chronicles the strange experiences of a man endeavouring to write a book about the disappearing towns of the central west NSW even as the town in which he is living itself appears to be disappearing.
And Pip Smith is on the list for Half Wild, her recreation of the extraordinary life of Eugenia Falleni, a woman born in Italy but who lived much of the time in Sydney – including during two marriages – as a man.
This year is the 22nd of The Herald's awards, which were established by former literary editor Susan Wyndham to honour Australia's emerging writing talent. The judges were Fiona Wright, essayist and poet whose Small Acts of Disappearance won the Kibble Award and the non-fiction award in the Queensland Literary Awards, and novelist, short-story writer and critic Gretchen Shirm, and me.
What the judges say: "The stories are both paradigms and gentle subversions of the short-story form … Down draws on the ordinary and everyday to deconstruct the myth of class mobility in this haunting and resonant collection."
Despite having first published a novel and having embarked on a second, Jennifer Down says she probably feels more comfortable as a writer with the shorter form.
"I think there's something about the compression or the slighter, smaller size architecture that I really gravitate towards. There's absolutely nothing wasted."
She concedes that her writing is not very plot driven and says it's a lot easier in a story to focus on moments in time. "Moments is the correct word rather than an extended narrative."
In the 14 stories that comprise the aptly titled Pulse Points, she is fascinated by the amount of pressure humans can bear and what happens to people when the bruises from that pressure are pressed. Down is scrutinising her characters as they negotiate precarious emotional situations.
She doesn't claim to be an issues-based writer, but is nevertheless interested in social and political matters. "I enjoy thinking about things like economic disenfranchisement and broader questions of class and gender and how I can use those moments of the everyday, the really quotidian encounters, to refract some of those issues."
As to style, she wants her writing to be both graceful and clean. "If I'm trying to bring attention to a particular moment, a point of tension or an image, you need to let it have a bit of space, to let it breathe. So, for me, having a more economical approach to language is one way of trying to achieve that."
Down, who also works as a copywriter and teaches an outreach writing course, is almost halfway through the first draft of her second novel – "I feel like I've just hit my stride" – which she says has a much longer narrative chronology than she has dealt with in the past.
What the judges say: "Combining historical research with novelistic inventiveness and flair, The Lost Pages is an intelligent and witty book about ambition, jealousy and writerly despair, and a remarkably assured debut."
It was the recent international court case about the control of the Kafka manuscripts that drew Marija Pericic to the relationship between the Czech writer and Max Brod.
And it was the role of Brod – he famously ignored Kafka's request that his manuscripts be burnt on his death – as the voice of Kafka after his death that intrigued her. Brod was successful in his own right but the Melbourne writer, who also works as an EFL teacher, thought he must have been jealous of his dead friend.
"I got really interested in how there was a sort of dissonance in the public image of the person and what they were really like and what they wrote about. I thought of Kafka as a kind of depressive, this tubercular fellow, but he wasn't like that all. He was really handsome, charming man about town; obsessed with diet and an obsessive exerciser.
"The same with Max. He is this supporter of artists and really confident but then I found out about his spinal deformity and wondered how much that affected him."
Did Pericic have any qualms taking imaginative liberties with these real-life writers for her novel. "I'm ashamed to say I didn't. I feel like a monster now."
When she was writing the book, she didn't think about anyone reading it, so she had a sort of utter creative liberty. But she has noticed a change since The Lost Pages came out. She is working on a second novel, a psychological thriller set in Sweden in the 1930s, and does think about people reading it. "I try to shut off that part of my brain now."
What the judges say: "The Town is a book of wild imagination and wonderful weirdness – it is strikingly original, and draws the reader through a series of startling and sometimes surreal landscapes."
When Shaun Prescott has completed his day job writing about games and tech stuff, it doesn't feel like more work to sit down and write fiction. Writing, he says, is anyway the only skill he has, so it's good that the consumer material he produces is so different from his fiction.
As a child in the small NSW town of Manildra, he loved books so much that his mother encouraged him to write and "I've been writing fiction since I was very, very young".
The Town is a triumph of tone, a sort of strange, deadpan and darkly comic novel. The narrator writing the book about disappearing towns meets a series of odd people – Rick, who lurks in the aisles of a supermarket as a balm for his grief; Ciara, the host of a radio show that has no listeners; Tom, who drives a bus with no passengers – and struggles to come to terms with the impending fate of the town.
Prescott worked hard to reach that right tone, restarting the book several times. "It was important to me for it to be not too overtly Australian in any particular way. I wanted people to recognise certain parts of particularly inland Australia in the book, but I didn't want it to be caricature Australianness."
He was going to self-publish the book – "I didn't think anyone would publish it" – but sent the manuscript to Sam Cooney at Brow Books for his opinion. Cooney liked it so much he bought The Town for publication. It will be published by Faber & Faber in Britain in August and Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in the US next year.
Meanwhile, Prescott is writing another novel and describes it as quite bleak. "I really long for the days when I was writing The Town and there was that levity."
What the judges say: "Through its inventive language, theatrical structure and playful approach, Smith explores the performative nature of gender and self in this bold and ambitious novel."
The Sydney novelist structured Half Wild to reflect the four personas – Tally Ho, Harry Crawford, Eugenia Falleni and Jean Ford – her protagonist identified as. Falleni identified as a boy at a young age, was raped, had a child, shifted to Sydney, married twice as Harry Crawford, and was eventually charged over the death of the first Mrs Crawford, before ending life as Jean Ford.
"The pronoun we use depends on the context and I don't think it's as simple as saying a catch-all he," Smith says. "I know the common conception of Falleni at present, possibly thanks to Mark Tedeschi's biography, is that Falleni was a trans-man and that's possibly how such a person would be conceived these days. But that relies on us importing Falleni into current understandings of gender."
Smith admitted that she struggled with taking imaginative liberties and that was partly due to the fact she is not a trans-man. But she consulted about the writing of trans identities.
"I realised this is a novel, this is an imaginative exercise and I'm not doing a Million Little Pieces and pretending to write memoir. I think in a lot of discussions about who has the right to tell stories these days, that's getting lost, that idea that fiction is an important imaginative exercise, I think, in terms of exercising our empathy."
Smith wrote the novel as a creative thesis for her doctorate. At the time she was interested in quantum physics as an understanding of uncertainty, the idea that paradox could be in some aspects of the world impossible to do away with.
"I thought it was a nice metaphor for the way Falleni lived his or her various lives. This was a person that could be both male and female in the same instance depending on who the group of people were surrounding Falleni at the time and also what Falleni's objectives were."
The Herald Best Young Australian Novelists will discuss their work at a free panel at the Sydney Writers' Festival on May 5 at 2pm. swf.org.au
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