The story of my life? Yes and no. In many ways I have achieved highly, mostly academically, much less so in creative writing; but I did win the Hal Porter prize for a short story (actually a memoir) in 2003, and I did manage, with a co-editor, to publish an anthology of contemporary Australian women writers, titled Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing. Before you rush to buy it, it’s out of print! Because we had a lot of emerging writers in the collection we couldn’t get a mainstream publisher, and opted for Ginninderra Press, a small unsubsidised literary publisher that publishes on a cost-sharing basis. My co-editor and I put hundreds of hours in, over 2 or 3 years, to bring this collection to print. We sold 700 copies, and received some very good reviews, and it is in quite a few libraries. It was a quiet achiever, a very small frog in a huge pond.
I find it very frustrating that it is so hard, at least in Australia, to find a publisher or even an agent who will 1) read your manuscript; 2) give an opinion; and 3) publish it. The last is like that pot of gold, and my experience is that it nearly always vanishes, unless you are a) an established writer; b) writing in whatever genre is fashionable at the time; or c) bleeding lucky.
Do I sound disillusioned? Yes, I am. As well as being a creative and academic writer and memoirist, I review books; over the last year, I have reviewed over 20 books, mostly fiction, and with one or two exceptions, I have found them either forgettable and ordinary, or flawed and unconvincing. This kind of puts me off reading contemporary writers. I have to be hit by strong recommendations from readers I respect, or a serendipitous discovery of a review that makes me desire to read that book, to make the effort. Mostly, I’d prefer to return to classics that I love, or to classics that I’ve not yet read.
So I’m not really in the swim of contemporary writing. But I’ve never been one for being in the swim; I’ve always been a dog-paddler, a fringe-dweller, a nomad, a bit solitary and cussed.
Anyhow, now to the title of this piece. Fifteen years ago, inspired by a plea from my eldest daughter, I started writing a memoir of my life. It has been through many incarnations, many name changes and re-writes. About 4 or 5 years ago, I extracted the childhood scenes and put them together in a memoir of childhood, The Smell of Rain. I have rewritten this several times, and submitted it for a couple of awards without success. I thought last year that I would give it one more chance, so I rewrote it yet again, and submitted it to the Finch Memoir Prize, which is awarded annually, and gives $10,ooo and publication to the prize winner.
I was overjoyed a couple of months ago when I received an email saying I was shortlisted. The website showed me as one of 7 shortlisted authors; I was one of of 70 entrants.
As the end of January approached, I became edgy, anticipatory, waiting and hoping I would be selected as a finalist. The end of January, they said. Finally, the 31st of January came, and just when I had given up hope, I got a phone call. The managing editor and director of publishing asked “Do you have a moment to talk?” Of course, I said, not mentioning I’d been waiting for this call for several days! She went on to say that I was not one of the finalists, but that they wanted me to continue looking for a publisher or an agent, and that my memoir is very strong. She used words like “charming” and even “powerful”. I was touched by her empathy and the fact she bothered to give me personalised feedback, however brief; no doubt she gave this courtesy and kindness to each of the other rejected authors (3 were selected as finalists; they now have an excruciating wait till May to know who is the winner and runner-up). I was also deeply disappointed, and for a couple of days I thought “That’s it. It means nothing to be shortlisted, if you’re not published.” After all, it’s not like the Man Booker, where being long-listed is notable, or the Miles Franklin, where shortlisted authors are publicised; in both cases, I believe, sales of these authors’ books, which of course have already been published, increase.
Anyhow, life goes on, as it always does, when our desires are frustrated, destroyed or rejected. I know that it was worthwhile to have got that far, and I will not give up. I will wait a while, then approach… maybe one more publisher, and look for an agent. And if that doesn’t work, as the Finch publisher suggested, it would be worth publishing it as an e-book, and seeing how it grows from there.
Are you a disappointed author? Have you been trying to write/publish that memoir or novel for more years than you can count?
Don’t give up. Publishing is a fickle, ephemeral and cut-throat world, and there are more than 9 ways to skin a cat.