Family drama, queer identity, student living: Meet our up-and-coming writers (and their books)

Every year, book publishers are inundated with manuscripts written by budding authors, hoping for their big break. To help sort through the mass of unsolicited proposals, publishers often turn to emerging writers prizes: apart from money and mentoring, the recognition gained via awards helps authors get eyeballs on their words. Surveying these awards is one way to help put together a picture of the up-and-coming authors set to storm the publishing world.

Susannah Begbie, winner of the 2022 Richell Prize. Credit:Rhett Wyman

Susannah Begbie recently won Hachette’s Richell Award, one of the country’s richest awards for emerging writers, with $10,000 in prize money, a 12-month mentorship, and the opportunity to show her book to the publisher.

Begbie, who grew up in rural New South Wales, says the award is life-changing. “It gives those of us who have never been published an incentive, and it gives us a deadline – you’ve got to get the manuscript by a set date – and a reason to keep writing,” she says.

Working part-time as a GP in Canberra, Begbie has always written for herself but the idea of writing for others crystallised when she was doing locum work in Ireland and started publishing a blog about her experiences. On her return to Australia, she completed a graduate diploma of professional writing, as well as workshops with the ACT Writer’s Centre and the Australian Society of Authors.

A workshop on plotting was the catalyst to her book: when she discussed her story idea, the response was overwhelming. “Everyone said if you want to do that idea, it’s too big for a short story, you need to try a novella or a novel,” she says. “And I thought why not, I’ll give it a crack.”

Ten years on, the subsequent manuscript won the Richell. It’s about a wealthy farmer who is dying and cranky; he has four adult children who do not deserve to inherit the property, so he sets them a task. They have to build the coffin within five days otherwise they lose the inheritance. The book is about their attempts to do so.

Begbie says in some ways the stakes were low when she started, given she had a good job she enjoyed. “It was really just a fun thing to try. I started it in a very loose way… I kind of wrote into those words to see if something would come of it,” she says.

The way she speaks about it, the process sounds like fun, in contrast to some writers who say it’s more like pulling teeth. “I’m using my brain for the rest of the week to do highly analytical, fact-based correct answer/ incorrect answer. That’s what my mind is doing for the rest of the time, so it’s a time I can use my brain in a completely different way, I can think in a questioning, creative, non-linear way,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of pulling teeth time, sitting at the desk and everything is blank, the computer screen is blank, the mind is blank, the ideas are never going to go anywhere.”

The Hachette mentoring process starts next year and, she hopes, will lead to the book being published. Longer term, she wants to tell stories about real people. “I want to tell funny stories, sad stories, ridiculous situations and unexpected events, stories of grief and happiness, all the good stuff.”

Bebe Backhouse, who recently won the City of Melbourne’s Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing award, has been writing since an early age but for his eyes only. It wasn’t until he was encouraged to contribute to Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia in 2017 that he began to think differently about his writing. That was life-changing, he says.

Bebe Backhouse, winner of the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award 2022.Credit:Jason South

In his winning Lord Mayor’s piece, for which he receives $10,000, the 31-year-old Bardi Jawi man explores ideas around people and place. “People that I had lost in some way, and feeling a disconnection from Melbourne. When it came to the realisation of those people and this city, I thought about this landscape but before the buildings, before settlement, before colonisation. And my being here but not being from here.”

Despite no formal training as a writer, Backhouse says his experiences as a gay Indigenous man, who grew up in the small town of Derby, population 5,000, “have helped how I choose words. Anything that I write is a form of truth.”

It was his grandmother who taught him about his culture. “I wish that my grandmother had lived to see my stories and to be a part of my journey with me but she’s not, but that gives me more reason to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Backhouse is the head of Melbourne City Council’s strategy, policy and programs and points out he entered the Lord Mayor’s awards before starting the gig. Like Begbie, he relishes the different way his mind operates when writing, a stark contrast to the calculated, strategic focus required in his day job.

His debut solo publication, More Than These Bones, will be released in March next year. He began writing it after his grandmother’s death in 2018 and around the same time his 10 year relationship ended. “[There was] so much loss in the space of a few months so I wanted to channel my grief into a very specific collection but the more I worked on it the more I realised there is another, greater reason for my putting life into this, which is for myself,” he says. “I learnt so much more about me and I grew so much through the three years that it took me to complete [it]. ”

Someone said to him not long ago ‘You will never understand how much you will change the lives of people you will never meet’ and it’s an idea that inspires him. Knowing how much reading about someone like him would have meant to that little boy in the far north-west of this country keeps him motivated.

Winner of the Deborah Cass Prize, Anneliz Marie Erese came to Melbourne as an international student from the Philippines when she was 24. Back then, she studied writing and literature at Deakin University; now 31, she is at RMIT, doing a degree in early childhood education.

Part of the Deborah Cass prize is a mentorship with an established writer and discussions with publisher Black Inc about her work.

Anneliz Marie Erese, winner of the Deborah Cass Prize. Credit:Joe Armao

She is halfway through writing a novel and plans to finish it by September next year. Although she has been published in various magazines, writing a novel is difficult, as she’s never worked on such an extensive a piece. “It’s such an unwieldy thing, something like this. Every writer can attest to having a lot of self-doubt, facing a blank page every day,” she says. “I’m lucky to have a few writer friends to talk to about writing.”

The novel is about a female Filipino international student who lives in Melbourne. “Basically she’s alone and lost after a long term relationship has broken down and she moves into a five-bedroom house in Hawthorn and she starts to try to explore who she is. All this time she is trying to achieve a career in writing, but also through her experience she finds she loves Melbourne and she wants to stay here,” she says, adding that societal issues make that reality hard.

While the story is based in part on her experiences, Erese says it’s fictionalised. “I have friends who are international students, as I write it, it’s becoming less about me and she’s forming herself without any influence from me. It is based on my experience but it’s totally different.”

She works as an events specialist at the Asia Institute and has volunteered and interned at writers festivals. Although she is disciplined, “it’s always that balance of paying all your bills while you have your creative practice”.

“I write all the time in my head and have over 500 iphone notes of ideas and conversations I have heard,” she says. “My mind is always working in a writerly way. It’s important to leave the desk and live my life because that is where the inspiration comes from, and then come back to it.”

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