meet the judges of the 2022 rachel funari prize for fiction: julie koh
We’re thrilled to introduce you to the incredible people who make up the judging panel of the 2022 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Today, meet author Julie Koh.
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing?
What do you think makes a great short story?
That’s hard to pinpoint. I don’t think I can be prescriptive about it because rules can always be broken in brilliant ways. What I can say is that I enjoy reading stories that I couldn’t have written myself – ones that make me curious about how the writer’s mind works.
You’ve judged quite a number of literary prizes, including The Stella Prize in 2018, and you’ve been shortlisted in a few awards yourself. How important do you think it is for writers to submit their work to literary prizes? And what advice do you have for people wanting to submit (to any prize)?
Prizes for book-length literary works are important because winning them furthers the attention a writer gets for their work, and can open up new avenues and opportunities for them.
When it comes to short-story prizes, the importance of submitting work depends on the individual writer and their goals. Entering stories in prizes can be good if a writer wants external validation and a bit of money, or if they just want external deadlines to motivate them to keep writing. A win can also help emerging writers generate interest from publishers. But at the end of the day, winning awards is not the point of writing, and it’s a bit of a prestige game that you can get caught up in. We all fall victim to it because it’s the way the literary world is set up – forcing us to jostle with other writers for limited opportunities and recognition when a lot of time, we’re all deserving of some cash and encouragement to keep us going.
In terms of advice for submissions to short-story competitions like this one, I recommend submitting a piece that is as polished and cohesive as you can make it. This seems obvious but I’ve read hundreds of short stories for competitions, and many have incredible potential but fall down because they need an edit and just don’t hang together as well as they could. Not all writers have literary friends but if you’re lucky enough to know someone whose judgement you trust and who can give you feedback on your draft before submission, that is likely to help. Also, if I happen to be judging a competition that you’re entering, try not to write a story that’s a snore. I can’t tell you how many pieces I’ve read that are superbly written on a sentence level but are deathly boring and/or too similar to stories I’ve read before.
Another thing I’d like emerging writers to know is that if your writing is already of an extremely high standard, winning prizes can be a matter of luck. It can come down to who is judging a prize and—for prizes where there are multiple judges—how the conversation goes in the judges’ meetings. Sometimes judges are completely on the same page and sometimes they aren’t, and in determining results, compromises may need to be made.
What’s your fiction writing process? Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’? Do you begin with a story or a character, or something else entirely? And how has your process evolved over time?
I’ve tried both plotting and ‘pantsing’ in the past. These days, my process is determined by what initially comes through for me for a particular story – every piece is a new beast. Sometimes I begin with an interesting concept or premise and see how far that takes me. Other times I have an image or images in my mind – perhaps the opening and closing moments – and I need to fill in the rest. Sometimes I have a bunch of ideas and images, so I just type them all out and try to organise and expand on them, then I keep refining what I have until a story emerges.
How has my process evolved over time? I’ve become less concerned with trying to emulate other writers’ processes. I just do whatever works for the story at hand.
How do you know when one of your own stories is “finished” and ready to go out into the world?
It depends on the story but most of the time a piece is ‘finished’ when the deadline has arrived, and I have to submit or publish what I have. If a story is about to go to print, I usually stop tinkering with it when the editor, exasperated, says, ‘Julie, it’s done!’
What’s the best (and worst!) writing advice you’ve ever been given?
That’s funny – I’ve never been asked about the worst writing advice I’ve received! When I was trying to become a writer, a number of people who were close to me, none of them writers themselves, told me not to do it. One of them even said that my writing, in the end, would mean nothing. (It felt like a curse at the time but in retrospect she may have been trying to make a nihilistic point!) The advice was always unsolicited. I was disappointed that so many people had a vested interest in keeping me from attempting to move in a new direction.
Some of the best advice I’ve been given is to lower your standards and keep writing. Good for the perfectionist procrastinators out there.
Let’s talk books. What’s the last book you read? What are you currently reading? And what’s on your TBR pile?
The last book I read was Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. I’m currently reading fiction for different prizes, as well as short stories by writers I’m teaching or mentoring.
My TBR pile has built up during the pandemic because I’ve developed an unfortunate aversion to reading in my spare time. Most books in my pile are by writers I have some connection with, like Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear by Matthew Salesses, Letters in Language by Harold Legaspi, Airplane Baby Banana Blanket by Benjamin Dodds, Hovering by Rhett Davis and On Getting Off by Damon Young. I’d also like to get my hands on Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou and A History of Dreams by Jane Rawson, and am looking forward to Root and Branch by Eda Gunaydin and This All Come Back Now, edited by Mykaela Saunders, both out in May. In the not-too-distant future, I’m hoping to add debut short-story collections by M.J. Reidy, Bryant Apolonio and Scott Limbrick to my pile.
Are there writers you admire or books that have influenced your work?
I admire many writers. One that immediately comes to mind is Kyoko Yoshida – I’ve become a big fan of her work.
Every writer I’ve read has influenced me in some way. Their books have taught me what to do and what not to do! Some of the writers who’ve influenced my fiction the most have been Tom Cho, Haruki Murakami, Italo Calvino and Roberto Bolaño. It sounds a bit basic but I’ve also learnt a lot from the work of Jonathan Swift and Joseph Heller. Ryan O’Neill has been a recent influence.
What will you be looking for when judging the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
Stories that surprise me and achieve what they set out to do.
Entries for the 2022 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction close at 8pm on Friday 15th April 2022. Submit stories up to 2000 words that engage with the theme ‘aftermath’. For all the details, please click here.