meet the judges of the 2021 rachel funari prize for fiction: nicola redhouse
Over the next few weeks, we’ll introduce you to the incredible people who make up the judging panel of the 2021 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Today, meet Melbourne writer Nicola Redhouse.
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing?
We know from the Stella Count that gender disparity has been a problem in our industry, in terms of desirable – or even adequate – representation in literary publications and reviews. In the industry itself my experience is of a workforce in which men continue to hold the majority of leadership positions, despite most employees being women or non-binary. Personally, my return to an in-house editorial role after having children was made very difficult by my employer, and I ultimately lost my job. There is work to be done, there, for those in primary care roles. Diverse publishing, or what, as Radhiah Chowdhury pointed out in her 2019 Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship report, is better termed ‘inclusive or representative publishing’, in terms of the representation of First Nations and People of Colour, remains an area that clearly needs extensive and deep investment for meaningful change. Camha Pham rightly argues in ‘Where Are All the Editors of Colour?’ in Kill Your Darlings, that true diversity of publishing content will only happen when there is diversity among the gatekeepers of the industry. For my part, I hope I can contribute to systemic change by being a reader and advocate for works that reflect a wide range of experiences, including those that differ from my own lived experience.
What comes to mind when you think of our 2021 theme, ‘homecoming’?
The ways that home as place has reshaped itself during COVID. For so many, the boundaries between our domestic and professional lives have collapsed. For others, security of housing has become more perilous. I think, also, the ways we have had to stay put, put up borders, and deal with the pandemic at a local and national level has also forced us to identify with our place of living in more specific ways. We’ve also had to think about which and how many people we can let into our homes in a way we’ve never had to.
What do you think makes a great short story?
There are shared elements to all great writing, regardless of form, such as incredible sentence-level craft. Broadly, I am attracted to writing that has a quality of pathos, humour and surprise. But for the short story, above and beyond those things, I need an experience of being moved to understand or feel something in a way I hadn’t anticipated. A sort of emotional swerve. I also am a huge fan of short stories that surprise through form, like Charles Yu’s ‘Problem’s for Self-Study’, which plays with mathematical equations and constructions to configure its narrative.
How has your experience as a book editor informed your writing practice, particularly when you sat down to write Unlike the Heart? Were you able to separate yourself from everything you know about the publishing process and just focus on the task of writing? (If so, how? If not, why?)
I wasn’t able to put aside what I know of the publishing process when writing Unlike the Heart, and I didn’t want to. All the years I spent reading manuscript submissions, advising on acquisitions, doing early developmental and structural work on manuscripts, and understanding publishing as a business had huge advantages for me as a first-time author. I was aware of so many things a publisher has to deal with in a nonfiction manuscript, including: the importance of accuracy; how to integrate research in areas that might be considered academic or specialist while writing a trade book; ways to deal with writing about real people; the need to be able to stand behind what I write about for publicity; the need to have a clear sense of how the book might be perceived conceptually and as a product. At a sentence level my time as an editor makes me acutely aware of getting my writing clean, editorially. I was fortunate that my publisher, UQP, valued all the experience I had, so when it came time to look at things like the blurb, marketing collateral, cover design briefs, and so on, they involved me closely.
In your experience, what are some misconceptions writers have about the publishing process?
I think the publishing process is pretty opaque to most writers. Some misconceptions that come to mind: that selling books merely requires writing a good book. A huge amount of effort goes into publicity and marketing, and author presence, and there is so much luck involved too. Plenty of incredible books – the majority, I’d say – achieve very low sales. Territorial copyright and how rights-sales operate is another aspect of the process that’s inaccessible to many authors – that it’s rare to sell film rights for your book, or to sell rights overseas. I think possibly some authors don’t know how scant resources are in most publishing houses, too.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
At the moment, my workload is divided between writing my next book (a nonfiction book on isolation, funded by the Australia Council and Creative Victoria), doing a PhD in creative writing at RMIT, sessional teaching work at RMIT, and the occasional editorial job. My workday is usually governed by school hours. Every day is different, but it usually involves either blocks of intense reading and research, or blocks of writing, with whatever tasks I need to tick off for teaching or editorial work in between as they come up, and of course whatever domestic stuff needs doing in between it all as my ‘breaks’. Some days the writing just won’t come, and I stare at the wall a lot.
What do you enjoy most about teaching creative writing? And do you believe the ability to write well is innate or is it simply a case of practice makes perfect?
I love that I get to keep learning and encountering new work when preparing my own teaching materials, and the conversations that unfold about writing with my students. I think there are various skills involved in writing (you can, for example, be good at thinking of storylines but weak at putting a sentence together; or you can be great at endings but terrible at overall structure) and some of them have to be innate and others can be learned. When it comes to sentence-level craft, I think anyone hoping to improve their writing can learn by osmosis through reading and then practicing their own writing. Anyone can work that muscle. How strong they can get it in the end I think might be innate.
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 Jane: a murder by Maggie Nelson. I am currently reading pretty widely, for enjoyment, the PhD and my isolation book: The Adversary by Ronnie Scott, The Crying Book by Heather Christle; Poetry and Psychoanalysis: the opening of the field by David Shaddock; a thousand articles on language acquisition, on psychoanalysis and on isolation experiments. On my TBR pile are: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen, The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey, A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt.
What is your earliest literary memory? And did you have any favourite books growing up?
Probably encountering Jenny Wagner’s The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek on my father’s bookshelf. He’s a clinical psychologist, and a patient had given it to him, and there was something in its melancholy illustrations and existential narrative that collided with my sense of my father’s work and interested me a lot. As a young independent reader, I loved Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl, Judy Bloom, Paula Danzinger, Emily Rodda. The Ramona Quimby books remain favourites for me. Cleary was so able to get into the small child’s mind, in all its comedic misunderstanding, worry and joy.
What will you be looking for when judging the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
Any of inventiveness, a voice that enchants me or risk-taking in form, language or subject-matter.
What does literary success look like to you?
That’s a hard one. It can’t be about decent money earned or fame or prizes won, because those things are few and far between in our publishing landscape. It has to be, I think, developing sufficient repute for your work that it remunerates you enough to keep writing, even if alongside other work. And finding a readership. Just finding a readership is a literary success, to my mind.
Entries for the 2021 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction close at 6pm on Friday 16th April 2021.
Submit stories up to 2000 words that engage with the theme ‘homecoming’. For all the details, please click here.