meet the winners of the 2020 rachel funari prize for fiction: 2nd place, “baby season” by vicky daddo
Vicky Daddo’s story, Baby Season, placed second in the 2020 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Here’s a Q&A with Vicky, plus her award-winning story!
Congratulations on placing 2nd in this year’s RFP for Fiction, Vicky! Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
I’m a writer based in Gippsland, Victoria, originally from the UK. By day, I work in a library marketing role, by night (or more often early mornings) I write short fiction and novels. I am president of the Gippsland Writers Network and program the Latrobe Literary Festival each year. I love Doris Day, Duran Duran and The X-Files (and enjoy writing fanfiction for that show for funsies).
What do you think makes a great short story?
Small details. If you give the reader tiny insights into character and setting, there’s more chance they are going to connect.
What’s your writing process? Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’?
What is a plotter?! As much as pantsing causes issues later, especially in longer forms of writing, there is no way my brain will allow me to sit with a blank screen and plan out an entire story. I jump in and see where the character takes me.
When you’re working on something new, what comes first: the character(s), the setting, or the story? Or is it something else entirely?
It depends. For my longer work, it’s generally the characters that introduce themselves to me and I follow their journey. For short fiction, it might be a theme, a word, a snippet of conversation that sparks a story.
How do you know when one of your stories or poems is ready to be sent out into the world?
For short fiction, it’s usually when the deadline is looming! For long fiction, it’s a trickier judgement call. There comes a time when you’ve reread the manuscript so often you can practically quote it and you actively dislike it, so that might be the trigger to let it out in the world.
RFP Judge Rae White described your story, Baby Season as ‘haunting’ and they noted that they would be keen to read a whole novel set in this future – and I must agree with them! What inspired you to write Baby Season? What (or who) inspires your work more generally? And will you ever consider expanding your story into a longer format?
The story was originally written for the NYC Midnight flash fiction challenge where participants receive a genre, a location and an object and have 48 hours to write a 1000-word piece. Where the usual process for editing short fiction is to cut out words, I actually added more elements of plot when I redrafted Baby Season for this competition.
I think it’s interesting to imagine the story as a novel. The dystopian world it’s set in is ripe for exploring. I have written novels based on short stories I’ve written previously, so there’s precedent. Never say never!
Dorothy Parker once said: “I hate writing, I love having written”. Do you find the writing process energising or exhausting?
Both! I love writing short fiction because I write quickly and if I have an idea, I generally thrash it out in a few hours. I can see the entire thing unfold. For novels, it’s harder. The first draft often leaves me in physical discomfort because what’s in my mind rarely comes out on paper. There’s a kind of anxiousness that weighs heavily until it’s finished and I can see what I’ve got to work with. I use NaNoWriMo each year to bash out a draft and it’s tiring, but I need the discipline of the daily slog. Some days, the words flow, other days they get stuck in my guts and I have to drag them out kicking and screaming. With redrafting, I have to go methodically through the work, with a list of items to tick off so that I feel I’ve accomplished something.
What’s the first story you remember writing? Tell us about it.
Years ago, I used to write twist in the tale stories and there was one about a secretary being gobbled up by a killer photocopier! I did write a story during that phase that stayed with me, a short piece about a bride on her wedding day and all the sensations and aromas around her as she went through the big day, but who turned out to be blind. I remembered the last few words: ‘had I the gift of sight’ and I recreated it when I started writing seriously again. It ended up being published in Australian Women’s Weekly, my first big break, I suppose.
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 Frankie by Shivaun Plozza, which was a compelling, heartfelt, gritty read. The main character hits you right in the face from the get-go and the setting is so well-drawn I kept having to look up to see if I was in Collingwood or not.
I’m currently reading a thriller called The Secretary by Zoe Lea. I’m not very far in but it’s already an intriguing tale of petty grievances, bullying and nasty cliques set in a primary school.
My next to read is The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker by Joanna Nell.
As you can see, I don’t really have a reading ‘type’!
What is your earliest literary memory? Did you have any favourite books or authors growing up?
I was an early reader and loved my Janet and John books, my Ladybird books and the Brumby stories, because I had a thing for horses. I devoured The Secret Seven, Famous Five and Mallory Towers series. I also loved Stig of the Dump, The Secret Garden, Heidi and Black Beauty.
Why did you enter this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction?
I enter a few competitions each year and Baby Season stuck with me as one of my better literary efforts. It fitted the theme of the Rachel Funari Prize so I worked on it, expanding the plot to draw out more about the main character’s motivations.
The Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction calls for stories by women and non-binary writers. What’s your view on diverse representation in publishing?
Whilst writing fiction calls for making stuff up and putting yourselves in others’ shoes, there is no replacement for lived experience or the genuine voices of diverse writers that have been overlooked or ignored for years. Storytelling is a uniquely human thing and there are so many unique humans. Let’s hear more of their stories.
As you know, this year’s Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction theme was ‘future’. How do you feel about the future right now? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
We find ourselves at a tipping point. The climate emergency, rampant greed and dangerous political rhetoric is lighting small fires around the world. Throw in a global pandemic and humanity is being tested like never before. I’m hopeful that a change is coming, a scaling back of the one-eyed consumer culture we’ve built and a return to a more considerate way of life. I truly believe that art and storytelling can lead the way. Writers and artists have long challenged politics so I feel we are the group who can raise awareness away from the parliament buildings and rallies. Being kind is the bottom line and through diverse perspectives we can tell our stories and offer hope.
Where do you hope to see yourself, and your writing, in 10 years’ time? What’s your ultimate publishing goal?
I would love to publish a novel, that’s my ultimate goal. I have been working at my craft for a good few years now and feel like I’m getting closer with every manuscript. Writing is continuous learning. When it gets hard, it’s because you’ve improved enough to get to the next level and that’s how I feel at the moment. Each manuscript I draft is better than the previous one, hence more challenging to develop into a cohesive narrative.
If you could invite three literary figures to dinner, who would they be, and why?
I would invite Mary Shelley because, goodness she led quite the life; Jane Austen because I think she would be such a shrewd and entertaining guest and Toni Jordan because she is my favourite Australian author and I imagine the conversation between the three would mean I wouldn’t have to contribute anything meaningful other than to refill wine glasses and serve the food.
Where can people follow your work? (publications, social media, etc)
I have a blog that I sporadically update and if you’re an X-Phile and love fanfic, contact me for my pseudonym! www.vickydaddo.com.
It’s baby season.
Today is photo day. They come, filling his studio with roundness, ripe bodies, cheeks dotted pink. It makes him itch, all this fruitfulness, like his own skin is splitting. But harvest time is dangerous. Not for him; he was chosen for his eye. He merely observes, makes the choices required to for the Network.
And after each visit, Jacob sends his reports with the photos. After that, the Network chooses. He’s glad for the ignorance. Once the information leaves his studio, he can imagine it doesn’t exist. An overexposed or underexposed photo that nobody will remember.
In the summers Before, he picked peaches from his Grandfather’s tree, their sweet perfume heavy in the air. He would walk around the trunk, carefully selecting the fruit to be plucked. A darker blush, a fuller bloom, hiding the promise of the sweetest flesh under the skin. Sometimes, it was a peach hidden behind another. But he would always know the right ones.
When the birds came, they pecked at the fruits he’d left behind, hollowing them out.
Now, the shutter clicks, hard noises cutting through the softness. “Smile,” he says, and the woman does, but he sees how it is merely a flicker, a ghost. She is trying not to remember Before, trying not think of Tomorrow. They’re alike that way.
“Is it hard?” she asks him.
He doesn’t answer. She wriggles uncomfortably.
“Doing what you do?”
He swallows and it’s bitter. “I am good at my job,” he says and the woman rests her hands over the crest of her stomach, smoothing her dress over the mound. The maternity dress skims her contours. It’s startling blue, like a fairywren’s plumage; a bird he hasn’t seen for years.
“This is silly,” she says, bending with some trouble to the bag she placed on the floor next to the chair. “I feel like a child at school.”
She hands him a peach, round and ripe. There’s a teardrop of condensation still on the curve by the stalk. She lowers her voice as their hands brush during the exchange. “Is this…enough?”
He remembers his Mother’s dresses, smocked and voluminous, skirting over her stomach holding his brother in. He muses now that perhaps his Mother thought his brother wasn’t secure enough. That she must stitch him in place with cottons and threads.
Of course, they didn’t know back then, Before, what would be expected of them. The Network chose its fruits with the same precision he had.
“Turn to the left,” he says now and the woman complies. In his studio, they all do as he instructs. Face right, chin up, look down, kneel. Everyone has their orders to follow.
“We’d like some portraits of the baby when she’s born,” the woman says, stroking the sides of her distended belly. In her voice is hope now. The promise of something sweet when the skin splits and the juice spills across your tongue and down your cheeks so the sticky nectar marks you, if only temporarily.
As with anything, the traces of it can be wiped away.
She shifts on the seat and a twinge of pain passes over her face. He clicks the shutter just at the right time. Gets the money shot.
He loves the mood of the darkroom. The digital era, while it lasted, stripped the slow burn, the drama, the anticipation from the process. The wet slap of paper against the sides of the chemical bath. The red light casting elongated shadows that stretch across the wall, thin and pointed like winter trees. The sharp aroma stinging the membranes in his nose reminds him he’s alive. Down here, where he develops the stories behind the images, there are bottles and packets of photographic paper, trays and racks. There are choices playing out.
What he loves most, what keeps him from the spiral of despair that threatens to suck him further into this maelstrom of fear and uncertainty every day, is that amongst all the equipment and materials and chemicals, the most sought-after information lies in the intangible. He’s good at his job. He’s good at spotting that indefinable thing that sets one photo, one face, one life apart from another.
The woman’s face emerges, lines marring her brow, eyes narrowed, mouth popped open. He can still hear the sharp intake of breath she took. With the right exposure, he can manipulate, with shadows and highlights and depth.
He pegs the photos to the wire and watches them waft on the warming air. The camera never lies. But people do. His Mother told him his Father would come back. She said his brother would not be chosen. But that helpless boy was as good as gone when he was born. His boss tells him they are lucky. All they have to do is deliver the merchandise. Take the photos, hand over the reports, let The Network do its job. For the greater good.
Under the darkroom there is a secure storage place. As he descends the ladder, with the photos under his arm, he imagines it a little like an air raid shelter, or a bunker those people they used to call doomsday preppers deck out. There are probably thousands of those preppers living on canned peaches underground right now. It pays to be prepared. Even if you’re mocked. Even if you spend hours and hours living in the dark, just waiting for the briefest moment of opportunity to blossom.
When his Father took his briefcase and went to work that Tuesday morning, the wind blew all the fruits off Grandfather’s tree. Sweet pickings for the birds. By 3pm the Internet crashed. By 6pm, Father wasn’t home, the news didn’t come on, grey static bursting across the television screen. The crust on the pie burnt, but Mother served it anyway. They ate in dense silence, charred flakes of pastry fluttering to the plate. He lay awake all night, listening for the sounds of his Father’s footsteps up the path. Sometimes, he catches himself listening still.
Along each wall are shelving units with sliding doors so that Jacob can lock away the photos and reports. A net over the fruit of his complicity.
Later that week, the woman returns for her baby portraits. The husband comes too, arms bracketing his wife’s shoulders as she clutches the swaddled baby to her front. Jacob shuffles them inside quickly, checking the street in each direction.
“Did you bring the dress?” He asks this as he adjusts the lighting stand, tilts the umbrella.
The woman nods to the small bag her husband is carrying. The blue is even brighter in the glare of the light.
“We don’t know what to say.” The husband picks the quick of his thumbnail.
Jacob says nothing. Thinks about peaches as the woman brushes the sleeping infant’s downy hair. A leaf of hope unfurls in his stomach. He takes the photos, directing them to smile. The light will pick out their fear, but he will adapt the images accordingly.
The camera doesn’t lie, but the photographer will.
The woman slips the dress on. The husband tucks the baby inside the front and draws the fabric belt around her stomach. She pulls her coat around her, covers the swell. Jacob shakes the man’s hand, slipping him the small square of paper with the address of the safehouse on it. He shows them out the back door then sinks down to the darkroom. He develops the film, sluicing the paper in the liquid, watching the image appear. Like growing the sweetest, ripest fruit, it’s all about timing. Expose for shadows, develop for highlights. Too long or too little. The truth can be fudged.
Later, he will call his boss and tell them the merchandise was not delivered. And later still, he will get a message from Mother who will tell him the merchandise is safe and well.
It’s baby season.