Maria Papas is the winner of the City of Fremantle 2020 TAG Hungerford Award, announced on Thursday 22nd October at an awards ceremony at the Fremantle Arts Centre. Her manuscript, I Belong to the Lake, addresses the impact of childhood cancer on regional Western Australian families. Maria received $15,000 in prize money and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press for winning the award. Senior Editor Shelley Timms chatted to Maria about her win and discussed advice for up-and-coming authors.
Tell us about your manuscript! What is it about, where did the inspiration come from?
I’ve been saying [I Belong to the Lake] is about two lots of siblings each of whom watch [a respective sibling] go through paediatric cancer.
The more that I’ve thought about it, it’s quite a lot more than that—I follow the lives of these families until they’re adults and watch how they’ve I look at how these experiences have shaped and changed them. One of the siblings also becomes a nurse so it’s also about nursing in WA and how she has been shaped by her experiences and how she responds to similar experiences in her environment.
It’s basically asking the question how these families and people around these families cope with such a heavy diagnosis within the family and what becomes of them, how does that diagnosis reappear in their lives, how do people around them help or respond and how are they are affected.
It’s also about generally being in regional WA when a diagnosis like childhood cancer or any very serious illness occurs. In WA, children who live in regional areas can’t be treated in their home towns. They have to come to Perth and so it’s a novel that deals with the displacement these families have to cope with.
Originally, I wanted to explore the way in which strangers interact with each other in times of crisis. I wanted to explore how people respond to each other in chaotic environments. Then later I wanted to write specifically about paediatric cancer, and the reason was a personal one.
Like many families in WA we had a family member who was suddenly diagnosed with an illness—it was a very scary illness and we were all sitting on the sidelines thinking, what’s gonna happen next?
I love writing and I love fiction—I think I wanted to make sense of what was happening to us at the time. I wanted to explore just in my own safe world—my own fictional world—all the different possibilities of what this diagnosis could mean.
Later I thought, I don’t think I’m ever going to make sense of this. I wanted to write a fiction where I didn’t have to make sense of it, where I didn’t have to feel pressured to create a story where something terrible happens to a character and that character has to overcome it and has to find some kind of purposeful meaning and must resolve nice and tightly.
I remember reading lots of books that were structured in that way and finding it very alienating to understand. I came across two books that really resisted that narrative. They were Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing [by Eimear McBride]. Both deal with trauma in different ways. I remember reading those books and thinking, I wanna write like that.
If someone is going through a really hard time, whether it’s illness or whether its another sort of trauma, they’re not going through a neat narrative. I wanted to write in a way that took something difficult and experimented with a narrative that was uncertain. One that didn’t necessarily pull together as a whole in the end and just accepted without trying to make sense of things—I went from wanting to make sense to accepting that I didn’t have to. That was my purpose.
How long did you work on this manuscript for?
I worked on this manuscript from 2013-2017 it was part of my PhD. By 2017 I had finished the creative drafts. I researched other narratives throughout—scholarly things that people said about trauma. I researched what different disciplines had said about trauma and so my writing took me a bit longer to really figure out exactly how I was going to pull it all together.
This isn’t the first time you’ve been shortlisted for the TAG, what happened after you were shortlisted in 2010?
I finished my masters in 2010 but that manuscript I didn’t ever publish. I sent it out to publishers and most people responded quite positively to it but the general feedback was that it was a bit short, that it was still academic level and not yet marketable. When it came to whether I should try to restructure it and make it longer and work on it so it does become marketable, I ended up choosing studying.
I wrote about place in the first novel and this one is really about feeling out of place. I finished by PhD and received lovely responses from my examiners. I did think some time ago that I love this award and the books that come out of the Hungerford; I love Fremantle Press as a publisher and if I were to send it somewhere I would love to send it there.
I had it in my mind that I would send it off to the Hungerford but then I started working at a school and it was a lovely new job for me. It was a busy time and I immersed myself in teaching. Then COVID happened and teaching became chaotic and I lost sense of when the deadline was. One day I thought do I still have a chance to hand that in? and it was the last day of submissions and really late. I think I handed it in within that last little window of opportunity.
How do you deal with rejection?
Rejection hurts. When I was shortlisted in 2010 and then my work didn’t get published, it felt like a rejection. When you do have rejection you have choices to make; do I revisit that work or do I leave it?
In that instance I did leave it. I don’t want to revisit it now, and I’m glad that’s not the story I’m publishing because its not the one I’ve poured my heart into. It felt like it’s the one that was helping me learn. Other times you get a rejection and you think, what can I do with this? It could be that you rework it, it could be that you change the form you were writing in, it could be that you experiment with something else.
Do you have any advice for writers that are wanting to submit to a literary award?
Try not to leave it to the last minute because it can be a bit stressful. Make sure that you are formatting and providing everything that the awards asks you for. Make sure you think that your work is ready; that you’ve edited it as much as you can.
What’s next for you?
I have two book ideas in the pipeline. I have Greek heritage, and I haven’t really explored much of my parent’s heritage or my history. It started to come out a bit in this manuscript, [but not in great detail]. I then started to explore them just recently in other scratchings of writing. I want to take some of the stories my parents have told me of their lives in villages and their movements across the world. That’s what I want to explore now.
All the while I was writing this manuscript I was writing a little fun one for my children, and we’ve had a lot fun writing that together at home and they’re like “Why can’t we see you publish that one?”, but I don’t know [if that will be published].
Congratulations Maria! We look forward to reading your book when it comes out.