Interview: Theresa Smith at the Australian Women Writers Challenge, by Shelley Carter

Theresa Smith is the Team Coordinator and Historical Fiction Editor for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, which Underground is participating in this year. Editor Shelley chatted with her about the Challenge, how she got involved, and how it’s grown since its inception in 2012.

Can you tell us about the origins of the challenge, and give us an overview of its main goal?
In the lead up to 2012, Australia’s National Year of Reading, AWW Founder Elizabeth Lhuede decided to actively do something to raise awareness of Australian women’s writing, so she created the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWWC).

The goal has always been for people to simply examine their reading habits and commit to reading and reviewing more books by Australian women. By offering a database, we have been able to provide a resource for people who want to read more books written by Australian women, whereby they can search by genre, book type, authors that may have been mentioned to them, even year of publication. Recognising the potential to contribute something long-lasting to Australia’s literary culture, the high interest in the Challenge throughout 2012 led to Elizabeth asking for help.

A team of book bloggers formed, including specialists in diverse genres and interest areas. These book bloggers agreed to host another challenge in 2013, and to continue to support and promote books by Australian women. With their encouragement and advice, AWW switched to a new website and a new method of uploading links to reviews. Individuals worked behind the scenes, updating spreadsheets which enabled books reviewed for the challenge to be displayed.

The team agreed on roles and tasks, including to write regular “round-up” posts for different genres throughout 2013, and this is how we have continued to run the Challenge. The contributors are all volunteers, some only stay on for a year, some far longer, but all leave a valuable imprint upon the Challenge and also upon Australia’s literary scene.

How did you get involved with the Challenge? What is your role?
I became aware of the Challenge by chance. I was doing an online course through the Australian Writer’s Centre, run by Natasha Lester, and at the conclusion of the course she promoted participation in the Challenge. This was partway through 2016, and since the Challenge is open for joining right up until November of each year, I joined as a reader, committing to review ten books.

At this stage I didn’t even have a blog; I was reviewing through Goodreads only. But I surpassed my goal and enjoyed the new focus the Challenge offered within my reading. I put my hand up at the end of 2016 in response to a call for volunteers and became the editor for Historical Fiction, expanding this role to include author interviews. Over time I have taken on more of the day to day running of the Challenge, which mostly involves functioning as the editorial team coordinator as well as moderating our rapidly growing Facebook community.

What are your thoughts on the success of the Challenge?
The Challenge has a success that can speak for itself if you were to crunch the numbers (which we do each year in December). It continues to grow, both in participation as well as the amount of reviews being linked into our database.

But the database numbers aren’t the only markers of success. We have a large and active community of readers and reviewers on Facebook, Goodreads, and to a lesser extent, Twitter. More and more bloggers are promoting the Challenge as one they automatically sign up for each year, which is excellent, as it’s through these connections that we gain exposure and continued support.

Do you think it has helped promote Australian women writers to a wider audience?
Absolutely. Authors themselves are openly supportive of the challenge and appreciate the exposure their books are getting. We have had a dedicated hashtag from the beginning, currently #aww2020, and in recent years I have seen bloggers from outside of Australia taking up the Challenge, which is exciting for our Australian women writers. Whenever I would do an interview with an author, I would ask the question if they felt as though the Challenge had had a positive impact upon them personally. The response was always: yes!

Do you think the disparity between male and female authors being reviewed and promoted is improving?
The Stella count takes an official look at this each year but there is a lot of reviewing that doesn’t get counted in these kinds of surveys, particularly that of online blogs and incidental reviewing such as what appears on Goodreads and Instagram. It would likely be impossible to count every review on every medium, but I feel that if you were able to take all of this into account, then the disparity is definitely improving. Or maybe I have a very biased newsfeed given my obvious interest in the area!

If I was to judge by how much participation in our Challenge increases each year, and by how many reviews we have currently in the database, then again, based on those markers, the disparity appears to be improving.

Have you discovered any favourite authors or books thanks to the Challenge?
Most definitely! There are so many authors that I would never have heard about without the Challenge. Participating in this challenge has led to me joining a wider online community made up of readers, reviewers, bloggers and authors. I read far more literary fiction now than I ever did before and a lot more debut authors as well. I love what our Australian women write; there is so much variety and depth offered. I feel like each year brings more new releases from Australian women and this gives me immense joy, to be so spoiled for choice!

Lastly, tell us your book recommendations! What have you been enjoying recently?
I’ve been having a very good reading year so far! A couple of recent reads that I can highly recommend would be The Darkest Shore by Karen Brooks (historical fiction), The Salt Madonna by Catherine Noske (literary fiction), and The Lost Love Song by Minnie Darke (contemporary fiction) – something for all tastes!

Website: Theresa Smith
Challenge/Team Coordinator and Historical Fiction Editor with the Australian Women Writers Challenge
You can find Theresa on Facebook at Theresa Smith Writes, Instagram @tesssmithwrites, Goodreads Theresa Smith Writes and Twitter @TessSmithWrites

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