The delayed debutantes: inside the literary class of COVID-19

Who needs a book launch when you could have a ball? The pandemic might have derailed plans for their books’ releases last year, but Australia’s newest authors will now have a chance to put the “deb” in debutante.

The COVID-19 class of 2020 will be introduced to literary society at a Sydney Writers’ Festival event on Sunday evening. We discover the stories behind the stories of six very different new authors who will don a sash and sashay into the world of letters.

Making an entrance: authors (left to right) Aminata Conteh-Biger, Sam Coley, Andrew Pippos, Ewa Ramsey, Vivian Pham, and Julie Jason prepare for Sunday’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Debutante Ball.Credit:Louie Douvis

The long-term project

Andrew Pippos, Lucky’s

There was a job change, a doctorate, the death of a loved one, a new baby – life happened and so did Lucky’s. Andrew Pippos, who is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Technology Sydney, worked on his debut novel, an epic that spans 80 years and set in the milieu of the Greek-Australian cafe, for eight years.

The world of the Greek-Australian cafe.

“I lived with it every day. It was like a friend to me and it was hard to let go of it at the end,” Pippos, 43, says. “It was a friend to me in tumultuous times in my life. It gave my life structure and meaning.”

Pippos says the desire to write about the world of the Greek-Australian cafe fuelled the novel, providing the background for a story about how people, and a society, changed during the course of a lifetime. “That was a world that fascinated me for personal reasons because from an early age that was the frame through which I saw the world and the wider community but also it’s a lost world now. I could see where it started and ended, so it seemed to be a good subject and a good setting for a novel.”

It was hard for Pippos to let the manuscript go, and his agent Jane Novak and his publisher at Picador, Cate Blake, eventually had to pry the final draft away from him. Now he’s onto a second book, a non-fiction work that tells the stories of his father and half-brother, who never met. “The first book is special because it is the realisation of this dream, like when I was a kid I told myself that one day I would write a book then I grew up and I did it. That’s very strange even to think about now,” he says. “Nothing will compare to that.” And also, he adds, the next book won’t take quite so long to write.

A subject of trust

Aminata Conteh-Biger, Rising Heart

It can be hard enough to tell your own story sometimes let alone to trust someone else with it. It took some time for Aminata Conteh-Biger, one of the first Sierra Leone refugees to be settled in Australia in 2000, to feel ready to publish a book about her experience being kidnapped, raped and imprisoned by rebel soldiers during a bloody civil war in the West African country. Conteh-Biger established the Aminata Maternal Foundation in 2014 to help women and children in her birth country and performed in the acclaimed theatre production The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe. She had been approached to write a book multiple times but wanted to wait until she “became more of herself”.

A ghostwriter was key to charting a refugee’s journey.

When she felt ready, Conteh-Biger wrote a book proposal with her New York agent, Catherine Drayton at InkWell Management, and signed with publisher Pan Macmillan after an auction. The 40-year-old says one of the factors that drew her to Pan Macmillan was the freedom to select a ghostwriter, which is how she met journalist and author Juliet Rieden. “It was very important for me to choose a ghostwriter who allowed me the freedom to express myself. It had to be true to experience. She was open and willing and she didn’t want to polish any of the ways I expressed myself. A lot of the time people feel like they are talking to me when they read the book. That was what she intentionally did and that was a pure gift,” Conteh-Biger says.

The pair spent hours talking (Conteh-Biger says they never once cancelled a scheduled meeting) and travelled together to Sierra Leone and London to interview family members. Conteh-Biger ended the experience with a book – and a lifelong friend. “We are family now,” she says. “I have huge respect for how she respected my story and my voice. I knew she would fight for my voice to be heard. You want that person in your life forever.”

Laptop in the dark

Ewa Ramsey, The Morbids

They don’t always admit it, but most writers care about the reviews of their novels. When Jessie Tu’s provocative review of The Morbids, published in this masthead, garnered attention it was an unexpected crash course in being caught in a social media storm for new novelist Ewa Ramsey.

It was a strange time for Ramsey who suddenly felt how claustrophobic the Australian literary world can be. “People are allowed to not like my book and it comes with the territory – at least people are talking about it,” Ramsey, 41, says. “So many books don’t get reviewed and you always take the risk that people aren’t going to like your work. The social media attention around it was the hardest bit. It was the first time I felt really exposed and vulnerable.”

It felt alive from the beginning.

Her agent, Grace Heifetz at Left Bank Literary, told her the chaos would pass after a few days which proved prescient. Fear had held Ramsey back from writing a novel for many years until she decided to make a serious attempt, first writing short stories and joining a writing group.

The Morbids, centreing around a young woman who is convinced she is going to die, emerged from a short story. The first draft was written in a matter of weeks, largely in the early morning, with Ramsey in bed using a laptop in the dark. “This one just felt very alive to me from the beginning. The characters felt very real. It did just take on this life of its own.”

The would-be-author sent her manuscript out widely, hoping to get picked up from a publisher’s slush pile of unsolicited submissions. But it was Heifetz who signed her and brokered a deal with publisher Allen & Unwin where Ramsay ended up completing another 17 drafts of the novel. “At every single stage I have always thought part of me thinks it is a giant prank and somebody is going to leap out and tell me no we are not going to publish it,” Ramsey says.

The typewriter man

Sam Coley, State Highway One

“Pretty drunk,” is how Sam Coley would describe the writing process for his debut State Highway One. If the cheap sauvignon blanc helps the words come, it’s a typewriter that stops them from coming too fast.

Coley uses a Remington 11, from 1963. He first bought a $1.50 typewriter when he was living in London and couldn’t afford a computer. He used it to write his university assignments – and still uses it for first drafts before moving onto a computer for further revision.

Disappointing to miss out on a launch with free wine.

State Highway One, about siblings who embark on a road journey after their parents die, won Hachette’s 2017 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. The prize included a 12-month mentorship with Hachette’s then head of literary, Robert Watkins. “It’s any unpublished author’s dream to have someone in the industry to send a manuscript to, who will pat you on the head and tell you you’re doing a good job. You write in such a vacuum, having that confirmation, validation that you’re on the right track and being able to check in with someone was very useful.”

Coley, 35, dropped out of law school to finish the manuscript in seven months, writing four nights during the week and on the weekend. The pandemic proved challenging on two fronts – Coley works for a not-for-profit in the aged care sector so saw first-hand the havoc wreaked by coronavirus; and a publicity tour of New Zealand was cancelled, as was his book launch.

“I think because by the time it came out I had been writing for five years and it’s a long time to spend. Since you’re not going to make any money out of it, that’s the real fun part of it, drinking wine on our publisher’s expense account,” he jokes. “It was disappointing. It was difficult to launch a book online and then still be inside your own house.”

Writing at lunchtime

Vivian Pham, The Coconut Children

Who needs maths? Vivian Pham dumped the subject when she was in year 11 so she could have a free period twice a week to work on her novel. She wrote before and after school and lunch times were spent in the library so she could finish The Coconut Children, a coming-of-age novel set in western Sydney for which Pham, now 20, has just been named The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s Best Young Australian Novelist of 2021.

“I needed time to process the publication.”

“When I was writing the first draft I was joyful, frenetic, anxious. I wanted to get as many words as I could on the page.” Pham would write five versions of the same sentence before picking the best one. She wrote the first draft in a year, and spent the next two editing and re-writing. “It’s overwritten now, but before it was like a wilderness. I had to go in and tame certain parts of it,” she says.

A small quantity of the novel was first printed at the end of 2018 by creative writing centre The Story Factory before a copy ended up in the hands of Zeitgeist Agency’s Benython Oldfield who took it to auction where it was snapped up by Penguin Random House. While the coronavirus derailed an itinerary of public events, Pham says the silver lining was that it allowed her time to process the publication. “I didn’t feel I was ready then. I had no experience going in public or doing public speaking. I was quite relieved when it was all cancelled. I think during last year I have mainly been doing online events and book clubs which feel really personal,” Pham says. “It’s good that it has really slowed things down. It’s already been overwhelming.”

Pham is finding writing her second novel, while she studies philosophy and creative writing at Western Sydney University, a tougher experience than her debut. “I don’t really know what came over me that year to write a novel because I am finding it so hard this year to try to write. I used to write 1000 to 2000 words a night and literally writing a sentence is painful – hopefully it gets better.”

From a place of rage

Julie Janson, Benevolence

Julie Janson grew up knowing her dad was Aboriginal, and her family was of Darug descent from the Hawkesbury region, but they never discussed it in her family. It was when Janson was employed as a history researcher at the University of Sydney that she sunk her teeth into the stories of Indigenous people in the region during the early years of colonial settlement in Australia.

Working with Indigenous editors was transformative.

Janson says she wanted Benevolence – a story of first contact told from the perspective of Darug woman Muraging – to be a “post-colonial version of the Hawkesbury”. It was her answer, she says, to Kate Grenville’s historical novel The Secret River, which was published in 2005 and proved controversial in its representation of Indigenous Australia.

“I wrote it out of a kind of rage. It’s my family’s country, it’s our river. I didn’t like to see it represented in a colonial way that glossed over the horror… It distressed me that a lot of people who read that wonderful novel, and Kate is a wonderful writer, then assumed that there was no Aboriginal people in western Sydney who descended from the original inhabitants,” Janson says.

The novel’s title is an ironic undercutting of the idea of the “virtuous colonial society”. Janson had self-published two previous novels, but an early draft of Benevolence was picked up by Indigenous publisher Rachel Bin Salleh at Magabala Books. Janson says working with Indigenous editors and writers on the novel had proven helpful. “I think it is a huge advantage. There are not many Aboriginal editors, usually they are writers themselves who take a paid job as an editor. But you don’t have to explain the position of post-colonialism to them because they have grown up with it every day of their lives. You don’t have to try to convince anyone of anything.” Janson is now working on a crime novel with an Aboriginal woman the protagonist as an amateur detective but hopes to then turn her hand to a sequel for Benevolence.

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