Meet the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award Shortlist (Part 2): Ryan O’Neill, Philip Salom & Josephine Wilson

On the 18th June the shortlist for the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award – an award now in it’s 60th year – was unveiled to the public. And what an exciting shortlist it was, with all five of this nominated authors shortlisted for the very first time! It was also great to see many of the smaller presses getting some attention too.

Speaking on behalf of the judging panel, State Library of NSW Mitchell Librarian, Richard Neville, said: “Yet again the shortlist celebrates the diversity of voices and approaches to writing about Australian life. None of these novels draw on familiar tropes of Australian literature – yet each brings a distinctive pitch of truth and insight into the Australian experience.”

To find out a little more about this year’s shortlisted authors and their books, we asked each of them a handful of questions about their experiences being shortlisted, their memories of the award, and what winning would mean for them. So without any more carry on – meet the final three authors on your 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist!

Ryan O’Neill – Their Brilliant Careers

Synopsis: A rich and entertaining satire featuring 15 biographies of imagined Australian writers whose bizarre and exaggerated lives are neatly slotted into real literary history.

Congratulations on your shortlisting. What does the Miles Franklin Literary Award and being shortlisted mean to you?

Being shortlisted for the Miles Franklin has been a huge, and wholly unexpected, honour. It has meant a great amount to me that my work has been recognised by the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary award. I couldn’t be happier.

What are some of your memories of the Miles Franklin – any favourite past winners or shortlisted works?

One of my favourite memories of the award was my friend A.S. Patric winning the Miles Franklin last year for his novel Black Rock White City. I had read the book before it was published and knew how good it was, and I also knew how difficult it had been for Alec to find a publisher for it, so to see Alec win was a wonderful moment. Other winning, or shortlisted, works I have really enjoyed are Eucalyptus by Murray Bail, The Secret River by Kate Grenville and Wild Surmise by Dorothy Porter.

How important do literary awards like the Miles Franklin continue to be for the writing community (and readers) in Australia?

Literary awards, and most especially the Miles Franklin, are vitally important for writers in Australia by bringing their work to a wider audience, and drawing critical attention to it. Literary Awards are also important for readers. Nowadays, with more books being published than ever before, awards can help guide readers to books that will repay their reading.

What would winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award mean to you? How do you feel it would benefit your practice?

Winning the Miles Franklin Award would mean joining a list of Australia’s greatest writers, such as Patrick White, Shirley Hazzard and Thea Astley, which would be an enormous distinction. It would also bring my work to the kind of wider audience most writers only dream of.

Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill is available through Black Inc.

Philip Salom – Waiting

Synopsis: A deftly executed and very human novel about a pair of odd couples, who are both waiting for something or someone to change their lives.

Congratulations on your shortlisting. What does the Miles Franklin Literary Award and being shortlisted mean to you?

The Miles Franklin has the power of a Pulitzer, it directs the highest respect to the individual achievement of a book. It bestows a very public integrity on the writing at the same time as signalling the cultural significance of the overall work. Therefore it’s an incredible honour to be shortlisted and, possibly, to even win it. This year’s shortlist also makes plain the exciting and, I have to say, very reassuring range of difference in our authors and therefore the risks publishers are taking, especially small publishers. Small publishers are the edgy, tensile element in Australian literature.

What are some of your memories of the Miles Franklin – any favourite past winners or shortlisted works?

Like a lot of readers I take special notice of the winning book and usually read it. While I’m a great fan of Patrick White, who won the inaugural prize, more recently I have hugely admired Benang and That Deadman Dance, both extraordinary winners, by Kim Scott, and also a powerful and timely book: Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel. Books like these read through us from exactingly different points of view; they are also great writing.

How important do literary awards like the Miles Franklin continue to be for the writing community (and readers) in Australia?

Well, for writers and readers, books are obviously a fundamental source of access to the most concentrated expression of our lives within our culture – as other people have seen it, as others have represented it – and we need that otherness. We need the different forms it takes, too. Prizes are not always won by the ‘best book’ because reality is too peculiar for that, but having them obviously ‘prize’ the value of writing and also helps support writers financially. There can be a significant kick-on after the prizes. But I’d also like to think that prizes can be controversial and arrest us enough to re-think things, and also remind us that there are extraordinary writers out there who don’t win prizes at all. Some great writing isn’t about anything ‘culturally significant’, it’s eccentric, and startling, or deeply human, or droll, or …

What would winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award mean to you? How do you feel it would benefit your practice?

I’d love to say: this is one for the poets who write fiction! There can be too much poetry even in poetry, but poetry does have the quality of making prose more sudden, and stranger and even comic. It’s the reason I admire Irish novelists so much – from James Joyce to Sebastian Barry and Eimear McBride, and the many, many in between … Winning the Miles Franklin would confirm, in the most dramatic way possible, my own fascination with writing fiction.

Waiting by Philip Salom is available now through Puncher & Wattmann

Josephine Wilson – Extinctions

Synopsis: A clever and compassionate novel exploring ageing, adoption, grief and remorse; rescue and resistance to rescue.

Congratulations on your shortlisting. What does the Miles Franklin Literary Award and being shortlisted mean to you?

To be first long-listed, then short-listed was miraculous, unprecedented, and for a woman well-practised in the art of glass-half-empty, quite shocking to my idea of self. It is great honour to be selected alongside such fantastic writers, and to be read by people who have no preconceptions about me or the world in which I live and to have those people find something in my book that they wish to support and champion.

What are some of your memories of the Miles Franklin – any favourite past winners or shortlisted works?

Being West Australian, I was pretty much brought up on the idea of Australian Literature as an East Coast phenomenon. I first became aware of the ‘Miles Franklin Award’ at high school, through the writings of Patrick White and the influence of a very good Literature teacher. At that time, both the Award and Patrick White were like paper clouds on the horizon; they had nothing to do with me or my life. I did not come from a literary or writerly family. It was only when Judy Davis, who had gone to the same school as me, was cast in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career that I read the novel. When the MF Award finally touched my world, it was not just through books, narrowly conceived, but through the intersection of Australian film and theatre, and through the passions and politics that engaged my friends and I as young woman and men.

In terms of memories I think of Peter Carey’s Bliss (the book and the film), Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well, of Andrew McGahan (who had written the wonderful Praise, which became a great film). I read David Malouf. I read West Australian writers Randolf Stow, Robert Drewe, Tim Winton, Kim Scott, Brenda Walker. Gail Jones was my first supervisor at the beginning of my PhD, and I have known Deborah Robertson since my early twenties.

How important do literary awards like the Miles Franklin continue to be for the writing community (and readers) in Australia?

For me the importance of the Miles Franklin award (and any national literary prize) is not just in recognising one title amongst many and deeming that book to be the worthiest of remark (a quick look at the winners over the years will show that sadly many fall out of print), but in the selecting of the annual longlist and shortlist. The marketing and meaning of literature is increasingly challenged by a globalised reading community; meanwhile Australia writers continue to earn almost nothing for their labour. Books have a short shelf-life, and readers an even shorter attention span; the Prizes and their long- and short-lists are enormously important for every author on them, and particularly (I feel) for those with independent presses (and located outside the east coast). For these writers, it can be even more challenging to build a readership; one is not often invited to big East Coast writing festivals, and it is not easy to be visible to the larger reading public. The promotion of authors and their work through the Miles Franklin bequest communicates to both the author and the reading public that the writer and their books have been recognised as part of the Australian writing community. To feel one belongs in this world of writing is an essential for any writer trying to sustain a practice in an underfunded, undervalued arts sector.

What would winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award mean to you? How do you feel it would benefit your practice?

To win would accelerate the transformation of a dominantly tragic world-view to a comic one. The new me would have the confidence and finances to abandon casual teaching for at least a year, if not forever. I would get down and finish my next book, as well as work on the adaptation of a young adult classic Australian novel for television, and get back to the experimental play I abandoned some years ago. I would be humbled and gob-smacked.

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson is available now through UWA Publishing

Perpetual is Trustee for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. The Award was established in 1954 by the estate of My Brilliant Career author Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin to celebrate the Australian character and creativity.

The 2017 winner of The Miles Franklin Literary Award will be announced on 7th September at the State Library of NSW. The winning author will receive $60,000. Each of the shortlisted authors will receive $5,000 from The Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. For more information on the Miles Franklin Literary Award please visit their website.