Joan London (right) wanted to write about the 1950s, “the time of her childhood.” Emily Biffo wanted to write about a group of people attempting to separate themselves from mainstream culture. And Elen Van Neervan wanted to ask questions about Indigenous governance in Australia, and issues like land rights, identity and love. Each of the six finalists for the Stella Prize for Fiction, the winner of which will be announced next week, has explained the inspiration behind their shortlisted books in a series of revealing interviews with The Guardian.
Maxine Beneba Clark whose collection of short stories Foreign Soil is published by Hachette, said she was looking at “people trying to find a place for themselves in the world – about the search for a true place to call home, about the things we gain when we migrate, and the all-consuming heartache of our leaving, even as we find the very things we’re looking for”.
“When I was working on these stories, there was no overt consciousness of place. My own African diaspora background just worked its way into the content. My Jamaican and Guyanese grandparents were descendants of slaves taken from Africa during the Atlantic slave trade, and brought to the West Indies.”
“I was six-years-old in 1954…” London, author of The Golden Age published by Random House, explained in the interview. “I have memories of huge gravel playgrounds, and suddenly I remembered lining up in long queues in the sun for a polio injection from a nurse at a table on the verandah. I remembered my mother’s stories of the terror of polio in the 40s, of not allowing my older sisters to go to public baths.
“ … It seems to me now that this period in the early 50s was a crossing-over time: these children are part of the huge generation of baby boomers – they will belong to an era of great change in Australia, a time of reclaiming and forging our own identity, of the influence of waves of immigration from Europe and Asia, of breaking away from the English colonial model and from the moral attitudes of preceding generations.”
“The process of writing a first book is often as much about the writer as the book,” according to Ellen van Neervan, “ and I certainly felt I needed to make a statement.“Heat and LightHeat (published by UQP) is a fictional journey in three parts. All three parts I was working on at the same time; they came together that way, but at one stage they seemed like they would be three separate books. It’s the way I work a lot of the time – I triangulate; three narratives bring a certain kind of truth you can find only through comparison and association. The three parts, Heat, Light and Water, involve the past, present and future, and it is the way they blend hat creates the sensibility of this work of fiction, which is difficult to characterize.”
Sofia Laguna said she “knew Jimmy Flick, the young narrator of my novel, The Eye of the Sheep (Allen & Unwin), was going to be imaginative, that he would be anxious, and that he could be very manic. I knew his thoughts would not play by the rules, that there would be no limits to the ideas he would explore. I knew his inner life was going to be fun for me. He would bring no formal education to his discoveries; his understanding of the world would be based on a patchwork of dreams, imaginary science and facts, as well as his own intuition.
“I relished the idea of writing a sustained narrative in the voice of this charged, vulnerable, precious little boy. I knew I was going to care for him immensely, which meant the stakes in his story would be high.”
Christina Kenneally, whose book The Invisible History of the Human Race (Black Inc Books) is the only non-fiction work on the shortlist. She writes that as well as a personal backstory the book has an “an intellectual back story as well. Once upon a time I looked to academia for the answers to the big questions, but I found I was funnelled into smaller and smaller paths, when my taste runs to the big and impossible. With all due respect and gratitude to academics and the absolute necessity of their picky, exacting focus, it was in non-fiction that I found the freedom to ask the questions I wanted to ask. It was also in non-fiction that I found my way to the answers, many of which came from hard-working, highly focused researchers, and some of which came from messier, more unconventional places – like the everyday lives of people and the unquantifiable things that happen in them.”
Emily Bitto whose book The Strays (Affirm Press) is set in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s Australia says she chose that period “because of the stark divide between the mainstream values of the time and the lifestyle and values of the avant-garde art world. There were very serious consequences back then for making the “wrong” kind of art: obscenity trials were rife, and artists were being shut out of galleries and academies if they chose to embrace modernism rather than replicate the sedate landscape painting that characterised the Australian tradition.
“Despite the fact that we still witness the occasional art-world controversy, such as the 2008 scandal surrounding photographer Bill Henson, it seems to me that the risks faced by artists, at least in the western world, are far less serious today than they were 70 years ago, and so, too, the sense of daring and exhilaration that attends avant-gardism is also lessened”.