I have a deep sense of pride that an actual person that I know has won a writers’ prize in a hugely competitive and highly esteemed writing competition. The person I am referring to is, of course, Heidi Catherine. Heidi has won herself, and her story The Extra Piece, a commendation in the Hope Prize short story competition and therefore a place in the very recently published Hope: An Anthology.
The Hope Prize was held for the first time this year by the charity the Brotherhood of St Laurence to encourage Australian writers to tackle the subject of poverty. It’s a vital topic that simply doesn’t get enough coverage in our press, despite the alarming statistics: one in eight people and over 600,000 children are living in poverty in Australia.
I spoke to Heidi about how it feels to win a national competition centred around such a vital topic and to be commended by a judging panel which comprised actress Cate Blanchett, author Kate Grenville and the Honourable Dame Quentin Bryce.
I absolutely have to ask this question first: how does it feel to have been judged by Cate Blanchett, and importantly, judged ‘worthy’?!
Well, I figure that I’ve seen most of Cate’s movies so it’s about time she looked at some of my work! Of course I’m kidding. But it is a thrill (and a bit surreal) to think that she’s read my story, just as it’s exciting to think that Kate Grenville, Quentin Bryce and the judges from Simon & Schuster and Readings have also read it. Even though I was aware of who the judges were when I entered the competition, it didn’t really hit me that they would be reading my work until after it happened. Honoured and relieved are the two words that describe it best.
Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing this story? Did you see the call for entries and the inspiration came to you, or did you already have something there, but needed an outlet for?
I saw the competition advertised in Writers Victoria’s magazine and immediately decided to enter. The topic fascinated me and it seemed like an excellent way to get my work noticed. It was one of those rare and magical writing experiences when the idea came to me very quickly and flowed out of my fingertips within a couple of hours. It felt almost like the story had been trapped somewhere within my mind waiting for an opportunity to be released. I changed very little of it when I went back in subsequent drafts.
The Extra Piece doesn’t give any details about the circumstance or the background of the central character. Why did you write it this way? She has great vulnerability – how did you ‘get in to her head’ to be able to convey that?
The story was inspired not only by my own experiences growing up in a family with a European migrant background but more specifically conversations I’ve had with two people who have had to leave the countries they were born in; one from Vietnam and the other from Iraq. There are so many common threads between the stories of various refugees and migrants. By not giving too many details about the main character’s background I hoped more people would be able to connect with the story.
My experience with short stories has also taught me to keep backstory to a minimum. I felt it would be more powerful to describe what was happening to the main character in the present without getting too bogged down with what happened to her in the past. All it needed was a brief overview fed through the story to give us an understanding of how she became the woman she is today.
As for how I got into her head, it honestly felt more like she got into my head and wrote her story herself.
Not to give the ending away, but they story finishes on a note of redemption. Not all writers can convey hopefulness in what they write; does this come easily to you?
Given that this is the ‘Hope’ prize, I thought it was important for the story to be one that ended on a note that reflected this. I’m a glass half full kind of person most of the time, so this certainly helped. Thankfully the ending felt right for this character. There was so much hope in her future, but she had to be the one to reach out and grab it.
The Brotherhood of St Laurence (Australian anti-poverty charity) created the competition as a means of getting Australian writers to write about poverty and to ‘transcend stereotypes of the poor’. What are your thoughts about efforts to raise political consciousness through creative writing?
Over 1,000 people entered this competition. That’s 1,000 people who dedicated serious time to thinking about poverty in our community. Add to that all the people who will read the stories and you have many thousands of people thinking about it. Reading stories about people who are struggling helps us to see them in a new light as real people who need our real help. This is exactly why I donated my prize money back to the Brotherhood of St Laurence. My main character got under my skin and moved me to want to help people like her – people who actually exist, but I don’t give nearly enough thought to in my day-to-day life. I’m sure I’m not the only person associated with this project to be moved in such a way.
Hope: An Anthology was launched at Readings bookshop in Melbourne earlier this week – tell us about it!
It was great to see so many people gathered to launch this very special book. About a hundred book lovers crowded into the back of Readings to enjoy some food and wine while we chatted to the huge cast of people involved with the project. We heard from the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Readings and Simon & Schuster about how the book was brought to life and how they coped with narrowing down over a thousand entries to the ten that were selected for publication. The competition has been deemed so successful that the Hope Prize is expected to run again in two years.
It’s exciting to think that ten new authors will have the chance to be involved in the same way I have been. Competitions like this not only help to raise awareness of important issues such as poverty and disadvantage in our community, but they provide writers with the rare opportunity to get our work ‘out there’ and make valuable contacts. This has most definitely been one of the highlights of my writing career.