Q&A with Fogarty Award Shortlisted YA Authors
Every two years, Fremantle Press and the Fogarty Foundation present the Fogarty Literary Award, which is awarded to an unpublished manuscript by a West Australian author aged between 18 - 35. This year, two YA manuscripts were shortlisted, so of course we just had to go behind the scenes and learn more about them! Hear from writers Karleah Olson and Prema Arasu below.
Can you tell us a bit about you and your manuscript?
Prema: I’m a Boorloo (Perth)-based emerging writer and academic at the University of Western Australia. My manuscript, The Anatomy of Witchcraft, is about 17-year-old Hemlock (Lock) Widdershins, who runs away from boarding school after disastrously misusing witchcraft and has to figure out his life from there. He and his friend Leonora—a medical student who moonlights as a barber-surgeon under a male alias—have to figure out for themselves if they’re willing to pay the cost of fitting in. The story is set in the wider world of Morgancast, a wealthy tea trading port built upon colonial exploitation and expansion. There are dark academia and silkpunk elements, but it is also a comedy with extensive footnotes from fictional scholarly sources that, I hope, will amuse at least someone.
Karleah: I’m a current PhD student at ECU in Perth, and I wrote A Wreck of Seabirds as part of my candidature. My thesis is about entrapment in Australian Coastal Gothic fiction, so this manuscript is a reflection of that. It tells the story of young adult protagonists Briony and Ren who meet on the coast in this small West Australian town. They are both struggling with their own experiences of loss and grief. Ren lost his brother to drowning as a child and hasn’t been back to the town until now, a decade later, to care for his declining father. So Ren is struggling with the ghost of his brother in this place he thought he’d never come back to, and also losing his Dad in this very awful, drawn-out way. Briony has put her future on hold waiting for the return of her missing older sister, who vanished two years prior. Briony and her family never got any answers about what happened to her, so there is this interesting dynamic about loss being this thing that is never final despite what form it takes. This main narrative is told in a fragmented way at the same time as two others. We also experience Sarah (Briony’s sister) and Aria’s story set two years in the past, and Ren and Sam’s story a decade in the past. So the narratives all come together to form a complete picture of this place and the story of what happened there.
Can you tell us about your writing journey and what went into entering the Fogarty Award?
Prema: Last year I was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing for my manuscript and an accompanying exegetical component “Gender in Secondary Worlds”. I started writing it in 2019, and was fortunate to have the entire writing process supported by an academic stipend and an excellent panel of supervisors. Since completion I’ve queried international literary agents, entered first chapters contests, cold-emailed editors, and accumulated a nice collection of rejection letters. All part of the process. I would have not submitted an entry to the FLA had I not been encouraged by fellow UWA academics and writers, who assured me that a fantasy manuscript would not be immediately rejected for being “non-literary”.
Karleah: I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. It was always the thing I wanted to do ‘when I grew up’, and writing has always been a part of my life. After working and travelling for a while out of high school I decided on a whim that it would be interesting to study English Literature because I’d always loved it at school and been a big reader. I think the most important part of being a writer is being a reader. So I started studying at ECU and ended up minoring in Creative Writing. I always thought (quite ignorantly) that you can’t teach something like that, that you’re either creative or you’re not. That’s definitely not true. It’s absolutely a craft that you need to work on and invest time in. I got through my undergrad and was invited to do an honours year, and I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do career-wise so I accepted and wrote an Honours thesis on Australian Gothic Fiction. That did well and I was invited to apply for a PhD and I that’s how I got here. I’m researching Australian Coastal Gothic fiction, and part of my candidature involved writing a manuscript, and A Wreck of Seabirds is that work. The thesis is nearing completion, but the manuscript was done so I figured I might as well get a head start on sending it out and the timing was perfect for the Fogarty so I submitted it there first.
What was your reaction when you found out you had been shortlisted?
Prema: Relief—after so many rejections, I was starting to question my own judgement and think that maybe my manuscript was actually terrible. Being shortlisted reassured me that there was something there. To a lesser extent, I also felt a familiar sense of apprehension that occurs whenever I am selected for something exciting—there’s always a voice asking whether I’m just there to fulfil diversity requirements. I know that feeling is common for a lot of people of marginalised backgrounds and identities, and I don’t think this is ever something I won’t feel, but I hope to foster a local writing community where future creatives won’t suffer the same.
Karleah: I was on a little mini-holiday in Mandurah with my mum and brother and we’d just been exploring op shops and cafes and wandering the foreshore that day. I had a few missed calls but I didn’t think anything of it, and then Claire at Fremantle Press sent a message saying it was about the Fogarty. I hadn’t submitted that long ago so my first thought was that there had been a technical error or something with my entry. She called back with Georgia Richter and they told me I’d been shortlisted and I just started crying. I don’t know how people receive good news professionally because I was a mess! My mum started crying too, so we were just crying on this street in Mandurah on a beautiful sunny day and it was all a bit surreal. It was still confidential at that point but I messaged my sister straight away. It was very strange for me to have this amazing news I was so excited about and just go to work and uni like normal and not tell everyone about it. I checked my email first thing the next morning to make sure it was real and I hadn’t made it all up, I really couldn’t believe it.
What’s your advice for people looking to enter unpublished manuscript competitions?
Prema: If you write in a common space, like an office, sometimes your office mates will wait until you’ve gone to the bathroom then put swear words in your open documents. Make sure you edit them all out.
Karleah: Honestly just to go for it, even if you think it’s not quite ready. Competitions like this are looking for potential, not for a perfectly polished manuscript. I sent A Wreck of Seabirds out before I had finished the thesis it was a part of, and before I’d done my final edits. I still had plans for things I wanted to fix up or expand on, but the Fogarty deadline was coming up and it was one of the competitions I really wanted to enter. I don’t think a manuscript is ever totally done; you will always find things to change, or rewrite. If the story is there, and you love it and you’re proud of it, just release it into the world and maybe it’s the perfect time for it.
Which, if any, YA books have influenced your writing?
Prema: Sir Terry Pratchett was always against writing his books for age brackets, but his Discworld novel Equal Rites was a major influence. It’s a satire about a girl who becomes the world’s first wizard and is strongly rooted in the realities of second wave feminism. His and Ursula K. Le Guin’s essays, which vehemently argue in favour of fantasy’s political values and against its reputation of genre escapism, have also been influential. Harry Potter is also an undeniable influence, as it comprised about 90% of my childhood (the other 10% was CheezTV). I have written critically on its gender essentialism elsewhere. There’s no name for a non-binary magic user at Hogwarts, and we know why. The Anatomy of Witchcraft is the result of me trying to process all of that.
Karleah: I read a lot of coastal literature like Tim Winton while I was working on this, and a lot of Gothic literary fiction, but I do really love YA and read a lot of it. I think that comes through in my writing. Some of the YA books, or what I’ll call YA adjacent, that really influenced this work in particular are P is for Pearl by Eliza Henry Jones, Wildlight by Robyn Mundy, Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall, and The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw. I have a whole shelf of books with coastal settings or ocean mythology that I called research, but those are some significant ones.
The Fogarty Literary Award winner is announced in a special ceremony on May 25 at Edith Spiegeltent at ECU. You can come along, book tickets here. Best of luck to all the shortlisted authors!