A Shot in the Dark: Christine Piper on her 2014 Vogel Win

This year’s Vogel winner, Christine Piper, reflects on the moment she learned that her book, After Darkness, had won - at five am in New York - and what the prize win means to her.

I got the email at five am. Four fifty-seven, to be precise. I had just returned home from a very long day at The Writers Room in New York, where I have a desk. An hour earlier, working alone in the vast room used by journalists, scriptwriters, memoirists, essayists, academics, poets, short story writers and novelists, I had finally completed the second draft of my novel. It was several weeks overdue, and I still had another two essays and an introduction to write before I could submit my Doctor of Creative Arts thesis to the University of Technology, Sydney. But I was happy with the novel, which was the most important part. Exhaustion and euphoria chased me as I took the lift downstairs, unchained my bike and began the twenty-minute journey home.

The streets of New York are never quiet, not even at four am. As I pedalled through the East Village, college kids stumbled along the road and shopkeepers shuttered their stores before turning home. A mild September wind slicked over me. It was that perfect time of year when heat and humidity wane yet the nights are still warm.

I mounted the steep slope of Williamsburg Bridge. On my three-gear bike, I was panting and reduced to a crawl, while lithe-limbed hipsters on fixies sped past me. Just before I reached the crest of the bridge, I paused to look back. Manhattan, in all its shimmering glory. A city full of possibilities. My husband I had had moved to New York six weeks earlier, two more hopefuls chasing a dream. It was our second time trying. Six years earlier, we’d arrived in the Big Apple but had failed to establish ourselves. This time, I’d won a green card through the Diversity Visa lottery program, and my husband had arranged a job transfer. Our fortunes had changed.

The sky was the colour of slate by the time I arrived home. I showered and prepared for bed, looking forward to a long, rejuvenating sleep. Then I remembered an email I had to send. I crossed to the kitchen bench and flipped open my laptop, then noticed an unread email at the top of my inbox. From someone named Annette at Allen & Unwin. ‘I wonder if I could arrange a meeting with you to talk about your Vogel’s entry?’ she wrote. I froze.

I first heard about The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award when the Helen Demidenko/Darville scandal hit the newspapers in 1995. I was sixteen at the time – a bookish Year 11 student with dreams of being a writer. I’d like to enter that award one day, I thought. Over the years, I read many of the winning titles, and they always reaffirmed my desire to enter. I took creative writing classes during my undergraduate degree, and wrote a novella for my honours project. Then I began working full-time, and hardly ever found the time for creative writing.

Sometime during my late twenties, I realised that if I didn’t do something soon, I’d miss my chance to enter the award. Soon afterwards, I was accepted into a Doctor of Creative Arts degree at the University of Technology, Sydney, where I was mentored by Debra Adelaide and Delia Falconer. I began researching and writing a novel about the Japanese civilian internment experience in Australia – a topic I was interested in as my mother is Japanese (although no one in my family was interned). I thought I’d finish it within three years. Four at the most, giving me time to enter the award at least twice before I hit 35. After Darkness took me almost five years to create. When the May 2013 deadline drew near, I was midway through the second draft. I was 34. It was my last chance.

Despite my best intentions to deliver a polished second draft, in the weeks leading up to the deadline, I was feeling unwell and was unable to work on the manuscript as much as I’d hoped. I submitted it to The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award five minutes before midnight, utterly disappointed with what I’d done. ‘I’ve blown my one chance,’ I told my husband.

Then four months later, I got the email. A few minutes before five am. I didn’t get the long sleep I’d hoped for that morning – I didn’t sleep at all, I was so excited about the possibilities. Was I shortlisted? Had I won?

It was another two days before I finally talked to Annette, the publisher at Allen & Unwin, who confirmed that I had won. Several stressful, hectic months followed as I struggled to complete my thesis and then immediately began revising After Darkness for publication.

But I didn’t know that then, as I stood in the kitchen of our Williamsburg apartment, daylight breaking around me. All I knew was hope, and the joy of chasing dreams.


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