Song, Speeches and Interpretative Dance: VPLA Awards 2012

There was a suitably festive atmosphere at the Regent Ballroom for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards dinner last night, as writers swapped their standard work wear of tracksuit pants and pyjamas for cocktail frocks and dapper suits.

Premier Ted Baillieu was in a jocular mood, beginning by pointing to the ‘Premier’s 21’ banner on stage and thanking the crowd for attending his 21st birthday, then joking that he would try to match MC Casey Bennetto, who introduces the awards categories in song, with interpretive dance. (For the record, there was no interpretive dance.)

MC Casey Bennetto, front; with left-to-right award winners John Kinsella, Bill Gammage, Graeme Simsion, Lally Katz, John Larkin and Aidan Fennessy, with Premier Ted Baillieu - middle.

MC Casey Bennetto, front; with left-to-right award winners John Kinsella, Bill Gammage, Graeme Simsion, Lally Katz, John Larkin and Aidan Fennessy, with Premier Ted Baillieu - middle.

In marked contrast to his colleague in Queensland, who removed all government funding for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards this year, Baillieu remarked warmly on the ‘strong bipartisan support’ the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards have always enjoyed. He said the awards are ‘a core characteristic of this state – and long may it be’.

In a refreshing display of that non-partisanship, he personally thanked former premier John Cain (who was in attendance, at Baillieu’s table) for starting the awards in 1985, and name-checked him frequently throughout the night.

Baillieu began by mentioning two biannual awards that were given out earlier this year, congratulating Anita Heiss on winning the Prize for Indigenous Writing for Am I Black Enough For You? and Graeme Simsion for winning the Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript.

Simsion’s novel, The Rosie Project, will be published by Text Publishing in 2013 and had earned him ‘comfortably more than $1 million in advances’ from 12 countries when the Age profiled him in September.

Baillieu reported that at last week’s Frankfurt Book Fair, that number of countries buying rights to The Rosie Project, reached 30. Baillieu said that the Unpublished Manuscript Prize is important because it ‘helps build careers’.

He concluded his introduction by saying that the Victorian Prize for Literature, worth $100,000, was ‘deliberately’ conceived as the richest literary prize in Australia.

‘It’s a statement about the value we place on writers and books in our city.’

Singing MC Casey Bennetto: Inspired Ted Baillieu to consider interpretative dance.

Singing MC Casey Bennetto: Inspired Ted Baillieu to consider interpretative dance.

Aidan Fennessy: Thanks, Mum

The first award of the night was the one voted by the Victorian public - the People’s Choice Award. It went to Aidan Fennessy for his intensely personal, deeply political play National Interest.

‘This means my mum has been hard at work on her computer,’ he said.

John Larkin: Inspired by a school visit

One of Casey Bennetto’s best lines was in the first general award category, young adult, where he sang, ‘I don’t understand how the best in the land can have no vampires at all. Don’t they understand how fiction works?’

John Larkin won for his (fang-free) novel The Shadow Girl, and gave a moving speech.

‘This is the second literary prize I’ve won,’ he said. ‘I won one in 1971, the Sydney Morning Herald Young Poets’ Award. That was two dollars. This is better.’

He thanked the Premier for keeping the awards alive ‘when some states have none’ and bemoaned the idea of state coffers being held by ‘faceless accountants’.

John Larkin

John Larkin

Larkin spoke about the inspiration for his book, which tells the story of a homeless girl on the run from an abusive uncle, a girl who loves books and sees school as a refuge. In the novel, the girl meets an author at a school talk, who agrees to tell her story.

In real life, John Larkin did meet a smart, engaged homeless Year Eight girl while doing a school talk. At the end of his visit, he announced her as the student who’d had the most impact on him; the girl threw herself at him and ‘wrapped herself around me like a limpet’, he reported. He asked the teachers what he should do and they told him to just hug her. ‘So, I just hugged her,’ Larkin told the awards crowd, ‘my tears falling on her head’.

Baillieu told Larkin that his daughter is reading his book right now.

Lally Katz: Researched golems

‘Thank you Mr Premier, for saving me from financial devastation,’ said Lally Katz, as she accepted her Award for Drama for her play A Golem Story.

Lally Katz

Lally Katz

She acknowledged the writers of the other ‘brilliant’ shortlisted plays – Aidan Fenessy’s [National Interest] and Daniel Keene’s Boxman – as ‘great mentors to me’.

Katz told the story of being approached to write A Golem Story by Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong of the Malthouse Theatre, partly because of her half-Jewish heritage.

‘They said, You know what a golem is? And I said, Yeah, it’s that creature from Lord of the Rings. They told me, You’d better go away and do some research.’

Her research was helped by John Safran, who lent her ‘all his books on golems’.

John Kinsella: ‘A poem is an activist thing’

John Kinsella won the Award for Poetry for Armour. He plans to donate part of his prize money to an indigenous community in WA who are confronting a ‘rapacious mining company’.

John Kinsella

John Kinsella

‘For me, a poem is an activist thing, and every poem is an act of responsibility,’ he said.

Bill Gammage: ‘Set to change the history of this country’

Ted Baillieu called Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth, winner of the Award for Non-Fiction, ‘A book set to change the history of this country.’

Gammage won over the crowd from the start, with the self-deprecating remark, ‘Well after three very good talkers, it’s fair enough you get a wanker now’.

He said the stars of his book are ‘the people of 1788’.

‘They gave us a great gift in this country they had taken from them. And they still have much to teach us today.’

Bill Gammage

Bill Gammage

Gammage said that the terrible bushfires of February 2009 – and the waves of bushfires that preceded them (like the Black Friday fires of 1939 and the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983) – did not occur when the original Aboriginal inhabitants were taking care of the land.

‘If Aboriginal people had been in the midst of those fires they couldn’t possibly have survived them. Those fires didn’t occur. They had ways of preventing it.’

He also commented on the original inhabitants’ methods for managing wetlands, salination and ‘so many other things’.

‘I hope this country becomes a better country by being willing to learn from them.’

Gillian Mears: ‘A novel as round and lovely as a showman’s ring’

Introducing the Prize for Fiction, Casey Bennetto sang, ‘They’re all top shelf, you should read them yourself’. Indeed.

Gillian Mears won for Foal’s Bread, her first novel in 16 years. She was unable to attend the ceremony due to her ongoing battle with MS, and so asked two friends, photographer Vincent Long and writer Jessica Huon, to accept the award on her behalf.

Gillian Mears

Gillian Mears

Huon spoke of Mears’ ‘acute perception and borderless sensuality’ and the way she writes ‘on the edge’. She called her friend ‘a true artist’.

She also shared Mears’ original vision for Foal’s Bread: she expressed ‘a wild hope of writing a novel as round and as lovely as a showman’s ring’.

‘It has been a determination of hers to write this book,’ said Huon.

Victorian Prize for Literature: ‘Life-changing’

Bill Gammage won the final prize for the night – the Victorian Prize for Literature, worth $100,000 – to resounding applause.

He seemed surprised and overwhelmed, but was as quick-witted as when he won the Award for Non-Fiction.

Bill Gammage and Premier Ted Baillieu

Bill Gammage and Premier Ted Baillieu

‘It’s the third time tonight I’ve shaken your hand,’ he said to Baillieu. ‘Maybe I should enter your electorate.’ Then he paused. ‘I don’t know what to do with this prize. It’s not enough to get into your electorate.’

He said that the prize was ‘life-changing’.

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