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

Read Wednesday, 23 Apr 2014

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.

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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.

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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.

www.christinepiper.com

After Dark is the winner of the 2014 Australian/Vogel Literary Award, for writers under 35. It is published by Allen & Unwin and is available now.

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