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My Year of Non-Disclosure Agreements

Read Monday, 4 May 2015

After a string of literary rejections, Murray Middleton wins one of Australia’s most prestigious literary awards – and isn’t allowed to tell anybody about it.

Image: Murray Middleton
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When a publisher at Allen & Unwin asked to meet for a coffee last September, I tried not to be presumptuous. After a decade of attempting to get my work into the hands of publishers – including a period of submitting under pseudonyms, and mentioning in my falsified author’s bio that I’d been imprisoned following a spate of armed robberies – it seemed perplexing that one was actually interested in meeting up with me.

It took me four attempts to tie my shoelaces the morning of the meeting. I also realised that I didn’t have any decent clothes to wear, considering the restaurant we’d arranged to meet at (a place full of shimmering wine glasses, checkerboard floors, and waiters imitating old world Europe) was a place unsuited for failed writers with poor personal hygiene. I wound up sitting on a bentwood chair at the front table of the European for fifteen minutes, dampening the armpits of my wrinkled Kmart shirt.

Image: Murray Middleton's winning collection of short stories
Middleton’s winning collection of stories (supplied)

When I eventually found my publisher at the back of the restaurant, she gave me a big, warm hug. There was something maternal about it that helped me feel instantly at ease, which was well-timed, considering what came next: a non-disclosure agreement placed on the table before me, and the news that my collection of short stories, When There’s Nowhere Else to Run, had won the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award. 

Sometimes, actually getting what you want takes reconciling. As I walked through the graffitied backstreets of Fitzroy that afternoon, mulling over the news, my thoughts wandered to the time I’d spent in Spain the year before, working on the collection of stories that I planned on entering for the award. I remembered sitting at my desk one weekend and watching the city of Salamanca seemingly turn from winter to summer in a matter of hours: suddenly chairs and tables spilled out into the sandstone streets and the local pinchos bars sprung to life; at night I heard drunken students chanting in Castellano outside my bedroom window while I was trying to write something worthy of publication.

And now that I was finally going to be a published writer, I had to keep it all a secret? It hardly seemed fair. With months until the award would be announced, and the story collection itself still to be edited, designed, printed, and marketed, the element of surprise was crucial. The non-disclosure agreement (NDA) stipulated that I was only allowed to tell one person about the award, so I told my girlfriend, then spent the next six months lying to my parents and my closest friends.

There wasn’t only one NDA keeping my lips sealed. Prior to starting my non-writing job, I had been asked to sign an entirely separate NDA, barring me from discussing most of what I did during the day. With two signed NDAs filed away, I was now rendered virtually speechless. ‘What have you been up to?’ and ‘How’s your writing coming along?’ had become the two most discomforting questions in my life.

Following the second NDA, it became almost impossible to account for all the time I was spending gnawing away on the stories and trying, desperately, to increase my word count to a publishable length. After all, I’d always been a tantric writer. It had taken two and a half years to write 35,000 words, so the prospect of producing another 20,000 in six months while holding down a job was truly terrifying. 

I was awake for 70 out of 72 hours in the lead up to a Christmas Eve deadline. At one point in the middle of the night, my chest felt so tight that I awakened my girlfriend and asked her to talk nonsense to me, just to get my mind off the pain in my heart.

I edited the collection on the train on the way to and from work, on my breaks, and wrote all day on weekends, meaning, crushingly, that I had to stop playing cricket. I’ve always loved cricket, and especially batting, because it requires a similar discipline to writing – losing that outlet, more than anything else, marked the loss of an entire summer.

When Allen & Unwin arranged for Cate Kennedy to mentor me in the months leading up to Christmas, I was chuffed. I now had an interesting, accessible writer to work with, but also, crucially, somebody I could finally talk to without fear of breaching my NDA.

By mid-December, Cate and I agreed that five of the stories still weren’t up to scratch. I now found myself spending all my conscious hours trying to breathe life into them. Knowing that the stories were finally going to be read and scrutinised made it feel even more important to make them airtight. Every time my exhaustion yielded to despondence, I tried to remind myself how fortunate I was to be in such a position.

I was awake for 70 out of 72 hours in the lead up to a Christmas Eve deadline. At one point in the middle of the night, my chest felt so tight that I awakened my girlfriend and asked her to talk nonsense to me, just to get my mind off the pain in my heart.

By the end of the editing process, I’d drafted the whole book fifteen times (certain stories, over twenty times). I still find it hard to gauge whether I pushed myself to dangerous lengths during the six months of editing and rewriting, or whether it was just what was necessary to finally get the fourteen stories over the line.

Now that the collection has been published, it’s nice finally being upfront with the people I care about. It’s also a great feeling holding the book in my hands, knowing that the words on all those musty-smelling pages started in my imagination (and will end on discount tables or in bonfires). When I think about all the time that editors, cover designers and publicists have spent on this book, keeping the secret, it feels embarrassing because I know how hopeless I still am.

I finally bought a decent suit for the Vogel’s announcement in Sydney a fortnight ago so that I wouldn’t stand out like dog’s balls among the literati crowd. But I burnt the shirt while ironing it in the hotel room just before the ceremony. If there’s a moral in all of this, perhaps, it’s that publication should never be mistaken for competence. And I can tell you that, because I’m finally allowed to talk.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.