4 August 2014

Express talks to Scribe HQ

As you all work madly on your entries for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize, we thought it would be good to check in with Scribe HQ to see what insights they can give us into the prize.

Why do you think nonfiction is resonating with people at the moment — what drives its popularity?

Longform nonfiction is really coming into its own in Australia right now, building on that tradition that the Yanks have long had. In a general sense, I think that many readers find nonfiction exciting because it’s based on events that actually happened. Nonfiction stories have a certain sense of truthfulness and authenticity to them: concepts that are arguably becoming more important in a world of spin and media manipulation. I think that notion broadly holds despite the moral questions and ambivalences about what constitutes truth in memoir and so on. Many readers, myself included, also like the fact that it’s a form that can tell you something about the world outside of yourself, while — in some cases — allowing for some of the imaginative engagement that fiction can bring.


What made you decide you wanted to support a prize for nonfiction?

At Scribe, we had been talking about the proliferation of excellent longform nonfiction we’d noticed, much of it by younger writers, and were looking at some ideas of how we might be able to publish more in this area. The opportunity to partner with Express Media on this prize was a great way to bring some of those ideas into action.

I see it as an important thing for publishers to invest in writers, and particularly those at the beginnings of their career. After all, younger writers are vital to the success and growth of the industry in the long term. I think this is a useful prize because it offers a writer a practical opportunity to form a relationship with an editor and to discuss ideas and get feedback. There’s been a lot of commentary about changes in the publishing industry and the economic imperatives that face publishing houses today. It’s true that there was once more of a climate in which publishers could allow writers leeway to work out things on the page — that it wasn’t necessarily expected their first or even second books would make money. I wouldn’t say that culture has entirely died, but certainly things have changed over time. Yet there are also other ways in which publishers can invest in writers, and I think partnering with younger writers is one key way in which publishers can help to provide professional development opportunities to individuals.


What was it like for Scribe to dig through that pile of raw ideas? Were you surprised at what you found?

We had the best time reading the longlist compiled by Express Media and seeing what a diverse range of entries there were, and how many clearly talented writers! The breadth and range of topics impressed us, and the differing approaches to the material was also very interesting to see. It wasn’t easy to whittle the longlist down to a shortlist, but over vigorous debate of pros and cons over multiple cups of coffee over three locations around the office, we managed it. We were very happy with the shortlist we came up with.


What makes a piece stand out when you are reading a large pile like that?

It sounds not too helpful, but it really comes down to a feeling you have when reading: whether that’s an emotional connection to the individuals portrayed in a journalistic essay, a visceral reaction to the corruption or cruelty explored in a piece of investigative journalism, an empathy for an individual who has gone through something difficult and brought remarkable honesty and bravery to their memoir, or an intellectual engagement with a piece of creative nonfiction because you’ve never read anything quite like it and it’s stretching your mind in new and unfamiliar ways.

Apart from that, there are always the things you can do when submitting to any competition or prize, to give your work the best chance of success: writing clearly and coherently; paying attention to grammar, punctuation and presentation; polishing till it shines like a Fitzgerald diamond…


Though the prize was designed to have a single winner, you ultimately selected two co-winners and highly commended another entry. What was it about those three pieces that made them impossible not to award?

Oh wow, each of these three pieces was so different, and had their individual strengths. It was just so hard to pick between them! Oliver’s submission was a poignant, funny collection of memories or vignettes, which together formed a compelling portrait of a particular place and time (Texas in the 1990s). Briohny’s piece, which was about the role of marriage in the 21st century, was smart and full of passion, and showed an excellent ability to identify and analyse the social and political currents in the topic. Rosanna Stevens’ piece, which was subsequently published in a literary journal, was a thoughtful meditation on the non-Indigenous researcher’s relationship to Indigenous cultures and languages. What defined each of these pieces was the writer’s strong and original voice, and their unique take on the chosen topics. I can only hope that this year we have just as hard a time picking between the submissions!


What has the result of their award meant for the co-winners? Are you working with them on their pieces?

You’d probably have to ask Oliver and Briohny that first question! Yes, we are working with both winners on their projects. Oliver’s first book, Lion Attack!, will be published in May 2015. It’s a high-voltage, energetic work of creative nonfiction that’s part love story, part tragi-comedy, and part social critique — a coming-of-age tale like none you’ve read before. It’s great. Briohny is also working on a proposal that I can’t say too much about just yet, but is also pretty darn exciting.


How can an editor help a writer to bring a work to publication standard?

I think often the role the editor can perform is simply to be the work’s ‘first reader’: a writer may have shown mentors or trusted friends and family, but an editor is often someone who doesn’t know you as well and is coming to your work fresh, as an ordinary reader would. Often I think simply hearing an objective, and perhaps different, perspective on the work — what the editor finds successful or sees needing improvement — can be valuable for a writer, as can be the discussion that ensues.

An editor also always has an eye to reaching readers, and can give a writer an idea of how their work might fit into the market. He or she can perhaps offer suggestions on how to improve the work or, if needed, take it in a direction that might increase its ability to reach readers. Good editors, in my opinion, can understand the aim and ambition of the work, and also see how it might be improved where possible.

Lastly, I think the experience of being edited — particularly if it is for the first time — is valuable in itself. A writer’s first experience of working with a book editor will give them an insight into what the process typically involves. It’s also a useful professional skill for any writer to learn how to develop a working relationship with an editor — as most professional writers will likely have to deal with editors (whether book, newspaper or magazine) throughout their careers.


Can you offer any hints or advice to writers wanting to enter the prize this year? What will you be looking for?

I would say that we’re looking for work with the qualities that mark out good nonfiction writing in general: an original voice; an interesting story or subject, or a fresh perspective on a familiar topic; evidence of research and thought; and relevance or timeliness. I think these criteria broadly apply whether you’re talking about creative nonfiction, immersive journalism, investigative reporting, biography, criticism or personal essay.

In terms of hints — well, be original: don’t try to imitate someone or second-guess what you think we might want to see. Pick an interesting topic that offers lots to explore. If the topic lends itself to it, a little humour never goes astray — but don’t strain to be humorous for the sake of it!

We are so excited about what we might receive in this year’s competition, and we almost can’t wait until entries close! We’re looking forward to reading the entries and to meeting some new writers as a result.