16 November 2017

Meet the 2017 Scribe Nonfiction Prize Shortlist – Toby Fehily

In the lead up to announcing The 2017 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, we’re introducing you to every name and face on the shortlist. These are some of the brightest nonfiction minds in the country and they’re all aged 30 and under. Read their profiles on the Express Media blog to learn more about their writing journeys, love of nonfiction and their tips and tricks to writing the best real-life stories.

Toby Fehily, 29, Victoria
It’s Not an Aircraft

How did you begin writing?
After dabbling in pencil for a number of years, I got my pen licence on the 13th of August 1998 and still carry it with me to this day. My first writing gig, technically, was with Bongo, a text message service where people wrote in with any question they wanted to ask and I, playing the character of an omniscient monkey from Borneo, had to provide the answer. From there, I started writing for websites and magazines about everything from Mr Squiggle to sensory deprivation tanks to beard taxes.

Why do you write nonfiction?
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about a quote by Michael Faraday: “Nothing is too wonderful to be true”. I suppose I write nonfiction because I agree that nothing is too wonderful to be true and because I think that in itself is almost too wonderful to be true.

Tell us a bit about your submission to the Scribe Prize…
My submission was an excerpt from a book I’ve been working on called It’s Not an Aircraft. It starts off as an attempt to tell the story of ufology in Australia through Edgar Jarrold, the founder of the country’s first civilian UFO group. From there, though, it gets waylaid by stories of cover-ups, betrayals, hoaxes, disappearances, mistaken identities and a foiled Nazi plot. More broadly, it’s about what ufology can tell us about our complex relationship with truth and belief.

Why did you choose to write on this subject?
While hunting for dinosaur fossils in Cape Otway a few years ago (I never found any), I learned of a nearby plaque commemorating Frederick Valentich, an Australian pilot who vanished over the Bass Strait in 1978 after reporting being hounded by a “strange aircraft”. I was hooked straight away,  and fell deep into a rabbit hole of theories about his disappearance, the most popular of which suggested extraterrestrial involvement. But the more I looked into his story, the more I found myself interested in the people who believed in UFOs and why they believed in UFOs. And that’s a whole other rabbit hole that I’m still working my way through now.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve said this before, and I’ll never budge on it, but the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received came inadvertently from an introduction Adam Gopnik wrote for a collection of articles by St Clair McKelway. It went, “Find weird data, funny facts, and align them nicely; listen to strange people and give them space to talk; keep a cartoonist’s license but not a caricaturist’s smugness; rely on the force of simple words, but don’t be afraid of big ideas, or of the stuff of history, if you can make it sound like learning casually attained.”

Toby Fehily is a Melbourne-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Australian, The Lifted Brow, Smith Journal, Junkee and on ABC Radio National. In 2015, he was the recipient of a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship.