Interview: Penguin Publishing Director and Literary Prize Winners

Written by Julie Dickson.

The Penguin Literary Prize is now open for submissions of unpublished literary fiction manuscripts! Be quick because the competition closes at 11.59pm on Friday the 13th of December 2019. You can find more information about the competition here.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin Ractliffe (Penguin’s publishing director), Imbi Neeme (2019 winner for her novel The Spill), and Kathryn Hind (2018 winner for her novel Hitch). For more insight into the competition and for some writing advice, take a read of my interviews with them below.

Justin Ractliffe (Publishing Director)

1. How did the prize originate? Has it been rewarding watching it grow?

The prize started in 2017 and was established to find, nurture, and publish new Australian writers of literary fiction. It provides aspiring authors with an opportunity to get their manuscripts into the hands of our publishers, outside of the normal industry processes. It’s a companywide initiative that all staff are excited about and help in the initial readings. The prize acknowledges and celebrates Penguin Random House’s literary heritage as the great Australian house of literature. Our authors include Peter Carey, Tom Keneally, Anna Funder, Richard Flanagan, Evie Wyld, Tara June Winch, Tim Winton, and Chloe Hooper. The prize supports our effort in discovering the great writers of tomorrow; it is Australia’s richest publisher prize, and we hope the $20,000 awarded to the winner will assist them in being able to focus on their writing.

It has been immensely rewarding to watch it grow, and we have ambitious plans to grow it even further. This year we’ve really ramped up our branding, publicity, and marketing for the prize and anticipate that it will reach a wider audience than ever before. We’re expecting it to be our biggest year so far.

2. What manuscripts stand out to you the most?

The term ‘literary fiction’ is slightly controversial these days, and I think the lines between what is considered ‘genre’ and what is considered ‘literary’ are increasingly blurred and tricky to define. However, the manuscripts that would stand out most for me personally will contain well-crafted, considered writing that avoids cliché and uses language imaginatively and in a way that is unique to that writer. They will have characters that have a strong inner voice and come alive on the page. They will shed some light on the human condition and engage creatively with form and content.

3. What are the most common themes and genres you receive? 

Literary fiction is a genre in itself (although, as I say above, this is contested), but common themes are relationships, family, society, sexuality, aging, finding meaning in life. Of course, you could say that these are the themes of almost all novels. ‘Coming of age’/bildungsroman stories are very popular, particularly for first time writers–that ‘write what you know’ thing. We’re seeing more and more manuscripts that tackle concerns about the environment and the impact of climate change (‘cli-fi’)–either set now or in a near future. Often these have dystopic themes.

4. What’s your advice for aspiring writers wanting to enter this competition? 

Read the submission guidelines very carefully and adhere to them precisely. Read the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ carefully. Work hard on your pitch and synopsis to make sure that they are as clear and compelling as they can be. Make sure that your manuscript is properly proofread and free of errors. Double space the lines and make your manuscript as legible and easy to read as possible.

Trust your work and remember all of us at Penguin Random House love writers and writing, and nothing excites us more than finding a gifted new author–we’re on your side!

Imbi Neeme (2019 Prize Winner)

1. What was the inspiration behind your winning submission? 

When I was ten, I was in a relatively minor car accident with my mother and sister somewhere along the road between Melbourne and Sydney. Nobody was particularly hurt, but I’ve since realised what a huge impact the accident had on me and how I now experience the world. With The Spill, I was interested in exploring those moments—small and large—upon which a person’s life pivots. I took that real life incident, transported it to a remote West Australian road and put two fictitious sisters and their mother in it, and began to imagine how that accident might change nothing—and yet everything—all at the same time. 

2. How long did it take you to write the manuscript you submitted? Did you encounter any challenges along the way? 

The Spill is my third manuscript. I started writing it around July 2017, and I sent a rough and ready first draft to my trusted beta-readers in January 2018. I knew the multi-perspective and non-linear structure was a gamble, and I wanted to test it before I went any further. The baffled response that I received from those readers almost made me put it completely aside. Thankfully, however, one of the readers saw something in it and kept encouraging me to return to it.  

The version I submitted it to the Penguin Literary Prize in November 2018 was my fourth draft.  

3. How did you find out you had won? How has it changed your life? 

It was a Sunday morning, and I was writing a shopping list on my phone while half-listening to my elder step-daughter explain the plot of The Shining to the younger one. Out of habit, I checked my email, not expecting to receive anything important (it was a Sunday, after all!), when I saw Meredith Curnow’s email asking me how I felt about being the winner of the prize. I gasped so loudly that my step-daughter thought she’d just spoiled the ending of The Shining for me. (For the record, she hadn’t. Also, for the record, I felt completely floored, Meredith!)

In that moment, everything turned around for me. After years of almost making it, of getting *this close*, suddenly I was the person who had been chosen. It felt—and continues to feel—completely thrilling and entirely humbling.

4. What’s your advice for aspiring writers, in general, and for people wanting to enter this competition? 

Write for the love of writing and not in the hope of getting published. The former will feed your soul; the latter may prove your ruin. At the end of the day, there’s so much in the publishing world that is outside your control: whose desk your manuscript lands on, what they are looking for, even what kind of mood they are in when they read it. But the one thing you can control is the laying down of word after word, sentence after sentence, on that blank page. There’s the real thrill. 

For those writers thinking of entering the competition, do it! And remember to polish those opening chapters so they shine as much as possible. When there’s over 400 manuscripts to read, people may not wade through the mud to get to the really good bits.

Kathryn Hind (2018 Prize Winner)

1. What was the inspiration behind your winning submission?
After travelling alone for eighteen months (including the occasional hitchhiking journey), I realised how often my behaviour was seen as transgressive. I was regularly told or shown (in a variety of unpleasant ways) that I shouldn’t be travelling in that way. I didn’t realise I was so affected by this until I sat down to begin a novel. I didn’t know where it would begin, but then I had a vision of my protagonist, Amelia, by the side of the road, thumb out. 

2. How long did it take you to write the manuscript you submitted? Did you encounter any challenges along the way?
I worked on Hitch for about seven years. The challenges are numerous and varied. They include: how do I find a publisher who will take on my work? How do I tell a story about a young woman’s transformation when that woman, Amelia, refuses to acknowledge her own suffering? How do I pay rent while writing?
3. How did you find out you had won? How has it changed your life?
I was alone when I received a phone call from my publisher, Meredith Curnow. I sat by myself for a while, unable to process how fundamentally everything had changed. Having published Hitch, I feel I’ve ridden or am riding the first big wave of being an author. I was always going to keep writing, but there’s a sense of purpose and a quiet assuredness (on a good day) when I write now. There’s a huge satisfaction that comes with finishing Hitch to a standard that I’m proud of and happy with, and there’s a confidence that comes with having pulled off a project of that scale. 
4. What’s your advice for aspiring writers, in general, and for people wanting to enter this competition?
The best thing I did for Hitch was to put it away for a year. When I returned to the manuscript, I was able to see it with new clarity and I felt I could be more ruthless. But if you don’t have time to do that, submit to the competition anyway! I didn’t entertain the thought of winning but then … I won. And I’ve adored working with Penguin Random House Australia. 

Julie’s work appears in the Forward, Retro, Tension, Taboo, Illusion, Harmony, and Epilogue editions of WORDLY Magazine.

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