Drum roll.. The winner of this year’s prestigious City Of Fremantle Hungerford Award – presented to an emerging WA writer for their first full-length, unpublished work of fiction – is Fremantle writer Molly Schmidt for manuscript Salt River Road. Congratulations Molly! She takes home $15,000 plus a publishing contract with Fremantle Press. Publisher Georgia Richter says Molly’s novel is interspersed with beautiful passages of verse – an effective way of navigating the difficult, changeable journey of grief. Here’s what Molly has to say:
Describe your manuscript:.
Salt River Road is a coming of age story set in regional Western Australia in the 1970’s. My manuscript draws on my personal experience of losing my father to cancer, exploring the reality of a childhood lost to hospital corridors and the gaping hole a parent leaves behind. It gives voice to the “part no one considers. When the life has ended, but the chaos continues.” In a parallel narrative, Salt River Road acknowledges the stories and wisdom of the Traditional Custodians of the Great Southern region, the Menang and Goreng Noongar people. My protagonists are teenage siblings Rose and Frank Tetley, whose worlds are thrown off kilter by the death of their mum. Their sheep farm goes to ruins, as Eddie, their father, is grounded by his grief. When Noongar Elders Patsy and Herbert find Rose marching along the highway away from all the mess, they take her home in a storm of red gravel dust that brings up memories Eddie Tetley would rather forget. The story itself is told with a mix of prose and poetry as I naturally turned to poetry to express emotional scenes. In different draft stages, I edited the poetry out – but now I see it as one of the strengths of the manuscript. I wrote this story in consultation with Noongar Elders from the Albany area and I am so grateful for their time and friendship. I hope Salt River Road can become a poignant example of the possibilities of cross-cultural collaboration.
What inspired you to write it?
The concept for Salt River Road began over ten years ago, an idea scribbled in a notebook by my then teenage self as I attempted to come to terms with the loss of my dad. Back then, the story was called Boat Dancing, and whilst I loved the characters who sprang to life before me, I came to realise I had not so much a novel, and more a work of therapy that had provided cathartic release. For many years, throughout my journalism and creative writing degree, the work remained in a desk drawer, untouched. It was after spending three years working as a journalist and engaging closely with Perth’s Noongar community that I became aware of the disregard for and omission of Aboriginal stories and voices in the media in general. It occurred to me that as a Western Australian writer I had a responsibility to write in a manner that is inclusive of First Nations People. I decided to include Noongar characters in Boat Dancing; however, I also understood the importance of avoiding cultural appropriation, stereotyping and tokenism. I knew that despite the best intentions, I did not have the answers. I went back to university and undertook an Honours project in which I returned to Albany and consulted directly with Noongar Elders, asking them if and how they would like to be included in a work of local fiction. The privilege of working with these Elders was enormous and, with their guidance, the work became what is now Salt River Road.
How long have you been working on it?
I was 15 when I first looked out the passenger window on a trip from Albany to Perth and saw the sign “Tenterden” and wondered what people did there. I decided to make up the answer, setting my story on a sheep farm there. I’m now 27, so… it’s been a long journey and it’s not over yet.
How did you feel after making the shortlist of this year’s Award, and knowing there was a chance you’d go all the way?
In March this year, when I submitted Salt River Road to the Hungerford, I was a few months into a six-month stint back in Albany. I’d just started a new job at the ABC bureau there, and my partner, Pete, and I were still surrounded by packing boxes. There was so much else that needed to be done, a dog that needed walking, emails that needed checking, and yet I’d written Hungerford Award on my whiteboard in big red capital letters. I never for one moment imagined I would be longlisted, let alone shortlisted, but it was the first time I had a complete draft of my manuscript, and I had that niggling feeling of “if not now, when?” So, the boxes remained stacked around us and Pete held the fort and walked the dog and Brett D’Arcy engaged in lengthy phone calls from Perth (as did my mum, who is an avid reader and editor of my work) and after weeks of spending every scrap of spare time on the manuscript, I hit ‘submit!’ I thought that was the end of it. I was proud to have merely polished the draft and submitted. Fremantle Press have long been my dream publisher for Salt River Road; so now, to have been recognised by them? I am still pinching myself!