When a writer indulges her surfing passion 'a magic thing happens'

Jason Steger March 29, 2012

Nearly 20 years ago, Favel Parrett was told by her university writing teacher to keep at it. Her teacher was award-winning author Alex Miller and he was right - this year her first novel joins one of his on the Miles Franklin Award long list.

Nearly 20 years ago, Favel Parrett was told by her university writing teacher to keep at it. Her teacher was award-winning author Alex Miller and he was right - this year her first novel joins one of his on the Miles Franklin Award long list. Photo: Justin McManus

IN 1993, Favel Parrett leavened her anthropology studies at La Trobe University with a creative-writing course. Her teacher was Alex Miller, whose novel The Ancestor Game won that year's Miles Franklin Award. He was impressed with the work she produced, telling her she had a strong voice and encouraging her to keep writing.

Fast forward almost 20 years - including 10 in which she ignored Miller's advice and virtually stopped writing - and Parrett is again linking up with him. Her first novel, Past the Shallows, has been included on the longlist for this year's Miles Franklin, Australia's most significant literary prize, along with Miller's 10th, Autumn Laing.

Clearly Miller was right about her talent.

The presence of seven female novelists on the list suggests there will not be a repeat of the kerfuffle last year when judges produced an all-male shortlist of only three books, just two years after producing an all-male five-book shortlist. That fuss galvanised a group of women in the book industry to set up the Stella Prize for women's writing, which they hope to launch later this year for presentation in 2013.

Stella board chairwoman Sophie Cunningham has no complaints about the longlist. ''It has been a very strong year for writing - women writers particularly - and it's interesting how many writers are relatively established and known. There is a strong range of women on the list.''

Past the Shallows tells the story of three brothers struggling to survive a hard life on the Tasmanian coast with a brutal father in the aftermath of their mysterious mother's death. The ocean plays a significant part in the outcome.

Parrett divides her time between her Melbourne writing studio and Torquay, where she has her home and the surf. She said surfing was important to her writing because it got her away from the computer and into the natural world.

''It clears the mind enough to let connections in the writing become clear. The web is made clear in those moments - the joining of themes and ideas. A magic thing happens.''

She said Miller had been a quiet but thoughtful teacher who had shown her that writing could be hard work. ''And he was right, it is hard work. Often the best writing comes when it feels horrible. When you think it's going very well it can turn out to be not so good.''

She is surprised to be on the list because it has been a great year for Australian fiction. ''I feel a bit embarrassed because there are some amazing books on it.''

The shortlist will announced on May 3 and the winner on June 20.

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