By Courtney Withers
Former UWA Creative Writing PhD student Brooke Dunnell has been up to amazing things since she graduated in 2012 — writing up a storm in particular.
Dunnell recently won the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award for West Australian writers aged 18 to 35 at the ECU Spiegeltent, receiving a $20,000 cash prize and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press for her manuscript, ‘The Glass House’.
Scraping in her entry just one week before she turned 35, Dunnell wowed the judges with her manuscript about 36-year-old Julia, who takes a break from her faltering marriage in Melbourne to help her ageing father move out of the family home in Perth.
Hearing about this enormous win and how much Dunnell has been able to accomplish in her field, I decided to get the inside scoop for Pelican about what she’s been up to and scored some of her very best writing tips for all of us.
Courtney Withers (CW): What was your time at UWA doing a PhD in Creative Writing like?
Brooke Dunnell (BD): I had a great time studying Creative Writing at UWA! I was able to benefit from the supervision of Brenda Walker, who is an excellent and much-awarded fiction writer, and get critiques from academics like Van Ikin and Dennis Haskell, as well as my peers. Because I spent a lot of time on campus and joined the editorial collective for Limina, I made lifelong friends who were studying in other disciplines like Anthropology and History. I got to teach creative writing for the first time and also had some short stories published, so that was great for my career.
CW: What are you doing currently?
BD: I currently do a variety of writing-related freelance work, such as teaching, mentoring, manuscript assessment and competition judging. I’ve also been writing my own fiction, including short stories and the manuscript, ‘The Glass House’.
CW: How did you hear about the award?
BD: I heard about the Fogarty Literary Award the first time it was held in 2019, though I didn’t have a manuscript ready at the time. I knew that a publishing contract along with a cash prize and educational leadership opportunities sponsored by the Fogarty Foundation would be a fantastic thing to receive, and it was exciting to see how many of the long-listed and short-listed entrants ended up having their manuscripts accepted by Fremantle Press. That inspired me to work towards entering the 2021 competition, because it would be the last time I was eligible and it could potentially lead to great things even if I didn’t win.
CW: How did your manuscript, ‘The Glass House’, come to fruition?
BD: I had a story idea that involved a woman having to deal with an ageing parent while in the midst of trying to start a family of her own, because I was interested in how that situation would make the character reconsider parenthood and childhood. My first version was pretty flat, so I decided to make changes and add in other interesting subplots, like a former friend coming back into the main character’s life and a stepdaughter who the main character is worried about from afar. I started drafting the manuscript in 2020 with the goal of having it ready to submit to the Fogarty in April 2021.
CW: What are your best writing tips for those wanting to pursue a career in creative writing?
BD: My tips for anyone wanting to be involved in creative writing professionally would be to write and read as much as you can, and to get involved in any different opportunities that come your way. The more you write, read, revise, study, discuss and review writing from different angles, the more resources you’ll be able to draw on in order to improve your craft.
I also think it’s important to try to find a balance between taking constructive criticism seriously and allowing outside opinions to overwhelm you as a writer. Most readers offer their feedback sincerely, and their comments are always worth considering if your goal is to improve your work. However, not every single person who reads your writing is going to connect to it, and that’s okay! You need to be judicious about taking on other people’s advice and try to be confident that if you keep pushing forward, your work will find an audience who appreciates it.
Dunnell was also generous enough to share a short passage from her manuscript, ‘The Glass House’, with us:
The afternoon passed in long, scattered dreams like clouds, and when Julia woke it was dark. There was no lamp in the guest room, so she had to find the light switch, blinking against the brightness.
Her stomach felt gnarled. She had no idea of the time, but she’d last eaten a dry aeroplane croissant very early in the morning. Opening the bedroom door, the light spilled out into the hallway, showing the treacherous route to the back part of the house: a chunky telephone table piled with old Yellow Pages, crushed sneakers lined up along the skirting board, a mat with its corners curling at the entrance to the kitchen. How did Don navigate this obstacle course every single day?
Guessing that she’d wake hungry, Don had left a cling-wrapped plate of cheese and crackers on the bench. Julia ate it all, tapping the last knob of cheese along the porcelain to suck up any last crumbs. When she was finished, she took the plate to the sink, found a plastic cup and filled it with tap water, draining it in a few deep swallows.
The back third of her childhood home had full-length windows that looked out onto the backyard. The night was a deep grey, but Julia could make out the terracotta bricked patio and lawn beyond, both of them dry and bare. Right near the back fence was the old Hills Hoist, drooping to the right from when Paul used it to play Superman. Squinting, Julia saw a couple of items pegged out there, spinning slowly in the dark.
Footsteps tapped their way down from the front bedroom: Her father had always slept light. Julia shook her head. The dull teck sound of the stick was missing, meaning Don had risked a trip through the house with nothing to break his fall. Turning to face him, she put her hands on her hips and opened her mouth.
A dog stood there, peeking its snout into the kitchen. It was mid-sized, with a deep brown coat. Seeing her, its tail waved. It walked over to the breakfast bar and sat down, panting gently.
Dad doesn’t have a dog, Julia thought, then reconsidered. No one told me Dad got a dog. ‘Hey, mate,’ she murmured, offering the animal the back of her wrist to sniff. It licked her arm gently and she took a hold of its collar, bright yellow with a paw-shaped tag. ‘Biscuit,’ she read. Thrumming its tail in recognition, the dog reached up with its front paws and revealed himself to be a boy. ‘Well, there you go.’ Scratching his jaw, she wondered where Biscuit had been when she got there, then remembered her father standing in the entryway with his bedroom door shut tight.
Straightening, she checked the clock and groaned. It was half-past eleven at night and she felt wide awake. If she’d felt intimidated by the endlessness of time earlier in the day, then it was much worse now, with the light gone, the silence, the appearance of a random dog. Despair sucked at her like the undertow of a wave. This was all too much, too much.
No, too big. The house was too big: that was the beginning and the end of the problem.
Like all of you I’m sure, I cannot wait to see what Dunnell writes next.
Follow her website https://www.brookedunnell.com/ to stay up to date with her work.
Courtney can’t seem to finish writing her exam notes, let alone write a whole manuscript.
Picture courtesy of Pexels.