UWAP interviews Brendan Ritchie, winner of the 2022 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.
Brendan Ritchie is an early-career novelist and academic from the south-coast of WA. In 2015 he published his debut novel Carousel and was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing. Carousel was critically acclaimed and described by the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘the sort of thing that might happen if Kafka wrote a script for Big Brother.’ The sequel, Beyond Carousel, was released in 2016 and Brendan has also published poetry and non-fiction in several notable journals and collections. In addition to writing, Brendan coordinates an academic enabling program at Edith Cowan University. He lives on Wadandi land with his wife and two young daughters.
What was it like to win the 2022 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript?
To be honest I was just stoked to be shortlisted, particularly given the number of entries and the calibre of the previous winners. Writing this particular manuscript was quite an isolating process and it’s always difficult to evaluate your own work. When submitting to the DHA you are asked to deidentify the manuscript and I was very happy to do so on this occasion. It took some of the pressure off and I figured the writing would either speak to the judges or it wouldn’t. Receiving a call to confirm that it was the winning entry was definitely the highlight of my writing career. I don’t think I made much sense on the phone and one of my daughters was looking at me through the window wondering whether something terrible had happened. It was nice to be able to head back inside and reassure her that it was good news.
Can you tell us about your two previous novels Carousel and Beyond Carousel?
Carousel and Beyond Carousel are a duology I began writing as part of my PhD in Creative Writing. They’re based on an unusual premise where four people are trapped inside a shopping centre (Westfield Carousel in Perth’s eastern suburbs) by a supernatural force. The rest of the population has disappeared and they’re forced to inhabit the centre for several years before uncovering the mystery behind their imprisonment. Beyond Carousel sees the characters explore the world outside of the centre; a somewhat dystopian (or utopian!) version of Perth, where artists are the ruling class.
These novels were partially inspired by the work of Haruki Murakami. I’ve been a fan for a while and like his ability to weave a degree of surrealism into the mundane. His fictional worlds are immersive and evocative in their own right, then something often arrives to subvert them in such an interesting and original manner. In this way, the Carousel duology is primarily an exploration of young adulthood, but through a new and bizarre lens.
Having these novels published also marked a transition for me away from filmmaking and towards creative writing. Probably something I should have done a while ago, but I’m trying my best to make up for lost time.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
I generally start my first drafts with a premise and not much else. Landing on the right premise at the right time is important. In the past when I’ve tried to map out my writing projects ahead of time, the results haven’t been great. But when an idea has arrived more organically, somewhat out of the ether, things have turned out better.
Once I have the premise, I try to give myself the freedom to explore it without too much of a filter during the first draft. I’ll work every day (or night – now that we have young children) if I can, with an emphasis on getting words on the page. Of course, they’re not always the right words, but they become my vehicle for uncovering the intangibles within the work. If I’m lucky at some point the feeling of uncertainty is replaced by one of inevitability, then I know I’ve ‘found’ the story. This is one of my favourite moments within the writing process because it feels like the work is alive and has its own trajectory and agency. From here I just try to stay out of the way and get it finished. That probably sounds quite esoteric, but it’s my best description.
Writing in this way can leave a lot of work to do in the subsequent drafts, but I’ve tried the alternative and it didn’t really work for me. There’s actually some interesting theory underpinning these different writing approaches (planning or plunging, gardeners or architects, etc.) that I was able to research some of within my PhD thesis. I probably identify with the gardener approach more than others; planting and nurturing initially, then allowing things to grow and weave organically.
Which writers have inspired you throughout your career?
Haruki Murakami. Donna Tartt. Cormac McCarthy. It’s a long and evolving list. I also read a lot of fantasy as a teenager, which isn’t something that I do much of now, but I’m very grateful to have discovered authors such as Terry Brooks at this age as it kind of sparked my interest in fiction and reading. I really believe that it’s the act of reading that’s important when we’re young, not so much what we read.
What is one of your favourite books by a WA author?
I was very taken by Donna Mazza’s Fauna in 2020. The launch took place on what felt like the eve of Covid-19 descending upon Australia. I remember driving home after the launch that night, listening to the news with the book beside me and my head in a thousand places. The following month or so wasn’t an easy time to be consumed by a novel, but I certainly was with Fauna. Beautiful writing, set in the south west, and a premise that asks some really interesting questions about the human condition.
We also had a lot of Tim Winton fed to us in high school at a time when I probably wasn’t so receptive. Unfortunately, this has meant it has taken me a while to venture back toward his novels, but I have done recently with Breath and The Shepherd’s Hut and enjoyed them both.
What is your hope for the future?
I would like to read more and keep improving my writing craft. I feel like I made a late start in relation to writing and there’s still so much to learn and explore. There are novels I have in mind that I’d like to write and, I’m sure, others that are lurking somewhere in the subconscious. If I can find a way to be a good dad and husband, and still publish every so often, that would be perfect.
What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
Right now I’m tempted to say sleep, as we have a baby in the house and there’s not a lot of this to go around. Otherwise, I like middle distance running and will head out into the forest nearby to where we live (in Cowaramup) whenever I can. I also take a lot of inspiration from film and music. I spent a lot of my spare time in my twenties and thirties at the cinema or watching bands play. I think these experiences helped to shape me as an artist and I’m hoping to eke out some time for this again in the years to come.