Laura Jean McKay wins Australia’s richest literary prize

Laura Jean McKay wins Australia’s richest literary prize


Debut novelist, Laura Jean McKay has taken out both the Victorian Prize for Literature and Prize for Fiction in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for her novel The Animals in That Country.

Speaking to the ABC, McKay said the $125,000 in total prize she won, would likely be used towards her family’s goals to “finally lay our hats down somewhere” and acquire real estate. 

“That has just been completely unreachable [until now],” she said.

Her novel follows the story of an “appealingly spiky narrator” named Jean, who traverses post-apocalyptic Australia with a dingo who infects humans and gives them the ability to understand animals. 

The Guardian’s Justine Jordan called it a “fierce debut novel”, where characters are “filthy, fresh and funny” and the prose is “on high alert, hackles up and teeth bared in every sentence.”

Last April, as her book was being released nation-wide, McKay penned an Op Ed for The Guardian where she revealed that she was living alone in a caravan in the Northern Territory Wildlife Park while researching her novel. 

She told the ABC that her novel began with a simple question: “What would happen if the communication barrier between animals and humans disappeared, overnight?” 

“We [humans] always consider ourselves as primary, or superior, because we have language — that’s what sets us apart from the animal kingdom. So I thought: what if that language barrier was taken away?” she said

“And how would we feel about animals then? Is it all peace and hugs and everything’s OK now? Probably not. Probably they’re saying things we don’t want them to say. Probably we treat them in ways that we don’t really want to front up to.”

“Maybe our relationship with animals isn’t what we think it is,” McKay added. “And I think that’s what comes out when Jean and the others start to be able to understand what the animals are saying.”

In 2018, McKay was awarded the Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, where she worked on her novel. After completing her PhD in literary animal studies at the University of Melbourne, the month-long residency was “invaluable” and “a gift of more than just space and money.”

“To be part of that culture — because The Wheeler Centre has meant so much to Melbourne writers … I felt at home there,” McKay told ABC.

“I just spent that month writing and writing, and it really pushed the novel basically to the stage where I was ready to show Scribe [who became the publisher of the book].”

“And it’s also about someone believing in it — you know, this strange novel about people talking to animals, that had really been a very hard book to write. It was about having people [The Wheeler] sort of say, ‘No we think this is the way to go.'”

McKay said she wrote” hundreds of thousands of words in the wrong direction” at first — and laughs that “Jean was a cat at one point, she was a middle-aged man, she was a young woman who worked in a laboratory.”

“Once I found her [Jean, the central character], it really took off.”

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards was started by the Victorian Government in 1985 to celebrate literary achievements by Australian writers across seven categories including Non-Fiction, Indigenous Writing, Poetry, and Drama. 

McKay’s novel beat other books on the short list including Richard Flanagan’s ‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’, ‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones, and Vivian Pham’s ‘The Coconut Children’. 

Additionally, a People’s Choice Award with the prize money of $2,000, was awarded to investigative reporter Louise Milligan for her explosive book ‘Witness: An Investigation into the Brutal Cost of Seeking Justice’ which Ben Mathews described as a “devastating critique of the criminal trial process,” in a review in The Conversation. 

Contributing editor and journalist at The Monthly, Paddy Manning took out the Non-Fiction Prize for ‘Body Count: How Climate Change is Killing Us’ – a book which revisits some headline events in Australia’s recent history, including the Brisbane Floods of 2011 and Melbourne’s thunderstorm asthma fatalities in 2016 to highlight soil-borne diseases post-flood and the catastrophic impact of warming temperatures.

Gunditjmara and Bundjalung singer-songwriter Archie Roach took out the Prize for Indigenous Writing for his memoir ‘Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and My Music’, an “intimate, moving and often shocking memoir” which also won the last year’s Indie Book of the Year in Non-Fiction and shortlisted for the ABIA Biography Book of the Year. 

Here are the winners across all categories: 

Victorian Prize for Literature – The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay (Victoria, Scribe Publications)
Prize for Fiction – The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay (Victoria, Scribe Publications)
Prize for Non-Fiction – Body Count: How Climate Change is Killing Us by Paddy Manning (NSW, Simon & Schuster Australia)
Prize for Drama – Wonnangatta by Angus Cerini (Victoria, Sydney Theatre Company)
Prize for Poetry – Case Notes by David Stavanger (NSW, UWA Publishing)
Prize for Writing for Young Adults – Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore (Victoria, Text Publishing)
Prize for Indigenous Writing –
Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and My Music by Archie Roach (Victoria, Simon & Schuster Australia)
Unpublished Manuscript Award – Anam by André Dao (Victoria)
People’s Choice Award – Witness: An Investigation into the Brutal Cost of Seeking Justice by Louise Milligan (Hachette Australia)

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