The first hint of what was about to happen came quietly a few months ago. I’d been visiting an old friend and was walking home alone up an empty road when I felt something both familiar and new.
Years ago, when I was in the midst of writing what would become the Boone Shepard trilogy, there were moments when I would sense with quiet certainty that I wasn’t alone. That Boone was standing just out of my field of vision, tapping his foot and wondering when we were going to get back to our adventures. These instances weren’t the first time I’d felt this. In 2009, writing the very first draft of Windmills, I spent the day after finishing a pivotal scene with the uncomfortable feeling that protagonist Leo Grey was following me. It wasn’t something I articulated to anyone. I just kind of accepted it; whether a trick of the mind or something else, the characters you embark on a journey with make themselves known to you. They’re your companions until, as I learnt in the case of Boone, you reach the end of the line and have to say goodbye, finding yourself faced with a particular sorrow that you never could have anticipated.
Anyway. This night, not long ago, came several months after I had seen Boone for the last time. And as I was walking home, I felt someone new at my shoulder. It wasn’t Boone; Boone stumbled and tripped along. It wasn’t Leo, who tended to lurk in the shadows. This was someone prowling and confident, someone who exuded danger and made me feel, on this empty road late at night, that I was about as protected as I could be.
I knew Sunburnt Country was a gamble the moment I hit send. A brutal, visceral expansion of a novella I wrote in 2017, it was unlike any of my other projects and it was for that reason that I thought it might be exactly what I needed.
About a year previously I had been put in touch with Tara Wynne, a brilliant agent at the venerable and prestigious Curtis Brown. Tara read some of my work and while she liked it, she felt that both of the novels I had sent her weren’t quite ready. Looking at what else I had, I decided to move ahead with Sunburnt Country. I figured it would either help illustrate my range or prompt Tara to politely ask me to leave her alone. I rolled the dice and was almost certain I had made a mistake. It was too violent, too gratuitous, too weird. There was no way Curtis Brown would go for it.
They went for it.
Even when Tara told me she would be interested in representing it after a few changes, I was still doubtful. This seemed to have happened too quickly and too easily – Curtis Brown are one of the best agencies in the country, representing a variety of famous Australian bestsellers. The notion that I might join their ranks was giving me a serious bout of imposter syndrome. But I pushed ahead, I made the changes and sent the novel back. I was ready to receive a response telling me it still wasn’t ready. What I got was a contract.
The speed with which things happened after that still makes my head spin. Within a day of signing with Curtis Brown, Sunburnt Country went out to Jerry Kalajian, an LA agent who specialises in selling the film rights to major novels. He read Sunburnt Country in one sitting and loved it. In our first conversation he started bringing up the kind of big names that made me gape at the phone, not least when he told me he would be sending them the book that night.
In the meantime, Sunburnt Country went out to several Australian publishers and I started playing the waiting game. I managed to discipline myself into only checking my emails every fifteen minutes. I didn’t want to annoy Tara with hourly queries about how everything was going, but I was desperate to know what was happening. When a couple of quiet weeks passed and Tara got back to me saying that there had been a handful of passes, disappointment started to close in. Despite my best efforts, I had gotten carried away with the thrilling possibilities, but of course, just because some people liked the book didn’t mean the publishers and producers who actually had to front up the money would.
Then came the first email from an interested publisher. Then the second. And the third. And a phone call with a major producer in LA interested in the rights.
Suddenly I was in the middle of a whirlwind. I took lunch with the publishers behind some of Australian literature’s biggest recent success stories. I flew to Sydney to hear pitches in boardrooms overlooking the city. I was sent emails keeping me up to date with contract negotiations in LA, emails discussing the kind of money I’d never even seen in my life.
The film option was secured. And following it came the publishing offers. Several of them, meaning I had to make a very hard choice. Everyone I met with would have been an incredible publisher for my book. In the end though, it had to be Harper Collins. They had gone above and beyond in their pitch, sending me a 27-page document full of striking, sun beaten imagery that took me through how much they loved the book and what their vision for it was. They wanted the novel, they got the novel, and they were already talking sequel potential. In fact, they were sure of it; theirs was a two-book offer.
So I accepted. A contract was negotiated. I signed and sent it off. And like that, it was official. My next two books would be published by one of the biggest publishers on the planet. The whole process, from signing with Curtis Brown to sending off the publishing contract, had barely taken two months.
Except it took a lot longer than that. I’ve dreamed of this moment my whole life, and pretty much everything I’ve ever done in the sphere of writing has been working towards it. None of it would have happened if it wasn’t for the dumb mistakes and the minor successes I had along the way, from my theatre work to podcasting, from self-publishing Windmills to seeing Boone Shepard’s final adventure hit shelves, from studying screenwriting to winning the Ustinov. Everything was a means to an end that, now it’s here, I realise is very far from an end.
It took years. It took countless failures and just enough successes to keep my head above water. And it took the support of the people who believed in me from the start, despite me giving them very little reason to. I hope you know how grateful I am. Because God knows I haven’t always been worthy of your support.
To be honest, I’m still not sure I am. I’m still terrified I’m going to screw all of this up somehow, that I won’t know how to manage it and I’ll make some rookie error that will send everything careening off the deep end. But I’m going to do my absolute best not to.
When, walking up that empty road, I felt this new presence behind me, I grinned. I didn’t know, in that moment, what was going to happen. But on some level, I knew things were heading in the right direction. I knew I had somebody steering me who knew what they were doing, who, like Boone before, would be my guide to the years ahead.
In July 2020, this character will walk out into the world, as their first story is released and a whole new adventure starts.
I can’t wait for you to meet her.
Writing words about writing words.