Heather Rose’s Stella Prize acceptance speech
Thank you, dear colleagues in the world of words, writing and publishing, and all the guests here tonight to celebrate the remarkable Stella Prize.
I first want to pay my deepest respects to my fellow nominees and their magnificent books:
- Cory Taylor, Dying: A Memoir
- Georgia Blain, Between a Wolf and a Dog
- Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race
- Catherine de Saint Phalle, Poum and Alexandre
- Emily Maguire, An Isolated Incident
We all understand what it has taken for each of us to find ourselves here. Two of us died in the midst of our work as writers: Georgia Blain and Cory Taylor. I acknowledge the extraordinary commitment of the living and the dead – and the courage you have each shown in your lives and your words.
I think it’s hard to feel success as a woman and possibly even harder if you are an Australian woman. With success comes a perception of power. And power in women is something we have yet to wholeheartedly welcome and embrace in Australia.
Fresh in our psyche is what happens to successful women who claim power. Beyond Julia Gillard, we have seen it in other prominent female leaders, observers and thinkers.
Some of us have wonderful men who delight in our success, and do all they can to support us. Others do not. Some men are intimidated and resentful when women step into their magnificence. Being a successful woman is not an easy path.
So what has it taken to find myself here? I am sure lots of you are thinking, ‘Who on earth is Heather Rose?’ I can remember writing a poem at age six. It was about a rabbit that was shot and died. And then a terrible thing happened. I read the poem aloud to my father and he said, ‘You’re going to be a great writer.’
For years and years I was devastated by the intergalactic divide that existed between my own writing and that of the great writers. I wrote my first novel at twenty-one and was crushed by how bad it was. The challenge seemed too great to overcome. I began another novel. But my writing turned out a bit like my knitting. The yarn was good; the colour was nice; I had the right needles. But the product was tight and lumpy and misshapen. My main character just ended up being hopelessly depressed.
Then I moved back to Tasmania. And that very first night, a sentence came drifting in on the sea air. It said: ‘My brother Ambrose is a tiger hunter.’
Three years later that manuscript found its way to literary agent Gaby Naher and a little while later it was published. It may have had kind reviews, but of course I only remember the one unkind review.
I started another novel. This one took me six years and totally surprised me by winning a crime fiction award even though all the judges agreed it was the least like a crime novel of any they had read.
Once I received a royalty cheque for it for 57 cents. It came in a sixty-cent envelope.
My third novel began when I was in a state of utter exhaustion, twelve weeks into life with a new baby. Although it was produced in a beautiful hardback, complete with ribbon, it is still the novel that has sold the least. Yet its handful of fans are the most ardent.
About then Danielle Wood invited me for a cup of tea and so began our children’s series that we write together under the pen-name Angelica Banks.
Through all this writing there were three children, the normal demands of family life, a business to run, commitments I made to community and sport. I wrote mostly at nights. I wrote when I could get an hour or two on the weekends. Sometimes I’d escape for a weekend, and for several years I escaped for a week or two of uninterrupted bliss at Varuna – the writers’ house in the Blue Mountains.
One day I was wandering the National Gallery of Victoria right next door to our event tonight. A photo – and the interpretation beside it – caught my eye. It was about an artist called Marina Abramovic. So began a novel about endurance that took me eleven years to write.
Chiefly I had to learn to be a better writer. I also had to learn about art and film composing, architecture and the history of the Baltic Peninsula. I had to learn about Marina Abramovic and New York. I listened to a lot Bach for cello when I wasn’t listening to movie scores.
And now I am here. Forty-six years after that poem about a rabbit that was shot and died, I am here with a book about a self-harming Serbian and a man at the dark hour of his marriage.
The manuscript was rejected by three or four publishers here in Australia and more in the US. But my agent Gaby Naher refused to lose hope and sent it to Jane Palfreyman at Allen & Unwin. And here it is.
I like to think of it as overnight success.
Somewhere in trying to cross the cosmic divide that lay between being a six-year-old poet and a great writer, I stopped worrying about that. I accepted that I would never write like Faulkner or Eliot or Zola or Morrison or Murakami. I couldn’t write like Carey or Garner or Witting or Astley or White or Winton.
I want nothing more than to continue to write, but nothing is more difficult for me than writing.
In a world where, I believe, the pen is still mightier than the AK-47, it remains, no matter the challenges, our task to tell our stories. To reflect the human experience. To find what is common and what is uncommon. To explore the past, be with the present, to imagine the future. Whether that is in fiction or nonfiction is immaterial. It’s the work that speaks that matters. And if we do not foster our creativity when we hear it calling – whether in our children or as adults – then the world is poorer for it.
Winning this year’s Stella Prize means I have been financially rewarded for my work. But, even more than the incredible prize money, is the sense of encouragement and acknowledgement that will stay with me for all of my days.
I want to share this sense of success with my family and friends who have walked this long writing road beside me, and all the brilliant writers and mentors who have inspired me, educated me and awakened me.
To my children Alex, Byron and Belle – you are the best stories I have ever created. To my community in Tasmania who have shared the journey of all my books with me – thank you.
Jane Palfreyman and the wonderful team at Allen & Unwin, and my beloved agent who has been with me from the start, Gaby Naher: thank you, thank you.
David Walsh, creator of the Museum of Old and New Art – MONA – in Hobart gave me a studio beside his library that proved vital in the fruition of this book. And Marina Abramovic did what she does best: she trusted me with my version of her story with unflinching grace and courage.
To the Stella Prize judges: that you have bestowed your trust in The Museum of Modern Love is utterly remarkable to me, but I am honoured and touched and utterly thrilled.
In closing I want to reflect on the women who banded together to create this Prize in 2013, and the Stella ambassadors, patrons and supporters whose generosity brings such recognition to the writing of Australian women each year. I have no doubt that this single, bold, generous and audacious prize will yet be pivotal.
Encouraging and applauding the success of women might become an elegant and subversive act of cultural freedom. An act that with unflinching determination we use to redefine our social landscape and realise our human potential. So that women and men in all their endeavours – in the arts, business, sport, health, education, politics, trades, media, sciences and domestic life – are equally respected, equally safe, equally heard and equally celebrated.
– Heather Rose, winner of the 2017 Stella Prize for The Museum of Modern Love, 18 April 2017