2024 Stella Prize Longlist: Reflections
Laura Woollett West Girls

What West Girls showed me about writing

Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s latest book, West Girls, longlisted for the 2024 Stella Prize, is the first work of fiction in the autor’s career that is inspired by her own life. Here is how this project was born and how it affected her writing processes.

Even though West Girls is my fourth book, it represents a lot of firsts for me: my first novel-in-stories, my first book set in my home state (Western Australia, WA), and my first full-length work of fiction primarily inspired by my own life, rather than true crime or historical events. It was also written in a far less linear fashion than my previous novels, across a longer stretch of time. The first “chapters” that I wrote (“Malta”, “Women and Children First” and “Hati-Hati”) began as standalone stories back in 2017, while I was on an Asialink Arts residency in Jakarta where I was meant to be writing personal essays. 

As a novelist who typically works to a plan, this kind of piecemeal, disorderly writing felt almost illegitimate to me.

West Girls 2024 Stella Prize

Over the years these stories went through multiple iterations, and I eventually decided to connect them by making the diplomat’s wife of “Hati-Hati” an adult version of the backpacking preteen in “Malta” and “Women and Children First”, who is basically a fictionalisation of my 11-year-old self. Meanwhile, I was procrastinating from another project by playing around with ideas about girls and young women in Perth – a location that seemed more and more surreal, after Melbourne’s lockdowns made travelling back there an impossibility.

In 2022, after I was finally able to return to WA, these writings crystallised into West Girls. I devoted the rest of the year to filling in the gaps. It was a wonderful year, as I finally left the call centre job that supported me through my first three books and just wrote (and enjoyed life without a headset) for six months. 

I had my doubts that West Girls was even a book until it became a typeset PDF with cover art and a looming publication date. As a novelist who typically works to a plan, this kind of piecemeal, disorderly writing felt almost illegitimate to me. Instead of bursting into tears when I completed the manuscript, I sort of just sent it off to my editor with a shrug, like, “here, see if this seems like a book to you”. It was a strangely impersonal ending to a project that, in many ways, is super-personal.

If anything,West Girls has shown me that I don’t have a formula. Every book is its own beast. Every fragment has the potential to become something greater. The process [of writing] is still full of surprises. 

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