Four years in a great American literary hub might have been expected to put Christine Piper in a New York state of mind, but it was a surprising discovery about an Australian “living fossil” that led her to the subject of her in-progress second novel.
Now a year back in Australia, Piper, whose first novel After Darkness won the 2014 The Australian/Vogel's Literary Award, has been selected for the 2019 Copyright Agency Cultural Fund New Writer’s Fellowship at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).
The $40,000 fellowship is designed to assist Australian writers at a critical stage of their development, and for Piper it will mean having the space and support she needs to work on her novel.
Piper says she was thinking about a story based around the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair when her research turned up an Australian connection – Taronga Zoo had donated Australian aquatic wildlife to the fair which had been transported to the US on a cruise ship.
The surprise to come was that one of the Taronga fish, a Queensland lungfish from an ancient family of air-breathing fish, was still swimming around a Chicago aquarium and was reckoned to be near a century old (having been sent to Chicago as a fully-grown adult).
Granddad, as he was called by the time Piper visited him in 2016, was thought to be the oldest aquarium fish in the world, but sadly he had to be euthanised about a year later. His spirit will live on in the novel, with the working title Lena & Esmond.
“It’s about the journey that two Australians take to attend the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933,” Piper says. “One character is an amateur naturalist, obsessed with the two lungfish being transported on the ship, and the other is a part-Japanese female stowaway. It’s an adventure, and also a thwarted love story.”
Taking up the UTS New Writer’s Fellowship is a homecoming of another sort for Piper, who won the Vogel Award for After Darkness while undertaking her Doctor of Creative Arts at UTS.
“Novel writing is a very lonely business,” she says. “It’s tough starting out again on your own without the mentorship you get in a doctorate program.
“I’m very grateful to have access to that kind of guidance again thanks to the Copyright Agency’s generous support.”
The New Writer’s Fellowship has renewed backing for three years from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.
Each year a successful new writer will be selected nationally and attached to the UTS Writing Program. Piper will be available to writing students for two days a week at UTS and the other three days will be devoted entirely to her own work.