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Small eyes, big prize

An illustration taken from The Runaway Hug by Nick Bland and Freya Blackwood.THE winners of the 67th annual Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards were announced yesterday. The results are unlikely to cause controversy, although a dominance of heavy themes may raise the familiar debate about whether the awards reflect - or should reflect - what resonates with young readers.
Nanjing Night Net

That said, the CBCA has always maintained that the intention of the awards is to recognise literary merit, not popularity. In any case, the titles selected this year might just tick all the boxes.

OLDER READERS

OF THE 77 books nominated for this category, The Dead I Know by Victorian writer Scot Gardener came out on top. The compelling story focuses on teenager Aaron Rowe, a sleepwalker with a lot of instability at home, as he starts a new job at a funeral parlour.

It's a memorable read that manages to be understated while tackling heavy subject matter and delivering believably complex characters.

The judges called Gardner's book ''a confronting story'', praising it for balancing ''the violence and desolation of Aaron's life in the caravan park with the routine and studied peacefulness of the funeral parlour in exquisite counterpoint''.

Bill Condon's A Straight Line to My Heart and Robert Newton's When We Were Two were named Honour Books (the latter, a 1916-set road-trip story about two brothers - with shades of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men - won the Prime Minister's Literary Award this year). Michael Gerard Bauer's Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel, Ship Kings: The Coming of the Whirlpool by Andrew McGahan and my personal favourite, The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky, rounded out the shortlist.

An additional 16 titles were listed as Notable Books, including works by previous CBCA award-winning authors Steven Herrick, J.C. Burke and Barry Jonsberg.

YOUNGER READERS

KATE Constable, another Victorian writer, took out top honours in this category with her time-slip story Crow Country, about a young girl, Sadie, trying to right the wrongs of generations past in a small country town where indigenous and white Australians fail to understand one another.

The judges said Constable's work was ''strongly Australian'', and ''sensitively handles difficult subject matter in a narrative that is engaging and powerful''.

The similarly themed Nanberry: Black Brother White by Jackie French was named an Honour Book alongside the more light-hearted, London-set mystery, The Truth about Verity Sparks by Susan Green.

The wonderfully versatile Emily Rodda took two of the remaining three shortlist spots, one with the utterly Australian Bungawitta (a fun-filled, uplifting story of a drought-stricken rural town) and another with The Golden Door, the start of a new fantasy adventure series. John Flanagan's Brotherband: The Outcasts - another ripping adventure - was also shortlisted.

EARLY READERS

PICTURE-book masters Nick Bland and Freya Blackwood joined forces to win this category with The Runaway Hug, which turns an unremarkable domestic scene into a story that's fun, wonderfully warm and perfect for bedtime reading.

''It is a picture book to ponder and appreciate, being deceptively simple, yet marvellously harmonious in concept,'' the judges said. ''The lively detailed illustrations and lyrical text work closely together to add humour and pathos.''

Sonya Hartnett's Come Down, Cat!, with illustrations by Lucia Masciullo, and Elizabeth Honey's That's Not a Daffodil! were named Honour Books, while No Bears by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge, The Last Viking by Norman Jorgensen and James Foley, and Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay were shortlisted. Winner of the Prime Minister's award, Goodnight, Mice! by Frances Watts and Judy Watson, wasn't shortlisted but featured on the list of 23 Notable Books.

PICTURE BOOK

BOB Graham's picture books are award magnets and he's done it again, winning this category with A Bus Called Heaven.

Graham's books always imbue a wonderful sense of community and validation of the role of young people in society. This one is no exception, seeing a young girl gather support and rally to save an abandoned bus called Heaven.

''This is a heart-warming and inspiring work that amply demonstrates the expertise of its creator, his capacity for subtle inclusion and his strong affection for ordinary people,'' the judges said.

The author-illustrator partnerships of Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks, and Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, have proven successful once again, with the duos receiving Honour Book status thanks to The Dream of the Thylacine and Flood, respectively.

McKinlay and Rudge's No Bears was shortlisted in this as well as the Early Childhood category, this time alongside For All Creatures by Glenda Millard and Rebecca Cool, and Look, a Book! by Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood.

THE EVE POWNALL AWARD FOR INFORMATION BOOKS

ONE Small Island: The Story of Macquarie Island by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch is the winner of this non-fiction category.

This insightful picture book tells the story of the tragic degradation of a natural marvel, bringing together historic documents with detailed illustrations and simple, straightforward text.

''The stunning illustrations reinforce the unique characteristics, the isolation and the beauty of this small island,'' the judges said. ''The final landscape that we view is Macquarie Island's sunrise, accompanied by words of environmental hope.''

The Little Refugee by Anh and Suzanne Do, with illustrations by Bruce Whatley, was the sole Honour Book selected.

The shortlist included Surrealism for Kids from the Queensland Art Gallery, Playground by Nadia Wheatley and Ken Searle, Bilby Secrets by Edel Wignell and Mark Jackson, and Carole Wilkinson's Fromelles: Australia's Bloodiest Day at War.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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The Beat goes on

Paradise lost ... Sam Riley stars as Kerouac's fictionalised alter ego, Sal, in Walter Salles' adaptation. Eye-opener ... Kristen Stewart, already a fan of On the Road did extensive research for her role as Marylou.
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"The only ones for me are the mad ones,'' runs Jack Kerouac's most famous sentence. ''The ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars …''

If Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, wrote Ray Manzarek of the Doors in his autobiography, ''the Doors would never have existed''. Perhaps a lot of other things wouldn't have existed, either, at least not quite as they subsequently did: new journalism, the counterculture, sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. No Charles Bukowski writing about his low-life high jinks, no Tom Wolfe hanging out with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, no Bruce Springsteen whooping that he was born to run. ''It changed my life,'' Bob Dylan wrote, ''like it changed everyone else's.''

On the Road is an account of five road trips between New York and San Francisco, up to Chicago and Denver and down to Mexico, taken by Kerouac - renamed Sal Paradise for fictional purposes - alone and with various friends in the late '40s, going to bars and pool halls and living in humpies with seasonal workers.

He wrote the first version in three weeks in 1951 on a continuous scroll of drawing paper, glued together and trimmed to fit the typewriter so he need never stop; Kerouac called his method ''spontaneous writing''. No publisher would have a bar of it. It took six more years, many rewrites and some intrusive editing by unknown hands at Viking before it came out in 1957.

The New York Times gave it a rave review. The long delay, moreover, ensured its appearance was timed impeccably; literary rebels were in the news. Two weeks earlier, the poem Howl by Kerouac's friend and mentor Allen Ginsberg had been the subject of a famous obscenity trial that was, at that moment, yet to be decided. In the tight atmosphere of Cold War America, these people were like an explosion of defiance. Kerouac, by nature a silent observer - ''the great rememberer'', Ginsberg called him - found himself the spokesman for what he had dubbed the Beat Generation.

''Beat'' meant poor, beaten down, scrabbling with the dregs; as so often with Kerouac, it was an expression he had absorbed in conversation, this time from a street hustler, junkie and sometime writer named Herbert Huncke, who told him one day, ''I'm beat to my socks.''

For Kerouac, it took on an additional meaning derived from ''beatific''; the road was part of a quest that was religious, his characters fiery angels. For everyone else, it summoned images of the bebop jazz that infuses his writing. Influential as they were, however, the Beats were less of a movement than a coterie of literary romantics, all of them disaffected or marginalised in some way: gay Allen Ginsberg, drug-addicted William Burroughs, Buddhist poet Gary Snyder and, above all, the thrillingly delinquent Neal Cassady, whose manic personality as the barely fictionalised Dean Moriarty propels On the Road in a rush of speed and words.

Part of the book's power was that, despite the pseudonyms Viking insisted Kerouac use, people knew it was mythologised truth: the drugs, the frenzied sexual adventures, the gleeful poverty, crazy all-night driving and all that passionate reading and writing really were taking place somewhere in what Kerouac called ''the holy American night''.

What ignited it, however, was the fire of language. Nobody else had written with such exuberance; the sentences raced across the page, despite being jammed with poetically babbling turns of phrase that often made no ostensible sense. The literary establishment hated it: its lack of discipline, its excess, its cast of ''sideshow freaks'' with their appalling ''outlaw'' values.

These academicians had no idea how much young readers, recoiling as Kerouac himself had done from the postwar promise of a prosperous life of respectable lawn-mowing, longed for the freakish and the outlawed. On the Road, opined The Village Voice, was ''a rallying cry for the elusive spirit of rebellion of these times''.

You would imagine a film would have quickly followed. In fact, Kerouac was offered $US20,000 for the rights, a tidy sum in the early '60s, but he refused it; there were about 10 attempts to bring it to the screen, including one by Francis Ford Coppola.

But they all collapsed, one way or another; the Brazilian director best known for The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles, is the first to have managed it.

His On the Road, to be released in Australia next month, was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Sam Riley, who played Ian Curtis in Control, plays Jack/Sal; Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame plays Marylou (her real name was Lu Anne Henderson), who was 15 when she married Dean; Kirsten Dunst plays Camille/Carolyn, Cassady's second wife and the author in real life of a memoir called Off the Road.

Cassady, the ''hero of the Western night'' who turns into Dean Moriarty, is played by a little-known actor called Garrett Hedlund, who took a bus for three days from Minnesota to audition, wrote about the trip and read what he wrote to Salles.

''It seemed like Neal Cassady was writing to us,'' Salles says. Salles was 18 when he read the book and fell in love with it.

''It was the opposite of what we were living in Brazil in 1977. We had a dictatorship. Everything was forbidden. Even inside families, life was very conservative and in this book it was the opposite. I read it many times after that.''

I was 17 when I read On the Road, just a couple of years before Salles found it. Did it change my life? It certainly gave voice to things I wanted, given I had thus far spent most of my time in school uniform staring at a square of sky above Elwood between bouts of homework. I can't remember how I knew about the Beat writers, but in those days, the mid-'70s, even fashion mags ran features on cool writers and artists.

The poet who ran City Lights bookshop in San Francisco and published Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, certainly came to me that way; I also recall an interview with Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky, talking about being gay. That sounds ordinary now, but we still snickered about our lesbian teachers in the '70s. There was the sudden sense of a cultural world that existed outside ours but was there for the taking.

Young people always feel like that, of course, which is why On the Road is still a reading rite of passage. Stewart is 22; she read On the Road only eight years ago. Same thing.

''I was like, 'Wow, I've got to meet people like this; otherwise, I'm not going to be as cool as I could be, as smart as I could be, as challenged as I could be, you know what I mean?'' she says.

''I kind of identified with Sal's character: I've never been one to lead the way, but I wanted to surround myself with people I want to run after, people who kind of shock me.'' It became her first ''favourite book''. ''I didn't enjoy reading before that but I ripped through it. It … opened so many doors.''

The funny thing here is that On the Road is often assumed to be a primer for boys. That's certainly what its literary haters say - that it is ''mainly read by young men'', as if it were a book about cars for petrolheads. (Kerouac confesses he hated driving; Dean calls Sal ''fearful of the wheel''.) It is true, admittedly, that a teenage girl reading On the Road in the 1970s had to imagine herself a boy, like one of those brave, disreputable women pirates of an earlier era.

Women were, in fact, central to these men's lives - Kerouac lived with his mother, along with a succession of wives, until he died, at 47, of a massive internal haemorrhage caused by alcoholism - but they were peripheral to the myth they were making of themselves.

Worse, they were the brakes in a world where acceleration was everything.

At one point, Sal is thinking of marrying a virtually invisible character called Lucille.

''I want to marry a girl,'' he tells Dean and Marylou, ''so I can rest my soul with her till we both get old.'' A few pages later, however, he is reflecting morosely the hopelessness of it.

''She would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you.''

For a woman to hit the road alone would have been unthinkable. There must be a fair number of girl readers who grew up to become feminists, not in order to be prime minister but because they wanted to do this, the crazy stuff.

In fact, the original scroll version of On the Road, which was finally published in 2007, included more about the female characters; Kerouac had stripped them out, at the publisher's instruction, to give the story focus. In his film, Salles says, he lets Sal and Dean drive off and stays with Camille as she struggles to support Dean's children.

''It shows that loneliness is painful and that she has a job; she is probably going to leave the baby with a neighbour and off she goes to work in a hospital,'' he says. ''Yes, this quest is memorable, to amplify all forms of freedom is memorable, but there are consequences.''

Not that these women were all doormats. Stewart met Lu Anne Henderson as preparation for playing Marylou. Unlike the men of her youth, she was thriving in her 80s. ''The difference between the two is that in the book she does seem quite used,'' Stewart says. ''But she is a bottomless pit, you can't waste her and she expects just as much in return; she is so f---ing generous.''

Salles saw Marylou as a real, if unacknowledged, adventurer. ''She makes the decisions to go or to stay and she doesn't have that Catholic sense of sin that is ingrained in Kerouac. She is an explorer just like Dean is an explorer.''

By the time On the Road was published, Kerouac was barely recognisable as Sal Paradise. At 35, drink and dysfunction had turned him into a filthy old bigot. He detested the hippies and yippies who claimed On the Road as inspiration and was loud in his support for the Vietnam War and McCarthy's communist witch hunt. McCarthy, he told an interviewer, had ''all the dope on the Jews and the fairies'' who apparently lived at the bottom of his brain's addled garden. Ginsberg, who was pretty much the poster boy for both these categories, was beatifically forgiving; asked in the interview I read whether Jack himself was ''a fairy'', he let his lover and fellow poet Orlovsky answer.

''In a tiny sense of the word,'' Orlovsky said. ''Perfect,'' Ginsberg said.

But for the wider world, it didn't matter how crackers Kerouac had become. He died in 1969; the mercurial Cassady had died of a combination of drink and drugs, aged 41, in the Mexican desert the previous year.

Like the readers who had pulled on torn Levis and headed out along the highway for themselves, On the Road had its own life by then.

It had left home, hitchhiked around the world via millions of bookshelves and was part of the lives of all the would-be writers and rebels who aspired to join the social movements Kerouac had so vituperatively disowned.

It is 55 years since the book was published. ''Nobody knows what's going to happen to anyone beyond the forlorn rags of growing old,'' Kerouac writes on the last page, as he watches the sun go down in ''the long, long skies over New Jersey'' and contemplates the vast bulk of land between the coasts.

As it turns out, the book that was about the man he loved, this ''most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world'' full of ''a yea-saying overburst of American joy'', is a requiem. ''I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty,'' he says finally.

As I write this, I touch the book on the desk and think of him, too.

On the Road opens September 27.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Little victories

Picture-book heroes … Nick Bland and Freya Blackwood's The Runaway Hug.The Runaway Hug won the early childhood category.
Nanjing Night Net

The winners of the 67th annual Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards were announced yesterday.

The results are unlikely to cause controversy, although a dominance of heavy themes may raise the familiar debate about whether the awards reflect - or should reflect - what resonates with young readers.

The council maintains that the awards should recognise literary merit, not popularity. In any case, the titles selected this year might just tick all the boxes.

Older readers

Of the 77 books nominated for this category, The Dead I Know by Victorian writer Scot Gardner came out on top. The compelling story focuses on teenager Aaron Rowe, a sleepwalker with instability at home, as he starts a new job at a funeral parlour.

It's a memorable read that manages to be understated at the same time as tackling heavy subject matter and delivering believably complex characters.

The judges called Gardner's book ''a confronting story'' and praised it for balancing ''the violence and desolation of Aaron's life in the caravan park with the routine and studied peacefulness of the funeral parlour in exquisite counterpoint''.

Bill Condon's A Straight Line to My Heart, and Robert Newton's When We Were Two were named ''honour books'' (the latter, a road-trip story about two brothers set in 1916 - with shades of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men - won the young adult fiction Prime Minister's Literary Award this year). Michael Gerard Bauer's Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel, Ship Kings: The Coming of the Whirlpool by Andrew McGahan and, my favourite, The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky, rounded out the shortlist.

Another 16 titles were listed as ''notable books'', including works by previous award-winning authors Steven Herrick, J.C. Burke and Barry Jonsberg.

Younger readers

Kate Constable, another Victorian writer, took out top honours in this category with her time-slip story Crow Country, about a young girl, Sadie, trying to right the wrongs of generations past in a small country town where indigenous and white Australians fail to understand one another. The judges said Constable's work is ''strongly Australian'', and ''sensitively handles difficult subject matter in a narrative that is engaging and powerful''.

The similarly themed Nanberry: Black Brother White by Jackie French was named an honour book alongside the more light-hearted London-set mystery The Truth About Verity Sparks by Susan Green.

The wonderfully versatile Emily Rodda took two of the remaining three shortlist spots, one with the utterly Australian Bungawitta (a fun-filled, uplifting story of a drought-stricken rural town) and another with The Golden Door, the start of a new fantasy adventure series. John Flanagan's Brotherband: The Outcasts - another ripping adventure - was also shortlisted.

Early readers

Picture-book masters Nick Bland and Freya Blackwood joined forces to win this category with The Runaway Hug, which turns an unremarkable domestic scene into a story that's fun, wonderfully warm and perfect for bedtime reading. ''It is a picture book to ponder and appreciate, being deceptively simple, yet marvellously harmonious in concept,'' the judges said.

''The lively detailed illustrations and lyrical text work closely together to add humour and pathos.''

Sonya Hartnett's Come Down, Cat!, with illustrations by Lucia Masciullo, and Elizabeth Honey's That's Not a Daffodil were named honour books, while No Bears by Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge, The Last Viking by Norman Jorgensen and James Foley, and Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay were shortlisted.

Winner of the Prime Minister's Award, Goodnight, Mice! by Frances Watts and Judy Watson, did not make the shortlist, but did feature on the list of 23 notable books.

Picture books

Bob Graham's picture books are award magnets, and he's done it again, winning this category with A Bus Called Heaven.

Graham always imbues his books with a wonderful sense of community and validation of the role of young people in society. This one sees a young girl rally support to save an abandoned bus called Heaven.

''This is a heart-warming and inspiring work that amply demonstrates the expertise of its creator, his capacity for subtle inclusion and his strong affection for ordinary people,'' the judges said.

The author-illustrator partnerships between Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks, and Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, have proven successful once again, the duos receiving honour-book status with The Dream of the Thylacine and Flood, respectively.

Meg McKinlay and Leila Rudge's No Bears was shortlisted in this and the early childhood category, this time alongside For All Creatures by Glenda Millard and Rebecca Cool, and Look, a Book! by Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood.

Information books

One Small Island: The Story of Macquarie Island by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch is the winner of the Eve Pownall Award for information books, which rewards non-fiction.

This insightful picture book tells of the tragic degradation of a natural marvel, bringing together historic documents with detailed illustrations and simple text.

''The stunning illustrations reinforce the unique characteristics, the isolation and the beauty of this small island,'' the judges said.

''The final landscape that we view is Macquarie Island's sunrise, accompanied by words of environmental hope.''

The Little Refugee by Anh and Suzanne Do, with illustrations by Bruce Whatley, was the sole honour book selected.

The shortlist included Surrealism for Kids, from the Queensland Art Gallery, Playground by Nadia Wheatley and Ken Searle, Bilby Secrets by Edel Wignell and Mark Jackson, and Carole Wilkinson's Fromelles: Australia's Bloodiest Day at War.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Interview: Chloe Hooper

"I had a dark night of the soul after this book went to the printer,'' Chloe Hooper confesses. ''I thought, 'Don't tell me I've just done a literary Fifty Shades of Grey'.''
Nanjing Night Net

Let's be clear about this. Hooper's second novel, The Engagement, is not a sadomasochistic romp designed to titillate millions of women readers. It's a sophisticated, multilayered work that combines the headlong appeal of a thriller with a nuanced mystery about our darker sexual and romantic desires.

What it does do, however, is pose much the same questions as everyone is asking about the extraordinary Shades of Grey phenomenon. What is it that women fantasise about, and why? Do they want to be their dream man's bride, or sex slave?

Hooper, aged 39, a tall, slim woman with clear pale eyes, is best known in Australia for her acclaimed 2008 non-fiction book The Tall Man, but started out as a novelist (her first novel, A Child's Book of True Crime, came out in 2002 and was shortlisted for the British Orange Prize for women's fiction). She did her homework after she finished The Engagement and read Fifty Shades of Grey, which she found very formulaic.

''I don't think it's that different from what's been out there as erotic romance for some time,'' she says. ''But there's something interesting to be said about the nature of fantasy. Are most fantasies inherently conservative? Do they spring from some deep well? Is it like myth, are there a limited number we're calling on or find ourselves lost in?''

We wonder if it's possible for a woman to have a progressive feminist fantasy, and we burst out laughing at the idea. ''I'll have to get back to you on that,'' Hooper says. ''Fantasy can take you to places that aren't politically correct. And I'm not talking about a cheesy 'Bring on the manacles, Christian Grey'.''

The Engagement is about an affair between Liese, a young Englishwoman visiting Australia, and Alexander, the blandly handsome scion of a family that made its fortune off the sheep's back. At the start of the novel, they are driving to Alexander's ancestral pile in the Western District of Victoria for a naughty weekend. The reader senses at once there's something odd about this couple. Alexander pays Liese for sex; Liese takes his money and encourages him to believe she's a professional.

In the grand tradition of the Gothic novel, Liese gradually finds herself trapped in the spooky family mansion and also in Alexander's fantasy. Or is it her fantasy? The borders ripple and blur.

''It's a story where two fantasies collide, and it's difficult to know who's in charge,'' Hooper says. ''I do love all those Gothic classics - Jane Eyre, Rebecca, The Castle of Otranto, those stories of women trapped in big houses.''

The cover design suggests a period setting and there's a forced betrothal, anonymous letters, knives, guns, gutted animals and a vicar who comes to dinner, but it's a contemporary tale and Hooper has been at pains to make it seem authentic. Alexander's house is based on real homesteads. ''I was lucky enough to enjoy some old-fashioned Western District hospitality,'' Hooper says. ''It's fairly Gothic around that area, full of eccentrics and dark family secrets.''

She plays with two classic fantasies, the whore and the bride. ''I like the idea of a fantasy that seems harmless, but is actually dangerous,'' she says. ''Marriage is one of the last fantasy rituals: you put on a white dress and hire a vintage car and get a cake, and there are reasons to be quite frightened of doing that when a third of marriages end in divorce. Even though we talk about people marrying less, and more children are born out of marriage, there still seems to be such a lot of pressure on women to formalise things. Girls grow up with a picture … do you ever get over reading Cinderella?

''We live in times where we think we're very progressive about sex and everybody's reading Shades of Grey and what's meant to be a whole lot of gymnastics. But, actually, we're mediaeval in our attitudes to female desire and sexuality.''

She also liked the idea of writing a thriller. ''When you read a good thriller, you feel a surfeit of emotions,'' Hooper says. ''Your shoulders tense up and your hairs are meant to stand on end, but you enjoy feeling anxious. It's almost an S&M experience. That's what gives the genre its spark - and it's also a very good medium to look at the ambivalence about marriage.''

Does this ambivalence extend to Hooper's personal life? Her partner is the writer Don Watson, 33 years her senior, and they have a baby son. ''Marriage is not out of the question, but there do seem always to be other things to deal with,'' she says. They manage parenthood in Fitzroy with help from Hooper's parents and a part-time nanny. Do they also help each other with their work? ''He reads my work more than I'm allowed to read his,'' she says. ''I guess that's just the way it is.''

Hooper's best-known work, The Tall Man, has the narrative pull and urgency of a thriller, but it's a non-fiction account of the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee from Palm Island, and the subsequent trial of senior sergeant Chris Hurley. It won the Western Australian Premier's Book Award and the respective NSW and Victorian premiers' literary awards for non-fiction and had exceptionally glowing reviews here and overseas. Robert Drewe called it ''the country's finest work of literature so far this century''.

Hooper had started work on The Engagement when she first became involved with the case, following Brisbane criminal lawyer Andrew Boe and writing a Walkley-winning report for The Monthly magazine. Then she decided so much compelling material should go in a book, which meant putting her novel aside.

Returning to fiction was ''a terrific freedom'', she says. ''One of the first days I was back, I closed the door on my study and nobody could get me. This character wouldn't hop off the page, there wouldn't be a lawsuit, nobody would ring me and abuse me. It had been so long since my first novel, I almost had to learn how to write a novel again … but writing The Tall Man probably made me a better writer. I've used different muscles.''

There was, however, an interruption - although a very welcome one. Ten months ago, Hooper gave birth to Tobias. She had hoped to get the novel done by then, but it didn't work out that way. ''The book was hopelessly overdue, I had to finish it,'' she says. ''In the beginning, I would write when Tobias was asleep. When he was awake more of the time, we needed help in the house. I was lucky that this book was at a place where it was kind of writing itself, so I would get to work and know what to do.''

Hooper's career to date sounds like a dream run for a young writer. She had short stories published while still at the University of Melbourne then, at 23, she won a Fulbright scholarship to Columbia University in New York, where she studied creative writing. Her first novel was written as part of the course.

But there was a dark afternoon of the soul. She couldn't find an agent for A Child's Book of True Crime and was running out of money. Philip Roth suggested she show it to his agent, the famed Andrew ''The Jackal'' Wylie, and she sent off the manuscript as a last resort. Convinced he wouldn't want it, she spent the afternoon weeping and making plans to fly home. ''I was calling up friends and offering them my sleeping bag. And then he rang that night.''

Wylie sold the novel to 13 countries, including Australia, and also did a double book deal for The Tall Man and The Engagement for a reported $300,000 advance in Australia (a figure that Hooper's Penguin Australia publisher, Ben Ball, has since said is wrong). Hooper doesn't offer a comment on the money, but she's wry about the gossip the deal sparked.

''One of the reasons I wrote this novel was I was interested in writing about women and money and their price,'' she says. ''It got me thinking a little about this world we're in, where everything is commodified. I've been very fortunate that the stars aligned and I was able to make a career out of writing.''

Hooper is keen to keep working, although she also loves being a mother: ''It's terribly tempting just to play with blocks and crawl around on the floor.''

She'd like to write another non-fiction book, though learning about indigenous lives in the far north of Australia was often a harrowing experience. ''You forget the pain of a book, like childbirth,'' she says. ''What's left in terms of pain is the inequities that book details. I think of my son; he's had the best prenatal and antenatal care, he has clean clothes and a safe place to sleep, and that's not the case for a lot of kids I know.''

So what to write next?

''For me, the new challenge is I can't just get on a plane - with a small child, that kind of travel is far more difficult. I have lots of ideas, but they're in far-flung places. I need a non-fiction story in Melbourne CBD between the hours of 10 and 11.30 and 2 and 3.30.'' She laughs. ''That's when he sleeps.''

The Engagement is published next week by Penguin Australia, $29.99. Chloe Hooper will speak at Gleebooks in Sydney on September 18.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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