Winning the Vogel can change your life – Rohan Wilson on writing the Roving Party

Wilson’s award-winning novel. Allen & Unwin

Tasmanian Rohan Wilson won last year’s Vogel Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts with his book, The Roving Party. Since then the novel has been published to great critical acclaim and he has taken a teaching position at the University of Tasmania. To mark the start of his university teaching career, he brings us this story of how the Roving Party turned his life around.

The Roving Party arrived in the middle of the night. It was September 2007. Kobe, Japan. The last place you should be pondering a man like John Batman, the son of a Parramatta convict, a pioneer settler, a bounty hunter, a killer of men. But there I was, rolling off my futon and onto the tatami floor, reaching for my laptop to type. Somehow, the framework of a novel had fallen half-formed from my subconscious and I had to get it down.

For years the stories of men like Wooreddy, Manalargena, Brady, and Batman had been brewing inside me, fed on a grist of great historians and cowboy movies. I’d written short stories. I’d written bits and pieces of novels. Things you wouldn’t even show your wife. Twaddle. But I had never published anything, never even finished anything. I was exactly what my teachers had always warned me I would become: an underachiever. Or what my boss in Japan somewhat less tactfully called a “useless bloody turd”. Now that wort of frontier violence and heroic myth had fermented into a clear, workable outline in the middle of the night. It was a revelatory moment.

What I had needed was a push. A few days earlier the president of the company where I was teaching English had sent a fax out to all 1,000 schools, explaining that God had decided to test the company and that we must prove our faith in him by working without salary for a week. It seemed the company was toiletbowling and sucking us along with it. But we held out hope. There were rumours of an obscure Japanese law, a system of compensation for workers dudded out of their entitlements: work until the company collapses, and the government will repay a percentage of the lost wages. It wasn’t much, but it kept most of us working until the creditors came to carry off the furniture. Or in my case, working, and then writing like a condemned man in breaks between classes.

Wilson’s tale of a bloody war in Tasmania was born in the hills of Japan. 5th Lunar

So we came home, my family and I, with a few hundred thousand yen compensation, and an idiotic idea that my Batman manuscript might have a future. Here, we must pause to recognise the extraordinary trust my wife Machiko placed in me. She left her home, her career, and her family behind in Japan and followed me to Australia because I promised her that – having written one patchy, ill-conceived draft – this book would be something. And all the more extraordinary when you consider that she could not even read the manuscript herself, given the archaic vocabulary employed, and her non-native language skills. In her position, I am ashamed to admit, I could not have been so trusting.

Fortune, however, favoured us. Our return to Tasmania marked the start of an unimaginable run of good luck.

The first, and the most momentous, event in this run was the discovery of a man called William Ponsonby, or “Black Bill” as he was universally known in 1829. What the initial draft of The Roving Party had taught me was this: Batman was a tedious, banal, self-serving killer in the mold of a low-level Einsatzgruppen officer, or an Ottoman of the Teşkilat-i Mahsusa). He was motivated by racial hate, and by the ambition to become a great landholder, a great man. He was not the character I needed to guide me through the Tasmanian genocide. But Black Bill offered something more. Here was an Aborigine alienated from his birth culture, raised in the ways of hatred so common among frontier whites. An outsider, but a participant nonetheless. He had an ambiguity that was immediately compelling.

More good luck followed. My research proposal to the University of Melbourne was accepted, and I entered the Masters program. Upon completion in 2010, I won a scholarship for a PhD position. I was now free to write without fear of going hungry. But my luck took an even stranger turn when in spring 2010 I learned that a much revised and developed manuscript for The Roving Party had won the Australian/Vogel’s Prize for Literature.

It is difficult to convey precisely what that meant to me. Imagine, if you will: I had dragged my family to Australia, promised them that somehow I would put my book into print, promised them against my better sense that The Roving Party had a chance. Having heard the horror stories of publisher slush piles, rejection slips by the hundreds, and the general misery of the unpublished writer, I knew those promises were hollow.

Yet, as improbable as it seemed, it had happened. Not only happened, but exploded. Turns out that the Vogel is, as Ron Burgundy said, kind of a big deal. We were flown up for the ceremony with a few hundred of Sydney’s literati. Now, I’d had a lot experience at high-class social events like this. For years I was a waiter the Grand Chancellor in Hobart, and a bartender at the Country Club Casino in Launceston. My first instinct was therefore to begin picking up empty glasses. But I was herded around and introduced, displaying the obvious lack of poise and charm that comes with being a Tasmanian in Sydney.

The award was to be presented by the second winner of the Vogel, Tim Winton. When Tim showed up I began to feel a little more at ease. It seemed that he was even less comfortable than I was. He was very casually dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. It looked as if perhaps he’d been herded off a kitchen table somewhere and shipped to us just so. I was wearing a rather dashing pinstripe suit and he took one look at me and I could see that he didn’t like me. Then he took one look at my wife and I could see that he liked her a lot, which of course was fine. I mean, this is Tim Winton we are talking about. An Australian Living Treasure.

So I managed at one point, while we were having photos taken for the newspaper, to get a few minutes alone with Tim. I asked what his advice might be for a bumbling young writer. First he told me I was too tall, which I thanked him for. Then he told me that if I wanted to avoid being a hobbyist, I had better get myself a bloody agent.

Words to ponder.

As of writing this, my run of luck is still unbroken. Numerous shortlistings, invitations, media appearances, and job offers have come my way. Most importantly though, my wife and son feel comfortable here, happy that our run of luck has brought us a more stable future. Yet, I can’t help think what might have happened if I’d rolled over and gone back to sleep. Would I have remembered the idea? Would it have faded into the ether of lost thoughts? Would I still be correcting every interminable variation on “My hobbies are sleeping” and “Please teach me your name” in an anonymous eikawa in Kobe?

That is a thought that keeps me awake at night.