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'Accidental novelist' imagines a dark future

Books & Poetry

Suffering a heart attack proved the spur journalist Sally Abbott needed to complete the award-winning manuscript for her debut novel imagining what Australia might look like in another 10 or 20 years.

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Sally Abbott has spent much of her early life as a journalist working in country towns across several states, so if the adage goes ‘write what you know’,  then Abbott has – her novel, Closing Down, released this week, is set in an Australian rural town.

But don’t expect this 57-year-old first-time novelist who makes her living from public relations and now lives in a central Victoria to have created something predictable out of the small town setting.

Abbott’s vision is darker than that.

Closing Down is set in the not-too-distant future which, as the book’s succinct blurb describes it, “gives us a glimpse into a world fractured by a financial crisis and the effects of global climate change…rural towns and communities are closing down, much of Australia is being sold to overseas interests, states and countries and regions are being realigned worldwide”.

Although Abbott’s journalistic career in the ’80s and ’90s saw her report the details of rural life – covering court hearings, council shenanigans and footy fixtures – her writer’s eye was slowly collecting material for this novel, even if she wasn’t conscious of it at the time.

“I never wanted to be a writer,” she says.

“I wanted to be a journalist when I was growing up. It seemed to me to be a life of freedom where you spent your time talking to people and writing about it.”

She suggests that she is an accidental novelist. Like many journalists, she had the idea of a book in the back of her mind – some characters and a kind of plot – but as she puts it, “I’m quite a lazy person in lots of ways… life gets in the way”, and for a long time it remained an undeveloped idea amid some notes she’d jotted down.

“I didn’t think I’d be a creative writer. It seemed a lot of hard work.”

But the writer inside her must have known otherwise. About five years ago she enrolled in a six-month creative writing course in Melbourne. She and about a dozen other budding writers met with an instructor (book editor and writer Sophie Cunningham) once a week for a couple of hours.

Abbott took her bottom-drawer idea with her. It drew upon her experiences of small towns, her love of the Australian bush and her concerns with drought, climate change and political upheaval.

“My brain was thinking, ‘What if I took that to the next level? What if this or that happens?’ I was thinking, ‘What would Australia look like in 10 or 20 years?’

“We were encouraged week to week to work on our story and look at its structure.”

She found that her journalist’s training kicked in because she knew she had to respond to that weekly deadline. “I thought if I could do a chapter a week, well, I can cope with that.”

By the time she finished the course she had written 35,000 words.

She had the setting, the characters and a chunk of writing, but not so much of a driving narrative. “I was just writing it and seeing where it went.”

It still had a long way to go, but again life got in the way and the novel was pushed aside for a couple of years, until it intervened with a heart attack in 2015.

“We all know life is a bit fragile; we’ve all heard the sad story of the person hit by the bus not coming home that night, but only when it happens to you do you finally grasp that life isn’t going to go on forever.”

Closing Down, by Sally Abbott, is published by Hachette Australia.

While off work for several months, Abbott was wasting time scrolling through Twitter when she saw a post about the inaugural $10,000 Richell Prize for an unpublished manuscript.

“I had nothing else to do so I opened it (the manuscript) up.”

Working to the prize’s entry deadline Abbott shaped up her 35,000 words and worked out a full synopsis and ending to submit with it.

“I thought, ‘You have too much time on your hands, if you make it to the longlist, it’s a sign’.”

She made it to the longlist, the shortlist and then was the announced winner of the prize which 969 other writers had entered. The book came with a mentorship from publishers Hachette Australia. About 20,000 words later, Hachette offered her a publishing contract for Closing Down with an eight-month deadline to complete it.

“I’m still a bit amazed by it all.”

Although the book has been described as “dystopian”, Abbott says its characters and settings are taken from many different parts of her life and the people she’s met and the stories she’s heard over the years.

She describes her own reading tastes as eclectic – “I read everything from the side of a cereal box to Scandinavian detective fiction” – but Closing Down also includes elements of magic realism.

“I’ve always admired writers who manage to pull that off. Not that I’m saying I have, but I loved writing those chapters where that comes into play.”

Sally Abbott with be a guest speaker in two sessions of the Sydney Writers’ Festival this month. Adelaide’s Burnside library is a community partner through the festival’s Live & Local initiative, and will be live streaming a number of sessions (details here).

This article was first published on The Daily Review.

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