The Nowhere Child is a mystery about the disappearance 28 years earlier of a little girl named Sammy Went from Kentucky in the US, and the possible connection with a Melbourne teacher who is approached by a stranger who thinks she is Sammy.
White’s career took off after the unpublished manuscript for the book won the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.
While literary awards don’t automatically translate to book deals, the buzz surrounding The Nowhere Child saw the rights quickly sold to 15 countries. Australia’s Affirm Press, which published the book last week, describes it as a “combustible tale of trauma, cult, conspiracy and memory”.
Here, White tells InDaily how it feels to have your dreams come true, how an interest in bizarre cults – including Pentecostal snake handlers – fed into the themes of his novel, and the things he learnt from Stephen King.
It’s not that long ago you were paying the bills by printing and selling T-shirts, and before that I believe you were working as a golf-cart driver. How do you get your head around the fact that you’ve now sold the rights to your book to 15 countries?
Shifting from fantasising about being published to actually being published (especially all around the world) is completely amazing. But it’s also jarring. In the best possible way.
The idea that people in other countries will be reading my story is what dreams are made of. In fact, it’s so dreamlike that it’s taking my brain a while to accept this as my new reality.
On the way home from my book launch, my wife and I sat in the back of an Uber just looking at each other and saying, ‘This is so weird’ over and over. It’s a bit like standing in a decompression chamber, waiting for your body to slowly adjust before you can step outside.
But the most astounding part of the whole thing (and the hardest to get my head around) is that I now get to write on week days. I used to have to find time to write around all my ridiculous casual jobs and on weekends.
Now I just have to walk from my bed to my desk and get started. Actually, I walk via the kitchen to load up on coffee, but you get the idea.
Obviously not every literary award winner gets this kind of international recognition – what is it about The Nowhere Child that you think has struck such a chord with publishers?
When I’m writing, I always try to repeat this mantra: ‘Write what I’d want to read’. When I’m reading, I’m always on the lookout for the perfect ‘literary triangle’. At each of its three points: pace, story and characters.
There are a lot of books that move fast and have a great story, but the characters get left behind, or that have great characters and story but drag along at a snail’s pace.
When writing The Nowhere Child that triangle was always in the back of my mind, so I like to think that what struck a chord with publishers was a good balance of all three elements.
But who knows? Maybe they just liked all the snakes!
Where did you find inspiration for the story of Sammy Went?
I drew inspiration from a collection of different real-life cases but although I wanted Sammy’s disappearance to be compelling, I didn’t want it feel at all familiar. I wanted it to feel a little eerie and unusual where the known facts of the case don’t quite add up.
We’re told that you have a fascination with cults, and this feeds into the novel’s themes. What were some of the more interesting things you discovered during your research into these kinds of organisations?
Cults have always fascinated me, partly because of what they believe and partly because more often than not their members are normal people. Many of them seem to preach similar things to major religions, but some are just bananas – those ones are obviously my favourites.
Pentecostal snake handling, which is explored in The Nowhere Child, has always been particularly interesting to me. They worship God by handling venomous snakes and scorpions and ingesting different kinds of poison. Worshippers often refuse treatment and die after being bitten, which requires a faith stronger than anything I could ever imagine.
These people aren’t crazy, exactly, they’re just believers, which is even more terrifying.
I actually dialled back the more extreme practices for the book (because sometimes real life is just too unbelievable), and I also drew elements of other sects, cults and fringe religions, which meant a lot of research, but it was fascinating do didn’t feel like work.
It must feel like luxury to now been in a position where you can write full-time, but how many false starts and discarded manuscripts did you have to get to this point? Did you ever think you might have to stick to the T-shirts?
The Nowhere Child was actually the fifth manuscript I started, the second I managed to finish and the first I thought was good enough to show anyone.
Being able to write full-time is a dream come true, but I was more than prepared to print T-shirts for as long as it took. In fact, I assumed I’d be working odd jobs for the rest of my life and would leave behind a pile of dusty unpublished manuscripts for my future grandkids to read!
As long-time fan of Stephen King, I’m happy to see you mention him as an influence. What is the most important thing you’ve learnt from his writing?
In Stephen King’s On Writing (part memoir, part how-to-write-a-novel) he sets out a list of rules to follow in order to get your book written and written fast. I followed them as closely as I could and it worked. There are a bunch of lessons in that book but what it all boils down to is: if you want to be a writer, you need to read a lot and write a lot. It’s that simple.
More importantly, if ever I read a negative review or am feeling insecure about my writing, I dig out my copy of [King’s] It and re-read a certain passage that I have permanently dog-eared. In it, Bill Denbrough is at college studying creative writing and his professor calls a short story he writes PULP CRAP. Bill almost throws the story onto the fire, but instead sends it off to a magazine that prints horror stories. The magazine publishes the story. The professor still isn’t impressed, but the point is: you don’t need to be a literary genius to write stuff that people want to read.
I doubt King will ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he gives people worlds to escape into and stories worthy of their time, which is exactly what I strive to do.
Christian White will talk about his novel and share the story of his writing journey in a free talk at the Mount Barker Community Library at 6.30pm next Tuesday, July 10 (details here).
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