2016 / Saturday

Telling enduring stories about who we are

Danielle Williams

Susie Eisenhuth: writer, reviewer, journalist

Susie Eisenhuth: writer, reviewer, journalist

Stephen Romei, literary editor of The Australian

Stephen Romei, literary editor of The Australian

For a written form too often overlooked in the 24-hour news cycle, literary journalism packs a powerful punch. Written well, a truly literary piece of journalism will engage and entertain in the same way great fiction can.

For this year’s winner of the Guy Morrison Prize for Literary Journalism, Susie Eisenhuth, the result of this marriage of literature and reportage is a deeply personal reflection on the impact of cancer.

“This story is about how our lives can be turned upside down by things like grief, loss and serious illness, how fears can take us over – and how important hope is, as an antidote to fear,” she said of her submitted work, The Secret Life of Bulbs.

Susie Eisenhuth is completing a Doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney.

For this year’s judge, journalist Stephen Romei, her work beautifully illustrates the power of long-form feature writing.

The Secret Life of Bulbs opens with the author shopping for flower bulbs and thinking of Helen Garner. This simple yet imaginative start sets the scene for a subtle, brave personal essay on suffering from cancer, one that speaks to all of us.”

On hearing of her win, Susie said, “I feel privileged to win the prize that was set up to honour Guy Morrison and foster literary journalism.”

The Guy Morrison Prize was established in 2009 in honour of the journalist, playwright and editor who died in 2007 at the age of 90. Since its establishment, the prize money has grown to $4000, which is awarded to an undergraduate or postgraduate writing or journalism student for an outstanding piece of literary journalism.

Literary journalism has deep roots in Australia’s literary – and journalistic – tradition.

“Australia started out with literary journalism. Banjo Paterson filed from the Boer War. Henry Lawson was writing journalism. George Johnson and his wife Charmaine Clift… Helen Garner is a present, great example,” Mr Romei said.

And there is still a thriving market for literary journalism in Australia today. Newspaper magazines such as The Good Weekend, in the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Weekend Australian Magazine publish long-form journalism every week. More boutique publications, such as Meanjin, Overland and Kill Your Darlings also publish some of this country’s best literary features.

For Susie, the continuing appeal of literary journalism is in its ability to challenge readers.

“For me literary journalism at its best tells us enduring stories about who we are, bringing characters and events to life and tapping into themes that are universal.”

For her winning story, Susie honestly recounts her own struggles with life and death, while continuing to explore issues that have long informed her work. “I feel strongly about how our politicians are inclined to foster fear, rather than hope and humanity, and that inevitably comes through in what I write.”

Winner of the 2012 prize Jesse Blackadder was also studying a creative writing doctorate when she wrote her winning entry. While she too wanted to prompt readers to think more deeply about the world her story was inspired by a very different experience.

“I was writing a novel about the first women to go to Antarctica. I was giving a talk at the State Library about my trip to Antarctica and someone in the audience said I should think about entering the Guy Morrison Prize,” said Jesse.

She considered her final essay as a kind of ‘footnote’ to the novel. “I was thrilled when I got the call I’d won. I loved the name of the prize, that it’s for literary journalism. It just felt like a real affirmation of me working in a different form to what I normally work in.”

For the writer skilled in the art of creating fiction, literary journalism may seem like an obvious progression. But journalists, too, bring unique abilities to the craft.

Susie, winner of this year’s prize, is a well-respected journalist, film critic and academic. Last year’s winner, Jenan Taylor, is also a journalist whose work has been published in The Monthly and The Australian Weekend Magazine.

Jenan was awarded the prize in 2015 for her story A Quiet Farewell, an investigation into what happens when a pauper dies. It was Jenan’s keen journalist’s eye that prompted her winning entry. “I noticed an article the end of 2013, just a little news snippet, about a non-profit funeral organisation that was looking to expand because they had so much business. It was literally a six-line snippet, and I thought, that’s absolutely fascinating.”

So what is it that makes good literary journalism? Stephen Romei notes one important quality.  “Simplicity. The best writing is simple and to the point and yet, makes people think about all sorts of things,” he said.

“The best contenders I read, they were all simply written essays. But, and this is the important thing, they touched on truths, on questions for which there just aren’t easy answers, like living and dying.”