Author Talks with Nell Pierce

Nell Pierce is the prestigious winner of the 2022 Australian/ Vogel’s Literary Award. This award is presented to an unpublished author and their manuscript, in the hopes of finding Australia’s next BIG literary author and launching their writing career. Nell Pierce was this year’s winner. Nell is already topping charts and our very own Literary Lovers Book Club is very excited to read Nell’s ‘A Place Near Eden’ for the month of July.

Welcome Nell and thank you so much for being a part of my Author Talks space online! It is an absolute privilege and pleasure to be discussing your debut novel and writing experience with you 😊

Nell, how does it feel to be a debut novelist and award winner all wrapped up in one? Congratulations 🥳

Thank you! It feels pretty great!!

I wrote a lot of A PLACE NEAR EDEN when I was living in New York. I was working as a literary agent, which was fun and fast paced (and also sometimes quite stressful) and before work I’d go to a Pret near the office to do a little writing. My job involved working with authors and helping them get published, so it was very inspiring but also sometimes a reminder of how hard publishing can be. I made my peace with the fact that my novel might end up only being read by my mum and dad. I just enjoyed the process of writing and having that part of the morning that I dedicated to myself. It was nice to have a project to work on that was just for me. I’d sit down with a coffee and sometimes some oatmeal or a yogurt and get out my laptop and that half hour was a little luxury.

When I found out I’d won the Vogel I was pregnant with my daughter, who was born around the same time the book published. It was funny timing, because I’d kept my pregnancy a secret for the first trimester, and had just started telling people, and was feeling really relieved not to have the burden of a secret anymore. I’m a terrible secret keeper, especially with happy secrets, like having a baby, I just want to tell everyone. So then, just when I thought my secret keeping was over, I got another happy secret when I found out I’d won the Vogel. I found out in September but I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone until the announcement was made in May of the next year. In the meantime, I worked with Allen and Unwin to edit the book, which was a fantastic experience.

I guess in summary I’m feeling really lucky!

What was your turning moment that made you click “submit” on your manuscript for The Australian/ Vogel’s Literary Award?

It was my partner, Mark, who convinced me to submit to the Vogel. I’d been working on the manuscript for so many years, I think I could have kept working on it forever! The Vogel’s Literary Award was a great deadline to help me stop working on the manuscript and start thinking about moving onto something new. And then when I won, I got to go back into the manuscript and start editing. It was very hard to part with the pages when it was time to finally turn them in. Even now, I’ll be in the shower, and I’ll think of a paragraph or passage that I wish I’d included.

Have Tilly, Sam and Celeste’s story always been with you? How did they come about and then their written stories come to fruition?

I really love the area around Eden on the south coast of NSW. I used to visit there a lot as a kid, and I love the ocean, the contrast between the calm inlet waters and the surf beaches, the gum trees and bush, and the sense of wildness in the rugged landscape. When I was living in New York I really missed that landscape, and so I started writing something set there so that I could mentally visit even though I was physically so far away. So I started with the setting even before the characters. Maybe because I spent a lot of time around Eden when I was a teenager, I started to think about a coming of age story in that setting. And, I think, the landscape around there is beautiful but also, especially in the context of ocean rips, sometimes dangerous, and so I think that gave rise to some of the darker themes in the novel.

After I had the setting, the characters of Tilly, Sem and Celeste came next. When I was coming up with their characters I was thinking a lot about the ways that we’re responsible for other people, especially the people we love, and also about the ways we can fail in that responsibility. I think Michael Ondaatje’s THE ENGLISH PATIENT touches on this in a way. Ondaatje’s characters claim that they are not ‘beholden’ to each other, despite their romantic relationships. I think about that a lot, perhaps because I struggle to understand it. I’m not able to have cool and detached relationships like that. So in my novel I wanted to explore the ways that we are all beholden to each other, and what it looks like to fail in those obligations.

From your experiences of working in Family Law Court of Australia, do you feel this has influenced your writing, depictions of characters and behaviours?

One thing that struck me when I was working at the Family Court was the way the parties to a relationship can have such different understandings of shared events. And I see it all the time in my own life as well. My partner and I have fought because he thought I was giving him unsolicited advice about his career when I thought he’d directly asked me for my input. Or there was the period he didn’t cook me mushrooms because he thought I’d said I don’t like them when in fact I love mushrooms and have no memory of saying anything to the contrary. And there’s nothing more frustrating and lonely than getting to the place where you just have to kind of ‘agree to disagree’ when you both just remember things differently. Those are small examples, but miscommunication and misremembering can easily turn into something much bigger. There can be a kind of horror in not knowing what the truth is, or having your idea of the truth disputed or disregarded, or not knowing who to trust.

I was captivated from the moment I started ‘A Place Near Eden’, until the moment I put it down. My favourite quote came from Sem and it surrounded his desperate need to make his own choices in a world where before the age of 18, jumping around homes and changing environments – he didn’t hold a lot of autonomy. My question to you is, where are you choosing to take your writing career from here? Are you a planner or choosing to let your creativity lead the way?

I am a planner! Some people can sit down and write a novel in a burst of passionate inspiration, but unfortunately I’m not one of those people. I like to take my time getting to know my characters and the setting and themes for the novel before I start writing. And I keep the first draft in handwritten form to remind myself that it’s just a draft and won’t be turned in or shown to anyone. That way I feel like I have the freedom to experiment and take risks. So that’s what I’m doing at the moment for my next novel. I’m experimenting with a few characters who knew each other in high school but are now in their thirties, and thinking about Melbourne, Amsterdam (where my family lives) and New York City. It can be tricky because sometimes I have ideas that I struggle to fit into my idea of the novel I’m working on. Like yesterday I had a vision of one of my new characters in her sixties, but I’m not sure if there’s room for that period of her life in the book. I try to hold all those ideas loosely and just see where it goes.

Thank you Nell for your time, care in response and well, your novel! It’s an absolute joy to have shared our interview on melreviewsherbooks.com 💖🎙 Another big cheer for Allen & Unwin for sending me a copy of ‘A Place Near Eden’ for review and recommendation 🥳 To check out my review of Nell’s book, click here!