The idea for the Peter Carey Short Story Award began as a passing remark. Our library had asked for help hosting a literary festival, something for locals that would also draw others into the shire. Naturally, our ambitions spread, and we were gonna make it huge. Bring in big-name writers who would cement our little town’s position on the modern literary map. Someone suggested we hold a short story competition for locals. We decided to make it national. Name it after our town’s biggest literary export, who is still crowned by many as master of the short story form. And so I was sent to ask Peter Carey. With voice quavering, I called his agent. Come back to us later with some details and a much firmer plan, she said.
Our small group got busy working on the festival: a handful of volunteers from our writers’ group and Library Activities Officer Nat Grero. Our core shrunk as life got in the way. Wayne Marshall and I made it to meetings by dragging our daughters along at our feet. We were joined by poet Jennie Fraine when possible and gave up our writing for six months to assemble a program which included Jane Harper and Alec Patric. I went back to Peter Carey’s agent. We had sponsors, $1,500 in prize money, and Wayne had secured Review of Australian Fiction to publish our winners. Would Peter be willing to be the name behind our little competition now? The answer was a resounding yes.
All we needed was a judge.
My love of short fiction was growing exponentially at this stage (like others I had stumbled across writing it on my way to becoming a novelist), but the short form was Wayne’s stomping ground. He was besotted with it and introduced me to the work of incredible Australian writers, and we chose Ryan O’Neill to approach as our inaugural judge.
Because we were starting from scratch, we had plenty to consider. Terms and conditions. As writers, we were about providing entrants with opportunities, so we gave simultaneous and multiple submissions the thumbs up and left the theme open. We personally found it impossible to write anything less than 2,000 words, so the bottom word limit was set. Published stories from small local anthologies were deemed eligible, and we would provide a shortlist (and later a longlist too) to give more writers a chance at exposure. In the past, we had entered awards and weren’t notified of our failure, and we didn’t want this for our competition. We made our rejection letters as important as the shortlisting letters. Wanted the rejections to be encouraging, even though we knew they would hurt. We discussed subjectivity and the judging process. How to continually improve the competition while seeking to promote the kinds of stories we love to read by always selecting the right judge.
Mistakes were made that first year, even though we found worthy winners: Cameron Weston and Catherine Padmore forever in our hall of fame. Peter was sent the winning stories and was rapt, while Wayne, Nat and I walked away exhausted. Then six months later we reconvened to begin planning the next round.
As we conclude the winners’ announcement for our fourth year, there is much we have learned about making this competition a success. Our hot tip is to ensure those longlisting are just as qualified as the head judge, and by that we mean skilled in writing short stories. For the past three years, Laurie Steed and Brooke Dunnell have worked tirelessly to select the top band of stories for our judge to consider. They have heated discussions over those last few positions on the longlist because, as writers, they know how much is at stake. They also select the winner of the Best Local Entry which was awarded for the first time, last year.
Central to the growth of our competition has been the insight and generosity of our incredible judges. For Wayne and me, employing a writer whose storytelling excites us is imperative. Someone who is pushing boundaries and who (we feel) deserves to be thrust further into the spotlight. Ryan O’Neill, Jane Rawson, Nic Low and Elizabeth Tan have all selected amazing winners. Ensuring publication in a lit journal with an excellent reputation as part of the prize has also meant writers of quality have flocked to enter. After Review of Australian Fiction regrettably went into hiatus, we were fortunate to partner with Meanjin who now publish our winner and runner-up in their Spring edition. This year, we received 315 entries and were confident our goal to find stories worthy of the Carey name was again a likely chance.
Co-organising the Peter Carey has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career to date. It has forged my friendship with Wayne Marshall, who is the best writing friend this writer could ask for; a friendship I know will be lifelong. It has drawn incredible people into my inner circle: Anne Casey, our 2018 winner. I have new friends to chat with at festivals. A sense of pride whenever I see one of our longlisters win an award or have something published. And being able to send the winning stories to Peter Carey, provide him a snapshot of his old hometown on the day of the awards ceremony, doesn’t suck either.
The Peter Carey Short Story Award opens in February each year with the winners announced in June. Look out for this year’s winning stories in the Spring edition of Meanjin and try your hand at entering.
Read Jem’s first post with us: ‘My Life of Crime’.
Jem Tyley-Miller is an emerging crime writer from regional Victoria whose stories have been shortlisted for many awards including last year’s Margaret River Short Story Prize. Jem is a 2018 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow, and her work has been published in Meanjin, Overland and We’ll Stand in that Place and Other Stories. She works in film and TV to fund her writing and co-organises the Peter Carey Short Story Award in her spare time.