Last night saw the culmination of months of hard work from a great many people when the very first winner of the Richell Prize for an unpublished writer was announced at a drinks reception hosted by Hachette in Sydney. Sally Abbott was awarded the Prize of $10,000 and a mentorship with Hachette Publisher Robert Watkins for her wonderful, dystopian submission ‘Closing Down’.
It was an emotional night – touched with sadness, of course, but also full of hope. It felt like a night not just to honour Matt and all he stood for in his publishing work, but also a night to look to the future and the promise of what is to come. Which is exactly how Matt would have wanted it. It was inspiring for me to sit on the judging panel and read the work of so many talented Australian writers. There were other entries on the longlist we judges fought hard for individually, but collectively, the panel were in agreement that the five shortlisted writers – Brodie Lancaster, Ellena Savage, Jonathan O’Brien, Lyndel Caffrey and Sally Abbott were exceptional contenders for the Prize – a wonderful shortlist for its breadth in subject matter and style.
Richell Prize shortlist, from left to right, Brodie Lancaster, Ellena Savage, Lyndel Caffrey, Sally Abbott and Jonathan O’Brien
For anyone wondering why the swallow motif for the Prize, there is a very simple, very personal explanation. Matt and I shared a spring morning in a park a few years ago. Our daughter was still a baby, a warm dumpling lying in my lap. But our son was off, zigzagging across the park, haring about as three-year-olds will. There didn’t seem to be much logic to his haphazard running until Matt turned to me, a smile dawning. ‘He’s racing the swallows,’ he said. And he was. He was chasing the birds as they performed their dazzling acrobatics out of the Morton Bay Fig trees and swooping low across the grass. We watched our son for ages that morning. Sitting in the sunshine. Happy. Together.
When Matt turned forty, I bought him a voucher for a local tattoo parlour. It was a bit of a joke. I’d been teasing him about his mid-life crisis. I didn’t think he’d go through with it; but he surprised me by returning one Saturday morning with his arm bandaged in clingfilm. When he revealed the results, he showed me two small swallows inked onto his bicep. I knew instantly what they represented: his love for our children … that morning in the park … the joy of the small things in life … recognition of how those simple moments of presence and togetherness are the thing to focus on in life … how these are surely the definition of true happiness.
Since Matt’s death, I’ve seen swallows everywhere. I notice them easily. I searched online for the historical meaning of swallow tattoos and found that sailors used to have two tattooed to their chest. The belief was that if they drowned, the birds would carry their soul into the heavens. Swallows also represent hope and homecoming … a sailor at sea would know land was drawing near at the sign of the first swallow.
It seemed appropriate that a new prize, set up in Matt’s name, should carry the swallow motif. The Richell Prize is all about hope. It’s about writers spreading their wings and taking flight. It’s about launching talented new voices and helping their work to find a home. I’m so grateful to design agency JOY for translating Matt’s tattoo into such a striking design for the Prize.
I’m also very grateful to all at Hachette Australia, the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Guardian Australia and Simpsons Solicitors for converging to make this Prize possible. When good people come together with good intentions, wonderful things happen. I know Matt would be proud (and a little embarrassed) to know writers continue to be encouraged and supported through his name like this, and I know there are exciting things ahead for the five shortlisted writers of the Prize. I congratulate Sally, Brodie, Ellena, Jonathan and Lyndel and I watch and wait with anticipation. Today I focus on the promise of what is to come.