At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believe most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Author Chris Somerville spoke in praise of Ellen van Neerven’s debut work of fiction, Heat and Light.
For full disclosure, I recently saw Ellen van Neerven in Brisbane. I see Ellen sometimes, but not as often as I’d like since I left Brisbane a few years ago. We were driving around at night, because that’s the kind of thing I used to do when I was a teenager, and I’d encouraged this behaviour with vague the idea of sharing something from my youth. I didn’t mention this to anyone at the time.
Of course none of this matters when we come to regard her book, Heat and Light, really, but usually when I see Ellen we end up talking a lot about writing, what books we’ve been reading, how fiction works, in a way that I probably wouldn’t with other people. She’s very earnest, – but not in a detrimental way, in fact, to be honest, in a way that I’m far too self conscious to be myself – and takes writing very seriously.
Luckily you don’t have to take my word for this, we have her collection of short stories. There’s a lot of Ellen in her first book, probably less than we’d want and more than she’d admit. When we were driving around, she said, ‘I hate being asked about my work. Usually a writer is most honest on the page anyway.’ Whether or not this is a true fact about writing is less significant than the fact that it’s something she believes.
Heat and Light is an odd book. Within it we have the mundane mixed up with people flying into electrical wires, and hybrid human-plant people emerging from the sand, a father being eaten by a tiger. It has a sense of both genuine wonder and confidence. It also gives us a real sense of the ‘new’ in Australian writing. The notion of ‘new writing’ is often attached to the idea of an emerging writer, as the first published work of a writer’s career. To me, though, ‘new’ means originality: something Ellen van Neerven has an incredible aptitude and talent for.