Kathryn Heyman turns to memoir and nets an $80,000 catch

The writer's confidence can be a fragile thing at the best of times. So most writers are grateful for any kind of encouragement - from their agent or publisher, from reviews, readers' responses, sales or even prizes, if they're lucky.

But to get a significant fillip at the earliest stages of a writing project is a blessing. Just ask Kathryn Heyman, who has been awarded the Copyright Agency's 2017 Fellowship for mid-to-late career authors, worth $80,000. The award is designed to aid in the development of a particular manuscript.

Heyman said it was fantastic timing because she was at a point in the work when she wasn't sure about the whole thing at all.

"Let's not kid ourselves, the money is an enormous boon and an enormous blessing but that sort of affirmation is really beautiful," she said. "To me it came on one of those days when I just left my writing in my room thinking, 'I don't know if anyone's interested in this'."

Heyman is best known for her six novels, which include Captain Starlight's Apprentice and, most recently, Storm and Grace. She is also the fiction program director of the Faber Academy in Australia.

But her next book is going to be very different. Words to Live By is a memoir that tells of her own personal transformation.

When Heyman was 20 she was sexually assaulted by a taxi driver.

"The trial was incredibly traumatic - more traumatic than the rape actually, because I was not a 'good' girl, so I was on trial," she said. "It's not a memoir about sexual assault but that was the trigger [for the story]. In order to respond to the trauma I needed to go as far away as I possibly could."

She had no money, no role model and, as she put it, no hope. So she got a job as a deckhand on a trawler in the Timor Sea.

"By the time I got off [the boat] - this is absolutely true, although it sounds terribly cheesy - I was transformed," she said. "What transformed me was not working as a deckhand on a trawler in the Timor Sea; what transformed me was understanding story. Because that was all I had.

"So that period was a period of me consciously trying to reinvent myself, to make a story that was the better story than [the one] I had."

When Heyman started on Words to Live By she didn't know whether she was writing fiction or memoir. What she did know was that by writing the truth she found a liberating, novelistic voice in which to write.

"I've had to find ways of seducing myself into the narrative and into the deeper layers beneath the narrative," she said.

The award judges said Heyman's project was "original and deeply personal; a fiction/memoir which we believe will become a major work of significance to a broad contemporary readership".

Heyman is not sure when she will finish the book, but hopes it will be published in early 2019.

This story Kathryn Heyman turns to memoir and nets an $80,000 catch first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.