The ‘bonkers’ self-published book making history as a Miles Franklin contender
Michael Winkler is a bit resigned about his writing career: “It has been one of defeat really, but it’s chop wood, carry water, isn’t it?”
When he finished his novel Grimmish, he and his agent offered it to publishers they thought might be interested. No one wanted it, so he faced a dilemma. He wanted it out in book form but was reluctant to self-publish. “I’ve done that before and I know it’s a difficult road.”
It would be an understatement to say that road has turned out smoother than anticipated. Grimmish has become the first self-published book to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, the most significant literary prize in Australia, which recognises “the novel of the highest literary merit which presents Australian life in any of its phases”.
Michael Winkler says his book was a difficult one to explain to publishers and bookshops.Credit:Justin McManus
Winkler is joined on the list by two-times Miles winner Michelle de Kretser (Scary Monsters), Michael Mohammed Ahmad (The Other Half of You), Jennifer Down (Bodies of Light), and Alice Pung (One Hundred Days). It’s the first time in history that a majority of the writers on the Miles shortlist are people of colour. The prize is worth $60,000 to the winner, who will be revealed on July 20.
Grimmish is about the Italian American boxer Joe Grim who visited Australia in 1909. He was renowned not for his prowess in the ring, although he fought some greats of the day, but his preternatural ability to withstand pain. No one, it was said, could knock him out.
If Winkler describes Grim as an outlier in boxing, it’s fair to say Grimmish is an outlier in Australian fiction. There is nothing like it. It begins with a review written by the author himself, is narrated by a number of voices, features a talking goat and has loads of footnotes. It’s about pain, the weirdness of masculinity and is interested in how a story is told. But it is also playful, erudite, accessible, passionate, witty, fascinating and frankly a bit bonkers.
The shortlisted novels.Credit:
The ongoing problem Winkler faced was explaining the book to booksellers and publishers. “People weren’t quite sure where it sits. Was it fiction, non-fiction, memoir?” He decided “novel” best described what he was trying to do.
Initially only four bookshops around the country stocked Grimmish, but he also sent it to a few “influential readers” who started enthusing about it on social media. “That was the main bit of luck.” A few other shops stocked it, but there were a lot of knockbacks. Nevertheless, it ended up in the top five last year at his local bookshop, Brunswick Bound, and whenever it ran out of stock he would lug another box round from his home.
But didn’t he get downhearted at the knockbacks?
“The response from people who read it was so much bigger, more exciting and positive than I had ever expected. I write to communicate with readers and to have them read it and contact me and tell me their thoughts. That was very sustaining. I expected to get very little out of the exercise and got an enormous amount.”
Among the readers who responded were Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee – “the strangest book you are likely to read this year” – Helen Garner and Thomas Hauser, the man whom Winkler calls “probably the most famous sportswriter in the world”, although he reckons in the review Hauser wrote he “didn’t really get it”.
Winkler learned of Grim as a child, but his creative interest was only sparked about 10 years ago by the realisation he had toured Australia.
It probably helped that Winkler’s writing career began with regular contributions to boxing magazines. “I was covering fights and interviewing boxers and anything else I could think of. I went up to Pentridge [prison] and went to a boxing tournament in A division. That was how I first got printed. And of course boxing has this extraordinary literature.”
He was fascinated by pain – “if you grow up fairly sensitive, the flip side to that is an awareness of pain” – and the lack of writing about it. “Virginia Woolf wrote something about how the English language can convey the inner thoughts of Hamlet and the madness of Lear but can’t tell you what it’s like to have a headache. There’s not a real lot of strong writing about such a universal experience.”
Winkler is still amazed at what’s happened to the little book that has been punching above it weight. He sold his print run of 500 copies, reckons he may have turned a three-figure profit, and Grimmish has now been reissued by Sydney publisher Puncher & Wattmann.
“Writing,” Winkler says, “is a lot of hard work and sitting in the dark for these little shiny moments, I suppose.” The next shiny moment could be a lot brighter.
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