The Yellow House by Emily O'Grady - Winner of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award

When I was asked by publisher Allen & Unwin to be a judge on The Australian/ Vogel Literary Award, I must say I was thrilled and a little daunted by the honour.
The Australian/ Vogel Literary Award has been creating opportunities for Australian authors under the age of 35 for almost four decades, and previous winners include Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Andrew McGahan and Gillian Mears.
Not only does the award come with a prestigious list of winners, it also brings with it the opportunity for an author to work with an established publisher (Annette Barlow) and to bring into fruition immediately on the announcement of the prize a published book and the addendum to their name forever more of published author (and of course there is the prize money).
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the longlist of manuscripts that I was sent by Allen & Unwin after their initial cull of the ninety-plus submissions.  With each, I kept the stakes in the back of my mind, knowing that to be shortlisted was itself a life-changing opportunity.
The judging process itself was another daunting experience.  Myself, Stephen Romei (literary editor of The Australian) and Tegan Bennett Daylight (author) deliberated over each manuscript.  We exchanged pros and cons, thoughts and insights and eventually came to the unanimous decision that Emily O'Grady had presented us with not only a winning manuscript, but an incredibly accomplished and commercial proposition to present to Annette and the team at Allen & Unwin.
That manuscript became The Yellow House.  
From the first page, this is a book that asserts itself as discomfiting yet compelling read.  The titular yellow house is a Pandora's box, whose horrific and irrepressible secrets damn the fortunes of a small town family.
The story is told through the eyes of youngster, Cub, whose awakening to her grandfather's crimes coincides with the arrival of her estranged aunt and cousin who are to live in his abandoned yellow weatherboard house.
This is a very powerful novel about loyalty and betrayal and about the legacy of violence.  It is also a very assured piece of writing.  Beyond the horror of the crimes and the tension of the narrative, there is a filmic beauty to some of the passages that is almost delightful. 

We asked Emily some questions about The Yellow House.  Here is what she had to say.

BB: Can you tell us a little about what happened next after being told you had won The Australian/ Vogel Literary Award

EO: I wasn’t allowed to tell any one I’d won, so I had a big dopey grin on my face for a good few days afterwards. The editing process began fairly soon after that, which was a good distraction from having to keep the news quiet.

BB: Can you tell about The Yellow House and where the idea for the book came from?

EO:  In 2010 there was a high profile murder that really unsettled me. Matthew Milat—who was 18 at the time—killed his childhood friend David Aucherlonie in the Belanglo State Forest, the same area where his great-uncle Ivan Milat committed the backpacker murders in the 1990s. He was arrested pretty immediately, bragging about the crime and viewed it as his birthright to emulate the crimes of his great-uncle. I found this horrifying, but also deeply sad. What sort of environment had Matthew Milat grown up in where he thought the murder of so many people was something to be proud of, and impressed by? Though The Yellow House isn’t a fictionalisation of this case, it was the catalyst for my story, and got me interesting in interrogating what happens to the descendants of infamous perpetrators in the aftermath of whatever abject crime they commit.

BB: Why do you think we are so fascinated by heinous acts and the people who perpetrate them?

EO:  I think it comes down to how unnatural serial homicide in particular is. Killing for no reason other that power or pleasure is so incomprehensible to most people, and it’s a subject matter that has huge ethical and philosophical rigour. There’s a bit of a trope in popular culture that glorified these figures (think Hannibal Lecter), but what I wanted to explore in The Yellow House is that in reality the people who commit these crimes are not necessarily that interesting. For me, it’s the stories that emerge in the aftermath that are the most confronting. Stripping away the glamour of serial crime allows the reader to ruminate on the domesticity and ordinariness of these situations, as well as the unconsidered traumas that linger for many people in the aftermath of these types of crimes. 

BB:  TheYellow House is written from the perspective of Cub, who is a 12 year old girl. Can you tell us about writing in the vernacular and from the perspective of a child, and why you chose to tell the story from this viewpoint?

EO:  The voice of Cub came to me immediately, and quite well formed. I found it quite natural to write in Cub’s voice, and drew on a lot of my memories of being that age to give colour and texture to her character. I chose Cub’s viewpoint because I liked the idea of Cub’s story being a story of discovery; something that wouldn’t work if she was a little younger and even more naive, or a teenager or adult, where her world view has already been formed and the consequences of her upbringing have already began to manifest. Cub is in between things, or at the edge of things, and a lot of that has to do with her age.

BB: Whilst Cub is the main character, it is the actions of others that steer the course of the book.  Tell us about creating the cast of The Yellow House.

EO:  While we see the world through Cub’s lens, she is a bit of an outsider and the events that propel the narrative forward don’t always involve Cub directly. It was important that Cub was on the periphery, because if she were any closer to the action then her hazy understanding of the universe wouldn’t have worked. Cub always dictated how the story was told, and all the other characters developed in relation to Cub. I wanted the reader to feel very much aligned with Cub, and for the reader to be slightly mystified by the other characters, in much the same way Cub is.

BB:  I love the writing in this book.  There is a wonderfully delicate balance between the horror of the narrative and the beautiful rendering of it.  I'm also interested in the writing that exists "between the lines".  The reader is only as aware of the events in the book as Cub is, however there is a vast disparity between Cub and the reader's understanding of those events.  Can you tell us a little about your writing process and particularly about how you approach writing about horrible things?

EO:  There’s so many fantastic novels narrated by children, and I’ve always loved how the tension develops in the gap between what the child knows and what the reader knows. Though I find the serial killer genre fascinating, I didn’t want to write a traditional ‘serial killer’ book, where the murders are described quite salaciously and where the effects of serial crime are often neutralised through the intervention of law enforcement, through positioning the detective at the forefront of the narrative. Cub’s naïve and incomplete perspective dictates how the reader understands the crime. Because Cub doesn’t have access to the specifics of the crime, then neither does the reader. She doesn’t have a capacity to understand what is going on around her, or the true extent of her family history. It also helped that Cub’s point of view meant I didn’t have to write about the murders in detail.

BB:  There are no happy endings in your book.  Or are there?  Do you believe it is important to explore hope and redemption in stories of tragedy and loss?

EO:  I think if I were to tie up the ending neatly and suggest that the characters go on to lead easy lives, it wouldn’t do justice to how these situations play out in real life, often in devastating ways. Of course, many people cope with these sorts of traumas and triumph, but Cub and her family are in extraordinary circumstances and they aren’t equipped with the means to work through their trauma.
I don’t think the ending is entirely bleak, though. Cub is raised in a hyper-masculine environment where she doesn’t have any control or power. However, throughout the novel, Cub gains more autonomy, and I think we see a glimpse of Cub beginning to develop the fortitude that would enable her to break the cycle that has destroyed the lives of those around her. 

BB:  What was the first book that you read (or had read to you) that made an impression on you?

EO:  I remember reading The World According to Garp by John Irving when I was eleven or twelve. As a child, I’d always loved the sensation of being completely immersed within a fictional universe, but this was on a different scale. I was definitely too young to read it, and I remember being completely disturbed, but so taken by how weird and absurd it was. I worked through the rest of Irving’s back catalogue pretty quickly and didn’t read else anything else for about six months.

BB:  You are now a writer who will always be listed alongside greats such as Tim Winton and Kate Grenville, who also won The Australian/ Vogel Literary Award.  Moving forward, does that inspire you, or is it slightly daunting?

EO:  A mix of both! I’m so grateful to have won and to be included among such a list of Australian writers. Winning the Vogel is an amazing launch to my writing career, but I definitely am feeling the pressure. 


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