When Emma Batchelor's partner told her he needed to tell her something, she had no idea how much their lives were about to change.
Jesse Petrie's secret was so big, and so unexpected, that Batchelor was blindsided. Her partner of six years came out as transgender, admitting they felt more comfortable in women's clothes. As the pair scrambled to adjust to the situation in different ways, their relationship was plunged swiftly into chaos and confusion.
Batchelor wanted to help, to understand, to support Petrie and walk through their transition with them. But she was also struggling to cope with the idea that their relationship had, suddenly and without warning, been plunged into a different place, a different light.
Petrie left, and she plunged into depression. A reader and a writer, she didn't know where to turn for guidance on how to cope with what seemed to be a unique and lonely experience. So, at the advice of a psychologist, she started keeping a journal.
"The thing is that I couldn't write any of the things I used to write, I just didn't have any capacity, but this was all I could think about all day long," she says.
"I got hardcore in my journalling then, but I found that writing it in a way that needed to make sense to other people, and to be, I guess, more of an external product than just for me, was really helpful in just helping me think about everything that happened in a different way."
That journal would eventually become a manuscript for a book, and has just been named the winner of Vogel's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript.
We're sitting in Batchelor's Gungahlin townhouse, the interior of which is a riotous cacophony of clutter, lovingly arranged. There are books and objects and paintings, fancy wallpaper and an entire bedroom devoted to her precious collection of vintage and designer clothes. It's the same house she and Petrie bought and moved into together, the cosy haven Petrie would eventually leave, and Batchelor would come to see, for a time, as a place of sadness.
But it's also a platform for her own creativity; she studied medical science at the Australian National University, but shifted away into creative writing, and founded an online literary journal. As her life spiralled out of control, and her depression deepened, she abandoned it.
But as she adjusted to life after Petrie had left their home, her medication began to work, and she was able to see more clearly. She started showing the journal to people, presenting it as a story, a narrative for others to read.
When she heard about publisher Allen & Unwin's Vogel award for unpublished manuscripts, she decided to enter her edited journal entries, blended with emails from the period of the relationship breakdown.
Now That I See You is a work of auto-fiction, the journal entries and emails forming a distinct narrative arc of identity, gender, love, grief and new beginnings. It begins with the story of how Jesse and Emma met - they both worked at the Canberra Theatre, a location easily recognisable for any Canberra readers, but left deliberately unnamed - and then flashes forward to Jesse's confession.
In the story, Emma is shocked, initially, and desperate to understand, to connect to Jesse and help them navigate this painful process. But Jesse is in crisis, and they reach a breaking point.
The book includes emails from Emma to Jesse, but not vice versa; although she was showing her drafts to close friends and family, including Petrie's mother, Susanne, she was careful not to bring Jesse's voice in. This was her story, not Petrie's.
The book is an almost day-by-day account of that time; as the months wear on, and Jesse grows ever more distant, Emma becomes steeped in self-doubt and confusion, and eventually full-blown depression.
And although the events took place in Canberra in 2019-2020, as bushfires raged and the world went into lockdown, Batchelor has chosen to leave the timing vague and larger events off the page.
"I didn't want to reference those things, but not do them justice," she says. "But I thought also that it didn't impact massively on the story I was trying to tell."
And the judges liked what they saw, this week naming Batchelor the 2021 winner of the prize that has launched the careers of dozens of Australian writers, including Tim Winton, Kate Grenville and Gillian Mears.
It's a win she's barely been able to process - $20,000 plus publication with an advance. The award is open to works of fiction, Australian history or biography, and Batchelor wasn't even sure if her manuscript would fit the bill.
It's a work of auto-fiction, meaning all the events and characters are real, and most of the names remain unchanged.
"I always knew I wanted to tell the story, but I wasn't sure how or what the best format was," she says of the writing process.
"I'd thought about fictionalising it fully and just taking parts from it, but it just didn't feel as powerful. Everything I thought of just seemed to soften it and weaken it.
"And I thought about memoir, but it's not something I read a lot of; the way I was conceiving of it, I just wasn't very interested in it."
But its careful, faithful rendering of real-time events is what Vogel judge Stephen Romei, former literary editor of The Australian, says is one of the more powerful aspects of Now That I See You.
"This is what fascinated me most about the book, that it shifted from being about Jesse's becoming to being about the narrator's own difficulties, real or perceived," he says.
"I think it's an ambitious, bold book by a young Australian writer that connects deeply with the uncertain, often angry, times in which we are living."
And, in keeping with an award for young people at the beginning of their careers, he says the book is timely.
"The acceptance of non-binary people is something still nascent in our society," he says.
"A lot of people do not accept it, or reject it outright and with hostility. But this change is not going to change. It is only going to become more common, more public
"Whether it resonates in years to come may perhaps depend on what happens to us as a society in those intervening years."
There's no denying that she is part of the zeitgeist; a non-binary writer, Ellen van Neerven, has just won the NSW Premier's Book of the Year prize, while another non-binary writer, S.L. Lim, was shortlisted for this year's Stella Prize.
Batchelor is aware that she is coming from a tentative place, writing about a transgender person's journey from the point of view of a cisgender woman.
"It's something that I still feel very morally ambiguous about," she says.
"I was so naive and reckless at the time that I submitted it, I just had no idea this is what would happen.
"But there is such a culture of cisgender people speaking for transgender people, and I have to acknowledge that this story is probably being published because I am cisgender.
"And we're getting a view of transgender people, you know, from an acceptable or palatable viewpoint, generally."
But she also maintains that she has written the book she wanted to read when she was going through her relationship breakdown.
"I don't regret telling my story because I do see it as my story and my perspective of what happened between us," she says.
"I think that was important for me in processing that, and I think it is a challenge for partners.
"And certainly, I couldn't find the information like this, that would have been helpful to me at the time."
Petrie herself - she no longer identifies as non-binary, and uses the pronoun "she" - has given the book her blessing.
"As far as I am concerned the events in Emma's novel belong just as much to her as they do to me, even more so as she only covers her side and her feelings," she says in a statement.
"I'm proud that Emma was able to channel her grief into something therapeutic and beautiful."
And the story has an unexpectedly happy ending, albeit one that happens beyond the book's pages. Batchelor and Petrie are now back together.
It was after she had submitted the manuscript, but before she had found out she had won, that Batchelor was walking back to her office in Civic and heard someone calling her name.
She turned around and saw Petrie, the very person she had been petrified of seeing for so many weeks that she barely left the house anymore.
But time had passed, and the two were drawn back to each other.
"We went back to my office after and I think we sat there until eight o'clock at night, just hours talking about everything that had happened," Batchelor says.
"It was like no time had passed. But all the time had passed, because she'd been on hormones all that time. And she had changed."
The two are are living together, part-time to maintain their own - sometimes fragile - identities, in what Batchelor describes as a lesbian relationship.
Although she's not entirely sure that such labels even matter after all this time.
"When we came back together, and we were talking about [a book she had read] about 'demi-sexual'. And it's where you are kind of only sexually attracted to people that you have an emotional connection with.
"That really resonated with me and it wasn't something I looked at and thought about before, but when I reflected back on past relationships and past people I've been attracted to, I realised that that could be true for me.
"I'm in a lesbian relationship now, but I'm not sure if I would identify myself that way.
"I've not been with another woman, or a cisgender woman, but then do you have to have physically been in a relationship with [someone] to identify as a sexuality?
"I don't know, I still think it's blurry, and I think probably to define it more fully to myself, if I wanted to, it would probably require experimentation.
"But I feel very monogamous, and I'm just so happy and in love with Jesse that I don't think it's that important to me."