Publisher Hachette has acquired world rights to two crime novels by Canberra debut author Shelley Burr in a "hotly contested" international auction.
At her home in Florey on Friday, the 34-year-old accountant recounted the "surreal" chase for her signature by multiple publishers which eventually resulted in her snaring a six-figure, two-book deal.
A contractor to the public service in her day job, Ms Burr had been working in waste policy and touring recycling facilities in Melbourne on the day her agent Sarah McKenzie was juggling calls from different publishers making competing bids.
"It was the strangest thing," she said, adding she had always been told in her writing programs book deals never unfolded like in the movies, with competing publishers pushing the price higher and higher.
"It happened exactly like that," Burr said, with a laugh.
The deal was struck between Hachette Australia head of fiction Rebecca Saunders, Hodder & Stoughton crime and thriller publisher Jo Dickinson and Sarah McKenzie at Sarah McKenzie Literary Management. US rights were sold to Rachel Kahan at William Morrow by Sarah Brooks at Hachette Australia.
Burr's first book Wake is described by Hachette as "a searing crime novel" about a rural NSW farming community still haunted by the unsolved disappearance of a nine-year-old twin girl 20 years ago.
Saunders said she'd "been wanting and waiting to read a rural noir novel as good as Wake since trying to acquire The Dry along with every other publisher in Australia".
"I finally found that jewel with Wake, which is not only an unputdownable murder mystery but also a character-driven emotional drama. It's a powerful and unsparing story of how trauma ripples outward when people's private tragedies become public property," Saunders said.
The book deal is life-changing for Burr and her husband Karl Bernoth and their young daughter.
"I'm not one to talk about money usually but it's six-figure and it's not a '1' in the front of it," she said.
"Yes, definitely [it is life-changing]. I still have my job and intend to keep it but we were already planning a big life change.
"We've bought some land down in Victoria and if we ever manage to get there, the plan was to move there next year."
Burr is also studying agriculture at the University of New England in preparation for their move south to land near Wodonga.
"We're planning to have a market garden. It will probably never be a hugely profitable arrangement, so the fact I might be able to write for a living was a game-changer," she said
Yet money was not the most important factor in deciding on a publisher.
"I came down to a decision about which of these amazing people who I'd met were the right ones to go forward with and it was a really, really difficult decision in the end," Burr said.
"Although I am really happy to have ended up with Hachette and they've been amazing."
There could also be an option to turn Wake into a film or TV series.
"Potentially. It would be amazing," she said.
Burr is an alumnus of the ACT Writers Hardcopy program and a Varuna fellow. In 2019, Wake won the UK Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger award and was shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award and the Bath Novel Award.
Burr grew up in Newcastle, spending holidays on her grandparents' farm near Glenrowan, which informed the rural isolation of Wake.
"I know what it's like to walk in those endless, grassy paddocks," she said.
She moved to Canberra to do a graduate program 10 years ago.
Wake was sparked by Burr visiting true crime forums and seeing "amateur sleuths" ruthlessly invading the privacy of people affected by actual crime. She remembers one example where people were discussing online the sibling of a murder victim and how his LinkedIn account was public - and ripe for the picking.
"I was just sitting there thinking, 'This is a person' and if that was me how enraged I would be my people doing that," she said.
People are usually on the logical or creative side of life - Burr straddles both in the unlikely combination of an accountant and author.
"It's so valuable," she said. "I think I'm lucky that I enjoy accounting so it's a different type of thinking. I'll work all day on problem solving more practical concrete things and then I an come home and work in the creative space for a couple more hours, it doesn't feel like a 10-hour day."
Wake will be published in Australia in mid-2022.
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