Shelley Burr's novelistic inclinations were apparent at a young age. "Right from when I was seven or eight and figured out I could write stories myself I was always that kid with a notebook," she says.
"As a teenager I was always scribbling away."
Despite her early penchant for penning "thinly veiled versions of myself and my friend having amazing adventures", storytelling remained "a thing to do for fun", and was pushed to the background altogether as she completed her accounting degree and CPA qualification.
But when the Canberra author became a parent, writing took on a new urgency. It became a way of creating space for herself, "almost like having conversation with other adults, even though I was inventing them". With time now a precious commodity, Burr realised she had to become serious about producing a cohesive piece of work. She began drafting the narrative that what would become Wake on January 1, 2018 and by the end of the month had written 35,000 words.
Enter the Act Writers' Centre's Hard Copy Program, which ran from 2014 to 2019, an extraordinary local success story. It has helped produce fiction successes including Ella Baxter's New Animal (2021), Sam Hawke's City of Lies (2018) and Mark Brandi's Wimmera (2017), as well as memoirs by Chloe Higgins (The Girls, 2019), Shu-Ling Chua (Echoes, 2020) and Sneha Lees (Good Indian Daughter, 2021).
And now we have Wake, Burr's debut novel, which came about after she was a Hard Copy participant in 2018. Wake follows the attempts of private investigator Lane Holland to solve the mystery of how nine-year-old Evelyn McCreery disappeared from her bedroom in Nannine, an outback town that has fallen on hard times.
The manuscript for Wake won the UK Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger award in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award and the Bath Novel Award that same year. After spending 2020 polishing the manuscript, Burr sent Wake out to gauge publishers' interest. A bidding war ensued, resulting in Burr signing a two-book deal with Hachette Australia.
If Burr is anxious about the reception of her highly anticipated debut, or is feeling the pressure of producing her second novel for publication next year, it doesn't show. The 34-year-old public servant and chartered accountant appears remarkably relaxed as she answers my questions over a pot of tea at the National Portrait Gallery café. It's even more of a surprise to learn that she didn't deliberately set out to write a crime novel; it just happened to be the story that arrived in her mind. Although, as she acknowledges, with recent runaway successes like Jane Harper's The Dry and Chris Hammer's Scrublands, it's a great time to be an Australian crime writer.
While Burr credits her writing group as her best investment for her budding career as a novelist, her extraordinarily quick progress is also partly due to the long incubation of the project in her subconscious. Although Burr stresses the novel is not autobiographical, it draws on her experience of losing her brother suddenly to an infection on New Year's Day 2000, when she was 12 and he was 15. Burr began writing on the 18th anniversary of her brother's death, but only became aware of the significance of the connection a year into the writing.
This tragic episode left her acutely aware of the way familial entanglements complicate grief, as well as the long shadow that it casts. As she observes, "being a sole survivor is a really unique experience". It is a predicament shared by her protagonist, Mina, who continues to shoulder the burden of her twin sister's disappearance well into adulthood.
But Burr's writing was also spurred on by a very present sense of fear. Acutely conscious that she was penning a "parenting nightmare" about a child being abducted from the family home - "the one space that you feel you can make safe for your children" - Burr felt she needed to get the crucial scenes over and done with early. Working on her manuscript at night, she found herself pausing at intervals to check that her daughter was still safely tucked in her bed.
This sense of eeriness was exacerbated by her research. While perusing copies of a discontinued national missing persons magazine held at the National Library of Australia, Burr noticed a pattern among several reports of missing backpackers, and realised she was reading about the crimes of the then-unknown Ivan Milat.
There are other ways she could draw on personal experience. Having grown up between Newcastle and her paternal grandparents' farm outside Glenrowan in rural Victoria, Burr has some insight into the precarities of life on a farm, "having to do things like keep track of how much water is in the tank" and "having to be really careful about your use of resources because it is such a big thing to have to make a trip into town".
Drought, oppressive heat and financial woes are stock tropes of the new breed of Australian crime epitomised by Harper and Hammer. But Burr brings a piercing psychological acuity, creating a nuanced examination of the emotional and reputational stakes of a murder investigation. In Wake, a number of people have an interest in the case, but not necessarily for the right reasons, especially since Mina's late mother has created a million-dollar reward for finding her missing daughter. Then there are those who think a male relative could be responsible, because, as the police officer assigned to the case notes, "[t]his country is full of men with violent histories, who were itinerant farm workers in the late nineties, or long-range truckers, or just unemployed and untraceable at the time". Later, a lawyer muscles in because it was the kind of case that "would go into the blurb of his memoirs".
Burr is also attuned to the pitfalls of the internet age, which has spawned many armchair detectives and podcasters. Peppered throughout the narrative are excerpts of chat from fictional MyMurder Forums, in which anonymous online commentators speculate on the identity of the perpetrator, and the fate of the victim. Their prurient interest is in stark contrast to the sensitivity with which Burr navigates the book's actual violence, which largely occurs offstage, allowing the focus to remain on the anxiety and fear experienced by survivors.
There are also deeper concerns at play. Australia has a poor record when it comes to protecting its children, and Burr acknowledges that she grappled with questions of race and privilege throughout the writing process.
"I really hope that we see the right authors supported to tell those stories about the Stolen Generations, about the wildly different treatment that white missing children get versus when a non-white, and particularly an Aboriginal child, goes missing- the horrible way those families can be treated," she says.
"If I were to tell that story, what could happen is that a much better placed writer could go to tell that story and be told 'that's way too similar to Shelley Burr's work, we don't think we can publish this'. And that would be the worst case scenario for me.
"You don't want to ignore those issues but that was my big fear, was that I would be taking up space that someone else could occupy better."
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