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Tara hitchhiked to her first meeting with a book publisher. She's now an award-winning author.

Tara June Winch was a 22-year-old single mum when she published her first novel, Swallow the Air.

The year prior she had submitted a short story to the Young Writers Award, a competition she was only aware of thanks to a small notice she spotted at the State Library of Queensland. She ended up winning second place, and her story was shared with an editor at the University of Queensland Press. Thirteen years later, her story has become a critically-acclaimed, multi-award-winning book, and one that’s still read in Australian schools today.

Speaking to Marlee Silva on Mamamia‘s Tiddas 4 Tiddas podcast, Tara shares her self-professed “super serendipitous story” on how she became a writer. Growing up, her family weren’t readers. Swallow the Air was the first book her brother had ever read, and “one of the few books” read by her mum. Her dad has still yet to read it, but despite this, Tara spent her entire teenage years writing.

“There must’ve been books around but it’s not like [we were] a family of readers… There weren’t any outside influences and I’ve never studied literature,” she says in her delicate, but self-assured voice.

At 19, she moved back to Australia after briefly living on a goat farm in the UK, and began spending her spare time in libraries while working as a dishwasher and waitress.

“I’d been writing long letters and postcards and writing sort of short bits of prose that I thought were poetry,” she says, describing them as a mix of thoughts and reflections from her travels.

“I’d hang out at libraries because you could get free tea and coffee most of the time. Or cordial, I was into cordial. I could use the internet and read books, and they’d have like a sofa to chill out on.”

Listen to Tara June Winch’s conversation with Marlee Silva on our Tiddas 4 Tiddas podcast here:

However, everything changed after she placed in the Queensland Young Writers Award. Despite dropping out of high school at around age 17, the win gave Tara the confidence to enrol in Indigenous Studies at Southern Cross University in Lismore. Her short story had also caught the attention of a publisher, who wanted to turn her words into a book.

The only problem was that Tara was now based in Lismore, and her publisher wanted to have breakfast at a cafe in Brisbane’s West End, which was 200 kilometres, or a two-and-a-half hour car ride away from the regional NSW city. And so she woke up at 5:30am and hitchhiked her way there.

“I didn’t have a car at that stage,” remembers Tara with a laugh.

“It was just one of those really unlucky days where every single car I’d get picked up in was taking the next exit. It must have taken 20 cars to get up to Brisbane, to make it in time.

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“Every time I got in the car, they’d say, ‘oh so, why are you hitchhiking to Brisbane first thing in the morning,’ and I’d say, ‘I’ve got a meeting with a publisher about maybe writing a book,’ and I think they must have thought ‘who’s this delusional lunatic,’ [but] the rest is history basically.”

With the encouragement of her publisher, Tara submitted the manuscript for Swallow the Air for the David Unaipon Award for unpublished Indigenous writers, and a year after she came second at the Young Writers Award, she was back at the Queensland Premier’s Awards, accepting a $15,000 cheque, and a publishing contract with the University of Queensland Press.

Although fiction, Tara says the story of a brother and sister who are forced to cope with the aftermath of their mother’s suicide in Swallow the Air was essentially the tale of her and her brother, Billy, who passed away earlier this year of a heart attack.

“I had six or eight weeks until the closing of the David Unaipon Award… and [my publisher] just believed in me, and rang every day, and basically just forced me to get it out in this short amount of time,” says Tara.

“We literally handed in one minute till closing, it was right on the line.”

 

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One more for spring.

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Now based in France with her husband and two daughters, Tara most recently published her third book, and second novel, The Yield, in July of this year. The story is a sprawling, three-part epic that takes place on 500 acres of land that borders the fictional Murrumby river. It explores familial disputes, racial violence and multi-generational trauma, although ultimately, Tara wrote the book as a way to “tell the story of Australia from an Indigenous perspective”.

“I just always knew I was writing a book about language, but I didn’t know how to construct it. I couldn’t pull it together, [and] I couldn’t get my head around it,” she says, adding that she’s been struggling with the idea since 2004.

“I felt like a failure. I was doing other work, [and] I was super broke for years. I mean [as writers] we’re always broke, we don’t do it for the money.

“And now it’s finished. It’s on paper and you can touch it and hold it in your hand.”

 

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Despite her ability to craft pages of poetic and inconceivably graceful prose, Tara’s love of words originates from her appreciation and reverence for language. As an Indigenous writer of Wiradjuri, Afghan, and English heritage, she says reconnecting with her Wiradjuri language was like a “balm of the heart”, and is an avid campaigner for Indigenous languages to be taught in Australian schools.

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“I’ve travelled so much and wherever I’ve gone, I’ve always made sure that I’ve picked up a few words in their language,” she tells Marlee on Tiddas 4 Tiddas.

“We do it because it’s practical, it can help us get by, make life easier, and the other reason we do it is because of respect. [If] Australians realise they’re on someone else’s country already, then isn’t it respectful to learn a few of their words too?

“It’s definitely part of the healing process.”

 

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Any politicians who want to talk about indigenous languages in schools: I’m available and I’ll throw in a free book! #iyil2019

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Looking back at her nearly two-decade long career, Tara maintains her foray into writing was, and is, a “magical, serendipitous story”.

“I’ve always, and still am actually, trying to work out how I fit into the context of the world, and how people fit together. It’s just on my mind all the time,” she says.

“I didn’t have an idea that I would become a writer, I was just writing.

“It’s the only real job I’ve had, so I just sort of stuck with it.”

Read more from Tiddas 4 Tiddas: 

Have you read any books by Tara June Winch? Tell us in a comment below!

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