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.