Our search for the brightest and best new literary talent is finally over as we reveal the winner of Stylist’s inaugural literary prize and find out more about her promising new novel.
The name Kate Kemp might not mean much to you now, but we’re predicting big things for the novelist-in-the-making, who has scooped the top prize in Stylist’s first-ever Feminist Fiction prize, with our partner Rachel Mills Literary agency. Her entry, a literary crime novel called Warrah Place, beat more than 450 other submissions, wowing the judges with its depiction of claustrophobic cul-de-sac life in a 1970s Canberra suburb.
“From the start, Warrah Place stood out to me as exactly the kind of manuscript I was looking for — clever, thematic, with pin-sharp characterisation,” said judge and literary agent Nelle Andrew. “I am so grateful that Kate decided to enter the prize and honoured to offer her representation. She has an incredibly bright future ahead of her.”
Kemp, who moved to the UK from Australia 19 years ago and used to work as a systemic psychotherapist for the NHS, started work on her novel six years ago. She lives in Milton Keynes with her husband and two children – Stylist caught up with our winner to talk gender, reinvention and her creative process.
Firstly, congratulations! How does it feel to have won?
Thank you! This competition really grabbed hold of my heart – to have an outright feminist brief felt like a really good match. And also, it’s a competition that’s inclusive – it was free to enter, and it’s open to all women and the judging panel was full of women that I admire so much. To be longlisted was an absolute thrill – that was enough!
Your book is about a neighbourhood of women whose suburban existence is rocked by a murder. When and where did the idea come from?
About six years ago I was recovering from surgery. Because of a family history of breast and ovarian cancer, I’d had risk-reducing surgery – a double mastectomy and my ovaries removed. I was thinking a lot about my mum, who died 19 years ago, and was one generation too late for the science. As were her sister and her own mum.
Between the ages of five and 10, we lived on the street that Warrah Place is modelled on. I was thinking back to Mum being my age, and wanting to understand what was going on then – politically, economically, culturally, socially. Australia was a country on the cusp of change then – so there was an element of possibilities but there was also pushback against that change. Writing this feels like travelling back to that place, meeting Mum and saying, can we talk about what it’s like to be a woman here?
Has your career in psychotherapy influenced your work as a writer?
Yes, the parallels are very much there. I worked in systemic psychotherapy – and we’re always interested in the stories that aren’t being heard or aren’t being told. The way some narratives are privileged while others are subjugated.
The things that really interested me in my work as a psychotherapist are very much showing themselves in the questions that I’m asking about gender and women who reinvent themselves. I’m interested in the different things that tug at what it means to be a woman; and how that differs if you’re poor, or an immigrant, or gay, or if you’ve got something you’re wanting to run from. I’m interested in the question: if you want to change your life, what are your options and what are you up against – and how that differs for different women.
Tell us about your writing process.
My process is quite laborious. I write notes by hand. I take notebooks with me everywhere or I make voicenotes on my phone and then transcribe them. I started with notes on characters and little bits of research on the setting and snippets of dialogue. Once I’d amassed quite a lot, I cut them up and spread them out on the spare bed and started clumping ideas together – that’s how the story started to emerge.
The book is now a third of the way through. How have you managed it and how have you found the creative process?
I treat this as my job. I’m really lucky that my husband, who’s a train driver, is incredibly supportive. When you decide to write, you have to sit with the uncertainty of not knowing if it can ever be our job, and so you have to find value in it, without the usual markers like income or recognition. And you have to hold on to that value even when things are shaky and you don’t know what you’re doing. I think you’ve also got to hold on to the belief that you’ve got something to say. I always thought the worst outcome would be knowing that I hadn’t given it my best shot. So long as I’m still having a go and learning, my best shot is still out there.
Tell us some more about Warrah Place as the setting for this murder story.
The characters aren’t the same but I’ve kept the nationalities the same; growing up we had a couple from then-Yugoslavia on one side, a Chinese family on the other side and an Italian family. We were constantly in and out of each other’s houses and would play games that went over everybody’s gardens. As an immigrant here [in the UK] I’m interested in immigration and how my experience is worlds apart from that of a person of colour who comes here. At that time in Australia (the action happens in 1979), it wasn’t long since the White Australia policy (a set of policies that sought to limit non-white immigration) had ended. But while the policy had ended, many of the attitudes and prejudices hadn’t gone and I’m interested in the shifts that happen politically, and the lag that happens in suburban life.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I really enjoyed academic writing in my career and I’ve always loved reading. But I used to read things that I loved and think ‘Oh, I could never have written that.’ But then I had this clear moment when I realised, ‘Of course you couldn’t write that because it’s not your story to tell. So stop thinking about other people’s stories and start thinking about what you want to write.’
I stopped working after having our children – a choice I was very lucky to have. But as the years went by, I started to feel the costs of that decision: the loss of a career, the loss of professional identity, the feeling that you’ve got the capacity to do something that isn’t being used. That fuelled me to think, right, I’m treating this like a job because it brings me something I need.
As our winner, Kate Kemp wins £1,000 and representation with RML. We would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who entered the competition with special mention to all who made the longlist and shortlist. We’re also extremely grateful to our partner RML and our judges: Nelle Andrew, author Sara Collins (The Confessions of Frannie Langton) and Viking’s Harriet Bourton.
Photo credit: Bronac McNeill