Marija Peričić in her first flush of fame. By Sarah Price.

Author Marija Peričić

The morning after receiving the Vogel Literary Award, Marija Peričić sits in the A-One Cafe at the ABC Centre in Ultimo. Filled with people and lively conversations, the cafe is in rush hour. At one end a large television broadcasts the morning news, at the other end a film crew is setting up  lights and cameras. Peričić has just finished a radio interview with Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast, telling the audience in a soft, even voice, that her book, The Lost Pages, is a story about the rivalry between two men, in literature and in love. Writing a novel was her life’s dream, she said, something she had always wanted to do.

Sitting beside her publicist, Peričić doesn’t stop smiling. Her tall frame is poised and still, hands rested neatly on her lap. Winning Australia’s oldest and richest prize for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under 35 has changed her life, she says. “I had known about the Vogel for ages and always planned to enter, but I never thought I would win. The award is so important to emerging writers. It offers the chance for publication, and the prize money is huge. You can use it to write.” In return, young writers can offer to the book industry and to fiction “fresh views and new ways of looking at the world, and a different perspective about the past”.

Her idea for the novel began with an article in The New York Times. Mystery surrounded the Kafka papers. After being taken from Prague to Palestine by Max Brod, Franz Kafka’s unpublished manuscripts and papers were inherited by two septuagenarian “cat ladies” living in Israel. Ownership was disputed in court. People broke into the apartment where the papers were held. At one point, the sisters decided to auction the papers by the kilogram, unread. “The story was so absurd; it was like something Kafka would have written himself,” Peričić laughs. Her novel, part fact and part fiction, is her imagined “fake” memoir of the hapless Brod, and his complex relationship with Kafka.

Before she began writing the book, only ever having undertaken “careful” academic writing, Peričić was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to find a voice free enough for fiction. She had never done a writing course or belonged to a writers’ group. She was a lone wolf, she says, choosing to write by herself. Keeping her writing secret from most friends and family, she gave up her social life and, when her partner was away from their St Kilda flat, wrote the first draft in a burst in three months. “Once I started it kind of took over,” she tells me. “I couldn’t have stopped if I wanted to. I was immersed. When I was writing I had no idea if it was ever going to be published, and it was private. I didn’t feel accountable to anyone. It was like play.”

Initially, writing the story from the point of view of a female protagonist, “it took a long time to arrive at the character of Brod, but his voice came through very strongly. It jumped out.” It was Brod’s vulnerability that compelled her to write from his perspective. She felt sympathy for him, “for the difficulty he had living in the world because he was a bit different. We all have that feeling of defectiveness.” To properly understand her protagonist, Peričić explains that she explored her own feelings of defectiveness and “saw my own self more sympathetically”. Through writing the character of Brod, she says, she was able to come to some peace within herself.

Knowing that too much feedback and advice would be hard for her, Peričić entrusted the reading of the manuscript primarily to her mother. “She is responsible for my love of literature. She’s not a writer, but I think she is inside. She didn’t spare the criticism, which was good. Sometimes her criticism could be brutal, but I felt I could trust it.”

Growing up in Perth with migrant parents, and not learning English until she went to school, Peričić says she always felt like an outsider. “I understand what it’s like to not fit in; to be on the outside looking in.” Fiction is the most important art form, she believes, because it allows us to inhabit the lives of others for an extended period, to seek to understand them. “You can make this deep connection with people who might be quite different from yourself,” she says. “When we read fiction we become better at seeing the other as we see ourselves. And it’s much harder to be aggressive and unkind.” Through our engagement with fiction, she says, we become kinder people.

Beside her, Peričić’s publicist taps into his iPad, and checks the time. They are preparing to head to Booktopia for a podcast, then to her publisher’s office to record a video. Suddenly, being in the spotlight has made Peričić “terribly nervous, but excited”. She admits that usually she is quite shy, “but it’s so lovely to talk about the book. And so many people have come up to tell me that they write privately, too.”

What does it mean to win the award? “It’s such a thrill. Literally my dream has come true. I can hardly believe it.” The most important thing is the recognition, and being able to think of yourself as a writer, she says.

“I dared not do that before; now I can.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 22, 2017 as "Lost, then found". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.