Miles Franklin shortlist names five contenders for the $60,000 literary award

CLEVER MAN: Ryan O'Neill, author of Their Brilliant Careers. Photo: Simone De Peak
CLEVER MAN: Ryan O'Neill, author of Their Brilliant Careers. Photo: Simone De Peak

When an old friend of Ryan O'Neill, a Newcastle writer, read his latest book he was very worried. That's because Their Brilliant Careers is dedicated to "my late wife, Rachel". Had O'Neill really divorced his first wife, his Scottish friend wondered, and had he now lost his second?

O'Neill swiftly put him straight. The book, subtitled The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers, is a complete fabrication, a suite of stories about fictitious writers located firmly in the Australia cultural landscape.

And with its title echoing My Brilliant Career, it seems somehow appropriate that O'Neill's concoction should be shortlisted for the award named after Miles Franklin, the woman who wrote that Australian classic. The Miles Franklin, now in its 60th year and worth $60,000 to the winner, is Australia's most significant literary prize and presented to the novel "which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases".

O'Neill is joined on the shortlist by two poet novelists, Mark O'Flynn (The Last Days of Ava Langdon) and Philip Salom (Waiting), Emily Maguire (An Isolated Incident) and Josephine Wilson (Extinctions). None of them have been listed for the Miles Franklin before.

O'Neill, who teaches at the University of Newcastle, said his book had started off as one short piece that didn't get published, but he had carried on to write a series of imaginary biographies that picture their subjects moving through the real literary landscape of Australia.

He added a fabricated introduction, acknowledgments and index, and even the author's photograph on the back cover is credited to his fictitious wife. "I had to get my wife's permission for the dedication and she wasn't really happy about it," O'Neill said. At one festival session one of his co-panellists even started to commiserate with him on his loss. "I said no, it's all made up."

The award judges said none of the shortlisted books drew on familiar tropes of Australia literature "yet each brings a distinctive pitch of truth and insight into the Australian experience".

Maguire's book is about a murder but looks at how the police and media treat the victim's loved ones rather being a whodunnit; O'Flynn's character is a reclusive writer who dresses as a man and is loosely based on the novelist Eve Langley, while Wilson's ageing engineer Fred Lothian is another isolated outsider.

Salom, who has published 13 collections of poetry and three novels, said he had always wanted to be a novelist "but ended up being a poet because I found out earlier I could do it". His novel about two unusual couples in North Melbourne emerged when he moved to the area: "I observed the people and the characters in the streets; I like difference; people in rooming houses, on the dole – not the recognised characters – rather than the types in middle-class fiction that we're so familiar with."

The winner of the Miles Franklin award will be announced on September 7 at the State Library of NSW.

The Sydney Morning Herald