"Don't worry darling, you'll grow out of it," said Stephen Daisley's mother when, as a young man, he told her he wanted to be a writer.
But the Creative Writing PhD student and father of five didn't grow out of it and his debut novel Traitor was recently awarded the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing at this year's New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards. It is also on the short-list of the Prime Minister's Literary Awards.
Stephen dedicated the novel to his late mother, who, he said, was a creative person despite being dismissive of his ideal career. During his pre-television boyhood in New Zealand his sister Yvonne, eight years his senior, read Enid Blyton to him and these stories deepened his innate love of story-telling.
"I've always loved reading and I've always had a longing to tell stories," he said.
His interest in literature and his literary skills were encouraged by his tutors at Murdoch University, where he completed his first degree, and later at UWA .
"From Gail Jones, who was then at Murdoch, and Marion Campbell, and then Brenda Walker - my PhD supervisor - I received validation that it's OK to be a writer. There's no money in it, but you'll be respected and it's a great life," he said.
"I come from a family of manly men - publicans - and my four sons are manly too. Luckily, my wife Sylvia is very supportive and our daughter Grace, who is our youngest child, is a reader and a writer like me so I'm not alone."
Before becoming an acclaimed novelist, Stephen had numerous jobs including being a soldier in the NZ Army, a station-hand, a market-stall holder and even an events coordinator in Facilities Management at UWA.
Drawing on some of these experiences, Traitor tells the story of two young men from opposing armies who become friends despite their different cultural backgrounds. One is a naïve New Zealand shepherd, David, and the other an Islamic mystic, Mahmoud, who practises Soufism. Although its setting is Gallipoli, it is not an historical novel, he said.
"It explores the Anzac myth and love, respect and nationalism. Because I wanted its structure to represent way in which post-traumatic stress works, as well as a Dervish's whirling dance, it's not written as a linear narrative.
"The inscription at the beginning is a quote from E.M Forster: if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped he'd have the guts to betray his country. This is what David does."
Stephen, who lives in Kalamunda, is writing another novel for his PhD. With the working title ‘Wildwood Road', it is a love story and a family story set in the south-west and is Stephen's homage to WA. The related thesis is about the integrity of the novel as an art-form.
He has a basic idea of the new novel's plot but prefers to let his characters surprise him. "The American novelist E.L Doctorow said writing's like driving at night. You can only see so far in front of you but you do get to the end of the journey. Writing's a bit of a mystery in that way," he said.
Published in UWA News, 13 June 2011