Melbourne author Christian White’s life changed almost overnight when an early draft of his riveting debut thriller, The Nowhere Child, scooped the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript last year.
The 37-year-old occasional screenwriter was overwhelmed when a bidding war broke out over the book, crediting his agents, RGM, with keeping him right.
“I was lucky I was already working with them on a couple of screenwriting gigs, because otherwise I would have no idea what I was doing. I’d probably have accepted $5.”
In the end, he went with independent Melbourne-based publisher, Affirm Press, for an undisclosed amount “because they were the most passionate. It was contagious”.
But before the ensuing 15-country book deal hullabaloo that followed within a week, he took the term ‘odd jobs’ pretty seriously.
Graduating from screenwriting at RMIT, film and TV gigs came in dribs and drabs, with White doing everything from driving a food truck on a golf course, to editing pornographic DVDs to pay the rent.
“First of all, it was baffling to me that anybody still buys porn on DVD, but they do, and I’d basically cut out all the worst bits so they would classify in Australia.”
Working on the novel on the fly, White recalls the weirdest moment in the editing suite.
“One day someone walked in and I had to quickly minimise my word document so porn filled the screen, which seems the exact opposite of expected behaviour.”
Up until winning the premier’s prize, only his wife had read the roller coaster tale that sees Australian woman Kim Leamy discover she may have been snatched as a toddler from a small town in Kentucky.
Flying to the United States, she uncovers gaping holes in two family histories. Interconnecting narratives set almost 30 years apart unravel in a Pentecostal community where believers handle poisonous snakes and scorpions to feel closer to God.
“I’ve been obsessed with that world for a long time, and Kentucky is one of only two or three states where people practice that in any real numbers,” White notes.
The dual narrative was a bit of a cheat, he reveals.
“Although the planning was a lot harder, writing 100,000 words is sort of intimidating. When you break it down into two shorter stories, it feels a bit easier.”
Partly inspired by George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice novels (on which the television blockbuster Game of Thrones was based), White says he loves books that switch perspectives.
“At the end of every chapter you get really frustrated when you have to leave that character, then really happy to jump into the next.”
Building tension slowly but surely, establishing a creepy small-town vibe, White also drew on one of his favourite authors Stephen King. Signalling his influence early on, a wobbly table is propped up by a copy of Pet Sematary.
“I am a ridiculous fan,” White confesses. “Originally that reference was to It, but my wife pointed out how big it is, asking, ‘How wonky is this table?’ So I had to chose one of his shorter novels.”
Now almost finished his second novel, White is glad he no longer has to do odd jobs and can focus on writing full time, without the porn distractions.
With a great deal of buzz around Australian crime writers right now, from Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty to fellow Vic Premier-winner Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, White jokes he’s basically hoping to copy their careers.
Reese Witherspoon optioned both books, with Big Little Lies turned into an award-winning TV series starring Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, while The Dry is in development.
“I’m just trying to follow in their very big shoes,” White chuckles.
The Nowhere Child, by Christian White, is out now from Affirm Press.