Winner of the 2015 Viva La Novella Prize
'Original, intelligent and compelling - a rare combination. Formaldehyde pulls off a complex narrative with frequent time and point-of-view shifts without ever losing the reader. The clever structure never gets in the way of the writing, which is sharply observed, assured and witty. The most original novel I’ve read for some time.' – Graeme Simsion
Finally, finally I can talk about Formaldehyde.
In November 2014 I was told that I had been selected as one of the editors for Viva La Novella. I was excited but also terrified. Terrified of not making a good choice, of not doing a good job. I have freelanced as an editor and writer and journalist for years but it is a very different thing to be part of a national competition and to have scrutiny thrust upon the editor as well as the writer.
A mere month later there were 130 odd manuscripts to read online. Each of the editors had their own system for trying to keep it all straight. In my case it was often late at night, after pulling a twelve-hour shift as a journalist in Sri Lanka covering an election campaign during a very intense working holiday. I ended up picking Formaldehyde in one country, reading the manuscript in another and then editing it in a third, a feat only made possible by David Henley, Seizure's publisher, and Pamela Hewitt, our editorial mentor and patron.
I chose Formaldehyde because each time I read it, it made me laugh even more. I was thrilled to read another Jane Rawson work – her earlier book A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists is a favourite of mine and one that I credit with turning me onto contemporary Australian speculative fiction as a genre.
I wasn't entirely confident about editing Formaldehyde. I knew Jane and I could work together well and that it was a book worth publishing but I had never edited speculative fiction before. Texts like these require a mind capable of cataloguing all places and times and people.
It turned out I was up to it, so it was lovely to learn that about myself, that in the many timeslips in Jane's novella, that I was the one keeping track of all the tenses and shifts, noting where the reader had to move back and forth in time and where it was a flashback. The first edit was just sorting tenses out so we could see the story more clearly.
Formaldehyde had been a work already polished to some degree before it got to me. Rewriting consisted of a line here or there and giving a minor character a chance to shine a bit more. Each time I read it, I found more jokes. Each email that passed back and forth with Jane elicited more explanations and stories of how the jokes came to be or her amazement that she had written in something that she hadn't planned to that was working.
And it was, in a sense, also very Jane. The plot revolves around misplaced limbs and the question of whether you determine your identity for yourself or if someone else does and how fluid it might be. It's quirky, it's rock and roll and bohemian, with misplaced limbs all over the place in a future that could easily be our future.
After knowing her for a year or two through online mediums of emails and Twitter, one exciting and giddy phone call when I told her she had won, and another to discuss her writing, I finally got to meet the quirky talented Jane Rawson in person at Formaldehyde's launch. We were both a bit overwhelmed and stunned by the fact that this book was finally out in the world after fifteen years of writing, rewriting, submission, rejection and editing and plain ignoring while it sat on a hard drive. I was thrilled to hear that story. It gives me hope for my own work. It gives other writers hope.
And that's the loveliest part of the Viva La Novella competition: it gives writers hope that they can publish short quirky pieces that may not easily find a home elsewhere and it gives editors hope because it recognises and supports them so strongly. It also ensures that the novella form still has a place on the map. They aren't easier to write than novels and short stories – it's just as hard to put plot, characters and a story into between 20,000 and 50,000 words.
But sometimes that is the shape of the story. And if there was no novella form, it would not be told. There would have been no Formaldehyde. And there should be more quirky madcap spins through a near possible future like this one.