Helen Garney: Australian Author Finds $150,000 Literary Prize Win in Her Junk Mail

Australian writer, Helen Garner first realized that she had notched a big win of $150,000 in literary prize money from reading an email in her junk folder. According to The Guardian, Garner got the congratulatory email from someone at Yale University who wanted her phone number.

She thought it was a scam but contacted her publisher, who was able to confirm that she had indeed won the Windham-Campbell prize for writers.

“I nearly keeled over, I’m staggered, I feel thrilled and validated,” an elated Garner said.

Donald Windham and Sandy M. Campbell were avid readers and enthusiastic book collectors. They had many friends in literary circles during their time. Campbell was a stage actor who contributed articles to Harper’s and penned unsigned book reviews for The New Yorker. Windham, on the other hand, wrote plays, novels, memoirs, short stories, and even a children’s book.

The good friends had discussed introducing an award that would encourage writers. Their attempt at leaving a worthwhile legacy was inspired by Windham’s initial struggles as a writer and the subsequent financial independence he attained when it blossomed into a successful career. Even when Campbell died in 1988, Windham remained relentless in realizing the dream he had shared with his friend.

The spirit of selflessness, affection for literature, and deep compassion for fellow writers led to Windham establishing the Donald Windham-Sandy M Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale University. The purpose of the cash prizes was to allow writers to focus solely on their creativity and not worry about the financial concerns of getting published.

Windham ignored the financial advice of his consultants and kept the stocks he had inherited from Campbell instead of selling them quickly. His modest lifestyle, patience, and determination enabled him to realize the dream he had shared with his friend.

The prize is an unconventional one because there is no submission process. Most times, writers are not aware they have even been shortlisted. This was the reason why Garner read the email with an air of cynicism and reacted with genuine surprise when she got a call from the prize director Michael Kelleher.

Garner was chosen for her 2014 nonfiction book The House of Grief, which followed the trial, conviction, and subsequent appeal of Robert Farquharson, a man accused of driving his car into a dam and drowning his three young sons deliberately. Farquharson said he had passed out after a coughing fit. But his ex-wife, who had moved in with another man, said he had made threats of getting even when she left him.

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Helen Garner’s account of the trial was lauded for its simple approach and disconcerting detail. The literary judges spoke well of Garner’s “intelligent, lucid and often disturbing” writing and for bringing “acute observations and narrative skill to bear on the conflicts and tragedies of contemporary Australian life.” Garner was appreciative of the award and said it validated in the best way possible all the struggles she had endured for the past 20 years and was a great tonic that kept her heart going.

The annual prize honors nine different writers who write in the English language for drama, fiction, and nonfiction genres. Garner was only one of nine writers to win the literary prize. Others were Tessa Hadley (United Kingdom), Hilton Als (United States), Stanley Crouch (United States), Jerry Pinto (India) CE Morgan (United States), and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (United States).

Canadian Playwright Hannah Moscovitch nearly avoided listening to the message left on her voicemail.

“I thought it was ‘Congratulations you’ve won a cruise to Florida if you pay $200’ message,” she said.

[Photo via Shutterstock]