Australian film-extra-turned-novelist eyes Booker glory

by Prashant Rao

Note: This article was originally published by AFP on October 13, 2008. It can be found here.

LONDON (AFP) — Which is more impressive? Turning a 500-word short story into a nearly 700-page novel short-listed for the Booker Prize, or transforming yourself from a television extra into an acclaimed author?

For Australian Steve Toltz, the transformations go hand in hand, and the two stories may well culminate together tomorrow.

That is the day the 36-year-old’s debut tome, A Fraction of the Whole, goes up against five other novels for the English-speaking world’s most prestigious literary award.

The book, based around 20-something Jasper Dean’s account of his life with his father Martin, was originally commissioned as a short story by a magazine but, Toltz said, he just “couldn’t bring myself to submit it”.

“I thought I could expand it to a larger story, a slightly larger story, so I kept expanding it, and kept expanding it, and about 690 pages and five years later, I finished it,” he said while in London ahead of the award ceremony at the Guildhall.

“I wanted to explore how it would be for the children of people who are crucified, or skinned alive, in the media, that was my first instinct.

“And also … explore how a child of rebel could also rebel.”

In the novel, Dean narrates the reader through a childhood that takes him from Australia to France, and features an uncle who is a celebrated outlaw, an absent mother and a father who at one point berates a vendor for over-charging for a newspaper as there have been no major crises in the world.

It has been widely praised, and is one of the few comic novels to have been short-listed for the Booker Prize.

In a bid to complete the novel, Toltz would write daily while working odd jobs to pay the bills – he taught English in Barcelona, had a screenplay picked up while in Paris, and worked as a television extra in Australia.

“I didn’t have a fall-back career because I was afraid I would fall back on it,” he said.

“I was writing every day, I would write pretty solidly except for any time I was at work, although working as an extra, you often have a time to write while you work.

“It’s like ‘hurry up and wait’, that’s the kind of thing you have to do when you’re an extra. ‘Get over here, wait, and sit down. We’ll call you in five hours’, so I did a lot of writing in that time.”

A nomination for a Booker Prize, awarded to the best work of fiction by an author from the Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland, all but guarantees a huge surge in sales, potentially to a worldwide readership.

The winner receives 50,000 pounds while all the shortlisted authors receive 2,500 pounds and a designer bound edition of their novel.

Toltz’s competition for the award is fierce – among his rivals for the prize are a former Booker judge and an author who was shortlisted in 2005 – but he is cautiously optimistic.

Although betting house Ladbrokes regard him as a six-to-one outsider, Toltz sees his chances as “one in six”.

“I just think that there’s no way of knowing what the judges are going to do,” he said. “I assume that each book has an equal chance.”

“I’ve started to (read the other short-listed books) and so far I’m really impressed, and would say that I’m in good company.”

He is already looking past the ceremony, however, and is at work on a second novel, which he says is around a couple of years away.

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