In 2014 Jennifer Severn was awarded a Go for Gold Scholarship to engage a life-writing mentor. She'd been writing snippets of her life story for years and wanted to turn them into a book.
'The Go for Gold Scholarship was a game-changer,' she says. 'I'd been writing all my life and I'd earned a living for a while doing technical and commercial writing—good, plain, practical writing.' She laughs. 'But you can't write a memoir like that. A memoir is creative non-fiction. It has to come to life.
'My mentor, Rae Luckie, introduced me to using all the senses to create a sense of place. I was amazed at the difference this made to some scenes and events in the narrative—just adding, for instance, the aroma of spices in the kitchen of a share house, or the sound of peacocks in an ashram garden.
'She also introduced me to some great techniques for unlocking memories. And that was the time that I started taking my manuscript seriously.
In 2018 that manuscript was shortlisted for the Finch Prize for Memoir, and this year Jennifer launched Long Road to Dry River.
Family dysfunction, inappropriate relationships, life as an 'Orange Person' … Jen's life was a search for belonging, until circumstances conspired to land her in an unrenovated 1840s shearer's cottage in Quaama, a tiny village on Dry River on the far south coast of NSW, in 1997—the same year she was diagnosed with MS.
'I don't need to tell others with MS that it colours all aspects of our lives and rules all our major life decisions,' says Jen. 'So my MS may have been one of the main sources of stress in my life, but it was also one of the factors that brought me to Quaama, a rural community that provided the sustenance I needed—somewhere I belonged.'
Jen was due to launch the book in January this year, but the New Year's Eve bushfires destroyed homes and businesses both in Quaama and in the nearby town of Cobargo, where the launch was planned at Well Thumbed Books.
'I remember evacuating at 2am that day and taking one last look at those boxes of Long Road to Dry River in my office,' she says. 'But our house was saved, and so was the bookshop.'
If ‘Well Thumbed Books’ in Cobargo rings a bell, it might be because it briefly had the world's attention in January when a notice was placed in its window—'Post-Apocalyptic Fiction has been moved to Current Affairs.'
'So we rescheduled the launch for early March. Just one week later and I would've had to cancel it due to COVID-19. There was definitely no social distancing at the bookshop that day—it was packed!
'I'm incredibly grateful for the Go for Gold Scholarship. I wouldn't have thought to consult a mentor without it, but it made a material difference to the book—and to my writing in general,' says Jen.