2016 Monash Prize winner: Phoebe Chen

Bella Arnott-Hoare  

Phoebe Chen took home the Monash Prize’s top honour last year – $4000 – for her short story Ghost Story.

The elusive and off-kilter piece was chosen from over 460 entries and received high praise from our judges. In their words: “the writing is intelligent and assured; the story has heft and the language commands attention.”

We chatted with Phoebe about what the Monash Prize means for emerging writers.

What were you studying when you entered the Monash Prize in 2016?
I was in my penultimate year of a combined Arts/Law degree at the University of Sydney.

What made you want to enter?
Since I had no institutional or financial obligation to write fiction, I started using competition deadlines as a way of holding myself accountable. I looked up a few competitions and the EWF had done a good job of promoting the Monash Prize.

Tell us a little bit about your entry.
Two sisters check into an ostensible retreat/Thomas Mann-esque sanitorium/”wellness” clinic. Strange things have happened, and continue to happen.

What have you been up to since winning first prize?
Like everyone else I am “working on my novel” (tangentially, right now), and taking a year off my law degree to complete my honours thesis in film.

How has it assisted you in your career as a writer?
I think the most important thing is that it allowed me to even envision having a career as a writer.

Have you got any advice for anyone wanting to enter this year?
1.  Not everyone is moved by the same things you are. Write for yourself, by all means, but if you intend your words to have an audience, there is necessarily a process of translating (and heavily critiquing!) the feelings and ideas that echo so powerfully in your head
2. Edit your piece constantly, and then put it away for two weeks, at least. Lift yourself out of its world and you’ll come back with a better eye for pacing.
3. This is so obvious and everyone from Anne Lamott to Robert McKee has said it but – character drives story, not the other way round. It’s easy to forget.

Who’s your favourite writer (emerging or established) and why?
Of course I can’t name just one writer, so here are some off the top of my head who I feel have influenced the way I write fiction: Anne Carson, James Joyce, Julio Cortázar, Elena Ferrante, Lorrie Moore, Renata Adler. Non-fiction/essays are a whole other set.

Where do you find inspiration?
Books, movies, the internet, conversation, sometimes in conversation on the internet, long walks (mostly at night and in the direction of home).

Anything else we should know about you?
I am very fond of sugar, almost every single cheese I have ever tried (there have been many), Hannah Arendt, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and synths. Also clouds at dusk.

We’re lucky to present Australia’s biggest cash prize for an undergraduate creative writing award in partnership with Monash University. Presented by the Emerging Writers’ Festival, The Monash University Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing will award $4000 to an undergraduate or honours student for the best short story, poetry, non-fiction narrative or narrative verse. Enter now at emergingwritersfestival.org.au/monash-prize.