When author Michael Winkler could not find a publisher for his first novel Grimmish, he paid for a print run of 500 copies, and promoted it through social media.
“People who have a taste for the more experimental, more ambitious type of writing got behind it. It was great, I managed to sell all my books,” he said.
Grimmish is based on the true story of a Chilean American boxer who came to Australia in 1908 and, in Mr Winkler’s telling, had a prodigious ability to soak up physical punishment in the ring.
The book explores themes of pain and masculinity. Mr Winkler says it’s mostly violent – but also quite funny.
“It’s a whole new approach to telling a story. It’s a new approach to what the novel can be,” he said.
The author was contemplating a second print run when publishers Puncher and Wattmann finally picked up his tale.
It’s the first time a self-published book has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin.
The four other shortlisted books are Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser, One Hundred Days by Alice Pung, Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down, and The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad.
It’s the second time a book by Mr Ahmad has been shortlisted, and he believes he’s the only Muslim writer ever to make the cut.
Mr Ahmad began writing The Other Half of You in 2015 as a letter to his newborn son Kahlil, who lay in his arms in hospital.
“His mum was trying to get a bit of sleep, and I just felt this strong compulsion to recount the events that brought us to that moment,” he said. “As I began writing the book, he was in my arms.”
Mr Ahmad said he felt he was writing during an era of global divisiveness.
“I wanted to tell a story about us coming together, and I wanted to tell a story that gives us hope and shows us a way forward for our children,” he said.
Another contender, Michelle de Kretser, has won the Miles Franklin twice before, in 2013 for Questions of Travel, and in 2018 for The Life to Come.
Only a handful of writers have ever won more than twice, including Tim Winton, Thea Astley and Peter Carey.
Each shortlisted author receives $5000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. The winner of the $60,000 prize will be announced on July 20.