AWC graduate Anna Johnston scores a two-book deal

​​Anna Johnston started telling stories at a young age, writing plays and short films for her parents as a child. But she left her storytelling passion behind when she went into healthcare and started her family. A course at the Australian Writers' Centre changed that, reigniting her love of creative writing, and Anna is now celebrating the publication of her debut novel The Borrowed Life of Frederick Fife, in a two-book deal with Penguin Random House.

“I don’t think I would be a published author without the AWC courses; they were the seed from which everything else grew. The fantastic lessons aside, recommendations for great books on writing, connections with other writers and news of publishing opportunities all came through the AWC,” Anna told us.

The start of a new chapter

Anna started toying with the idea of returning to her first passion during a stay at an Enid Blyton-like cottage in the English countryside. A friend recommended she try the Australian Writers' Centre, so Anna enrolled in Creative Writing Stage 1, followed by Novel Writing Essentials.

“I’d been concerned about how my brain (which often feels like mashed banana) would hold up to further education after such a long time away from study, but I needn’t have been. The lessons in the AWC courses were incredibly clear and easy to follow. My tutor (Bernadette Foley) was sensational. She not only provided practical feedback but made me believe I had something worth writing, and her initial words of encouragement have stayed in my head to this day.”

Anna found the community aspect of the courses to be particularly beneficial. “The opportunity to be surrounded by other writers from all different walks of life and give and receive feedback on each other’s work was priceless. It gave us the skills and insight to critique and edit our own work as well as providing a good sense of how our writing was tracking rather than going it alone and just hoping for the best.”

Write about what you know

For her first manuscript, Anna drew on her experiences working in aged care. “Before having children, I was studying to become a doctor, yet ended up as a social support coordinator after following my heart into my grandfather’s nursing home after he was diagnosed with dementia.”

Anna feels privileged to have cared for residents with varying stages of dementia and to have provided support to their families, knowledge which she later passed on to the protagonist of her first novel. 

“Sadly, an injury and multiple surgeries left me unable to return to aged care, so I began to write about it, channelling my experience and love for older people onto the page.”

Her debut novel, The Borrowed Life of Frederick Fife, is about a bizarre case of mistaken identity that gives a desperately lonely elderly man one last chance at being part of a family. He just has to hope that his poker face is in better nick than his prostate and that his lookalike is never found! It’s a life-affirming story about redemption, forgiveness, grief and finding family, coated thickly in Aussie humour.

“The idea for the novel began with the creation of my protagonist Fred, who not only shares my late grandfather’s name but also his delightful, selfless, and endearing nature. Pa was my best friend, whose gratitude, humour and kindness lit up any room he was in. People over eighty are often under or misrepresented in the arts, so I wanted to create not just an elderly character but an elderly hero who inspires hope and shows that worth, unlike eyesight, does not diminish with age. 

“Pa provided the perfect inspiration. He had countless strengths, but his poker face wasn’t one of them! He was so honest that he found it terribly difficult to even play a card game that required bluffing. Plot stems from conflict, so I contemplated what would happen if you placed such a man in a situation where he was desperate enough to deceive (if he believed he wasn’t hurting anyone). Doppelgängers and cases of mistaken identity have always fascinated me, and I began developing the idea of one man being able to redeem another man’s life, even after death. The story grew quickly from there.

“My experience in aged care provided the setting for the book and influenced its themes of grief, ageing, isolation and the power of identity, purpose, love, and connection. I was also greatly inspired by my grandparents’ beautiful marriage which breathed life into the novel. I often wonder what prompted multiple people to publish this story and I can only believe that their love somehow got into my keyboard and onto the page. The characters, plot and setting of the novel are all fictional. But the love? That’s entirely real.”

Building on her knowledge

Anna took the skills she learned in additional courses, including Fiction Essentials: Scenes, Fiction Essentials: Grammar and Punctuation and Fiction Essentials: Structure to polish her manuscript to the best of her ability before looking for a publisher. 

“I entered a couple of writing competitions to little avail and began preparing a query letter to submit to agents and publishers. However, my big break came when I decided to give Virtual Literary Speed Dating a go, as suggested by my AWC tutor. This is a unique and fabulous opportunity offered by the Australian Society of Authors in which you have three minutes to pitch your novel to a publisher or agent on Zoom. 

“I pitched to the lovely Bev Cousins at Penguin Random House, and she requested my full manuscript the following week. I began preparing myself for a ‘no’ with my Stephen King rejection nail and hammer at the ready – it’s a thing, google it!. But I never needed the nail because this was THE YES! And not for one book, but two. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to have had this door open so quickly and don’t take it for granted that everything aligned that day.”

Anna celebrated the good news with spaghetti, seafood, dancing, tiramisu and champagne. “Not necessarily in that order!” Anna says. “It was a similar feeling to when the boy I really liked called me for the first time, which made me so happy that I screamed and jumped into the pool. I didn’t jump into the pool when I heard I was being published, but I did tell that same boy (who is now my husband) and we screamed and cried and jumped up and down along with our daughters and geriatric Italian Greyhound.”

Anna then secured herself an agent, and now has publishing deals with Harper Collins USA and Nemira Publishing Romania. 

“I’m also thrilled that the manuscript is now with a media rights agent in Los Angeles who is pitching to writers and producers for screen adaptation, which for me was always the ultimate aspiration from the minute I typed the first word. Not too long ago, I would have told myself I was dreaming. Now that my dreams and reality have begun to merge like the perfect gin and tonic, I’m starting to believe that anything is possible.”

A career as an author

Anna is working on the second book in her two-book deal, currently titled Ratbag. “It’s about a retired Michelin-star chef called Griff who now lives in a nursing home, widowed and depressed. He has created a death menu—a list of ways in which he could take his own life. He just has to choose which one…by Friday. There is no way his last meal is going to be the flavourless mush they serve at the home, so the night before he plans his demise, he breaks into the nursing home kitchen to cook himself his last meal, sparking a long-forgotten joy. 

“It’s a story about the power of food, purpose, family, and love. I drew inspiration for this from the delightful Maggie Beer who is doing great work with her foundation to improve food in nursing homes.”

And while the achievements keep rolling in, for Anna the most important thing is sharing her dream with her family.

“Showing my kids that dreams were possible was one of my proudest moments as a mum. Because of my physical health limitations, they had never seen me climb a mountain, until now. My youngest daughter has already planned her book week costume based on my debut – even though it’s not a kid’s book – and I get teary even thinking about that! They are both wonderful writers and I love sharing this passion with them.

“Because this book grew from such a personal family connection, I also felt delighted and proud that my grandparents’ love, which inspired everyone who met them, could be shared beyond their lifetime and geography. That’s the magic of books.”

A winning recipe

Anna has found the winning recipe, combining her love for her family, storytelling and aged care into stories that will resonate with readers. Her aim is to write uplifting and meaningful books that make the reader laugh and cry in equal measure and leave them seeing a little of the glitter in the world.

“I feel so incredibly grateful and in awe that this little story that began in my head has really meant something to people in the publishing industry and because of that it will have the opportunity to reach, and hopefully capture the hearts of, people on a global scale. It’s just mind-blowing. I hope that it’s not just an enjoyable read but that it might also be a tonic to people whose lives have been touched by ageing and loss.

“If you are even remotely curious about writing, enrolling in an Australian Writers' Centre course is the single best thing you can do, whether you are after a career change or just want to enjoy it as a hobby. It not only teaches you the craft of all kinds of writing – from novels to picture books to copywriting and grammar – but also offers very practical advice on getting published and invaluable insight into how the industry works.

“The courses also put you in touch with other aspiring authors, which helps to keep your writing momentum. Writing a book is a bit like trying to get fit – but with less sweat and more chocolate. In both pursuits, having accountability buddies gives you the highest chance of success. My origin story is not uncommon – so many authors I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to also began their journey to publication at the Australian Writers' Centre.”

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