When AWC graduate Shankari Chandran turned her hand to writing while on maternity leave from her career as a lawyer, she never imagined she would one day be an award-winning author. And yet, that's exactly what she's become, with her novel Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens winning the 2023 Miles Franklin Literary Award.
“It means so much to me that Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, a novel that explores what it means to ‘be Australian', has been recognised in this way,” Shankari said, before picking up her $60,000 prize.
Published by Ultimo Press, Chai Time follows on from her brilliant first novel The Barrier, a futuristic fast-paced thriller published by Pan Macmillan that has been compared to the works of Michael Crichton and Matthew Reilly.
Achieving her impossible dream
Getting her first publishing deal for The Barrier was a massive achievement for this busy mum and legal professional.
“When I heard that I was going to be published I was at Officeworks because I find buying stationery really therapeutic. Whitney Houston’s Shoop song was playing and there was a message on my phone from [the publisher] Tara telling me the news. I was in the personal organiser aisle and I put down my stationery and cried.”
It has been a dream come true for Shankari who has always wanted to pen her own novel. “I’ve been imagining that since I was 10 and Mrs Vandermark gave me my first journal,” she says. “For many years, being published felt like an impossible dream – like something that happened to other people.
“I struggled because for the first time in my life I wasn’t earning an income. The ‘excuse’ of an extended maternity leave to look after four children had run out. The pressure to return to paid legal work and park writing in the ‘hobby’ category of life was significant. I felt like writing wasn’t even considered a real job by others. The majority of my professional communication with the external world was to thank publishers for their rejection emails. Writing gave me immense pleasure but it wasn’t enough – I really hungered for the validation of being published, even though I knew I shouldn’t.”
Graduate of Australian Writers' Centre, author of “Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens”
Then Shankari did a course at the Australian Writers' Centre
Shankari knew that she needed some help to break through. “I read the manuscript through and realised something was wrong but couldn’t work out what.”
That’s when she enrolled in a course at the Australian Writers' Centre. “I knew the manuscript was missing key elements. I read more thrillers, I studied books on the genre, I listened to author podcasts and I trawled the internet for insights. I still couldn’t fix it. I didn’t want to linger in anxious uncertainty anymore.
“When I was a lawyer, I always used specialists to help me. I knew I needed a specialist but opening myself up to help was daunting. I was afraid to be told that the manuscript needed a complete overhaul or a shredder. I called the AWC before I could change my mind.”
It made all the difference
Shankari says that the course helped her realise she needed to radically alter her manuscript for The Barrier. “[The presenter] L.A. Larkin broke down the thriller genre into its conventions and components. She didn’t present this as a ‘write by numbers’ formula. Instead, she gave us examples from high quality thrillers, showing us how and why each of these conventions was compelling and entertaining.
“L.A. Larkin was direct and honest. Day One was brutal in the lessons she delivered about genre writing and reader expectations. That night I went home, read everything she suggested, looked at every book and film she recommended and the next day I came back, really ready to learn.
“Day Two gave me the tools to move my manuscript forward light years. We did some magic pen writing and then read aloud in a supportive but still analytical environment. We assessed our work and then we tried to improve it, with L.A. Larkin poised to help us when necessary. That intense instruction took the course beyond the theoretical to the practical.”
Shankari says that the course also gave her an insight into how to get published. “I was writing with the aim of being published, but I didn’t understand what publishers were looking for. The course changed that and gave me much more insight into how I should be pitching my work.
“After the course, I went home and began a long and important re-write. I used L.A. Larkin’s notes as a reference guide and set of tools. Months later, I had a manuscript that was at a completely different level.
“I feel incredibly fortunate that my books have been published now. I love writing. It’s energising and meditative for me. I feel really committed to the stories I’m telling and I hope to keep doing it.”
From manuscript to being published by Pan Macmillan
Shankari is now represented by her agent Tara Wynne at Curtis Brown Australia, who secured a book deal with Pan Macmillan. “I’m finding that there’s a community of readers and authors in the cyber and real world who want you to succeed. They love a good thriller, they are intrigued by the premise of The Barrier and the questions of justice, faith and power that it raises.”
Importantly, Shankari has now fully embraced her career as an author. “I write every day from 9.15am to 2.30pm otherwise I get cranky and I’m a nightmare to live with.”
At heart, she is a storyteller, and that's what her latest novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, is about. Cinnamon Gardens is a home for those who are lost and the stories they treasure. It's a story about family and memory, community and race, but is ultimately a love letter to storytelling and how our stories shape who we are. The judges of the Miles Franklin literary award say that the novel: “… treads carefully on contested historical claims, reminding us that horrors forgotten are horrors bound to be repeated, and that the reclamation and retelling of history cannot be undertaken without listening to the story-tellers amongst us.”
Shankari’s new life is because she made the choice to seek out AWC’s professional resources and teachers. She realised she didn’t have to do it alone. She says: “Do a course, do lots of courses and do them earlier rather than later on your writing path. It’s worth it.”
Course taken at AWC:
Crime and Thriller Writing