Uncovering Victoria’s next literary sensation

09 February 2023

Even before the acclaimed Australian crime novel The Dry became a bestseller and its film adaptation made millions at the box office, author Jane Harper’s unpublished manuscript was already winning awards.

Harper, then a newspaper journalist, entered The Dry in the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, where it won the Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.

The rest is history – Harper’s compelling story led to two sequels featuring police investigator Aaron Falk, Force of Nature and Exiles, and sparked a boom in ‘outback noir’ novels.

The feature film adaptation of The Dry, starring Eric Bana, went on to become one of the highest grossing Australian films of all time and the sequel Force of Nature is due to hit the cinemas in 2023.

“The award can have a profound effect on the winner’s literary career,” says the Wheeler Centre CEO Caro Llewellyn.

“From the moment the shortlist of the Unpublished Manuscript pool is announced, writers are sought out by literary agents and publishers who see the award as a strong indicator of a work’s potential critical and commercial success.”

The list of past winners of the award reads like a who’s who of Victorian literary talent – including Graeme Simsion, who won in 2012 for The Rosie Project, Maxine Beneba Clarke in 2013 for Foreign Soil and Victoria Hannan, who won for her atmospheric novel Kokomo in 2019.

Shortlisted and highly commended writers have also achieved critical and commercial success, including Alice Bishop, Mark Brandi, 2015 Stella Prize winner Emily Bitto and 2022 Miles Franklin Award winner Jennifer Down.

Man in dark shirt smiling at camera
Mick Cummins - Award for an Unpublished Manuscript

The 2023 prize went to Melbourne writer Mick Cummins, who took home the $15,000 prize for One Divine Night, which explores homelessness, social systems and family complexities.

Introduced in 2003, the award recognises an outstanding unpublished manuscript by a Victorian author, which may take the form of a novel or a collection of stories.

The winner receives a two-week residency at writing retreat McCraith House in Dromana, as well as $15,000 in prize money, as part of a partnership between the Wheeler Centre and RMIT Culture.

The Unpublished Manuscript Award sits alongside six other award categories comprising drama, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, Indigenous writing and writing for young adults, with children’s literature joining the suite from the 2024 Awards. The main category winners also go in the running to take home the major prize, the Victorian Prize for Literature, worth a hefty $100,000.

Llewellyn says supporting emerging writers is vital to a thriving creative sector in Victoria.

“The number of entries received annually, and the strong level of industry interest in the shortlisted and winning books, are indicators of the esteem in which the Unpublished Manuscript award is held and the high calibre of unpublished talent in the state.”

While the award can be career-making for the winner, its impact also extends across Victoria’s creative industries and economy. The film adaptation of The Dry and its sequel, Force of Nature, were filmed in Victoria, injecting millions into the local economy and supporting local businesses and jobs.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards were established by the Victorian Government in 1985 to celebrate the best in contemporary writing. The Wheeler Centre delivers the awards on behalf of the Victorian Government.

2023 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards were announced in February. See list of recipients