Tassie takes the Vogel! Rohan Wilson wins $30,000 prize

Posted Monday 23rd May, 2011

Vogel winner's trip to heart of darkness

By Stephen Romei, Literary editor, The Australian, published April 28, 2020

ROHAN Wilson knows he is striding into contested terrain with his first book, the historical novel The Roving Party, which last night won the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under 35.

"Seeing my work in print has been my dream for as long as I can remember," Launceston-based Wilson, 34, said after receiving the $30,000 prize cheque from former Vogel winner Tim Winton at the award ceremony in Sydney.

Winton, who won the 1981 Vogel for An Open Swimmer, said: "No prize has had such an impact on my life and professional prospects. And now, the Vogel, God bless it, has been with us for a generation." Winton described The Roving Party as a "brutal, stark but beautiful novel".

On receiving the prize cheque from Winton, Wilson exclaimed: "Holy shit, that's Tim Winton".

Wilson's blood-spattered novel is set during colonial Tasmania's "Black Wars", following the declaration of martial law in 1828. Its protagonist is John Batman, grazier, entrepreneur, explorer and founder of the settlement that became Melbourne.

Batman leads the roving party of the title, a "mongrel lot" of settlers, convicts and "tamed blacks" with a government remit to remove indigenous people from the settled areas of northwest Van Diemen's Land - and to shoot any who resist.

Batman did lead such a posse, though opinion is divided on the death toll in these campaigns. Keith Windschuttle, author of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, has written that Batman's group killed two Aborigines.

Wilson, who spent four years researching the novel, limits himself to these two "murders", but it is his fictional rendering of them that packs the emotional punch.

Batman blows the head off a wounded warrior, while the other killing is by Black Bill, a fearsome local Aborigine who observes that "you can't murder a black any more than you can murder a cat".

Wilson did consider cloaking Batman with a fictional name but decided "that would be dishonest". "This is a work of fiction, and in some ways the John Batman I have written about is entirely fictional, but his crimes have a basis in the historical record," he said.

Words such as murder, crimes and genocide, which is how Wilson describes the fate of the Tasmanian Aborigines, will raise hackles in some circles but the author insists "this is the reality of what happened", and he notes the atrocities on both sides.

"Can you imagine an Australian government today paying someone to go out and kill a minority group?" he asks.

Wilson, who was born and raised in Launceston, worked in "dead end" hospitality jobs, writing story ideas on napkins, before moving to Japan in 2003 for a job teaching English. There he met his wife, Machiko; the couple now have a six-year-old son.

Wilson lost his job when his employer, Nova Corporation, went broke, and it was then he decided to write about Batman, an early Australian embodiment of the entrepreneurial competition for limited resources.

The Roving Party is unlikely to feature in Tasmanian tourism brochures - it's all terror and no beauty, with trees that "groan like the damned", a river that "seeps . . . like the discharge from a sore" - and that is as the author intends.

"The Tasmanian landscape is beautiful but that would not have been the prevailing attitude of the time," Wilson said. "It would have been one of fear and horror and the struggle just to survive."

The Roving Party is published today by Allen & Unwin. 

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