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Southern Cross University lecturer wins publishing award and contract


Zoe Satherley
16 November 2007
Putting into practice what she had been teaching her students at Southern Cross University has just won Dr Maria Simms a publishing award and a contract for her crime novel, The Dead House.

Dr Simms has just been named the winner of the inaugural Genre Fiction Award from New Holland Publishers, run in conjunction with the NSW Writers’ Centre. Genre fiction categories include crime, adventure, action/thriller, historical, family saga, chic lit, lad lit, romance, science fiction, fantasy and humour.

Her winning manuscript was selected from 246 entries from both published and unpublished authors across Australia.

“I’d been teaching textual theory at the University and using feminist crime fiction as an example of how a popular fiction genre could be a forum for the writer’s interests and beliefs. Writing my novel I had to put that into practice, and I took it on as my PhD thesis,” Dr Simms said.

“Serendipitously, I already had crime novelist Marele Day as a supervisor and who better to supervise the writing of a crime novel? She and writer and lecturer Dr Janie Conway-Herron, my other supervisor, gave real guidance but despite their support, I never knew if I’d quite pulled it off until I heard The Dead House had been short listed for the award.”

New Holland Publishers manager Martin Ford said that the large number of entries made the process of judging quite difficult. “In the end,” he said, “the winning entries were selected because they displayed simple, clean, clear writing and possessed a strong voice and original subject matter”.

The Dead House is a crime novel set against the backdrop of a little known but fascinating episode in Australian history. The fictional investigation weaves through the factual story of Lucy Osburn, Florence Nightingale’s envoy to Australia, arriving from England with five other nurses in 1868 to establish the Nightingale system of nursing at the Sydney Infirmary.

“Lucy had a public profile, faced adversity with courage and had plenty of it to face,” Dr Simms said. “On her arrival in Australia, she immediately clashed with the medical establishment. She’d come to a vermin-ridden institution that would have stretched even Charles Dickens’ imagination.

“Her English nurses proved unruly, she made PR mistakes, was pilloried in the press and endured a crushing repudiation by Florence Nightingale. But she was resoundingly successful in establishing professional nursing at the Infirmary.

“A bonus was the happy ending of sorts when a Royal Commission into NSW Charities held in 1873 into the running of the Infirmary exonerated Lucy and condemned the hospital’s administration.

“The whole thing had drama. It was history. It was the story of my dreams and I decided to write a novel based on Lucy’s story.

“Apart from the work of a handful of nursing historians, Lucy Osburn’s work at the Sydney Infirmary has been largely forgotten and this typifies the way our stories so often fail to transfer from one generation to the next, particularly stories about women.

“Although Indigenous Australians remember their stories, I’ve always thought that European Australia suffers a kind of collective amnesia about the past – perhaps a legacy of shame in our convict origins. However, interest in history seems to be returning with renewed vigour.

“That urge to reclaim our stories was the impulse driving my search for a PhD project – that, and my love of history and desire to be part of a movement that writes women into historical narratives.”

Photo: Dr Maria Simms has just been awarded a publishing award and contract for her crime novel, The Dead House.