Mario Pilla

What inspired your winning story?

A month or two into the first round of COVID-19 restrictions, I had an intense episode of agoraphobia. I don’t think I was alone: we were all made to stop flexing our social muscles, and we found those muscles a bit feeble when we needed them again.

I’d been an agoraphobe before – disinclined to leave the house, afraid of situations I couldn’t escape from – but that was years ago, and I thought I’d left it behind me. This time, I could hardly walk five minutes away from ‘safety’, whether that be my house or my car. But I made myself walk, to fight the agoraphobia. And on those walks I saw others walking, light and free from care, and I wondered how I might explain to them why I was having such a rough time.

I don’t have kids, but for whatever reason my story is about a father explaining agoraphobia to his daughter. Maybe I thought it was worth remembering that the weak — in this case, children — may be strong and that the strong — their parents — may be weak, in ways that neither fully understands.

Is this a theme you’ve written about before?

No, this is the first time I’ve tried to write directly about mental health. I was probably more interested in the relationship between the father and the daughter than about the agoraphobia.

Mental health has always felt to me to be particular, and I’m drawn more towards the general. But I suppose everyone has their own idea of what general is.

I also prefer older modes of language, and maybe it’s harder to find the vocabulary to express ideas of mental health. Even the way we use the word ‘nervous’ is fairly new (it used to mean ‘sinewy’ or ‘tendon-y’). That being said, ‘anxiety’ has always meant what it means today, without the full breadth of today’s connotations.

Have you always written?

Big time. Very much.

What drives you to write?

Sunk-cost fallacy. I’ve been doing it my whole life. But, really, there’s nothing better. Even when it’s bad, it’s good. I like to read, and writing is a lot like reading: many of the same pleasures, and they’re all heightened, but you pay for that with frustration and heartbreak. It’s also a terrific way to order your thoughts, and to find thoughts you never knew you could have.

How do you incorporate writing into the rest of your life?

While I’m lucky enough to tutor linguistics at Adelaide and Flinders Universities, most of my time is spent working at a bank, which is almost as miserable as it sounds. To keep myself sane, I wake up very early to get an hour and a half of writing done before I leave home. I have to. I’m less good at writing when I get back from work, but I’m getting better.

How do you share your work?

I have a very generous fere (an old word for ‘life-partner’ that I wish would catch on), and she reads everything I write.

I also have a workshop group with old uni friends. We’ve been trying and failing since we graduated to have a consistent workshop. It wasn’t till COVID-19 introduced us to Zoom that we finally got it working; meeting online proved much less onerous.

It’s good to know you have an audience, because writing is lonely. I think anyone who writes is comfortable being alone, but just being able to imagine an audience – whether it be my workshop group or my partner – makes the act of writing a lot more exciting.

Which other writers have inspired or influenced your work?

A great many people derive a great deal of satisfaction reading work that reflects their own experience with mental health. There’s a sort of validation in it, I guess. That, for me, is not the case whatsoever. Nothing would put me off a book quicker than knowing it’s about an agoraphobe. I’m just not interested in that; I’m quite happy to read about literally anything else.

The authors that excite me most are those that explore the human condition more broadly. Recently, late to the party, I read ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt; I don’t know that she’s influenced me yet, but I’m definitely inspired, and I’m eager to read more. I’m also a big fan of Tolkien (though some may wonder what elves and hobbits have to do with the human condition). I like to read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ about once a year; it’s the only fantasy of its kind that really does it for me. And I like older stuff. Though I’ll admit I’ve only been through it once, ‘Le Morte Dartur’ by Thomas Mallory is one of my favourite books, chiefly for its language.

Have you faced any barriers establishing yourself as a writer?

The biggest barriers are internal, motivational – but I guess these are fuelled by external forces.

There are too many distractions in the world now. Writing and reading are both hard work, and we’re always drawn towards the path of least resistance. We’re addicted to our notifications, and our scrolling, and our suggested videos, and our loot boxes… It can be hard to remember, in our weakest moments, how rewarding reading and writing are.

Historically, that’s been my biggest barrier. But very slowly I’ve found a little discipline, and for that reason I think I’m happier than I’ve been in a very long time. It’s so hard to get to the desk, but there’s no better feeling than stepping away from it after a good session — or a bad!

What are you hoping to achieve with your writing?

I’d like to get a novel written. That’s where all the hours go now. I have about 35,000 words, polished. I try not to think too hard about the 150,000 yet to come.

What advice would you give other writers who are just starting out?

My advice might be to stop looking for advice. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find your way (and that’s true even if those who say it, like me, never find their way). Looking for advice, looking for motivation, this is procrastination dressed up like productivity. I’ve done it: I’ve trawled YouTube for little bits of advice from famous writers, I’ve listened to author interviews, I’ve read all the Hemingway quotes (even the apocryphal ones). It’s all time that’s better spent writing. Or, at the very least, reading, which is the only sort of procrastination that really is productive.

You can read Mario’s winning story here.