News / Where writing is sacred

‘The walls are the history of Australian literature and it feels special to be a part of it’ – 2019 Varuna Fellowship winner Kaya Wilson reflects on his time at Varuna Writers’ House.

I wasn’t sure if I would even make it to my Writing NSW Varuna fellowship as summer raged on and I woke up in Sydney every day to smoke from bushfires in the Blue Mountains. Then the week before arrived with torrential rain and floods and the train tracks were washed away. I did make it, with wet feet and my suitcase for the week. I walked through dripping trees up the curving driveway to the iconic yellow building I’ve seen in so many publications and fellowship descriptions, the place mentioned more than parents and lovers in the Acknowledgements pages of Australian literature.

The bushfire emergency plan was printed and available in the hallway. Vera showed me to the ladder room, and a single bed with an adjoining office with acres of desk and view, bay windows that curve with the building. A tour was given and drinks were scheduled, I told my girlfriend I was alive and the place felt peaceful. I stacked the complete works of Jane Austen to raise my computer and plugged everything in.

Image credit: Varuna Writers’ House

Bookshelves are on every wall in Varuna, with themes for each room. The walls are the history of Australian literature and it feels special to be a part of it. I hoped it would be cold enough for a tame, warming fire in the living room, and it was, most nights, strangely, in February, as much of 2020 so far had been strange. We sat with a glass of wine as Carol introduced us to the place and herself. She spoke of the apocalyptic experience of living through the fires. It was all every one in town spoke about when I ducked out for chocolate and a haircut mid-week.

I went for a run most days, to view points that were some days foggy, some days breathtaking. The scars from the fires were brown in the valley and the waterfalls were bursting off the cliffs. It was a beautiful place to be.

Mathilda Imlah of Picador had provided a manuscript assessment as part of the fellowship and I scheduled out my days to work on each chapter. I restructured as per her input and it all began to align. With the single bed and the rules of daytime silence, it felt a little monk-like. The meals didn’t, thanks to Sheila and her dinners and the cupboards stocked with all the teas and biscuits you can summon.  The reverence given to writing was the pleasure of Varuna for me. I write around my career as a scientist, it earns me almost nothing in income and carving out time for myself to write is always carving from something else. Varuna is somewhere where writing is sacred. That alone gave me confidence and is what I am most grateful for. I finished a draft of the manuscript the night before catching the bus-train-bus home and submitted back to Picador for them to consider for publication.


Kaya Wilson is a writer and tsunami scientist whose work has been published by Brow Books, Pan McMillan, The Guardian, and Overland, among others. He is currently working on a book length series of non-fiction essays with a focus on queer identity.

The 2020 Writing NSW Varuna Fellowships are open until midnight, Sunday 5 July. Apply here>>

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