Winner of Barbara Jefferis award Peggy Frew writes a new song of hope

Peggy Frew has won the Barbara Jefferis award. Photo: Supplied
Peggy Frew has won the Barbara Jefferis award. Photo: Supplied
Melbourne writer Peggy Frew has won the Barbara Jefferis award for her second book <i>Hope Farm</i>. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Melbourne writer Peggy Frew has won the Barbara Jefferis award for her second book Hope Farm. Photo: Josh Robenstone

 After high school and before children Peggy Frew was bass guitarist in an indie rock band that made three albums, toured internationally and won an ARIA Award.

As the band grew apart and she tired of the "crappy jobs" she took to support the music and pay the rent, Frew enrolled in a professional writing and editing course at Melbourne's RMIT University. It was a relief not to be looking for dead-end work.

A decade later, Frew's second career has paid dividends with her second novel, Hope Farm, receiving a rich literary fiction prize established to reward an Australian author's positive depiction or empowerment of women and girls.

The Barbara Jefferis Award is offered biennially, administered by the Australian Society of Authors, and comes with prize money of $50,000, funded by a significant bequest from Jefferis' husband, the late film critic, John Hinde.

Frew was shortlisted along with Sarah Hopkins for This Picture of You, Gail Jones for A Guide to Berlin, Alice Pung's Laurinda, Claire Zorn's The Protected and Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things. Her novel had also been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and Stella prizes.

"It's a sign that my writing is taken seriously in the world which might seem like a silly thing for me to take away from [the award]", says Frew, "but I didn't complete a university degree. I have never studied literature. Writing was something I've come to later in my life. It helps to get this external validation, it certainly does, it kind of makes me think I must really be a writer now."

In Hope Farm Frew explores a complex mother and daughter relationship through the eyes of 13-year-old Silver, who is brought to live in a hippy commune that has "seen better days" in rural Victoria during the mid-1980s.

The judges applauded Frew's "exquisite novel of female sensibilities about the decisions women have to make and the consequences of living with them".

Said Frew: "I was drawn to the notion of hippies and alternative ways of living and communal ways of living as a backdrop in which to take a parent-child relationship and see what happens when it is tested; what it may be able to withstand."

Frew had been thinking of her own relationships with her three children when she started the novel four years ago. "One child in particular is very independent and I've had to learn to really tune in with her in order to have love expressed back and forth. I think this became a big theme in the book, that there is a big difference between loving someone and having the skills to demonstrate that love."

Growing up in Melbourne, Frew always loved books, and in high school wrote short stories but remembers harbouring an adolescent irritation "at having to work at something I knew I would have to try at".

"I thought I should automatically be the best writer in the world and never have to put any effort in."

In 1995 she formed Art of Fighting with her high-school sweetheart. "It was great," Frew says. "We toured Europe and did a lot of touring in Australia. We did three albums and won an ARIA and did pretty well for a while and then everyone started having children and taking jobs more seriously and that kind of receded. We are trying to finish an album at the moment so we still get together and work on music, we just haven't been able to give it the time it deserves for many years now."

From the band Frew derives a sense of common purpose. "Everybody's doing something different and you are interacting with each other in real time. There is a lightness to it, an element of mindfulness to it, which is a very hackneyed term."

Writing is more exposing and terrifying but more personally satisfying, she says. "What's so good about writing is I can't pretend that it's anybody else's work – it's just me. I've done it."

This story Winner of Barbara Jefferis award Peggy Frew writes a new song of hope first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.