Author, Rhett Davis.

“I’ve grappled a lot with my home-town for a long time, what it means to me and how to write about it. In the end I didn’t. I made up a city and put it where Geelong is.”

Geelong author Rhett Davis this year won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and picked up a publishing deal into the bargain.

Hovering, described by the award judges as an “ambitious, kaleidoscopic novel”, will be published by Hachette and available in bookstores late in 2021.

Rhett explains the story is about Alice, a thirty-nine-year-old woman returning home to find the city is changing in strange and inexplicable ways.

“In 2015 I arrived home following a few years in British Columbia. After years surrounded by mountains, the sky was enormous. But the distances had grown further, and the unfamiliar familiar punctuated every move. I was glad to be home, I was annoyed to be home, I didn’t know if it was home, and it was time to reckon with it,” Rhett said.

Rhett had written a number of successful short stories, as a sideline to his career as a business analyst. With the encouragement of sister Brooke, author of the best-selling Lost and Found, Rhett decided to pursue his goal of writing a novel.

Rhett enrolled in a PhD in creative writing at Deakin University, and began to explore how to turn his ideas into a story.

His first attempts fell flat, but a chance encounter with a work of art inspired Rhett to take a different approach.

“I was in the office of the Vice Chancellor at Deakin University, and I saw ‘Geelong Capriccio’ by the painter Jan Senbergs. It is an imagined version of modern Geelong if it, instead of Melbourne, had developed into the state’s capital city,” Rhett said.

After seeing the painting, Rhett decided to create an alternate reality for the book.

“Fraser is located on the site of present-day Geelong. Melbourne does not exist. The bay is there, the river is there, the You Yangs still preside languidly at the northern edge – but instead of a small city, Fraser is a metropolis,” Rhett said.

Although in many ways Fraser is a fantasy, Geelong residents will recognise glimpses of their hometown in it. The Barwon River, Johnstone Park and the bay all make appearances, and Aussie rules football also gets a mention.

Like Alice, Rhett’s views of his hometown are constantly shifting.

“I grew up here in the 90s during the recession and of course it hit Geelong hard. The city has bounced back over the last couple of decades, but at the start of the second lockdown I was kind of worried the city might suffer similarly. And there are clearly people and businesses that have struggled. It does feel though that the community is much more resilient than I expected. Perhaps it’s a community that’s been through some tough times before, and maybe we’re better for it. We’ve done well, all things considered, and we’re lucky, I think, to have such a strong healthcare industry here. Mostly, I’m just grateful that I’m here!”

Rhett is now working on his second novel. Follow him on Instagram @rhettsdavis or check out Rhett’s website.

Story by Emma Homes

Image captions:

Author Rhett Davis – photo by Emma Homes

Painting, Geelong capriccio (if Geelong were settled instead of Melbourne) by Jan Senbergs, acrylic on canvas. © The artist. Courtesy the artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne.