Emma Styles' No Country for Girls is the winner of the 2023 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize.
GOLD. THEFT. MURDER. A ROAD TRIP TO DIE FOR.
Charlie and Nao are strangers from different sides of the tracks. They should never have met, but one devastating incident binds them together forever.
A man is dead and now they are unwilling accomplices in his murder there's only one thing to do: hit the road in the victim's twin cab ute, with a bag of stolen gold stashed under the passenger seat.
Suddenly outlaws, Nao and Charlie must make their way across Australia's remote outback using only their wits to survive. They'll do whatever it takes to evade capture and escape with their lives...
Thelma & Louise for a new generation, No Country for Girls is a gritty, twisty road-trip thriller that follows two young women on the run across the harsh, unforgiving landscape of Australia.
About the Author:
Emma Styles writes contemporary Australian noir about young women taking on the patriarchy. She grew up on Whadjuk Noongar country in Perth, Western Australia and now lives in London where she was born. Emma has an MA in crime fiction from the University of East Anglia. No Country for Girls is her debut novel; it won the Little, Brown UEA Crime Fiction Award 2020 and Emma was selected to be part of Val McDermid’s prestigious New Blood debut panel at 2022’s Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.
Emma loves a road trip and once sat out a cyclone on the north-west coast of WA in a LandCruiser Troop Carrier. She spent her teens and twenties learning to ski, snowboard, ride horses and motorcycles, and fly small aeroplanes. Emma is currently working on her second standalone thriller.
WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered yourself an adventure writer before being shortlisted for the Prize?
Emma: The best adventure stories give us the unexpected, something more than we bargained for. That’s true for the writer as much as the reader, at least it was for me writing No Country for Girls. As a reader I want to be captivated so I have to turn the page, but as well as that I want to be challenged. Whether I’m reading or writing, there’s often an element of fear to be overcome, a step into the unknown and the freedom that arises from taking it. I didn’t consider myself an adventure writer while I was working on the book, but as soon as I heard about this competition, I felt we were a good fit for the genre. Though I never imagined I’d be shortlisted; I’m so happy new readers will get to meet the girls because of it.
WNSF: Are there any particular books or authors which have made a lasting impact on you?
Emma: Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy – a dystopian, utopian, feminist classic. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, which got me to root for the main character despite him acting in ways that appalled me. Milkman by Anna Burns, which had me at the first amazing line (look it up) and showed me how to write about trauma in a momentous yet understated way. The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay – an Australian road trip and pandemic story like no other. Taboo by Kim Scott and Dirt Music by Tim Winton – two West Australian authors who write about country, people and trauma with a reverence for the landscape.
WNSF: Can you tell us about any adventurous experiences in your life? Have they influenced you as a writer or your writing?
Emma: I’ve done a lot of scary things in my life. I’ve ridden scary horses, skied and snowboarded down mountains that intimidated me, flown a small aeroplane solo, but I can honestly say that writing No Country for Girls and seeing it go out into the world has been the scariest thing by far, as well as the most exhilarating. One of the reasons I’m so thrilled to be shortlisted is because it’s reminded me how much my life has been a series of adventures.
First of all, I got to grow up in Western Australia. We moved there as a family when I was nine, and started road-tripping north the following year. Memorable examples have been: Perth to Sydney across the Nullarbor Plain before I started my first job as a vet (fifty-two hours straight through); driving the spectacular Great Ocean Road on the eve of the new millennium; from Perth to Broome in a LandCruiser Troop Carrier, skirting a cyclone on the way.
I’ve always valued experience over material things in my life. In my teens and twenties I learned to ski, snowboard and windsurf, ride horses and motorcycles. I learned to fly and got my private pilot’s licence, and although it wasn’t something I could afford to keep up, it was a life-changing experience. I’ve sea-kayaked, white water rafted, snorkelled with turtles, sharks and manta rays. What these things share is a propulsive forward momentum and a big perspective, as well as taking place in spectacular wild places alongside incredible wildlife.
All these experiences influence what and how I write. It’s no surprise to me that my first published novel is a high-stakes road trip through a landscape alive with danger and the unexpected.
WNSF: Can you tell us about a particular relationship between two characters in your novel and how you made it feel genuine?
Emma: My two protagonists, Nao and Charlie, appeared almost fully-formed in a writing exercise, started arguing in my head and didn’t stop. I’d never had such an immediate experience of character before, and although I refined the characters, particularly their respective motivations, it was their vivid, frequently conflicting, voices that brought the relationship to life. I’d written several unpublished Young Adult novels by this point and I was used to writing and listening out for teenage voices. But it often felt like Charlie and Nao were writing the story and not me, and that all I had to do was point them in the direction I wanted them to take and hang on for the ride. It was a privilege to meet these two characters. They’re still a big presence in my life.
WNSF: A strong sense of place is vital to any great adventure story. What role does research play in your writing? How did you make your setting feel realistic?
Sometimes I think it’s easier to write about a place from a distance, especially one you love and have vivid memories of.
The journey Nao and Charlie make in No Country for Girls spans over 2000 kilometres of country along Great Northern Highway, one of the most remote sealed roads in the world. There’s a map of the journey here. I knew I wanted to send them on a road trip because they had a lot to work out, but I didn’t know right away where I’d send them. Once I did, I relied on memory, on-the-ground research, the impressions of family and friends, and Google Street View.
Early in 2019 I flew home to WA for research and took a road trip to the Eastern Goldfields with my dad. There was a gold theft in the story and it made sense for Charlie and Nao to drive that way, but I quickly realised they’d run out of road way too fast. It was a no-brainer to redirect them north to the Kimberley, a trip I’d made many times myself, but by then I was back in the UK and COVID grounded me there for the next three years.
At that point I asked family and friends in WA, who were being encouraged to road trip to support a struggling tourist industry, to send me pictures, videos and sensory impressions of their own trips north. I was constantly asking them what things sounded and smelled like, as well as inching my way, over many hours and days, up Great Northern Highway in Google Street View.
Writing No Country for Girls transported me back to WA and kept me connected to the place during the three years I couldn’t get home.
WNSF: What has been your toughest criticism as a writer? And your greatest compliment?
Emma: The toughest criticism that comes to mind is what other writers said about my work when I first started, which was that the writing was beautiful but nothing was happening! This makes me laugh now because I think I’ve taken it on board in a pretty big way.
The greatest compliments I’ve received have been from readers. It was a joy last Australian summer to meet WA readers at author events and hear how real these characters are to them. I had people read me their favourite lines, tell me who they loved most and why. One Perth reader told me, when someone asked if I’d consider writing a sequel to No Country for Girls, ‘No, Emma. These characters are DONE. You’ve put them through enough.’
Equally, I’ve loved hearing from people who weren’t sure about the story at first but kept reading. My favourite early review was from someone unsure he’d get on with Charlie’s voice when he started (he was planning to give the book two stars) who continued reading, got hooked, and by the end couldn’t decide whether to give it four stars or five.
Lastly, although it wasn’t about writing, I remember a friend telling me when I was a teenager how brave I was. I think what she meant was brave bordering on reckless, although she didn’t say that. I was riding a pony I hadn’t ridden before, and he was too strong for me, and I kept falling off and picking myself up and getting back on. Because that’s what you do, you get back on the horse. I’d never thought of myself as brave before that, because I so often felt scared, but I’d always power through it. I think I write like that too.
WNSF: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about No Country for Girls?
Emma: I wrote No Country for Girls as an experiment and because it was the story I most wanted to read. It was only after I’d completed the first draft that I realised I’d written it largely out of my discomfort at us living on stolen land in Australia. It didn’t feel like a political book so much as a personal representation of how deeply I wish for real reconciliation in Australia. That drove me to write a story about these two very different young women who are not powerful in their lives attempting to connect across their difference. I wanted to see what they could do together if I gave them the chance to fight back.
Australia is at a particular time in 2023, soon to vote in a referendum on whether to enshrine a First Nations voice to parliament in the constitution. That, and the words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, were uppermost in my mind all the time I was writing and editing, and the quote below, attributed to Lilla Watson and other First Nations Australian activists in the 1970s, sums up the spirit in which I wrote these two characters:
‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’
The winner of the 2023 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize will be revealed at an awards ceremony on 18th October 2023. Support Emma and buy a copy of No Country for Girls: