Interview with Graham Akhurst

Maddison Clarke

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, Borderland! Tell me a bit about the process of writing this book and what this story means to you. 

I began writing Borderland in 2015 as a long short story for my honour’s thesis at The University of Queensland. I then took the manuscript over into my MPhil at UQ and wrote the final draft in a summer break during my time in America on a Fulbright scholarship while completing an MFA in Fiction at Hunter College. As you can see my writing journey was closely tied to degree programs and universities which I found really rewarding as I was able to grow and learn with the support of some incredible mentors. Borderland means a lot to me and I think many first-time novelists write a bit of themselves into their debuts. I certainly did! When I was growing up Indigenous in Meanjin there were very few novels written for Indigenous young men. In writing Borderland, I tried to write a novel that I would have loved to have read as a fifteen-year-old. It is such a powerful affirming experience to see parts of yourself rendered on the page (particularly, I think, as a young person) and it’s my hope that Indigenous young people get the opportunity to read Jono’s story.


In Borderland, what sparked your interest in combining horror/the supernatural with the Australian outback to explore elements of First Nations culture?  

In blending genre, I really tried to build a particular Indigenous aesthetic that pulled the YA reader along and kept them interested. I think that fabulist fiction is on the forefront of storytelling in many ways and I wanted to see how writing genre fiction or fiction in general can render a certain truth that illuminates Australia’s troubled history, but also build complex Indigenous characters that have multiple viewpoints on two major issues concerning Indigenous Australia, that of Indigenous identity politics and also the extraction industry. People have said that the themes, symbols, and messaging of Borderland are complex and this was intentional. Young people these days are an incredibly well-informed group of readers and I wanted to privilege their intelligence and write something that could spark great conversations in the classroom and around the dinner table.


How are you finding the experience of being on tour for Borderland?

I am having an absolute blast touring my debut novel! To be able to travel and talk about a book that I hold so close to my heart and meet so many incredible readers, writers, and arts workers has been a career highlight. You visualise for such a long time what releasing your first major work will be like, and while your expectations are never truly aligned with the reality of releasing a first book, I have been constantly surprised by the generosity of people and am so glad that Borderland has touched some readers.


When did you begin your writing journey and what inspired you to pursue this as a career?

My writing journey began in 2011 at the Brisbane Private Hospital where I was being treated with chemotherapy for Endemic Burkett Lymphoma. It was during the ten-month or so period of treatment that I began reading again for the first time since adolescence and I also began journaling my experiences. Being faced with my own mortality really changed my perspective on life and art and I decided to try my hand at creating something meaningful and really learn the craft of writing. Yet, I knew to do this I was going to need help, so one afternoon after Mum came to visit, I decided to enrol in the Bachelor of Creative Arts at The University of Queensland.


I understand you studied Creative Writing in New York a few years ago. What made you choose to expand your studies there, and how has this influenced the way you write and what you write about?

I really wanted to study fiction in an MFA program in America. We don’t really offer the kinds of programs available in America here in Australia and I wanted to learn in the workshop environment and build a network over there. It has had an incredibly positive influence on my writing I think. It did help in how I tackled a late draft of Borderland while I was living in NYC, but I think the real lessons can be seen in the literary fiction I have begun to write. I was really fortunate to be mentored by Australian legend Peter Carey and his influence on writing an Australian aesthetic that could be enjoyed by a more international audience was really helpful and foundational for my development. I feel so fortunate to have had that international experience and have published a couple of stories in American journals. I would recommend the experience and I certainly learned a tonne! I think it also changed me as a person: witnessing how another culture grapples with its own challenging history.


What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a critical book which will be published by UWAP next year and co-authored with Penni Russon. The work is an examination of the Australian publishing industry with a particular focus on YA and also the Indigenous Australian experience and journeys of publishing. I am also working on a co-authored poetry collection with Timothy Loveday where we both respond to seminal works of Australian art. The commonalities and divergences in our responses have been fascinating and Tim has been a joy to work with. I am also writing a novel in stories which is a consolation of the work I was producing in NYC with Peter. That’s a slower burn, such is the complex nature of weaving together fiction stories in that manner. This novel will see me move away from YA and into writing literary fiction for an adult audience. I am really excited by all these projects and feel incredibly lucky to be able to express ideas in so many vastly different modes of storytelling.


What would your top three tips for emerging writers be?

Reading is the absolute foundation for any writer so I would say read widely, read into the genre you wish to write into, and also read literary fiction and poetry because you learn a lot about the craft and language through that. I would also suggest to start writing shorter pieces first. I think it’s really important to finish things when you are starting out. It gives you a sense of progress before tackling a larger narrative which can take years to get right. And lastly, I would say don’t get too disheartened and that jealousy is not necessarily a useful emotive tool when creating art. There is enough space and opportunity for every creative if you stay true to your vision and work hard at developing your voice and craft.

Graham Akhurst is a Kokomini writer who grew up in Meanjin. He is a Lecturer of Australian Indigenous Studies and Creative Writing at University of Technology of Sydney. Graham took his love for writing to New York City, where he studied for an MFA in Fiction at Hunter College. Graham is currently a board member for the First Nations Artists and Writers Network and Varuna. His debut YA novel, Borderland, was released in October 2023 with the University of Western Australian Press. The novel follows Indigenous teenager, Jono, as he struggles with his identity, transitioning from urban Brisbane to a small rural town where his intuition proves essential amidst secrets and mysticism. Graham currently lives with his wife on Gadigal Country in Sydney.

Interviewer: Maddi Clarke is an emerging Brisbane-based writer and singer-songwriter studying creative writing at QUT. Through her storytelling and songwriting, she hopes to connect with others by exploring and echoing the human experience. She is also passionate about weaving fantastical tales and building secondary worlds that reflect and critique elements of our own. 

Editors: Suzy Darlington