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Steve Toltz’s Quicksand wins $10,000 humour writing prize

It was as a child that Steve Toltz first started trying to write funny stories. It’s why he says he is so gratified to be this year’s recipient of Australia’s only humour writing prize.

“Thank you for giving me some evidence that I’m not the only person on earth who thinks I’m funny,” the Los Angeles-based author said by video message at the State Library of NSW on Thursday night, accepting the $10,000 Russell Prize for Humour Writing.


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“My work is about fear, endurance, suffering, despair, rage and death, so to be awarded a prize for laughs is deeply significant to me. It’s an acknowledgement and appreciation that you don’t have to sound serious to be serious.

“The writing and reading of literature is a connecting of minds, and Victor Borge the Danish humourist said, ‘laughter is the shortest distance between two people’, and I believe that to be true.”

Toltz’s winning novel, Quicksand, is narrated by a writer-turned-policeman who chronicles the life of his friend, an eternally optimistic “born loser”.

Judges praised the novel for the “beauty of its writing, the complexity of its insights and its sharp, intelligent, wise humour”.

“Toltz switches styles with virtuosity as he scales comedic peaks and plumbs despairing troughs, always taking the reader with him,” the judges said.

“It is a wonderful achievement from a writer whose words serve as a scalpel to reveal the absurd beneath the veneer of serious existence.”

The tragi-comic bromance was selected from a shortlist of six titles: Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure by Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen, True Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia  Volume 2 by David Hunt, A Toaster on Mars by Darrell Pitt, Error Australis by Ben Pobjie and The Anti Cool Girl by Rosie Waterland.

Toltz, whose 2008 debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and featured three generations of eccentrics, told Fairfax Media by email that he reads to “discover a writer’s expression of their idiosyncratic mind”.

It was almost an “impossible idea that any mind I am attracted to won’t have in their novels at least some kind of funny streak”.

“And in particular, any piece of fictional writing that aims to struggle with philosophical or psychological ideas or truths will have to laugh at itself at some point. Otherwise it’s probably unintentionally hilarious.”

The trick in not going too far with the humour, Toltz says, is “for the reader to continue to believe in your invention, to allow the reader to emotionally or intellectually invest in your world of made up characters and events”.

“If the beautiful ruse persists, then you have not gone too far.”

As to the origins of his own sense of humour, Toltz says “that’s between me and a team of psychologists”.

“In terms of the ‘craft’ of it, it’s impossible to describe. It feels, at least to me, 100 per cent instinctual.

“What probably began as a defence mechanism long ago became a habit and is now inextricably linked with my connection to the written word.”

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