The ‘bonkers’ self-published book making history as a Miles Franklin contender

Initially only four bookshops around the country stocked Grimmish, but he also sent it to a few “influential readers” who started enthusing about it on social media. “That was the main bit of luck.” A few other shops stocked it, but there were a lot of knockbacks. Nevertheless, it ended up in the top five last year at his local bookshop, Brunswick Bound, and whenever it ran out of stock he would lug another box round from his home.

But didn’t he get downhearted at the knockbacks?

“The response from people who read it was so much bigger, more exciting and positive than I had ever expected. I write to communicate with readers and to have them read it and contact me and tell me their thoughts. That was very sustaining. I expected to get very little out of the exercise and got an enormous amount.”

Among the readers who responded were Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee – “the strangest book you are likely to read this year” – Helen Garner and Thomas Hauser, the man whom Winkler calls “probably the most famous sportswriter in the world”, although he reckons in the review Hauser wrote he “didn’t really get it”.

Winkler learned of Grim as a child, but his creative interest was only sparked about 10 years ago by the realisation he had toured Australia.

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It probably helped that Winkler’s writing career began with regular contributions to boxing magazines. “I was covering fights and interviewing boxers and anything else I could think of. I went up to Pentridge [prison] and went to a boxing tournament in A division. That was how I first got printed. And of course boxing has this extraordinary literature.”

He was fascinated by pain – “if you grow up fairly sensitive, the flip side to that is an awareness of pain” – and the lack of writing about it. “Virginia Woolf wrote something about how the English language can convey the inner thoughts of Hamlet and the madness of Lear but can’t tell you what it’s like to have a headache. There’s not a real lot of strong writing about such a universal experience.”

Winkler is still amazed at what’s happened to the little book that has been punching above it weight. He sold his print run of 500 copies, reckons he may have turned a three-figure profit, and Grimmish has now been reissued by Sydney publisher Puncher & Wattmann.

“Writing,” Winkler says, “is a lot of hard work and sitting in the dark for these little shiny moments, I suppose.” The next shiny moment could be a lot brighter.

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