Dr Julie Keys at her graduation. Photo: Alex Pike

How a PhD student became an acclaimed novelist

How a PhD student became an acclaimed novelist

A pivotal moment set graduate Dr Julie Keys on a path to creative writing

Dr Julie Keys had always wanted to be a writer. From a young age, she would devour words, in any form she could get her hands on. 

Her favourite day of the week was when her mother brought home a new stack of books from the library in Albion Park, and she dreamed of being able to forge her own path as a writer. 

Yet, it was not until she was faced with her own mortality that Julie finally realised it was time to take the leap.

“A few years ago, I was working as a clinical trials coordinator on a research project, which meant a lot of travelling. I was driving between Wollongong and Campbelltown for work one day when I was hit by a B-double truck that was on the road behind me. It sent me spinning across four lanes in front of oncoming traffic,” Julie said. 

“I should have died. The car was bashed in. I was lucky that there was a small gap in the median that my car was pushed through, because otherwise I would have hit the cement and the car would have flipped.”

It was a terrifying moment, but one that would ultimately prove life-changing for Julie. 

“I was standing there looking across the four lanes of traffic,” she recalled, “and I thought ‘I should quit my job and become a full-time writer, like I’ve always wanted to’. I needed that nudge.” 

A few months later, Julie did just that. She left her job and enrolled in a PhD, under the supervision of Professor Catherine Cole. She didn’t know if she had what it took to become a full-time writer, but Julie knew she would regret it if she didn’t try.

Four years later, Julie is graduating for the third time from the University of Wollongong – she also has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a masters in creative writing – with her PhD, in Wednesday’s (6 November) Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts ceremony.  

She is now also a novelist, after her first book, The Artist’s Portrait, was published by Hachette in March this year. 

The book was the creative output of her PhD, with her research focusing on the impact of gender on a writer’s prestige throughout the 20th century. Julie – or Dr Keys - found that female writers have not received the same level of accolades or recognition as their male counterparts, and their work has often been dismissed or not taken seriously.

“I compared the writers of the 1920s and 30s to the writers of today to see  if anything had changed for women over time. Have they been nominated for awards, has their work been reviewed, how was it received?

““In the first half of the 20th century writing was definitely a male dominated occupation.  Education for women was not considered necessary and women who read tended to be thought of as idle. Women rarely had the financial independence or freedom from domestic duties  to participate in the arts.

“Now, the majority of writers in Australia are female, as are the majority of readers. Things have improved, in terms of recognizing female writers and their contribution, but the level of prestige and accolades for women has still not reached parity.”

She cites the fact that more than one hundred men have won the Nobel Prize for Literature throughout the history of the awards, but only 15 women have received the esteemed prize.

During the course of researching her novel, Julie found that the art world mirrored the world of writing; women in both creative industries being dismissed or their contributions being seen as second rate. It is a theme that is at the heart of The Artist’s Portrait, which explores the life of a famous artist, who happens to be female, in bohemian Sydney in the 1920s.

The genesis of the novel had been lurking in the back of her mind for years, but the to and fro of daily life – two children, a husband, and working as, among other roles, a registered nurse, a clinical trials coordinator, and a youth worker – left Julie with little time to pursue the idea. 

“I kept seeing this image of a woman standing in front of a shack waving a red cloth above her head as a biplane flew in the paddocks toward her. I thought about this scene for years,” Julie said. “I knew it was the idea for a novel, but I just did not have the space to explore it. I was too busy.

“I had always loved storytelling. I wanted to be a writer as I was growing up, but I didn’t know any other writers. I didn’t know how you became a writer..”

Her car accident, however, forced her to finally allow the woman in the red scarf to reveal herself, and her story. She began writing, and within a few months had 80,000 words. Yet, self-doubt crept in, and a few months after she began her PhD, she threw away 75,000 of those to start again. The words that were left were the beginning of the novel.

With three new chapters finished, she submitted The Artist’s Portrait to the prestigious Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017. Much to her astonishment, Julie’s work was shortlisted.

Then, the publishing house Hachette came calling. They wanted to publish her novel.  Eighteen months later, The Artist’s Portrait is on bookshelves – digital and tangible – around the world, and she is thrilled to see it finally in print and to be closing the chapter, pardon the pun, on her PhD.

It is truly a dream come true for Julie, who had spent more than four decades imagining her future as a full-time, published writer. She said she owes a lot to Professor Cole, her supervisor, who gave her the support and direction needed to finish the manuscript and her thesis. 

“She never told me to change my work or my style. She just encouraged me to keep going.”