"Fiction is something that fiddles with the head and with the heart and it bridges the gap of understanding someone else's experience - and understanding them through access to that experience. Fiction is a fundamental shared humanity."
So says Anna Funder, this year's winner of Australia's most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin Award, which carries a $50,000 prize.
All That I Am is Funder's debut novel and is a fictionalised account of true events about a group of people who resisted the rise of Hitler's Third Reich and it's throttling of Germany's intellectuals. It tells a moving and chilling tale of how far the Gestapo was prepared to go to eliminate opponents of National Socialism. The historic detail of this book that moves across place and time has been a surprise to many, as it has brought to light hitherto unexplored Nazi activities in Britain prior to the declaration of war in 1939.
On the phone from Norwich, England, at the end of speaking to the world's press almost non-stop, Funder, previously a lawyer specialising in human rights, says she was going "slightly nutty" writing acceptance speeches for award ceremonies she could not attend, but acknowledges winning the Miles Franklin has been overwhelming in its confirmation of her work.
"I am here in Britain and soon going back to Brooklyn, New York, where my family will live for the next three or four years, but meanwhile my life is going on back in Sydney while I am not there," says the author. She then added: "But I feel grateful and I feel relieved. You work a long time on something - this took me five years - so it feels very risky. It's emotionally risky and it is financially risky and you know at times it could easily all fall on its head. You take your family with you on the journey of the work and so when my book came out in September, I was just so frightened . . . all these reviews were coming out and it was horrible - the feeling of vulnerability. But that's gone now."
On the theme of moral courage in All That I Am, Funder comments: "I think it happens in a Darwinian sense that some people recognise that the group is more important than their own wellbeing - so they speak out. They acknowledge there is a line where they believe is a limit of what is good and past this limit things are not good. Then certain people need to speak out because if they don't, they won't morally recognise themselves."
The judges this year acknowledged the ambitious breadth of All That I Am and stated: "(It serves) to remind us that experiences of exile and dislocation have long been part of Australian life."
Funder is also author of the non-fiction bestseller Stasiland, which won the 2004 Samuel Johnson Prize.