Andrew Webber, originally from Melbourne, was working in Abu Dhabi as a sports massage therapist when he decided do something that would change his life.
Although he had left school at just 15, he dreamed of a bigger personal achievement. With a desire to improve his education, particularly his writing, he started a blog about his search for the perfect coffee, which, in a city of endless luxuries, was surprisingly difficult to come by. To his astonishment, his blog received thousands of hits a day from readers around the world.
Spurred on, Webber enrolled in Curtin’s Professional Writing and Publishing course through Open Universities Australia (OUA), which allowed him to keep working as a therapist while he studied.
“As an adult I took the opportunity to study because I really wanted to do it and had done enough in life to know which area of study I wanted to pursue,” he says.
Webber excelled in his course, and graduated on the Vice-Chancellor’s list during his final semester in 2015. He has since used his newly acquired writing knowledge to rework the draft of a novel he initially penned in 2012 called Erasure, a contemporary techno thriller that explores themes of identity, memory and surveillance in a hyper-connected world.
“I purposely didn’t look at Erasure until [my] study was done,” he says. “When I finally did, the book was torn apart, rewritten and heavily edited. There is something on every page of the book that is a direct response to my Curtin experience.”
Erasure asks the questions: Can we retain autonomy in a world where every move we make is tracked? To what lengths will people go to use other people’s information for their own personal and financial gain?
The novel’s blurb reads: “The secretive narrator leads us across cities, continents and decades, racing to grasp at the weakening threads that link to Her. Steps traced, data hacked, privacy shattered – life and death in the cloud. But what becomes of this digital cosmos of memories, part stolen, once we are gone? What power does it hold?”
Webber published Erasure on Amazon, and in 2014 the book was a quater finalist in the “Amazon Breakthrough Novel” award for the Mystery, Thriller and Suspense category.
Self-publishing platforms like Amazon have revolutionised the gatekeeping of conventional publishing, and broadened the quality and quantity of books made available to the public. However, self-publishing is not without its critics.
“The best thing about easy access platforms that allow people to self-publish, is that anyone can now write and publish a book,” says Webber.
“And the worst thing? Anyone can write and publish a book. For every book that writers have sweated over and done their very best to make as readable as possible, there are literally thousands of books that aren’t.”
This is perhaps a paradox for today’s writers who want to be published in print: with some literary agents and publishing houses being flooded with up to “100-300 unsolicited manuscripts a week” by aspiring novelists, says Webber, it becomes increasingly difficult to be recognised over the chatter.
But despite the stigma often associated with self-publishing, Webber encourages writers to get their work out there.
“I think people don’t write because they look at the crud that happens with publishing and give up before they begin. Don’t do that. The only important thing is the story: the rest just is what it is.”
Earlier this year, Webber submitted Erasure for the 2016 Montegrappa Writing Prize as part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (EAFOL). The prize is aimed exclusively at UAE residents who are independent writers.
“The are a lot of writers here, and the success of the EAFOL is testament to how big the literary scene is in the Middle East: every day of the week-long event was sold out.”
Webber’s novel was selected as one of the top five winners of the Montegrappa prize, and the award has given Webber the contacts and motivation to continue writing.
His advice for other independent writers is to “Grow a thick skin. Immediately. Read a lot of books and not just in the genre that you are writing, ask yourself what you want the book to do and learn from your rejections.”
As for the ‘best’ coffee to be found in Abu Dhabi? Webber swears, although resignedly, that the best cup can be found from a coffee-dispensing machine at a petrol station chain called ADNOC.