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A note about Humphrey McQueen’s Tom Roberts

The great Australian artist Tom Roberts volunteered to serve in a London military hospital during the Great War. He ended up serving as an unofficial batman to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s future husband, Hugo Throssell, who was being treated for war wounds. I picked up Humphrey McQueen’s comprehensive 1996 biography of Roberts and found a lively account of their friendship. Another biography I wish I had the time to read. Each chapter has the name of a literary work from “Such is Life” to “The Good Soldier”. I love this acknowledgement at the back:

Paul Kelly for offering me a column in the Weekend Australian. The $585 I earned each week for two days work during the almost three years was the equivalent of a literary fellowship, without which this book would still not be completed. Rupert Murdoch let us get away with it until the week before the first draft went to the publishers.

One must always look for creative ways to fund the writing of a book.

Another note: McQueen’s great account of Roberts and Throssell is quoted or paraphrased at length in John Hamilton’s biography of Throssell Price of Valour without referencing. Mcqueen’s book does appear in the bibliography, but I don’t think that’s enough. Even “popular” biographies owe it to other writers and to the readers to acknowledge their sources fully.


Governess: a reading in February from the KSP biography

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Katharine ca. 1904, from her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, p. 42.

Governess – Katharine Susannah Prichard at Yarram, 1904: a reading by Nathan Hobby
KSP Writers’ Centre Sunday Session
4:00pm – 5:30pm Sunday 19 February 2017
11 Old York Rd, Greenmount WA
$10 general entry / $5 members (proceeds to KSP Writers’ Centre)
Refreshments provided
https://www.facebook.com/events/709078175927574/

Patience is an important virtue in writing a biography—or any book—and realistically it’s going to be a couple of years before my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard appears. In the meantime, I’m excited to have a chance to share a chapter at the KSP Writers’ Centre Sunday Session.

The writers’ centre is in the hills of Perth, in the house Katharine lived in from 1919 until her death in 1969. Being involved with the centre has put me in touch with a community of writers who care about Katharine and her legacy. It’s also given me the rare opportunity to spend time in my subject’s house. The centre has many writing groups across genres, demographics, and timeslots. If you are a Western Australian writer, I encourage you to join up and be involved in some way – it needs your support more than ever in these days of limited government funding.

It’s chapter five I’ll be reading, “Governess,” the story of 1904 in Katharine’s life. I chose it because it’s a dramatic and largely unknown year of her life, as well as being quite self-contained as a narrative. Twenty-years-old and living away from home for the first time, Katharine set the tongues wagging in Yarram, a small country town in Gippsland. She beguiled several men, including a drug-addicted German doctor on the run from his wife. Starring in a play, she earned a new nickname. She gathered notes and impressions that she would turn into her first award-winning novel, The Pioneers, a decade later.

What better place to hear the story of this important year in Katharine’s life than at the house she lived in for fifty years? Tickets at the door.


70k, and the war just beginning

The word count of my biography just hit 70,000, so I thought I’d pause to celebrate with this blog post. It’s a nice milestone, but it’s not altogether welcome. The paragraph I’m on concerns the outbreak of the Great War, so I’m in August 1914, which means I have 4.5 years to go, and the original aim was for an 80,000 word biography.

Back at the end of August I set a plan to write a chapter a month, taking me to the end of the biography during 2017. I’ve been meeting my targets, but I’ve become painfully aware of how naive my plan was. The years I’m writing about in Katharine’s life have proven to throw up far more intriguing stories, characters and events than I anticipated. A good problem to have, I realise. I’ve already added two chapters, and I expect to have to keep adding them.

Writers often get obsessed by word counts and I think it can be a trap; words are cheap, quality words are hard. But it’s a balancing act: measuring, celebrating output can be a necessary and powerful incentive along the way and I feel my ambitious and naive targets have energised me. So far. Most days.


Dark Night by Martin Edmond: a review

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Dark Night: Walking with McCahon Martin Edmond (Auckland University Press, 2011)

Dark Night is a profound work of creative non-fiction. Edmond retraces – quite literally – the steps of the New Zealand painter, Colin McCahon, following the route he took as he had a breakdown and went missing in Sydney for a day and a night. It has elements of a biography of the late artist and criticism of his work; an autobiography of Edmonds; a narrative of Edmond’s observations of the streets and haunts of Sydney; and reflections on religion, art, history, and the authentic life. It is not a biographical quest in the archival sense I’m used to using the term; but it is a biographical quest of a different kind. The life of McCahon becomes a lens for Edmond to examine the world. He writes well, observing acutely while never over-writing, and with genuine insight into the questions of existence.


Cyril Cook & the Lost Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard

Your KS #15: Cyril Cook & the Lost Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard

Source: Your KS #15: Cyril Cook & the Lost Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard | Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre – home

One of the most interesting things to happen in my research this year has been the discovery of “lost” letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard and new insight into the circumstances of Cyril Cook’s 1950 thesis on Katharine. It was my AS Byatt’s Possession moment, and I wrote about it for the KSP Writers Centre newsletter; read about it on the KSPWC website!

 


A working writer: N’goola and Other Stories by Katharine Susannah Prichard

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Post #5 in my Australian Short Story Festival series

Katharine Susannah Prichard published two books in the 1950s – Winged Seeds, a goldfields novel, at the beginning of the decade in 1950, and N’goola and Other Stories at the end of the decade in 1959. It was a difficult decade for Katharine -she felt the sting of Cold War persecution as a Communist; her health was poor; her only son was living overseas and then interstate; and the writing projects she had envisaged in 1950 did not work out how she hoped. N’goola brings together this decade of troubled writing. There’s much in it which surprised and interested me. Continue reading


Visible and invisible biographers: a quick response to David Marr

Sue at Whispering Gums has given a great overview of David Marr’s Seymour lecture, “Here I stand”. He focused on the biographer’s craft, and he said so many things of great relevance to me, but I’ll just engage this comment:

Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with [Patrick] White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers”

I love biographical quests; they’re how I came to biography. For my Master’s thesis , I wrote a biographical quest novel (“The Remains”) and a dissertation on aspects of the genre, including the influence of its non-fiction counterparts. From AJA Symons Quest for Corvo to Laura Sewell Matter’s “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist” and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – and not forgetting Martin Edmonds Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, which I’ve just started – I’ve encountered some superb non-fiction biographical quests.  Continue reading