The stories that get left out


What should biographers do with all the wonderful stories – or snippets – they discover along the way but can’t include in their books?

Many biographers do, of course, include them. But readers often don’t like it – for example wonderful reviewer Whispering Gums recently discussed a biography she enjoyed, but felt contained too much extraneous detail. And, I’ll confess, as a reader I feel the same way. I just want to read about the biographical subject, please.

But as a writer? Of course I want to include all the details! Because I’m assuming the reader is every bit as obsessed by the subject as I am – which is, tragically but patently, untrue. All those extra details, every little meandering away from the main subject, are crucial to the writer’s understanding but frankly unnecessary to the reader’s.

However, Nathan Hobby, A Biographer in Perth, raises an interesting point. He is cutting out some of his meandering details in his work-in-progress biography of writer Katharine Susannah Prichard but he laments their loss. The anecdotes and historical facts may not be relevant to his subject’s story, but they remain anecdotally and historically interesting. Surely someone, somewhere, might find them useful?

This point is particularly Read the rest of this entry


Shortlist for the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards – Updated to include the winners


UPDATE: Winners announced 1 December – winners are in bold, below.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for the Arts Mitch Fifield had a big, distracting day yesterday (YES!) but today they have actually got some work done and have announced the shortlist for the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

According to the press release there were more than 450 entries and “The 30 shortlisted books showcase the breadth and depth of Australia’s literary talent across six categories—fiction, non-fiction, Australian history, young adult fiction, children’s fiction and poetry.”

This year marks 10 years since the first Prime Minister’s Literary Awards took place in 2008. You’d think that would be long enough for the administrators to get it right but these awards are plagued by issues of timing (no one ever says when the shortlist or winners will be announced).  This year, all they can say is: “The winners will be announced in the coming weeks.” Well, that takes us very close to Christmas and does not leave long for the winners to capitalise on any possible boost to Christmas sales.

Hello government? This stuff is not brain surgery. To add insult to injury, Malcolm Turnbull’s name is spelled incorrectly on the (poorly designed but very fancy looking) website. I used to work for the relevant department (albeit in the Communications portfolio, not Arts), and I still do consulting work there from time to time, so I’m very much aware that the underlying problems are not the fault of the public servants (although the website probably is). Rather it’s the politicians using this prize as a political football. Enough already!

The publishers of each book aren’t mentioned until you click through on each title but in listing the titles below I noticed some interesting trends:

  • Several of the big multi-national publishing firms are completely absent from the shortlist, but Australian independent publishers are well represented.
  • The five poetry texts come from only three different publishers.
  • Three of the five history titles came from NewSouth Publishing.
  • Although the total authors (30) are split exactly 50/50 by gender, women authors are over-represented in the Young Adult and Children’s Fiction category, and under-represented in every other category.

Anyway, my heartfelt congratulations to all the shortlisted writers.


  • The Easy Way Out, Steven Amsterdam (Hachette Australia)
  • The Last Days of Ava Langdon, Mark Flynn (University of Queensland Press)
  • Their Brilliant Careers, Ryan O’Neill (Black Inc)
  • Waiting, Philip Salom (Puncher & Wattman)
  • Extinctions, Josephine Wilson (UWA Publishing)


  • Painting Red Orchids, Eileen Chong (Pitt Street Poetry)
  • Year of the Wasp, Joel Deane (Hunter Publishers)
  • Content, Liam Ferney (Hunter Publishers)
  • Fragments, Antigone Kefala (Giramondo Publishing)
  • Headwaters, Anthony Lawrence (Pitt Street Publishers)


  • Mick: A life of Randolph Stow, Suzanne Falkiner (UWA Publishing)
  • The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their craft, Tom Griffiths (Black Inc)
  • Our Man Elsewhere: In search of Alan Moorehead, Thornton McCamish (Black Inc)
  • Quicksilver, Nicholas Rothwell (Text Publishing)
  • The Art of Rivalry: Four friendships, betrayals and breakthroughs in modern art, Sebastian Smee (Text Publishing)

Prize for Australian History

  • ‘A passion for exploring new countries’ : Matthew Flinders and George Bass, Josephine Bastian (Australian Scholarly Publishing)
  • Evatt: A life, John Murphy (NewSouth Publishing)
  • Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story, Elizabeth Tynan (NewSouth Publishing)
  • A Handful of Sand: The Gurindji Struggle, After the Walk-off, Charlie Ward (Monash University Publishing)
  • Valiant for Truth: The Life of Chester Wilmot, War Correspondent, Neil McDonald (NewSouth Publishing)
Young Adult Fiction
  • Words in Deep Blue, Cath Crowley (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • The Bone Sparrow, Zana Fraillon (Hachette Australia)
  • The Stars at Oktober Bend, Glenda Millard (Allen & Unwin)
  • Forgetting Foster, Dianne Touchell (Allen & Unwin)
  • One Would Think the Deep, Claire Zorn (University of Queensland Press)

Children’s Fiction

  • Home in the Rain, Bob Graham (Walker Books)
  • Blue Sky, Yellow Kite, Janet A Holmes / Jonathan Bentley (Little Hare Books)
  • My Brother, Dee Huxley / Oliver Huxley (Working Title Press)
  • Figgy and the President, Tamsin Janu (Scholastic Australia)
  • Dragonfly Song, Wendy Orr (Allen & Unwin)

Inside the publishing industry


How do books get from the publisher’s hot little hands onto the shelves of bookstores? No, I don’t really know either but yesterday it became a little clearer.

Traditional publishers are part of a logistical chain.

From the sale of each book, every player in the chain takes their cut. However online sales, self-publishing and e-books have increasingly muddied the waters. Still, the typical chain – and the typical cut for each player – looks something like this:

  • Author: 10% (less their agent’s fee, which is typically 15% of that 10%. Bestselling authors get a slightly higher percentage)
  • Publisher: 30% (which has to cover editorial work, graphic design and marketing)
  • Printers: 10%
  • Distributors: 10%
  • Retailers: 40% (which seems like a lot until you factor in bookshop rent and salaries)

Traditional publishers don’t necessarily deal directly with booksellers, or certainly not with every bookseller in the country – they use distributors.  At Text Publishing, I guess through some sort of contractual arrangement, they use the distributors of the big multi-national firm, Penguin Random House.

Yesterday I visited the Melbourne office of Penguin Random House, to pitch my book to the distributors. Two other Text authors were there too (keep an eye out next May for Robbie Arnott’s novel Flames and Jessie Cole’s memoir Staying) as were Text Publisher Michael Heyward and an enthusiastic group of Text publicists. Read the rest of this entry

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke – Book Review


If you’ve ever wondered whether Australia actually is a deeply racist nation, then this powerful memoir is for you. It leaves no doubt that answer is yes, all the time, and from almost everyone.

From the nasty little girl at Clarke’s kindergarten who wouldn’t play with the brown girl, to the primary school children who constantly taunted, threatened and mocked, to the teachers and school counselors who told the teenager that it was ‘only teasing’, Clarke’s anger about her treatment lends her prose a searing heat.

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an award-winning Australian fiction writer and poet of Afro-Carribbean descent.  Born in Sydney in 1979, her memoir doesn’t describe some terrible, distant past where things were different – the racism she encountered as a child and teen was (and is) part of contemporary, suburban, middle-class  Australian culture. Her story is book-ended with the racist outbursts that she still encounters when merely walking down the street, or popping into a shop to buy a bottle of water for her little boy, while carrying her baby girl in a sling.

‘She’s sooo adorable! the attendant coos. She walks around me in a circle, looking at the stretchy piece of material knotted at my back and wound over both my shoulders. ‘It’s amazing, how you people carry your babies. It just seems to be, like, instinctive!’ You people. Suddenly, there’s that chest tightening feeling. That hear-in-my-throat, pulse-in-my temples fear. The dry tongue. The gasping for breath. The remembering how it can happen anywhere, at any time. That can’t-think freeze. I am four years old, on my first day of pre-school, standing underneath the mulberry tree watching Carmelita Allen’s lip curl up with disgust as she stares at me. I am slouched down on the high school bus, head bowed, pretending not to notice the whispered name-calling. I take a deep breath in, smile, and hustle my son out of the petrol station.

The litany of the abuses and humiliations heaped upon Clarke over the years would have been damning enough, but she also unflinchingly explores the way the racism changed her. How she began to hate and harm herself. How she cruelly lashed out at others. And how she learned how not to let it crush her.

Clarke, always a bookish child, became a high achieving student. It was her way of showing her tormentors that she was better than them. She found friends, not many, but ones who were steadfast and true. She dated gorgeous teenage boyfriends who loved her for herself. As a senior high school student – and displaying an extraordinary strength of character – she began to report every incidence of racism, every time.  Her high school signally failed in its duty of care towards her but each time she reported, she forced them to do something (albeit while suffering the inevitable backlash from the tormentors). Best of all, as she got older and smarter, she subverted the system, including a glorious, hilarious episode of ‘tribal dancing’.

It doesn’t do, however, to dwell on the positives. This is not a memoir of redemption, of overcoming adversity. Instead it is an indictment of Australian society. The anger that underpins this excellent memoir delivers prose that is dynamic, piercing and damning. In that sense, this memoir bears comparison to Roxane Gay’s Hunger (which I reviewed here).

Clarke doesn’t say so, but the Hate Race is, in my view, the white race. It is me.  It is probably you too.  After reading this book I found myself feeling a weird empathy for all those men who profess themselves shocked when they are shown the extent of sexism. ‘I didn’t know,’ they say. ‘I wasn’t aware,’ they say. ‘It’s not me,’ they say. I, too, struggled with the impulse to claim that racism was #NotAllWhitePeople. Except that, of course, it is. And it’s incumbent upon all of us to do something about it.

Don’t know where to start? Begin by reading this. Now.

But don’t just take my word for it.

  • Whispering Gums thought it was essential reading too.
  • While writing the manuscript, Clarke was awarded the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship (2014) and an Australia Council grant.
  • The Hate Race won the 2017 Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000), as part of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards

Happy Birthday Mary Macarthur


                    Elizabeth Macarthur’s second surviving daughter, Mary Isabella, would today have turned 222 years old. One of these pictures may or may not be of Mary – they were both originally only labelled as ‘daughter of John Macarthur’ and seeing as how he and Elizabeth had […]