An Australian family over time – The Boyds: A Family Biography by Brenda Niall and A Difficult Young Man by Martin Boyd




Family biography makes sense: we live in families, we remember as families, we are formed by families. Whenever a biographer tries to write one individual’s life, they end up telling the story of a family. As a genre, family biography goes one step further and embraces these other, related stories. But it’s a rare genre because it’s a daunting task and there’s few families with enough interesting members who have left the archives. Brenda Niall has not only chosen the perfect family in The Boyds: A Family Biography (2002); she’s also executed a superb biography. Continue reading

Ten years of this blog: greatest hits part 1, 2007-2011


Robert Wadlow, world’s tallest man. Image source unknown.


This blog turned ten years old in June and I was too busy to mark the occasion. I started blogging in 2003 but I chose the wrong platform and everything I wrote was washed away when modblog closed suddenly in 2006. I was so disheartened I stopped blogging for a year. Seems I backed a winner in WordPress when I started this new blog in 2007. WordPress has become more interactive in recent years, and it’s been wonderful to feel part of a community of literary bloggers. Thank you to all my readers over the decade. Continue reading

Quote: ‘Proportion and order’

The fundamental elements of a story’s structure are proportion and order. Managing proportion is the art of making some things big and other things little: of creating foreground and background; of making readers feel the relative importance of characters, events, ideas. Often this means upsetting normal expectations by finding a superficially trivial detail or moment that, on closer examination, resonates with meaning.

– Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction (2013), 40.

The stories that get left out

Michelle Scott Tucker at Adventures in Biography and I both happen to be in the midst of cutting anecdotes and details from our biographies which distract from the main narrative. She has found a potential use for them: in author’s talks! It’s a good idea to try to give the audience something different.
I tweeted about my editing process on the weekend: “Criteria for keeping scenes in my biography: Does it connect to anything later on or is it an orphaned anecdote? Does it matter to my readers? Eg: sorry Madame Marchesi, you’re not connected & you’re not so famous as when KSP wrote her autobiography.”

Adventures in Biography


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…

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Happy 134th birthday, Katharine Susannah Prichard!



1969 screen cap

It’s Katharine’s birthday today. She was in Victoria for her thirty-fourth birthday a century ago. I’m not sure if she was still in Pyramid Hill, housekeeping for her brother, Nigel, the doctor, or if she’d returned to Melbourne where she’d been living with her mother. She didn’t know her other brother, Alan, had been wounded in France two days earlier; news of his death reached her on 21 December, the day after the “no” campaigners won the second conscription campaign. It was one of the saddest times of a life filled with many tragedies. Sumner Locke, her writer friend, had died in childbirth in October and Guido Baracchi had broken Katharine’s heart one last time in November.

Recently I saw footage of her for the first time, ten minutes of Katharine moving around in super-8 colour in 1969, the last year of her life. John Gilchrist, the film-maker, knew exactly what he was doing; he captures her doing ordinary things – writing at her desk, standing outside her writing cabin, posing in her native garden, sitting on her verandah drinking tea with friends. All through it she is talking, talking, talking, but her words are lost; there is no sound. Usually things are the other way around – all words and no visuals. It would be churlish of me to lament the silence of the film.

Near the end is a scene which belongs at the beginning: Katharine at the driveway of 11 Old York Road, opening the gate as if to invite us in. It cuts to a scene of her opening up a copy of her final novel, Subtle Flame, and then, shockingly, a procession is following a hearse through the gates of Karakatta Cemetery. Just as she seemed so alive, she’s snatched away from us again.

Working Bullocks by Katharine Susannah Prichard



I reviewed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s fourth novel, Working Bullocks (1926), three years ago, and after reading it again, I largely agree with my first reading. It’s the story of the people of the timber country in the South-West of WA and follows a young man named Red Burke who has a way with horses and bullocks but not people, as he is torn between two women and struggles to make his way in that world. I have some new reflections – mostly biographical – to add: Continue reading

Australian literary biography in 2017



It’s nearing the end of 2017 and I’ve only noticed three Australian literary biographies published. I counted five last year, and thought that a low number; perhaps it was actually a bumper crop. The three I’ve noticed are Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work (Text); Kerrie Davies’ A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson (UQP); and Janelle McCulloch Beyond the Rock: the Life of Joan Lindsay and the Mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock (Echo). What have I missed?

I haven’t read any of these yet but even at only three titles, they represent a good spread of Australian literature. Lawson must be the most covered biographical subject of any Australian writer, but Davies’ focus on Bertha is a new angle and apparently an innovative approach. The biography of Joan Lindsay gives us a solidly twentieth century writer; the title suggests the challenge of approaching (and marketing) a writer remembered for one book. And then Brennan’s biography is of a contemporary writer and sounds from the reviews as a work of biographical criticism, making it more possible to write while the subject is well and truly alive.


Detective, Historian, Storyteller: biography workshop in March


I had some good news today – Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre let me know my biography workshop will be a part of their 2018 program. It’ll be on Saturday 17 March, 1:30pm – 4:30pm. If you know anyone in Perth working on a biography, please let them know. I’ve got the feeling that developing and running this workshop will be a valuable experience for my own practice.

Detective, Historian, Storyteller: The Arts of the Biographer
A biographer needs many hats – detective, unearthing sources that reveal a life more fully; historian, analysing and putting these sources into context; and storyteller, weaving it all into a compelling narrative. This workshop introduces these roles of the biographer and gives practical tips and exercises to help you develop your skills.