It’s a year since The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard came out.
I’ll always remember the night of my book launch at the UWA Tavern, my family and friends and colleagues and KSP fans gathered together. There were speeches from my supervisors, Tony Hughes d’Aeth and Van Ikin, who had been there with me all those years I was writing it. To my disbelief, Norman Jorgensen handed me a signed copy of KSP’s seven inch record on which she reads two of her short stories. It was such a generous gift. It was a surreal night – just before the event was due to start, I had a job offer over the phone which threw me off balance. I had been going to say no, because I couldn’t work full time, but in that evening when I’d finally climbed the mountain of the book it felt like everything was changing, opening up and that I needed to say yes.
That launch was the first of many events, a busy, giddy couple of months. I was even interviewed by Phillip Adams, something I’d long dreamed of. I’d been rather selfishly worried he would retire before the publication of my book. But it happened, an hour long special with me and Karen Throssell, KSP’s granddaughter. We pre-recorded in the morning but, alas, there was no cosy chat with Phillip before or after – he was in a hurry. The reviews started rolling in and there were so many of them! I was grateful to be met with astute and generous reviewers, some of them writers I admire greatly. I had an online launch, compered by Lisa Hill of ANZ Litlovers with Karen Throssell launching and my publisher, Nathan Hollier, also speaking. I had another launch at Katharine’s house itself in Greenmount, now the KSP Writers’ Centre, a place which had been so central to the journey. Fittingly, the centre’s patron, Glen Phillips, launched the book; he’s been writing about KSP for decades.You can see in the photographs the golden autumn light. It was a perfect afternoon.
As a bookend to the first launch, at the end of June the theological college where I’d worked for fourteen years had a combined farewell and launch for me and theologian Michael O’Neil spoke eloquently and appreciatively about my book.
I had a week off before I started my new job and a long list of things I was going to do but instead, I came down with covid and a severe case of a bad review. Since then I have been holding in a very juvenile desire to swear on my blog at the eminent historian Sheila Fitzpatrick. (Maybe an acrostic poem, Gwen Harwood style?) I’d always wanted to review for ABR and be reviewed in it. Professor Fitzpatrick’s review in the July issue came on day two of covid, when I was at my sickest. Confined to bed, I got up when I heard the postie. And there I was, finally in the ABR. Her review was disdainful and it seemed as if she didn’t understand the conventions of biography and what my biography was trying to do; she didn’t even consider it on its own terms. I’ve always been an outsider to the academy – I don’t come from an academic family and my work doesn’t fit neatly into a discipline – and I felt my eight years of research and writing were crushed by an insider who had all the power. But reviews should be honest and it was no doubt the honest opinion of an expert in Soviet history, an aspect of my book which isn’t its strong point – nor its focus. The thing is, it never looks good to respond to negative reviews. You end up looking thin-skinned and perhaps a little ridiculous. Of course, if I’m honest, I am thin-skinned and thereby temperamentally unsuited to the public exposure of publishing a book.
But other aspects of public exposure suit me. I love public speaking, love talking about my book and answering people’s questions. Due to the ongoing covid pandemic, I haven’t pushed hard to do more talks. I’m still wearing a n95 mask, trying to stave off repeat infections, and that’s something few people have sympathy with any more, let alone in a guest speaker. (If anyone is tolerating a masked speaker and can gather a few people to hear me talk about KSP, drop me a line!)
I wrote to a friend, ‘I had told myself that being published would be enough, but I think I had my fingers crossed.’ I thought there would be invitations to literary festivals (there was one – Mandurah, thank you!) and a shortlisting or two. But like most books, mine has largely missed out on these things.
A few years before I finished The Red Witch, a publisher told me that non-commercial Australian biographies sell between 200 and 1000 copies. It was a reality check and I was crestfallen. I read somewhere that David Marr’s biography of Patrick White sold 40,000 copies and there was a part of me setting that up as a benchmark. But here was this wise publisher recalibrating my expectations.
The thing about climbing a mountain is the dilemma of what to do next. ‘Climb another one’. A higher one? No chance. Or at least not right now. I’ve had two false starts on new books. Both foundered on the lack of rich archival material – personal letters – to bring the subjects alive. I’ve got two other ideas I’m spending a long time choosing between; both of them have promise and both of them have problems. I don’t want to commit to starting and then stop again. Also, I have no time. I do have an article celebrating Elizabeth Jolley’s centenary out next month in the State Library of NSW’s OpenBook magazine.
Thanks to everyone who has bought my book / read my book / come along to one of my talks / followed my blog – I appreciate it so much!
To celebrate the first birthday of The Red Witch, during May you can buy a signed copy directly from me at the discounted price of $45 with free postage (usually $10) to anywhere in Australia – the online shop is here.