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.
Katharine Susannah Prichard the lavender girl, 1915. A photo from a profile by Sumner Locke in Everylady’s Journal.
I sent my manuscript off two weeks ago. The publisher I think would be best for my biography now runs an annual competition for an unpublished manuscript, so it seemed a perfect goal. I’m catching my breath after eight intense months in which I wrote half of the book. (The first half took more than two years.) Continue reading →
I’m currently doing final revisions on my biography before I send it off for the first time. It’s 100,000 words long and twenty chapters – hopefully the first book of three covering Katharine Susannah Prichard’s life. I’m not certain of the title yet so maybe you can help me. Here’s a blurb for the book, to give you a sense of what the title needs to convey:
When Katharine Susannah Prichard’s father killed himself in 1907, her literary career was just starting to bloom. She was twenty-three, and she’d lived her life in the shadow of his depression, hoping for his approval. This biography is the story of Prichard’s restless early life as she overcame the deaths of her father and brother and many years of literary setbacks to break through as a novelist of the Australian land and people. It is also the story of her political transformation, as her quest for the answer to the world’s problems became urgent in the horrors of World War One and she decided that the only solution was revolution. All of it was tangled with her complicated love life, her long affair with an older man, a romance with a playboy activist that left her heartbroken, and finally her marriage to the Victoria Cross winner, Hugo Throssell. Precocious child, governess, journalist, and finally writer this is the engrossing story of one of Australia’s literary greats.
And the nominations for title are, in alphabetical order, with an explanation:
Astir: The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard
“Astir” is a word which seems to capture the spirit of Katharine: “in a state of excited movement.” It’s not specific to any one strand of her life, but suggestive of them all. I was drawn to it by this passage from her, which I would use as an epigraph:
[S]o strenuously national is the spirit of today, so lively and vigorous the sense of our growing strength in intellectual and artistic life, that Australian literature is abandoning this “imitativeness,” these swaddling-clothes of its infancy, and adopting the toga virilis of originality. It has reached the adolescent stage—it is astir with great things; growing daily in power and freedom… But no-one has completely expressed the characteristic of our country, life and people. We await transfiguration at the hands of a great writer.
“Australian Literary Tendencies.” International 1, no. 3 (March 1908): 344–45.
Katharine Susannah Prichard: Before She Was Any of Those Things
This title comes from the prologue:
In Australia’s cultural memory, Katharine has become the aging, tenacious communist living in her cabin in the hills of Perth, widow of a Victoria Cross winner, author of Coonardoo. This biography is the story of Katharine before she was any of those things. If all of these things have antecedents, none of them were as inevitable as they now seem.
Katharine Susannah Prichard: Beginnings (or, Beginnings: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, 1883-1919)
This title speaks for itself! The plural is important, suggesting the different spheres of life.
A Rough Path: The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard
In her grief over her brother killed in the war, Katharine wrote a poem called “For Alan”:
My way is like this way
Which goes through the hills—
A rough path—it seems to ascend, ascend:
But I know it will come to the sea,
And long day end.
It’s an image that conveys the pattern of her early life and would make a good epigraph.
Turning Red: The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard
While politics was only one strand of Katharine’s life, it was an important strand and this title conveys the process of transformation.
If this book gets accepted by a publisher, I’m sure they’ll have an opinion on the title. But for the moment, I want to be sure the title captures the attention and respect of whoever is reading the manuscript. Please vote and tell me what you think. I’d also welcome other suggestions (leave a comment) and feedback on the subtitle (“The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard”).
Alas, blogging is one of the things which have fallen by the wayside as I try to keep up a gruelling (for me!) chapter-a-month. So far I’m on track. It’s complicated by the fact that several chapters, including February’s, have divided into two. I’ve given Hugo Throssell VC his own chapter to introduce him and describe how he met Katharine, his future wife, in 1915 after Gallipoli. It means Guido Baracchi, the perpetual student Katharine met at the end of the year, gets his own (shorter) introductory chapter too.
My reading from the biography at the KSP Writers’ Centre was a couple of weeks ago now. There were over thirty people who came, braving the extreme heat and the drive out into the hills. There were many people I knew and many I didn’t; I was grateful to them all for coming. It was so encouraging to see so much interest in the biography. I love engaging in discussion after a reading, and there were some perceptive questions. I need to come up with a concise answer to the question: “Why Katharine?”; there are good reasons, if not necessarily obvious ones. Novelist Jenny Ackland was at KSPWC for a writing retreat ahead of Perth Writers’ Festival and I was chuffed that she wrote about my talk and the centre on her blog.
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.
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.
It’s rather speculative to imagine what Katharine Susannah Prichard would make of Twitter. She had a mixed relationship with technology. She flew in an aeroplane in 1916 when that was novel and dangerous, and travelled by motorbike and car around Western Australia with Hugo in 1919. Late in life she came to enjoy the wireless but disliked the advent of television and lived without many of the “modcons” of the postwar era.
I hope she wouldn’t mind that I’ve created a Twitter account for her, “Katharine S. Prichard”, https://twitter.com/KSP1883. After enjoying snippets of Samuel Pepys’ diary, as well as the tweets of Vita Sackville-West and C.S. Lewis, I decided Twitter would be a wonderful platform to serve up morsels of Katharine’s writing. 140 characters does not give room for context or nuance, but I believe it can give people a flavour of her writing and encourage them to seek out her books.
I’ll be tweeting quotes from across her oeuvre. The idea is to keep it entirely in her own voice. Where there’s room I’ll give the name of the work as a hashtag, and I’ll also give the year of publication. It’ll often be a case of me live-tweeting whatever work of hers I’m reading at the moment, hence the wild veering across the years so far.
Even the profile for a Twitter account has to keep within the 140 character limit, so I was so pleased to find just the right words to fit the limit from a late article by Katharine, “Some Perceptions and Aspirations” (Southerly, 1968):
My work has been unpretentious: of the soil. Telling of the way men & women live & work in the forests, back country & cities of Australia.
January 2016 – Mechanic’s Institute, Yarram, where KSP played the lead in Sweet Lavender, a nickname which stuck for years.
The two-year anniversary of the official start of my PhD passed by on 21 August. I had 20,000 words of the biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard written a year ago; I now have 40,000, which is a neat piece of symmetry. I’m imagining it’s going to be 80,000 words, but only if I can start reining myself in – I feared there wouldn’t be enough to say, but there’s always too much. I recently deleted a paragraph about the feud – which spilled into the local paper – between Katharine’s favourite teacher at Armadale State School and the bad-tempered headmaster. It represented several hours of research (some of it precious time in an interstate archive), but it really had to go. Other details are harder to let go of. Continue reading →
It’s a hundred years ago on Friday since King George V decorated Katharine Susannah Prichard’s future husband, Hugo Throssell, with a Victoria Cross, Western Australia’s first. To mark the occasion, I’ve been asked to give a speech at Katharine’s Birthday, the annual end-of-year celebration at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, alongside Chris Horvath, a specialist on the 10th Light Horse. It’s an interesting assignment for a pacifist like me. Continue reading →