Launch events for The Red Witch

My first copy of The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard arrived in February and the book became a lot more real to me! We opened a good bottle of Cab Merlot from 2014, the year I began the biography, but alas it didn’t go well with packet sweet and sour chicken which had already been made. I’m so happy with how MUP have published it, from the design to the printing and not to forget the editing. The official publication date has been put back to 17 May due to delays at the ports, but I’ve been assured there were still be copies at my launch eight days earlier. Here’s details of some events taking place:

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A death

My best friend, Jonathan, took his own life a week ago. I hate that his whole story now seems to lead up to his end. If he’d been saved somehow, most people would never know and his life would have gone on, apparently with a completely different arc. I think of that moment in the movie Match Point when the ball could fall on either side. There are so many different, better ways this should have gone.

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Memory and Mortality in Gnomesville

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We were at Gnomesville the other day. Since the 1990s people have been leaving gnomes in the bush by the side of a round-about in a sparsely-populated corner of the Ferguson Valley. There’s thousands of gnomes spread around the trees and along the tracks. A few of the gnomes are broken but not many; I think the broken ones must be removed. One of the main stretches follows a seasonal creek-bed and the flat clear surface is filled with shiny new gnomes with dates from recent weeks written in texta. Perhaps, like me at first, they didn’t notice it was a creek. A good proportion of gnomes on higher ground are spattered with mud, survivors of at least one year of winter’s rains. Others were probably washed away.

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Australian literature 2020: an introduction and bibliography

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The annual literary wrap-ups of 2021 are about to start but I want to go all the way back in time to 2020. The fourth issue of The Journal of Commonwealth Literature each year includes an introduction to the previous year’s literature of selected Commonwealth nations accompanied by a bibliography. Since 1976, my PhD supervisor, Van Ikin, has been coordinating the Australian entry and I’ve been privileged to be a co-author for the last six years.

We give an overview of major works and their reception as well as themes, trends and controversies. It’s inevitably incomplete and skewed somewhat to our personal interests and biases! It’s also weighted by the format toward literary fiction, poetry, drama, and literary criticism with non-fiction and other fiction only covered selectively.

The official published version is now available on the journal’s website but requires a login; you can download our unpublished version for free as a pdf below.

For the historical record, here’s the compilers by years of publication:

Van Ikin and John Maddocks 1976-1984
Van Ikin and Brenda Walker 1984-1987
Van Ikin and Kieran Dolin 1988, 1990-1997
Van Ikin and David McCooey 1989
Van Ikin and Elizabeth Hardy 1998-2000
Van Ikin and Darren Jorgensen 2001-2006
Van Ikin and Keira McKenzie 2007-2013
Van Ikin, Keira McKenzie and Margaret Stevenson 2014-2015
Van Ikin, Nathan Hobby, Keira McKenzie, Margaret Stevenson 2016
Van Ikin, Nathan Hobby and Margaret Stevenson 2017-2018
Van Ikin and Nathan Hobby 2019—>

The Red Witch cover and pre-orders

Here’s the cover for my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard! The Red Witch is now available for pre-order from the publisher’s website ahead of the 3 May 2022 release in hardback and ebook – https://www.mup.com.au/books/the-red-witch-hardback. It’s still five months away, but feeling much closer with this. I’m so pleased it will be published in hardback and under the Miegunyah imprint of Melbourne University Publishing. The cover uses a 1949 photograph by D. Glass of Katharine in her sitting room at Greenmount. So happy with the design. I hope to speak about the book somewhere near you next year – will just have to see what Covid (and WA) does.

Remembering the Professor

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In my suburb there’s a non-descript shopping centre café which smells a little greasy and sells quiche and bacon and eggs and is inexplicably busy, mostly with older people. It’s next to the bottle shop and every time I pass it I think of the professor because the last time I saw him, in 2003, he was seated at one of its outside tables waiting for his order. I called out his name and when I wasn’t sure he recognised me I reminded him of how I’d been in his classes and he brusquely assured me he remembered me. Was I an unwelcome intruder? I must have spoken to him for a while because I recall showing off to him that my novel had just won an award and would be published. He told me what a bad state publishing was in and how his own novel had been rejected. To my surprise, it was a thriller with some connection to 9/11. The other thing I remember telling him was that I’d recently moved into the area, into a haunted house. What I meant by that was that I was living in a rundown house from the 1950s full of traces of the people who had lived there before, from the vintage stinking carpets to the rusty bedframe in the backyard under the decaying tree-house. But I said it was haunted because I knew he was into parapsychology and there’s a stirrer in me that people are slow to recognise. He took the bait and said something like, ‘When you say haunted, I hope you realise there are many haunted houses in this city.’ If he elaborated—and I would have been hoping he did—I’ve forgotten what else he said.

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A lost preface

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A mural in Emerald Victoria, while on the quest for Katharine in 2016

It’s not easy knowing how to start a biography. The preface to my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard went through a number of versions. Talking to a respected literary figure, she advised I write about why I had written the book because people would want to know. I don’t appear at all in the body of the biography, but it is a long-standing convention to tell something of the biographer’s quest in the preface, so it seemed like good advice and I followed it. I was quite happy with it as an introduction to a biography for a general readership. But one of the anonymous peer reviewers felt it didn’t work: ‘the preface draws tenuous links between the life of the subject and that of the author, and admits (no doubt unintentionally) a kind of obsessiveness, not unlike that asserted with regard to [certain figures in the biography]. I understand that with this gesture the author is attempting to acknowledge his standpoint, but it doesn’t work.’ Maybe the reviewer is right, and/or maybe it was a little mean to call me obsessive when that’s what biographers do, and my tone is more whimsical or self-deprecating than seems to be appreciated. Whatever the case, the published book – when it finally comes out in April 2022 (yes, the date has been pushed back) – will have a quite different preface, which makes a case for Katharine’s significance and outlines the approach I have taken. I’m very happy with that preface too. But for what it’s worth, here’s one of my lost prefaces that is possibly obsessive and self-indulgent in laying out why a non-communist male (somewhat) Anglican is writing the story of a long-dead female communist.

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Letter to the future

Little girl in a mask climbing on a statue of a swan.

What do you even remember about the pandemic years? Are you aware of how much they’ve affected you? Do you still obsessively wash your hands, Sarah? This last year, if we can’t find you, there’s a fair chance you’ve slipped into the bathroom to stand on the step-stool and bathe your hands in liquid soap with the water running, sometimes until the soap dispenser is empty. It’s not likely you’ll remember the ‘before’; you were eighteen-months old in March, that weekend the prime-minister said the lockdown was coming but he was heading to the footy one last time. And Thomas, maybe your memories will start with with this time, the ‘before’ fading out until it seems all your first six years or more were lived in the shadow of coronavirus. I hope not, I hope all the different seasons remain distinct in your memories. I keep asking you about your past to try to keep alive as many of them as I can.

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Edge of the bath and back seat of the car: the places you’ll write

In an obituary for her friend, Sumner Locke, Katharine Susannah Prichard said, ‘She could write anyhow and anywhere. I remember her telling a young man that when he came to her wailing about his uncongenial surroundings, and that he could not find a suitable place to work in at his boarding house “Man,” Sumner said to him, “you could write on the edge of a bath, if you wanted to.”‘ I think of that sometimes as either a goad or an encouragement. I also think of Kate Grenville saying somewhere – I’m not sure where – how the only writing time she had was when her mother looked after her young children and so she would park her car by the beach and write in the backseat leaning on a kickboard balanced over her knees. I’m sure I’ve got the details slightly wrong but I’ve taken inspiration from her during Covid and parked by the river with my laptop on my knees until it runs out of batteries – I only get an hour and a half out of it these days. (Alas, once I left my lights on and another battery ran out too; on that occasion waiting for the RAC to arrive I had some extra thinking time, the laptop already dead.)

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