The physicality of books

I try to teach my kids to be careful with books but it doesn’t work with two-year-old Sarah. She has a very physical relationship with books. The ones she loves best she bends their covers until they break (Favourite Fairy Tales), tears out the lift-the-flaps (Hop Little Bunnies), scribbles on the faces of the characters (That’s Not My Llama). ‘She’s getting the paperbacks!’ her brother called out urgently once.

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On reading Moon of Desire


Dust jacketed copy of Katharine Prichard's Moon of Desire (1941)

The first thing I did when I started writing a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard was to read all of her novels, roughly in order. I even found a rare copy of her rarest novel, Windlestraws (1916) at just the right time. But I didn’t find a copy of her second rarest novel, Moon of Desire (1941) – at least not at a price I wanted to pay – and so it languished unread, as I marched on with other more pressing things. She rated it lowly herself, explicitly writing an action-filled romance when she was short of money in the hope of it selling well and being optioned as a Hollywood film.

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Some news


Here I am in the Officeworks carpark on Thursday signing a contract with Melbourne University Publishing for my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard.

I have to submit it by 1 September (gulp – this has become a bit harder since isolation, now there are children with us all the time). The publisher has let me go to 150,000 words (about 500 pages) – twice as long as my PhD, which only covered the first part of Katharine’s life. I have two chapters to finish off, then an immense amount of editing to do. (Alas I’m at 159,000 words right now, so it shall include more cutting!) It’ll be published in the first half of 2021. Really hoping I can have a book launch by then. A national tour would be nice, children permitting.

It’s been a long road, six years working on this, and sixteen years in the literary wilderness since my first book, so it means a lot to finally be coming back. Thanks to everyone who’s accompanied me along the way.

I miss blogging. Once I’m done, I’d love to get back to it. At the moment, time has become rather scarce. I miss you all!


The turning point?

It seems wrong, as a supposed writer, to be silent about the bushfire crisis. I haven’t even written anything in my diary about it. It’s like someone living through the opening days of a terrible war and not remarking on it. But like so many Australians, I’ve been following compulsively. Through Twitter in my case, the feed refreshing to show photos out of Mallacoota as the sky turned red and then black, and tears came into my eyes at the thought of those thousands on the beach and in the hall as they waited for the end of the world.

The compulsion has also been because I thought that this, finally, had to be the turning point. This was when Australians woke from our complacent sleepwalk into climate change. This was when we realised what a hotter world was going to be like. But someone tweeted weeks ago that climate action is to Australia like gun control is to America. And sure enough, the fossil fuel industry, the Murdoch empire, the LNP, and the other climate deniers are trying to fool us again, to take us away from the moment we could demand real action.

Australia, don’t be fooled. Listen to the science. Get out on the streets, demand change.

Review: Art Was Their Weapon


Art Was Their Weapon: The History of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild by Dylan Hyde (Fremantle Press 2019)

What a labour of love Dylan Hyde’s Art Was Their Weapon is.  The interviews for this history of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild in the 1930s go right back to 1993. Many of the key players from the guild were still alive then, and lucid. None of them are still with us today, and so in his extensive interviews, Hyde has preserved the voices of a generation of radicals and a fascinating milieu. Continue reading

Flood the city: notes from a nervous Perth climate protestor



I was one of those despicable climate protestors blocking the Perth CBD yesterday. I hate inconveniencing people, but this is an emergency. I was feeling dread in the days leading up to the protest. For security reasons, there weren’t many details given out to rank-and-file protestors like me about what we were going to do. And you never know how the police are going to act. They can be fair and respectful to protestors or they can play hardball and be unpredictable. And who was going to look after the kids if we both got arrested? Continue reading

Fifty years dead: notes on how Katharine Susannah Prichard has fared

1941-10-28 KSP

Katharine in 1941

Katharine Susannah Prichard, fifty years dead today.

Auden wrote of Yeats’ death, ‘The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers’. But it’s also the fate of the dead author to become their detractors as well as their admirers, or perhaps to be forgotten altogether. Katharine hasn’t been forgotten altogether; she has a handful of books in print – more than most dead Australian authors;  she is venerated at the writers’ centre which meets in her old home; and she is recognised as a significant writer by scholars. Yet it’s ironic to find her remarking how sorry she is for Miles Franklin dying without due recognition in 1954 when Franklin has fared much better posthumously than Katharine.

She wrote to fellow communist Vic Williams ‘If only, in the time to come, my works will have helped people to realise the future they can create for this country of my own, I will be satisfied.’ She’d be horrified at what the country has become – communism has died, inequality has widened, greed and materialism have taken over. We have not given up on the madness of war or exploitation.

Soon after Katharine’s death, a brutal obituary appeared in Overland from Dorothy Hewett. Hewett had grown disillusioned with communism and, by extension, with Katharine for her unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union and to the effect Hewett felt it had on her writing. ‘In the clash between the artist’s pagan and poetic sensibilities… and the moralising Marxist religieuse, it is the latter who finally wins the battle.’ If the obituary has elements of truth in it, it is ungenerous and reflects Hewett’s own issues as much as Prichard’s.

The letters in the archives show that the obituary made Katharine’s son, Ric Throssell, so angry he decided he would write a biography of her. Published in 1975, Wild Weeds and Windflowers shows some of the defensiveness of its origins. Yet I was surprised to encounter a note by Ric in his papers from an interview he conducted with Hewett to gain her perspective on his mother. It reveals he was dreading the interview but came away charmed and having been glad he spoke to her. The original enmity had faded; Hewett was to go on to write a generous and appreciative tribute to Katharine on her centenary in 1983 – ‘Happy birthday, Brave Red Witch’.

Posthumously, Katharine’s novel Coonardoo (1929) continued to be her best known work and came to be seen as part of the Australian literary canon, included in high school and university curriculums. It was praised for what was considered its progressive depiction of Aboriginal people and its concern with injustices against them. This success has caused its current problems, as Aboriginal scholars like Jeanine Leane and others have argued that its racial stereotypes which are now ninety years old have been perpetuated through its simplistic teaching as an ‘Aboriginal’ novel.

Meanwhile, the Cold War is over, and communism is not quite the dirty word it used to be. Yet Katharine has been dogged by the claim by Desmond Ball and David Horner in their 1998 book Breaking the Codes  that she was a Soviet spy. I’m yet to finish my research into this, but I’m not convinced by the evidence they provide. It’s the sort of accusation that sticks, though, and the columnists for The Australian seem to mention it quite often.

Katharine’s work is diverse enough that there’s scope for a continuing readership. The dark circus drama through the backblocks of Australia in Haxby’s Circus; the beautiful evocation of the karri forests around Pemberton in Working Bullocks – if only it was in print; love affairs on the beaches of Perth in Intimate Strangers. Her quite superb short stories. I could go on and on.

Of course, I think her life is her most interesting story of all. It has everything – multiple tragedies, romance, war and revolution, and a determined spirit in an often frail body. I will finish my biography before too long, and I hope it will stimulate renewed interest in both her life and work.

The death of Katharine Susannah – 50 years today



It’s fifty years today since Katharine Susannah Prichard died. To mark the occasion, I wrote a post about her death for the KSP Writers Centre:

Next month, Westerly will be publishing my creative non-fiction piece “‘As my Great Day Approaches’: Katharine Susannah Prichard in 1969”, which intertwines an account of Katharine’s final year with my own reflections on writing her biography and the meaning of death.

Five stories for the 50th anniversary of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s death



Tomorrow, 2 October 2019, is the 50th anniversary of the death of Katharine Susannah Prichard. I’m tweeting about it this week from using the #KSP50 hashtag.  Here’s a thread I tweeted:
Commemorate #KSP50 by reading one of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s best stories on @TroveAustralia (in no strict order):
2. Christmas Tree (1919) – the first story she wrote in Western Australia, after traveling out to her husband’s struggling farm in the Wheatbelt. It’s one of the most successful integrations of politics in her oeuvre.

3. Buccaneers (1935) – a light-hearted, gently humorous story of middle-age which evokes WA’s Rottnest Island superbly. It’s amazing that she wrote this soon after the suicide of her husband, Hugo, and while flat out for the Communist Party.

4. The Bride of Faraway (1933) – if you don’t want to read KSP’s massive goldfields trilogy, you could read this proto-version. It came out of prospecting w/Hugo; she was on the boat back from London after his suicide by the time it appeared. #KSP50