Missing the archives


Cataloguing a biography of Charles Spurgeon in my librarian job, I noticed this convolutedly-worded confession in the preface. The book is a comprehensive biography of 700 pages in two columns (such a strange layout) described by one reviewer as an ‘immense and monumental portrait’, yet the author did not manage to get to the major archives for his subject at all. I take this as a consolation for my lack of recent access to Katharine’s papers in Canberra; yet it seems an unforgivable hole in a biography.

In the first two years, I made four trips to Canberra and two to Melbourne. But still I fret over the archives, over the fact I may not make it again anytime soon and the thought of all the things I’ve missed. (I didn’t copy as much of the material beyond 1919, where the project was initially finishing.)

Not being able to get to Canberra has made me find work arounds. My university library has procured me copies of papers I have location numbers for. (I am waiting anxiously for them to tell me I’ve asked for too many!) Right here in Perth I recently stumbled across the boxes of material gathered by a previous PhD student attempting a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. It had some significant material I’d not copied and I’m so grateful for her foresight and generosity in leaving them to future scholars. I’ve gone back more carefully over the photographs I took from the archive and found whole folders I didn’t realise I had. And I’ve reached the Western Australian years and found many things at the State Library of WA, even an eyewitness account of Katharine’s death.

I’ve learned about an important paradox in writing a biography anyway: the hunger for archives is in tension with the readers’ patience. The biographer will usually have more material than the reader wants to read.

A biographical dilemma: trying to sell a trilogy, or not


‘Just one thing to make clear,’ she said, ‘I’d be astonished if any agent or publisher thought it was a good idea to write a trilogy on Katharine Susannah Prichard.’

I was hoping for something more like: I would be astonished if any agent or publisher turned down this manuscript. But I hired my editor for a manuscript assessment because of her frank and fearless advice and industry insight. I was glad to hear she considered it well written, but what stood out for her was my premise that the early life of KSP was worth an entire book. Did I provide some startling justification for this later in the manuscript? Did I have a better example of a similar undertaking other than Judith Wright? No and no. Continue reading

2017: My year’s reading in biography


Of the biographies I read in 2017, I thought these six very good.

  1. Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead / by Thornton McCamish (2016)
    “This is a biography which gives a vivid sense of life and culture in the mid-twentieth century. It reflects in an indirect but profound way on what makes life meaningful and how the past is present – or not – today. It didn’t leave me with a strong desire to read Moorehead’s work but it did leave me with a strong desire to read whatever book McCamish writes next.” – My review
  2. The Enigmatic Mr Deakin / Judith Brett (2017)
    “Brett’s biography is wise and compellingly readable. She captures the experience of living, the passing of years, the shifts in attitude and fortune, the development of character. Even if the promises of spiritualism were false and Deakin’s spirit cannot be summoned, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin brings him to life as much as a biography can hope to do. May it foster a wider understanding of a man worth remembering.” – My review
  3. The Boyds: A Family Biography / Brenda Niall (2002)
    A book that takes us through a couple of centuries of Australian life through the eyes of one family. It’s a superb example of a rare and difficult genre.
    – My review
  4. Capote / by Gerald Clarke (1988)
    “It reads so smoothly, so effortlessly in a way which only a great biographer can achieve and only then with much sweat. It follows Capote from his troubled childhood in Alabama and the wounds his selfish parents inflicted on him to his emergence as a literary wunderkind in New York and the successes of his early and mid-career to the tragic descent into writer’s block, alcoholism, and exile from the circles of the wealthy and celebrities he had moved in. It’s a tragedy and it’s told with a restraint, clarity, and insight which make it compelling.” – My review
  5. Kylie Tennant: A Life / by Jane Grant (2006)
    A compelling biography of a true character in Australian literature. I was impressed by how much Grant achieves in such a short book.
    My review
  6.  A Life Discarded / by Alexander Masters (2016)
    Masters pieces together the life of an unknown person from the hundreds of diaries they left behind in a skip bin. It’s a page-turning biographical quest, intriguing and fun and both sad and heart-warming. But it also felt somewhat contrived to me, as Masters shapes his quest to eke out the suspense. (Not reviewed.)

Ten years of this blog: greatest hits part 2, 2012-2017


October 2015 – Pretending to write with 3-month-old Thomas

As promised, part two of this blog’s greatest hits!

Statistics have a way of humbling us, I think. My most popular post of all time, by a long way, is a rather prosaic summary of my favourite novel, Paul Auster’s Moon Palace – sitting on 9855 hits In writing it, I was just trying to remember the details better, but unwittingly I created an essential resource for students who have Moon Palace as a set text and don’t want to actually read it. I have actively contributed to about 9000 people not reading my favourite novel. Continue reading

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

Source: http://thomaswightman.co.uk/book-sculpture-drowning-from-obsession

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