The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

ARE the Prime Min­is­ter’s Lit­er­ary Awards to be given to the best books pub­lished in the pre­ced­ing year? In this col­umn last month, Beth Driscoll ar­gued they

will be able to recog­nise the best Aus­tralian writ­ing on any sub­ject’’ and have the chance to be­come ‘‘ the prizes that mat­ter, the ul­ti­mate con­se­cra­tors of Aus­tralian writ­ing’’.

Ear­lier this year, Colin Macpher­son ( Fo­rum , April 19- 20) ar­gued that the ex­clu­sion of self­pub­lished works from the prizes was un­fair. Given the ex­clu­sion of Dy­ing: A Mem­oir , the book I co- au­thored un­der my mar­ried name with my hus­band, Don­ald Horne, who died well be­fore it be­came a book, I too won­der whether the guide­lines are not too re­stric­tive.

When Dy­ing: A Mem­oir was pub­lished in Oc­to­ber, the re­sponses were grat­i­fy­ing; they in­cluded a cou­ple of tele­phone calls to tell me a lit­er­ary ed­i­tor had just an­nounced on television that it was his choice for best Aus­tralian book of 2007. Pen­guin, the book’s pub­lisher, en­tered it for lit­er­ary prizes. While it won one, the or­gan­is­ers of the NSW Pre­mier’s Lit­er­ary Awards and the Prime Min­is­ter’s awards re­fused to ac­cept it on the grounds that au­thors have to be liv­ing at the time of sub­mis­sion.

So that’s that, I thought, but at least I have the mak­ings of an anec­dote. ‘‘ I am feel­ing very well,’’ it be­gan, ‘‘ for some­one who has been de­clared dead by two gov­ern­ments.’’

But isn’t any­thing half dead gen­er­ally pre­sumed to be alive, I in­quired of the re­spon­si­ble bu­reau­crats. There was no re­sponse from Syd­ney, but a Can­berra un­der­sec­re­tary replied that the de­part­ment’s de­ci­sion was fi­nal.

I feel ma­ter­nal about the book; af­ter all, it gave me more labour pains than ei­ther of my chil­dren. Also, the prize rules do al­low for the guide­lines to be changed with­out no­tice. So I sent copies of the cor­re­spon­dence to the Min­is­ter for the Arts, whose un­der­sec­re­tary had writ­ten to me, and to the Prime Min­is­ter’s private sec­re­tary. I added that my anec­dote had prompted cries of ab­sur­dist and bizarre.

I heard no more and I de­cided there wasn’t much more that I could do . . . ex­cept pol­ish up what had be­come known as my Brush with Bu­reau­cracy anec­dote, adding the line that gov­ern­ments may change, but the heirs of the TV se­ries Yes, Min­is­ter are alive and well and in Can­berra and Syd­ney’s Mac­quarie Street.

How­ever, I find I am now do­ing more. I am writ­ing this col­umn be­cause of the prin­ci­ples in­volved. The first: whether a book or an au­thor is more im­por­tant. The sec­ond: whether, in a joint au­thor­ship, both au­thors can be de­clared dead if one is still liv­ing.

What was my con­tri­bu­tion to the book? That is part of its story.

Three and a bit years ago, told that his ill­ness was ter­mi­nal, Don­ald put aside writ­ing what he had in­tended as a col­lec­tion of es­says and started dic­tat­ing into a tape recorder two jour­nals, one about what was go­ing on as his health de­clined and the other his thoughts on what he saw as gen­uinely un­cer­tain times. When he won­dered, in some de­spair, who would put all this to­gether, I promised I would have a go.

When he died in Septem­ber 2005 there was a lot of me­dia in­ter­est, in­clud­ing a re­port that he had been work­ing on a pub­lish­able man­u­script. This prompted Pen­guin to get in touch with our lit­er­ary agent.

Come the end of Jan­uary 2006 and I am email­ing Pen­guin: ‘‘ Don­ald left about 80,000 words all up, not all of which are us­able . . . there’s hu­mour, im­plicit pathos and in­tel­lec­tual rigour, but for the mo­ment it is just a col­lec­tion of dis­parate bits.’’

It was to prove a very hard book to put to­gether. Did I want to do it? I knew no­body else could. There were, es­pe­cially, con­sid­er­able gaps in the jour­nal that only I could fill. There were times when I threw my hands in the air and said, Why are you do­ing this to me?’’ But, as they say, only time can make grief bear­able, and this was one way of fill­ing it in.

I fi­nally de­cided on a struc­ture. Three sec­tions: Don­ald’s jour­nal, the es­says, and a piece by me ty­ing up loose ends.

The sto­ry­line would be the ter­mi­nal ill­ness and death of a writer who still had a lot to say. It would be the story of how one close Aus­tralian nu­clear fam­ily faced the im­mi­nent death of its found­ing fa­ther, and how they dealt with the grief that fol­lowed. The tone had to be pos­i­tive and I didn’t want to lose the hu­mour that was so much a part of our life to­gether.

An aca­demic at a din­ner party won­dered about my ad­di­tions to the jour­nal. Shouldn’t I put them in a dif­fer­ent type? If pla­gia­rism is tak­ing some­one else’s words as your own, what is pass­ing off your words as some­one else’s? So­lu­tion: the jour­nal would be au­thored by Don­ald with me, a new take on the idea of the ghost writer, a black joke that Don­ald would have ap­pre­ci­ated. And I was at a stage when I wel­comed al­most any joke, even a bad one.

Quite apart from writ­ing my part of the book and or­gan­is­ing Don­ald’s jour­nal ma­te­rial, there were the es­says. Be­cause I had worked on all Don­ald’s pub­lished work from The Lucky Coun­try on and we shared many views, the worry of mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion was not too great, and the ax­iom I had learned as a cadet re­porter, ‘‘ if in doubt, leave out’’, pro­vided a fur­ther safe­guard. I de­cided to give up all qualms about cut­ting, re­shap­ing, tak­ing ideas from sep­a­rate es­says to make up new ones and aban­don­ing oth­ers. But as I did it I tried to be Don­ald, not me.

I knew Don­ald would ac­cept the book’s fi­nal form as nec­es­sar­ily my cre­ation, al­though he was its heart and soul.

Foot­note: While I am pol­ish­ing my Brush with Bu­reau­cracy anec­dote a friend tells me he is read­ing John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Con­fed­er­acy of Dunces , pub­lished in 1981, 11 years af­ter the au­thor’s death, and awarded the Pulitzer Prize the fol­low­ing year. Dy­ing: A Mem­oir by Don­ald Horne and My­fanwy Horne ( Pen­guin, $ 35).

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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