MYFANWY GOLLAN ON DEATH BY RED TAPE
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).