Tales from Ozlit’s salad days

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson Un­der Cover: Ad­ven­tures in the Art of Edit­ing By Craig Munro Scribe, 256pp, $29.99 Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is The Aus­tralian’s chief literary critic.

One day in 1974, a young editor from Univer­sity of Queens­land Press named Craig Munro ar­rived at a Mel­bourne advertising agency with the eye­brow-arch­ing name of SPASM. He had a broad­cast qual­ity reel-to-reel tape recorder un­der his arm and had come to in­ter­view an agency em­ployee who had pro­duced a se­ries of short sto­ries Munro was turn­ing into a book.

The in­ter­view was to be part of an au­dio se­ries of Aus­tralian writ­ers on writ­ing. The short story col­lec­tion was The Fat Man in History and the ad man, 31 years old and dressed like Che Gue­vara, was Peter Carey. It was the first time the two had met.

Fol­low­ing an earnest hour’s worth of thought­ful, literary Q&A, Munro pressed play, only to dis­cover the tapes were blank — he had not recorded a word. Carey, un­per­turbed, in­vited his editor into the kitchen of the con­verted ware­house and fished out two tall bot­tles of lager from the fridge. They restarted the in­ter­view process, this time with liq­uid re­fresh­ments, and the au­thor’s cal­cu­lated re­sponses soon be­came more an­i­mated and ro­bust.

‘‘The more we im­bibed,’’ Munro re­calls in his memoir Un­der Cover, ‘‘the faster our orac­u­lar in­hi­bi­tions flew out the win­dow. I asked if he wanted to be a full-time writer: ‘No,’ he said, ‘be­cause I think writ­ing’s a f..king bor­ing in­su­lar silly oc­cu­pa­tion.’ ’’ For me, at least, that line is worth the price of ad­mis­sion alone. But Un­der Cover is packed with in­ci­dent and anec­dote of this sort: the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards night, for ex­am­ple, when things got out of con­trol af­ter a long and dreary speech by Mor­ris West and Munro dis­cov­ered Ge­orge Robert­son, great-grand­son of pub­lisher An­gus & Robert­son’s founder, with then-premier Neville Wran in a head­lock; or the oc­ca­sion when a house full of doss­ing po­ets at Ade­laide Writ­ers Week caught some­thing nasty while shar­ing one mal­func­tion­ing loo (Les Mur­ray, housed in the back shed, was the only one un­scathed). Munro takes a de­lighted rel­ish in sto­ries from the wild west days of Aus­tralian letters.

And like some more vivid ver­sion of Woody Allen’s Zelig, Munro finds him­self a spec­ta­tor and par­tic­i­pant in many of the sig­nal mo­ments of Ozlit dur­ing the past four decades or so. Partly this is ac­ci­den­tal — Munro, from a mod­est, un-book­ish, mid­dle-class back­ground, grew up in Mackay, then sleepy, sul­try Bris­bane, slid­ing into edit­ing via a cadet­ship at The Courier-Mail — and partly it is down to luck.

The Univer­sity of Queens­land Press was just be­gin­ning its mo­ment as a cen­tral player in the emer­gence of a vig­or­ous lo­cal pub­lish­ing in­dus­try when Munro be­came a part-time un­der­grad­u­ate study­ing jour­nal­ism and arts across the quad. It was into this time of vig­or­ous literary experiment and risk-tak­ing, when cul­tural na­tion­al­ism and boomer de­mo­graph­ics met, and when rel­a­tively gen­er­ous gov­ern­ment sup­port was in place and the multi­na­tion­als had yet to get all their claws into pub­lish­ing down un­der, that Munro grad­u­ated with hon­ours.

It also helped that he had that rare com­bi­na­tion of in­tel­li­gence, cre­ative flair and dull, dogged at­ten­tion to de­tail de­manded of an editor. Not that you could tell from the early chap­ters of his book. The mem­oirist is quick to tell sto­ries that re­flect just how cal­low and ig­no­rant he was when start­ing out with the UQP ed­i­to­rial team in 1971 (not hav­ing a clue how to use his huge Chicago Man­ual of Style, Munro in­stead used its mar­gins to record favourite quo­ta­tions). Yet he swiftly carved a niche for him­self as an editor of fic­tion. Along with fu­ture nov­el­ist Roger Mac­Don­ald, the found­ing editor of UQP’s po­etry list, Munro made some­thing re­mark­able out of this so­cio­cul­tural sweet spot. This wasn’t just be­cause he was bright and am­bi­tious, though he ev­i­dently was those things; it was be­cause no one had yet worked out that what he and his col­leagues were do­ing couldn’t be done.

Munro di­vides his main chap­ters be­tween au­thors whom he brushed up against or cre­atively mar­ried. Most space, fairly enough, is de­voted to Carey. That 1974 vol­ume of short sto­ries must be re­garded as one of the most ex­cit­ing de­buts in post­war An­glo­sphere pub­lish­ing, full stop, and Munro was the one to do it. But the re­la­tion­ship con­tin­ued un­til True His- tory of the Kelly Gang, which won Carey his sec­ond Booker Prize in 2001. Carey comes out of the story a de­cent bloke, though one whose writerly am­bi­tions were ut­terly at vari­ance with his boozy state­ment above.

David Malouf, whose first novel, Johnno, was pub­lished by UQP, is also granted a chap­ter here, as are Mur­ray Bail and that can­tan­ker­ous old buz­zard Xavier Herbert. Munro was des­per­ately keen to land the man known by his many de­trac­tors as Aus­tralia Prolix when he was shop­ping his epic Poor Fel­low My Coun­try around var­i­ous pub­lish­ers. Then he queered the pitch by hav­ing the temer­ity to sug­gest that some im­prove­ments could be made to a man­u­script a third as long again as War and Peace. From the sound of it, Munro dodged a bullet.

Munro also de­votes a chap­ter to print­maker and au­thor Bar­bara Han­ra­han, whom he re­gards as the most over­looked Aus­tralian writer of re­cent decades. His de­scrip­tion of her trou­bled life and fas­ci­nat­ing work em­bar­rassed this reader into a few sec­ond-hand pur­chases online, while his pages on Olga Mas­ters should re­mind all of us what an im­mense tal­ent she was, and how tragic her story — to have found her voice so late in life, only to suc­cumb to can­cer just as she was gain­ing a proper mo­men­tum — turned out to be. Re­gard­ing Olga he is fond rather than sen­ti­men­tal, and prop­erly re­spect­ful of a woman who was, by all ac­counts, al­ways the adult in the room. Though fi­nally, it was Munro’s ef­forts to cre­ate and ad­min­is­ter the David Unaipon Award for an un­pub­lished in­dige­nous writer’s man­u­script that may yet prove his most durable achieve­ment.

Be­hind the anec­dotes and great fun, there is another story: that of a brief win­dow in which Aus­tralia first de­vel­oped a lo­cal pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, when ed­i­tors and not literary agents had the clos­est re­la­tion­ship with their au­thors, and when gov­ern­ments of the day were will­ing to make the mod­est in­vest­ment that pro­vided those star­tling re­turns in books such as Carey’s Os­car and Lucinda, Malouf’s An Imag­i­nary Life and He­len Garner’s The Chil­dren’s Bach.

Things are far more pro­fes­sional and pol­ished to­day, as Munro ac­knowl­edges. But you can’t help fin­ish­ing his memoir with­out mourn­ing, just a lit­tle, the time when a na­tion found its nar­ra­tive feet. Shin­ing off its pages is a sense of the fun and the sheer de­light we once took in telling sto­ries to our­selves and the wider world. We are so much richer now — but though Munro is too po­lite to say it, poorer too.

BE­HIND THE ANEC­DOTES AND GREAT FUN, THERE IS ANOTHER STORY

Craig Munro, above, and Peter Carey with his Book­er­win­ning novel True History of the Kelly Gang

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