Tales from Ozlit’s salad days
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