OUR SHARED DESTINY
Brisbane author Cory Taylor died earlier this month. Her publisher, Michael Heyward, remembers a wise and compassionate writer who knew no fear
In the middle of 2009, Cory Taylor sent us some pages from a novel she was writing. We knew nothing about her but it was obvious that she could write like an angel. Her work-in-progress was written from the point of view of a teenage girl growing up in a regional town and embarking on an affair with an attractively futile married man.
The dialogue was precise and the observation flawless. The chapters we read were funny, sad, sardonic. This was a story about the heady rush of breaking the rules, the thrill of smashing boredom to bits. We read in a state of enthralment and asked to see more.
A year later the completed manuscript reached us. It was called Me and Mr Booker. By now we knew that Cory was an award-winning screenwriter, was in her early 50s, was married to a Japanese artist, had two sons and, when she wasn’t living in Brisbane, spent a lot of time in Japan. We also knew that she had given us a cracking novel to publish. Martha and Mr Booker are an indelibly incorrect couple. Their vivid transgressions await the filmmaker who can rise to the occasion of the dangerous landscapes — physical, moral, social and sexual — in which they occur.
Cory came to us late but fully formed. She had been writing all her life. She was born in Southport, Queensland, in 1955 and grew up mostly in Canberra, apart from stints in Fiji and Kenya. She read history at the Australian National University, travelled to Europe like so many Australians of her generation, but then she did something less usual. In 1982 she went to Japan, and there she met Shin Koyama, an artist who became her husband for 31 years. They settled in both Brisbane and in Arita, and raised their two boys, Nat and Dan.
In 2005, Cory was diagnosed with melanoma. Her illness, understandably, shook her up. But it galvanised her too, and compelled her to get on with it, to write the novels she had been dreaming about all her life.
We published Me and Mr Booker in 2011. It went on to win a Commonwealth Writers Prize. Cory was on her way. She wrote My Beautiful Enemy, a no less audacious novel about a wartime internment camp guard who falls in love with a Japanese prisoner. Here she was again, exploring the delicate corners of unexpected experience in an Australian context that was simultaneously iconic and a place we were seeing for the first time. Again the critical response was rapturous. “An almost unbearably beautiful story,” wrote Robert Dessaix, “about longing and secret lives in which grief and joy turn out to be much the same thing.” My Beautiful Enemy was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2014.
Cory was an instinctive writer who knew no fear, who took the reader into dark and dangerous places that we believe in because she creates an effortless tension between her compassion for her characters and her drive to tell us the whole truth about them. She was endlessly curious about people and she translated this curiosity into her characters. Her restless spirit and appetite for life informed the eagle-eyed humanity of her writing.
We didn’t know about her illness. We didn’t know that she had begun writing fiction only after her diagnosis. But by late 2014 we knew that Cory was very unwell. She told us she was about to have brain surgery. Her cheerfulness and courage were undiminished. “At the very least it’ll make a good story,” she wrote. “I just pray the knife doesn’t slip and I can keep scribbling away.” We have reason to be grateful to her surgeon. I don’t think Cory imagined even then what an extraordinary story she would make out of her apprehension of death.
The surgery bought her some time. On February 1 this year, however, Cory called her editor at Text, Penny Hueston, to let her know that the game was up: she was abandoning all treatment. There would be no more books. They talked for hours. Something tremendous happened in that conversation. “So great to talk yesterday,” Cory wrote to Penny the following day. “I’ve started writing it all down instead of constantly blabbing about it.”
What followed was astonishing. Over the next five weeks Cory wrote a new book in three perfectly formed sections that she sent to Penny at regular intervals. It was a book about