‘Most writers are in a state of gloom a good deal of the time; they need perpetual reassurance … What are we editors supposed to be – ghost writers, bankers, psychiatrists, income-tax experts, magicians?’
‘The fiction editors were arrogant and stupid enough to think themselves superior to their readers. You could only supply them with what they wished by thinking badly of human beings.’
As a very young fiction editor at the University of Queensland Press, I phoned Peter Carey in 1973 after reading one of his stories in a magazine. By then he had published a handful of short stories in Australian journals.
I had been given two phone numbers and finally tracked him down at SPASM advertising in inner Melbourne. Initially he seemed suspicious on the phone, but back then I knew nothing about his ten-year struggle to find a publisher for his edgy and challenging fiction. Somehow I managed to convince him of my interest and he promised to send up some stories.
Within a week I received a brown paper parcel containing the typescripts of eighteen stories. As I unwrapped and read them one by one, the thrill of discovery was intense. I encountered story after story of astonishing originality and imaginative power. Here was every fiction editor’s dream: a young, as yet unknown writer of prodigious talent.
I swiftly selected a dozen possible stories for the volume, put them in order, and then suggested that ‘The Fat Man in History’ would make a strong book title. For the book’s cover I found a chilling Jeffrey Smart painting, Cahill Expressway, at the National Gallery of Victoria. Peter knew and admired this painting, telling me: ‘That’s exactly how I’d like to write.’
A world rights agreement was signed for the book in early December, and I reported to the UQP Publications Committee that ‘Carey is undoubtedly one of the best short story writers in Australia at present – I would venture to say the best.’
A few weeks later I sent Peter the edited manuscript and page proofs ofThe Fat Man in History, asking for them to be read and returned within ten days. It took a week longer because Peter paid a “reliable friend” to read the pages against the MS before he read them again himself ‘for sense’.
Peter was the perfect author to deal with, I discovered, and I learned a lot from him. As well as being wryly amusing, his letters were always helpful and informative. His advertising background meant he took a special interest in his book’s cover and blurb, recommending I gather ‘a few nice words about the stories’ from other writers.
My intro to the blurb was brief:
This brilliant collection of stories is delightful, bizarre and immensely relevant. The characters are real – fantastically real – and they strip back reality and find it stuffed with menace and a weird kind of hope.
This was followed by a Barry Oakley quote:
Peter Carey is a maker of myths, a fabulist, a creator of compelling imaginative worlds … one of the most original writers in Australian fiction today.
And a witty one from Frank Moorhouse:
For some time now there has been a vacancy in the Sophisticated Fantasy Section of the Short Story Industry. It is my pleasure to announce that Peter Carey, 30, of has been appointed to fill the position. He will also do allegories, fables and astonishing tricks. He writes an intelligent, sizzling and rapid narrative … I commend his work to you with great enthusiasm.
In conclusion was a quote from Carey himself:
Sometimes I find myself visiting places I don’t really want to visit. I finished ‘Peeling’ at 3 a.m. It made me a little ill. I woke my wife to read her the story. She said, ‘I hope your mother never reads this.’
By mid 1974 Peter had moved to Sydney to work for Grey Advertising, living for a while in Wharf Road, Balmain. In August I sent him an advance copy of the $1.95 paperback edition, Literature Board subsidies having halved the production cost. The $4 hardback edition, with its wider page margins, took longer to bind in sewn sections. The book was published later that month in a simultaneous edition of 800 hardbacks and 1700 paperbacks.
The pre-Christmas sales were strong and continued unabated. Extraordinarily, for a slim volume of stories by a new writer, The Fat Man in History was reprinted within a year, and the collection became a cult classic, with copies of the original hardback edition now fetching as much as $2000 each.
Peter’s novels – until 2002 published by UQP – went on to win every major literary award in Australia as well as two Booker Prizes in the UK.
‘All my writing is about human behaviour. There’s not much drama and no violence. It’s about the violence that’s inside the human heart.’
In 1980 I judged a South Pacific story competition. The prize was shared by two writers, including Olga Masters – a woman in her sixties. As with Peter Carey, I asked Olga for more stories. When these turned up in my letterbox I put aside my other reading and became engrossed in Olga’s compelling world of strays, waifs, and other battlers.
Her competition-winning story, ‘The Rages of Mrs Torrens’, about a woman’s reaction to the mutilation of her husband’s hand in a mill accident, was included – but so were others of equal power.
A week later, I sent Olga’s story manuscript to UQP’s fiction editor, D’Arcy Randall, with a reader’s report hailing Masters as a new writer, ‘but one whose powerful stories will soon make her well known’.
In 1982, UQP published the collection under the title I suggested, The Home Girls. Margaret Whitlam launched it in style at the Seymour Centre in Sydney, and the book was warmly received by reviewers. ‘It is rare,’ wrote Mary Lord, ‘to find a new author so much in charge of the art that disguises art.’ The Home Girls went on to win the prestigious National Book Council Award.
I’d known very little about Olga’s own story when recommending her collection to UQP. Only later did I discover that she had grown up in poverty on the south coast of New South Wales. Her first job was withThe Cobargo Chronicle, whose editor had encouraged her writing. She’d first written fiction in the 1930s, aged just fifteen, making her more precocious even than Peter Carey.
Married at twenty-one to a schoolteacher, Olga raised a family of seven children, continuing to work part-time as a journalist. Her equally talented children include writer and investigative reporter Chris Masters, and television producer Sue Masters.
All of Olga’s books were published by UQP, most edited by D’Arcy Randall who also worked closely with Elizabeth Jolley, Thea Astley and Kate Grenville. In Island magazine several years later, D’Arcy wrote that Olga was an ‘easy’ author to work with.
‘Her writing, on the other hand, was difficult to edit,’ comments D’Arcy. ‘Her copy was technically rough, full of awkward syntax and haphazard punctuation … We spoke on the phone frequently, so I could test out the editing of difficult sections with her.’
UQP editorial staff always formed close working relationships with authors, and we all became part of Olga’s extended family.
Sadly, Olga didn’t quite achieve her plan to write a book for each of her children. When she died of a brain tumour in September 1986, she was writing her fifth work of fiction — another collection of stories. The Rose Fancier was published posthumously, and was a labour of love for her editor, D’Arcy Randall.
Two years after her writing career was cut short, Olga began to achieve an international reputation, with The Home Girls translated into Italian and published by Feltrinelli in Milan, a leading literary house whose founder had funded the radical Red Brigades until he was blown up by a car bomb.
Then, after years of persistent effort on the part of D’Arcy and UQP’s New York agents, the prestigious publisher Norton agreed to take on several of Olga’s titles for the US market, beginning with Amy’s Children. She had only just completed this powerful autobiographical novel at the time of her death.
These attractive US editions brought Olga many new readers, as well as appreciative reviews in North America. As advance copies of each book arrived in Brisbane, it was a delight to see the quality of American hardback novel production, with lovely paper and binding, and the characteristically uneven deckle-edged pages.
Several of Olga’s books are now available as UQP editions and in the popular Text Classics series of inexpensive paperbacks.
‘Memory, like all forms of autobiography, is a work of fiction. Our lives, even our past lives, remain works in progress, subject to the editorial process.’
In the spring of 1993, I sat down beside my writer friend Geoffrey Dutton on the terrace of his Glasshouse Mountains retreat. I’d brought with me from Brisbane the edited manuscript of his 500-page autobiography, to be released by UQP the following year. As his editor and publisher, I wanted Out in the Open to make its way in the world with the sort of confidence and dash Geoff himself invariably exhibited.
Reading his MS for the first time some months before, I’d been struck by the opening sentence: 'I was born in a house of books.' Over several generations, Geoff’s wealthy family had inhabited the South Australian country mansion Anlaby, filling its grand library with many thousands of books.
‘My father was a collector, my mother an omnivorous reader,’ Geoff recalled. His mother’s Edwardian tastes ran to history and biography. There were no modern novels and hardly any Australian books. At age nine, Geoff had been packed off to board at Geelong Grammar while his mother travelled abroad to enjoy a flirtation with the European aristocracy.
This privileged milieu of the landed gentry was something he shared with his longtime friend, the patrician Patrick White. Their first books were slim volumes of poetry and they later championed the Republican cause, Geoff with great enthusiasm. White had been Cambridge educated; Dutton's finishing school was Oxford where C.S. Lewis was his tutor.
Like Geoff Dutton, my father had been a flier during the war and I became acquainted with Geoff and his multi-faceted literary career during the 1980s. After he and his wife Robin Lucas moved from Mudgee to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland I got to know them well and enjoyed their company, visiting them several times at their architect-designed house at the foot of spectacular Mt Coonowrin.
Working with Geoff on his autobiographical MS that perfect spring day in 1993, I spent hours – interrupted briefly by lunch – turning over the pages one by one and discussing with him every pencilled query or suggestion of mine. The hardest part I saved till last – encouraging him to include an account of his long first marriage to Ninette Dutton.
I warned him that the frank revelations of his various affairs only highlighted her absence, something readers and reviewers would be certain to criticise. Which was exactly what happened. (White’s biographer David Marr, a friend of Ninette’s, even challenged Geoff about it during a radio interview.)
Editors need tact as well as patience, and not every impasse can be bridged. After I’d cooled off with a swim in their pool, Robin quietly took me aside.
‘Geoff can’t write about Ninette,’ she told me. ‘Even after all these years, he finds it difficult to think about her, and he just can’t face writing openly about their marriage.’