Kate Grenville, now 67, won the Vogel in 1984 for her novel Lillian’s Story.
‘Hi Frank, I’m in promotion mode for this strange little book I’ve just done about fragrance [The Case against Fragrance]—it’s surprising all of us how much interest there is about it, so I’m doing a lot of yacking about it. Some very hasty answers to your questions.’
Did you set out to be a fiction writer in the literary tradition before or after the Vogel?
‘I had no sense of myself as a writer of any kind, in any tradition, before the Vogel. I just I knew I loved to write in fact that it was my way of thinking, the only way I could engage with the questions I was asking myself about life and how to manage it. Before the Vogel I’d written short stories and although I did send them to magazines it didn’t worry me unduly when they came back rejected—doing another version of each rejected story was a challenge and a pleasure. I’d also written two apprentice novels, one of which I’d sent to a publisher who knocked it back (thank goodness), and another novel which later, after huge rewrites, became Dreamhouse. I think I also sent it out in a rather half-hearted way.
‘At that time I was doing a degree in Creative Writing (in the US)—so I knew writing was something I was going to try to do more of and get better at and, of course, I wanted to be published. But there was no sense of a career path or a goal—I thought I might get a few short stories published, and perhaps in my 50s I’d finally get a novel published…
‘I wrote Lilian’s Story in a mood of play and something like self-indulgence—I thought that I’d start a “real novel” soon (one with a conventional structure & plot) but in the meantime I’d just let myself explore this idea that interested me, and let it come out just as it pleased, straight out of the imagination, without any thought of how it would be received or even read by anyone else. So winning the prize for that book did something very important—it told me that the things I wanted to explore, and the ways I wanted to explore them, were things other people found interesting too.’
Did you wish to write full time?
‘There was no possibility of writing full time and I’m not sure I would have wanted that even if it had been possible—I loved the interplay between life and writing—the stuff that got me interested was happening in the random way life happens, through studying and working and coming up against people in different ways and contexts. The idea of being a full-time writer would have struck me as a bit precious, I think, and certainly completely unrealistic for me.’
How did you conceive the ‘life of an author’—romantically, if so how? Or were you tough-minded about the challenges of it? Or both at the same time perhaps?
‘I’d watched my father write a couple of books on a “hobby” basis – they were published, but there was no question of him becoming a full-time writer or his life changing in any significant way. That was pretty much my model. Of course there were famous, successful writers. But in my mind they lived in some different and rarefied world. For a start most of them were British and nearly all of them were men.’
Has it worked out the way you wanted it to? How long did it take to become a full-time writer?
‘It’s worked out hugely better than I’d ever thought it would. Winning the Vogel was a big part of that. It opened the door to publishing opportunities (it spurred me to have another go at the novel that became Dreamhouse) … I had no ambitions to be a best-seller (just as well) but it was great to know that there were readers.
‘For the first twenty or so years I didn’t make much money from the books and supported myself with jobs—as a typist when I started, then at SBS in the subtitling department, then by teaching Creative Writing, with bits of reviewing, freelance writing etc., when I could get it—cobbled together a modest income like that.
‘I wrote a couple of “how-to-write” books, which sold steadily if not dramatically. Most importantly, I also was lucky enough to win Australia Council grants that gave me time to write. It was only after The Secret River (2005) was published that I was able to give up all those jobs.’
What were the obstacles, if any, that interfered with the aspiration to be part of a literary tradition?
‘In terms of my own rather modest ambitions—that is, just to be able to go on writing, ideally with some publication—I’ve had a good run.’
Have you had any Australia Council or other grants or financial assistance? DFAT travel? Partner?
‘After the early short stories and novels I didn’t have a lot of trouble finding publishers, and I’ve been supported and encouraged by many generous people along the way.
‘Without the Australia Council grants, I wouldn’t have been able to go on writing. I’ve had several over the years. I still had to have paid work but I could do less of it when I had a grant. And knowing that the assessors had faith in the project I was working on gave me faith in it too, at those times when it all seems hopeless.
‘The Australia Council money really is “seed money”—a long-term investment. The Secret River was my seventh book of fiction, after some twenty years of writing, and benefits from all that I’d learned from the earlier work, but without that financial support I wouldn’t have been able to write the earlier books.’
As an irrelevant question how do you describe your occupation when asked? Writer? Author? Do you ever lie?
‘I usually say “writer”. Sounds less pretentious—though whatever you say, the next question is always “oh, and are you published?”
Awards and nominations
- Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities
- Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of New South Wales in 2010
- Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Sydney in 2012
- Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Macquarie University in 2013
- The Dixson Medal awarded by the Library Council of New South Wales in 2014
- 1984 – The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for Lilian’s Story
- 1995 – Victorian Premier’s Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction for Dark Places
- 2001 – Orange Prize for Fiction for The Idea of Perfection
- 2006 – Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for The Secret River
- 2006 – New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for fiction for The Secret River
- 2006 – New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, Community Relations Commission Award for The Secret River
- 2006 – The Secret River – Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize
Short story collections
- Bearded Ladies: Stories (1984)
- Lilian’s Story (1985)
- Dreamhouse (1986)
- Joan Makes History: A Novel (1988)
- Dark Places (1994) (alternative title: Albion’s Story)
- The Idea of Perfection (1999)
- The Secret River (2005)
- The Lieutenant (2008)
- Sarah Thornhill (2011)
- The Writing Book: A Manual for Fiction Writers (1990)
- Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written (1993), with Sue Woolfe
- Writing from Start to Finish: a Six-Step Guide (2001)
- Searching for the Secret River (2006)
- One Life: My Mother’s Story (2015)
- The Case Against Fragrance (2017)
Her work has been translated in Swedish, Dutch, German, French, Italian, Czech, Bulgarian, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Norwegian, Greek, Mandarin and Japanese.