How did the idea for Literary Melbourne come about? What are you hoping readers will take away from the book?
When the idea for some books hits, you just know they should exist. Lit Melbourne was one of those. When I began curating the exhibition The Independent Type I was searching for it and was really surprised that it hadn’t been put together. I found one (by John Arnold) that brought together writing about Melbourne, but there wasn’t one that brought together some of our best writers over 170+ years. With regards to what readers will take away from the book – it’s hard to ever know. But I do think Lit Melbourne gives you a feel for the development of our language and our psyche. It’s hard not to consider the ‘national experiment’ when looking at such an anthology, and it’s exciting to see what’s been important to writers (and readers) over time, how that changes and what that says about us all.
You write in your introduction that you’re aiming to start conversations about what constitutes Melbourne literature rather than end them – that you’re not necessarily presenting a ‘definitive’ list. How hard was it to narrow the selection of writers included – and how did you do that?
I was very much guided by the opinions of others, many of whom have great expertise in very niche areas. The conversations I had with a great many people shaped my understanding of who played a part in our literary development, and how. But still – how is it possible to only pick six modern fiction writers? It’s not, well unless you have limits of space and time. And thus I have no doubt that your list would differ from mine … and I hope, to some extent, that it would, as every such anthology is always a subjective selection.
Did the process of putting this book together introduce you to any new writers you hadn’t yet got to, and/or add any books to your bedside reading wish-list? If so, what were they?
Oh so many. Should I start chronologically?! I can’t wait to get back into His Natural Life, The Fortune of Richard Mahoney and etc, etc. There are so many books I want to read. Actually, at times I feel like a bit of a fraud not having read all those books in the anthology but that wasn’t, of course, possible and I don’t think it was necessary. Part of the process of making this book was about including a variety of voices in the reading process. And part of the delight for me was reading suggested selections from other readers and being left wanting to read more.
You write that ‘authors invariably chart (and sometimes alter) the progress of cultural development’. Who are some of the Melbourne authors who have led the way in that regard over the decades, in your opinion?
I think everyone in this anthology has played an extraordinary part in our society’s development. Writers are the window into our cultural life, and those writers who seem to capture a particular moment, a particular way of understanding can change the way we think about ourselves; they can make us more aware of frailties or strengths just by recording life (and the life of the imagination) in the way that they have. You can start with Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life if you like, as he began to question the morals and meaning behind one of our founding principles, our convict past. But almost every writer in this book has something important to reflect upon in culture.
What role do you think Melbourne’s broader literary culture – small magazines and journals, bookstores, both large and independent publishers – has played in nurturing our writers, and thus our impressive contribution to Australian (and world) literature as a whole?
I’m a little biased, considering my history in the small, independent publishing scene, but I have little doubt that our network of communities – of theatre-makers, of poets and novelists; of the spaces and support provided by bookstores, events and theatres; and of independent publishers and editors – underpins our literary culture. I believe that our history, our geography and our spirit have all combined with luck and hard work to gel in a way that’s enabled these communities to remain vibrant and important to what we do. Just as it’s been with indie music, Melbourne’s placed a high value on the non-financial side of literary culture – on the ‘R&D’ side of providing writers an opportunity to grow, to experiment and evolve. Without that you have a pretty boring scene.
You include a particular focus on some areas in which Melbourne writers have excelled – crime, theatre, children’s writing and migrant literature, specifically ‘the literature of displacement’. Why do you think Melbourne writers have been so prominent in these areas?
I think Melbourne’s enjoyed quite a singular, fortunate cultural evolution over 170+ years. I think we’ve allowed our various communities to bond and speak for themselves. Actually this may be a little generous, as none of these communities – the poets, the playwrights and the migrant writers – were ever given their chances on a platter. They had to take their chances. But it seems we were okay with that, that we were even interested in letting them have their say. And this instinct to provide space for the literary underdog, combined with their capacity to take advantage of that, to then fight for their right to exist, has allowed us to get to this stage.
What are some books by Melbourne writers have you read and enjoyed lately?
Most recently it’s been Jeff Sparrow’s Killing, which was a startling journey through all aspects of the act of killing, and which began to reveal what was behind the dark or dulled (or overly excited) heart of a killer; a very interesting journey indeed. And then there was Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, a brilliant novel which gives you a future to explore and leaves spaces for you to fill.