Notes for Autobiography / Memoir Class with Paddy O’Reilly

Paddy’s invitation came at a good time for me.

You’ve had a terrific range of memoirists writing autobiography / memoir speaking to you this
semester, and I gather I’m the last.

Am trying to think through a dilemma I have with a sort of sequel to Other People’s Words –
which I have been fiddling with for quite a while. So I asked Paddy to let you have a sample
to read so you can help me think about it a bit later on.

Memoir and autobiography are such slippery categories and you have had terrific examples
of both. I realised I slipped between them when it suited me – autob. Being to my way of
thinking about the ‘I’. Memoir – about the life and times – whatever that means.

For publisher and bookseller – they are also convenient categories to market books.
Autobiography sounds more sober and theoretical, less dashing – memoir can be anything
you want it providing you can keep the reader engrossed – and be given an irresistible

The story the writer wants to tell slips and slides between self-absorption and its setting, the
inner and the outer worlds, – the why of the book (meaning why am I writing this? –
therapy, empathy, history, politics – and a myriad of other reasons)
The how of the book meaning how am I going to get anyone to read/understand what I
am on about? is the hardest part.

Paddy suggested I speak a little about structure and ethics – which sent me back to Other
People’s Words which I wrote rather a long time ago – about a time in publishing which
hasn’t exactly vanished but is certainly under threat again with the changes being mooted to
territorial copyright.

You have Chapter 4 Making Books – which begins the second part of OPW – about the idea
for McPhee Gribble, a small independent publisher in a book trade dominated by overseas-
owned companies who were conservative and constrained by their size and dominated by
books published elsewhere.

MPG was very much a group effort. Two women, with children, husbands, very little
available money – but a desire to publish the best new writing we could find – starting with
our own generation and our own children’s list. We went on to publish hundreds of books
and discovered dozens of writers etc.
It failed in the end – interest rates got us at the end of the 1980s with ‘Paul Keating’s
recession we had to have’ and we were taken over. By Penguin.
When I decided I’d recovered enough to try to write about it – I made myself visit the archives
at the Baillieu
Every bit of paper was there. The story was there.
The context was not of course.
And the context was the times, the people, the ethos, the cultural politics of the day.
And in 1999 when I was writing – everything had moved on and everyone exhorted me to
‘find something else to do with your life’. Writing about it, I thought, might help me get out of
a deep black hole.
So I had to find a way to make the context come alive which began with archives and photos
and letters
But also need the historical context that was in place when I had my first job and a baby
editor in the early seventies, women’s movement, new writers, post colonialism etc.

So I started with me – or with my grandmother really.
I used the first person pronoun whenever I had to – but also found ways to embed the kind
of frontier culture my father’s family had arrived in 1850s to, and the way books were
exchanged and read. I had to find a way to describe the history of publishing in this country
– in order to establish a context for the story I was trying to tell –
So my education at Melb uni where there was no AustLit taught except as an afterthought (it
was deemed secondrate) but we had great grounding in the classics, and I had a part time
job at Meanjin which gave me a great grounding in small magazines – in the struggle to be
heard, to find funding, to support Australian writing and artists.

Then I went to Penguin for a brief stint where there were only 27 Aust Penguins and they all
had boomerangs around them – by order of the Penguin UK. (Which meant they didn’t have
to order them.)
So by chapter 4 I had set the story in train –
I wanted to describe the way we worked, the authors who came to us, the excitement, the
highs and lows – the group effort of it all.

Reading the archives 10 years on I was stuck by the fact that none of us (there were about
12 of us most of the last decade) used the first person pronoun in their memos or letters to
authors or to designers or to other publishers.
Making books was always about letting writers know: ‘we have a feeling that’ or ‘we suggest’
or ‘we regret that we can’t do something’, or ‘we really love your book’

There were soaring egos of course at MPG but the shared effort was the reason we were so
good at what we did – or that was what I concluded looking at the correspondence files

So from Ch 4 the story I was trying to tell is about the ‘we’ – because I was acutely aware
that my recollections were only part of the story. It was the hardest chapter to write.

So the stories ‘that can’t be told because they belong to someone else’ – is always a
predicament when writing memoir.

In OPW this was about the authors and the people we worked with. The relationship
between editor and author is sacrosanct I think. A little like being a psychoanalyst. There are
so many things you know but can’t say.

And the books are the point.

Of course we all gossip and bitch about each other’s bad behaviour and egotism – but that is
not the same as writing ‘ So and so was an alcoholic whose mad letters in the archive
should have been torn up.’
Or ‘so and so, one of our young editors was always at parties trying to get off with our
authors’ husbands.’

Or ‘so and so ended up letting his editor rework his book then claimed he’d had no help at
All of these things happened – and I found a way to hint at them but without attaching names
or blame to them.

After the book came out another publisher who exists on gossip told me the book was a big
disappointment to her precisely because it lacked these insights.

The other tightrope I had to walk was working with primary sources for MPG but only
secondary sources for other companies – which don’t keep the records which show them in
a bad light. At that time they didn’t keep deep archives. I suppose they tore things up –
which Di and I didn’t do.

Much about the sale was commercial in confidence – and I needed to find a way to write
about the good guys and the bad who didn’t want to be written about. But that gave me parts
of my story too.

Now when I go to publishers events like the APIA awards in Sydney I hear authors like Tim
Winton and Richard Flanagan making fierce speeches about the damage that will be done to
Australian publishing and writing if the mooted changes are made as recommended by the
Productivity Commission wiping out Australian territorial copyright and reducing authors
copyright protection to 25 or even 5 years – in the name of Free Trade – it is like back to the
sixties and early seventies when book contracts to publish Gerard Murnane at William
Heinemann had to be sighed in the UK for ‘a colonial royalty’ – and even then they wouldn’t
take copies.


So if I may tell you a little about the sequel to OPW which is tentatively called Other
Peoples Houses. I gave you a small sample of a rough draft from the second chapter which
Paddy warns me you probably haven’t had time to read.

It is not really a sequel to OPW but it is a memoir of a decade from about 2000-2010 when I
was spending a great deal of time in other people’s houses, looking after an aged mother, a
writer husband and grown up children who were travelling. At the moment it begins like so
many books do with 9/11 when I was in a house with family and friends in Italy, and OPW
had just been published.

Soon after this hard times struck the world and the Iraq War broke out.
And shortly after that I was chased down in Melbourne then later in London and offered a
writing and interviewing job in Jordan which I couldn’t resist.

Spent the next three years going in and out of Amman, Syria, the West Bank, London and
Italy. Which sounds exotic and privileged and it was –
So when I came back to Australia I started to write about it – but not as a travelogue but as a
memoir of that time and of the project I was engaged with – how it came to pass, how it
changed and developed, what happened to it in the end. A sort of memoir of a book that
didn’t see the light of day in a part of the world that was under huge pressure.
I hope the sample I’ve given you gives some idea of how I fell into it.

So the structure of the book I thought I had, and the ethics I was always aware of. I was a
guest in the Royal House of the Hashemites – not literally in their palace but in a lovely
apartment in the grounds, with a great deal of access to the former Crown Prince who’s
family wanted me to find a way to tell his story. But he was reluctant, then gradually came to
enjoy our sessions sitting under his favourite tree in a beautiful garden away from
surveillance and eavesdroppers.

I was having such a good time asking my questions, probing the answers, reading
everything I could lay my hands on, flying all over the place, piecing together that
extraordinarily troubled jigsaw that was the postwar Middle East from the perspective of a
man who had been both at the centre and at an oblique angle to international affairs all his
life. In the end that book was finished but not published although there was a publisher and
a translator lined up.

So I returned to Australia and started trying to find a way to
write about this time. It was always going to be tricky – I was picking my way and got to the
stage of wanting to show the draft text to Prince Hassan in case there were references to
procedures and protocols he preferred omitted.

So I tried to find his PA on Facebook and Linkedin and had almost given up. All I wanted
was to remind her that I was still writing a short memoir about my time there, as I’d always
said I would – and that it was well advanced.

Testing the waters, I asked if she wanted to choose a pseudonym for herself. As his PA
during my time there, she was of course a character in the story with more than a walk on
part. She is the girl from Colac in the sample you have.

Without their private emails, there was no way of directly contacting El Hassan or his wife
without going through his PA. She or whoever had replaced her as PA I knew would ask ‘the
boss’. What I really wanted was permission to take the draft text back to their part of the
Middle East and sit with them and seek their approval of the things I wanted to say. So
perhaps I Should have anticipated the reply that was sitting on my server at eleven o’clock
the other night after weeks of silence.

Thank you for your email which I have discussed with TRH….
HRH would accept for you to mention that you had the opportunity to meet with HRH during
your time there but that would have to be the extent of the reference….
Also if you mention me, please could you not refer to my position or work in HRH’s office as
again this is private and personal to HRH.

My book is an affectionate portrait of an extraordinary time during the Iraq war. Jordan is,
understandably, a very paranoid place. My book is about a lot of other things as well. But I
need to describe why I was there!
Jordan is a monarchy. There are immense cultural differences around the language of
security, privacy, confidentiality.
The word privacy was used initially – when I showed them a lyrical piece I had written for
the Monthly but not yet sent to the editor – about the garden surrounding their lovely old
house built in the early 1920s for the British Ambassador during the Protectorate.

Surveillance was everywhere: the Royal Guards, the cavalcades of army jeeps, the sense
that our work and emails were monitored, the preference was always to be outdoors for the
interviews in a part of the garden where the trees weren’t bugged. Or so I was told.

Democracy is evolving, law is Sharia. Jordan more advanced than most other Arab
countries. This is an absolute monarchy with a constitution and the trappings of parliament –
elections are held, but rigged, streets are covered in banners and huge posters of
candidates, some of them women, all of them in favour with the king who appoints his
cabinet and his prime minister. Because there is a large population of Palestinians, and now

Syrian refugees, radicalism is tolerated to a very limited extent. There are Muslim
Brotherhood candidates. Radicalisation of the young was and is a huge concern.

Advice I have received so far:
Say whatever I like and hope that my publisher will take the risk – as the fact of the book has
been in the public domain for some time.

Leave several pages blank with a big black stamp ‘censored by the Hashemite Kingdom of

Fictionalise the experience and somehow make it unidentifiable. ‘In a small kingdom
somewhere in the Middle East, there was a Crown Prince called Zog …’

They can’t stop me. They won’t extradite me. But I wouldn’t win a court battle under
Jordanian law.

But worst of all is I understand their position. If they don’t want to be written about, that is
their prerogative. I don’t want to do a book in Bad Faith.

So it’s back to the desk and start again – unless you have a better idea.

This entry was posted in Blog Posts, Work in Progress. Bookmark the permalink.