Letter to the Editor – ABR October 2015


Shannon Burns’ splendid ABR essay, The scientist of his own experience, a profile of Gerard Murnane, is rich with insights and pithy observations, plus some rather fine photos. Much of it resonated for me, as Murnane’s first editor, soon after I’d arrived at William Heinemann from Penguin eons ago.

When Gerald Murnane needed a publisher for his first novel, Tamarisk Row , Barry Oakley almost certainly suggested Heinemann because the Managing Director was John Burchall, a former bookseller, prodigious reader and long luncher – and one of the few publishers passionate about original Australian writing.

Certainly after one of those lunches, a fat brown paper parcel landed on my desk. Tamarisk Row immediately impressed me as an eccentric masterpiece, like nothing else. No chapters, just perfectly formed sentences in long paragraphs often over several pages, and dauntingly dense when typeset. So a kind of blank verse of one line signposts for each break, written by the author, was suggested by me, as was not to include a prelude of some forty pages of family history. Shannon Burns’ take on Murnane’s psychology is deeply interesting and made me aware that this may well have contained clues to Murnane’s unease around women. But the novel didn’t need it, and the author agreed.

Heinemann had recently sold huge quantities of Wilbur Smith’s Gold Mine and The Diamond Hunters – which John Burchall believed should finance modest sellers such as Tamarisk Row in hardback and with any luck might be picked up by Penguin for a paperback. (It wasn’t because the then editor at Penguin was John Hooker, also a novelist, who delighted in knocking back books he didn’t like on the grounds that ‘We’re ok for fiction at Penguin, thanks.’)

Shannon Burns quotes Murnane recalling me as determined to emphasise the book’s erotic passages. ’You have to publicise, but I remember Hilary McPhee putting on the dust jacket Childhood sex!”

 Childhood sex! So the other day I climbed a ladder to the top of my bookshelves for the 1974 Heinemann hardback edition of Tamarisk Row which John Burchall and I had laboured long over with designer David Wire. The dustjacket is a model of restraint. A beautiful close up photograph on a black background of one of the author’s own marbles from which his fictional boy, Clement Killeaton, constructs his elaborate game of racetracks and family mythology. I can hear the sound the alleys made as Murnane poured them from their cotton bag on to Burchall’s desk for Wire to photograph.

The blurb actually reads: ‘Childish sexuality is a major theme in the novel, handled with almost painful honesty and sensuality so that the boy’s world with its many conflicts is as disturbing as the adults’ world around him.’

Murnane has often said he would like Tamarisk Row republished unexpurgated – and maybe one day it will be. That his memory is a little faulty about the commercial environment, the editorial interventions he endured and his first dustjacket blurb doesn’t matter at all in the scheme of things, but the italics and the addition of the exclamation mark … Ho hum. Editors as midwives, remote and unapproachable mothers, profiles of literary figures forensically constructing their own profiles … Thank you, Shannon Burns, for a fascinating portrait of one of our best writers. Now, please, the biography.