Hilary McPhee is a legendary writer and editor. She founded McPhee Gribble Publishers with Diane Gribble in 1975, was Chair of the Australia Council for the Arts from 1994 to 1997, and was the inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at Melbourne University until 2004.
Hilary's books include Other People’s Words (2001), Wordlines (2010), Memoirs of a Young Bastard: the Diaries of Tim Burstall (2012) and Other People's Houses (2019).
ASTRID: Hilary McPhee is a writer, editor and publisher. She founded the legendary McPhee Gribble Publishers with Diane Gribble in 1975. She was the Chair of the Australia Council for the Arts in the 1990s, and the Inaugural Vice Chancellor's Fellow at the University of Melbourne. In addition to publishing the works of many other writers, she has also written her own works – Other People's Words, Wordlines, Memoirs of a Young Bastard: The diaries of Tim Burstall, and most recently, Other People's Houses.
Welcome to The Garret, Hilary.
HILARY: Thank you, Astrid.
ASTRID: That is quite the CV. Now I have to tell you, when I moved to Melbourne about eight years ago and I decided I wanted to somehow become a part of the Australian literary-publishing-writing-reading scene, I didn't know anything. And your name kept coming up and I felt terribly embarrassed, because I didn't know who you were and I was ashamed of my ignorance. And you were presented to me - a newbie, someone from afar - as someone who had done something and made a contribution to Australian literature and writing and publishing. And I'm really pleased to meet you. So thank you.
HILARY: I'm really pleased to be here.
ASTRID: So, I've just read Other People's Houses, your latest book, and you strike me as an extremely accomplished woman but also very, very humble. You skate over significant achievements. I mean, going to Jordan, living abroad, taking on such an odd and extraordinary and once in a lifetime writing project with grace and charm. [Laughter]
HILARY: Oh, I'm glad it reads like that. It's actually a portrait of a rather tumultuous period of my life, so getting that balance, making it sound like something people would want to read was really the task of writing. So, if it sounds... if it doesn't sound as gloomy as you could easily have described the book as sounding, I'm pleased.
ASTRID: It's not gloomy. You do reveal yourself in quite a stately manner to the reader, so I'd like to talk to you a little bit about how far you decide to go in memoir and what you decide to leave out. But before we go there, now that I gave a big introduction on your name preceding you and my ignorance, can we just go back to your first book, Other People's Words, which came out 17, 18 years ago, I think. And that was your own account of your time at McPhee Gribble.
HILARY: It was an account of the importance of words and books in my life, really, and how we came to start McPhee Gribble, and how McPhee Gribble ended. So, that was a sad story too, but one that was set very much in the landscape of Melbourne, wasn't it.
ASTRID: Oh, very much so. Now, Kaz Cooke has previously appeared on The Garret before, and she brought up her first introduction to you many years ago. And she said that one of the things that always made her feel excited to be working with you was that whenever she walked into the office someone would complement her shoes.
HILARY: Yes. It was a fabulous office. It was largely women, but not only women. We had some terrific young men working for us too, and everyone was a bit eccentric, everybody admired clothes and music and all of that stuff, so coming into the office was not a kind of terrifying experience as it is I think in a number of publishing houses still, where you come in through the reception and all that stuff. You just we just came straight into our funny old office, and there were people sitting around the table talking usually.
ASTRID: Talking about books and words and ideas - a beautiful thing. Now, you have worked with and come across and helped publish all sorts of extremely well-known and well regarded writers - Tim Winton, Helen Garner of course, Kaz Cooke, Martin Flanagan, Kathy Lette... but looking back all of these years later, what do you think was the legacy of what was essentially Australia's first publishing house run by women?
HILARY: What's the legacy?
HILARY: I think... I think the people who worked with us, really. We could never afford to headhunt, like publishers still say they do, pluck people out of other people's publishing houses. So, we had people who came to us with no experience. Some of them had, of course, but I mean... Sophie Cunningham was a good example. I think we gave her her very first job after she graduated, and she was working for us very part time initially just reading things and we would look at her readers report and things like that. We took people on. We took risks with people. We took all kinds of odd people because they... Well, there was one young woman who was our receptionist for years who didn't wear lipstick, and we were those kinds of feminists! [Laughter] We particularly didn't want people who were spending a great deal of time putting on makeup and so on. So, we just had a hunch about who was going to be right for us, and it usually worked. I mean we hardly ever had to say to someone, 'You're not fitting in here, it doesn't... It's not good'. It was nearly always wonderful. And they stayed with us for ages and learned things and have gone out into the publishing world and I keep running into them.
ASTRID: You do, you do.
HILARY: Yes, which is great.
ASTRID: I mean, I just asked about the legacy of McPhee Gribble, and now here we are the very end of 2019. Australia does have quite a few small established publishing houses that are publishing great works with quite a bit of dynamism. But I'm interested in your opinion of the overall structure of the industry. You have the giants, you have the independents...
HILARY: I don't think it's changed very much. I think the independents are weak, endlessly weak. They have no money. They have very little security. They can't offer people job security - I assume they pay superannuation and all things that were invented during my time. We used to have to pay wages sometimes on bank card. I mean, we were very broke, but we managed. And we got the finances right to keep us going for 20 years, really.
But I think now it's probably more fragile. I think it's even more under threat by a lot of dumping of books and authors on this market - some of them are fabulous and they wouldn't being allowed into the market, the kind of awful old fashioned dumping that used to happen here doesn't seem to me to be happening quite so much. The remaindering world. But I see...
ASTRID: Can you explain that for our listeners. That's
HILARY: Remaindering. That's when... booksellers still do this, they go to somewhere in the world and buy great piles of books and bring them back here and discount them. That still happens a bit. But it doesn't happen nearly as ruthlessly as it used to. We'd sometimes see our own authors like Tim Winton being remaindered back into Australia, a beautiful American edition of Cloudstreet appearing on Mark Rubbo's shelves. And we would be very cross with Mark, and he would usually tell us he was going to do it. But it was painful, because we were usually publishing straight into paperback because the market was that kind of market.
But now, I think, I really don't know for sure, because the medium sized publishers I don't really see... they're not terribly friendly to me. I don't know why. It's probably because I get silly kind of puff articles saying I'm the veteran publisher blah blah blah. That stuff. So, I don't really know many publishers, except some of the small ones. And they talk to me with very much the same kinds of problems that we used to have.
Of course, publishing is infinitely more global than it was, and Diane and I used to open up the market by going first to America instead of first to London like everyone else did, and we would find American books we wanted to publish. And we loved doing that. But now they are flooding in here. This has been very much discovered as an easy market for Americans. And my God, there are a lot of American authors being published here. Some wonderful, some absolutely not wonderful. And I imagine there are lots of our young authors who are finding it very hard to be published. So, the same old thing is happening again, and I don't know what the answer is of course, but I think podcasts help. I don't think podcasts make money. I'm sure they don't.
ASTRID: They don't make money, but...
HILARY: I do think that they are very much part of the architecture of the publishing world now, and they weren't, there was no such thing then. There were no book programs, really, in the days when we began, there were book review programs, but no book discussion programs on radio or television.
ASTRID: I don't want to put you on the spot, but I'd like to ask your opinion of the recent changes in the industry, particularly Melbourne University Press and University of Western Australia Publishing.
ASTRID: You do thank about Louise Adler in the back of Other People's Houses.
HILARY: What happened to Louise was dire. And if I wanted to see it very personally it was absolutely the same kind of thing that happened to McPhee Gribble at the end, really, except that we weren't told what to publish but we were chopped in chopped in half, no more than that. What happened to MUP was part of the George Pell effect basically, it really was where the publisher, the Chancellor of the university didn't approve of Louise's publishing, and made it very clear to Louise that he thought some people thought that she was publishing 'airport trash', was the term that was used.
ASTRID: I think a lot of Australians would disagree with that assessment.
HILARY: Oh my God, Louise was a very gutsy publisher who long ago decided that she would publish general books into MUP as well as academic titles. And from the very beginning of her time at MUP she was disapproved of by a number of academics who saw this as popularising and they were very anxious about that. But Louise really wanted as big a market as she could find for the books that she thought were of interest. And I think her publishing was terrific actually, marvellous. And I think at the end it was dreadful because her very good staff, marvellous young staff, were cut in half and there are very few of them left. I think the new regime will do some interesting academic publishing, for sure, I've met the new guy there and he's very keen to do that and I'm sure he will. But I think it's so short sighted to see university presses in that narrow way, because if the universities are only talking to themselves, it's hopeless, isn't it? It's absolutely...
ASTRID: I would agree. I work at RMIT University, so full disclosure. But I worry... One of the roles a university press can have in the publishing scene for writers is that it's another avenue that you can get professionally published, and you can get professionally edited, and marketed and you know... it comes with a bit of kudos, right?
ASTRID: So, if they're shutting or closing or changing the type of books that they're going to publish, and really focusing only on academia...
HILARY: And e-books... Yes, all of that.
ASTRID: That scares me for the state of general publishing and the number of writers in Australia who can get published. But also, I find it terrifying for academia, because to be honest nobody reads academia – they want good non-fiction, they want good fiction.
HILARY: That's the thing. And if they're in a publishing house with people who can teach them to write... I mean that's one of the roles of a good editor, which is really to encourage academics, other people, to write for the sort of audience that their work deserves. And academics talking to themselves... God almighty, they can't talk to a wide audience!
HILARY: So UWA Press is the same. I mean, I was heartbroken when I saw what was going to happen there.
ASTRID: With Terri-Anne White.
HILARY: Absolutely. With a wonderful list that she's nurtured for years and years and years, with a terrific poetry list. So again, that's going to be... I mean, are they going to do poetry, book poetry? I mean ludicrous stuff.
ASTRID: That was such a beautiful series, the idea of still publishing professionally and with beautifully designed covers lots of poetry that otherwise would not be published.
What's your opinion on self-publishing?
HILARY: I think it's impossible to do it professionally. I mean, presumably some people can. Carmel Bird is very close to be to being self-published because she ruthlessly – she's a friend, and you know I admire the way she does her publishing - but she picks publishers that she can really dictate to exactly the kind of the books she wants. She came to us first of all years and years ago with The Woodpecker Point, I think was the title of the book, and she came with her manuscript in plastic sleeves, every single page was in a plastic sleeve, because she didn't think it needed anything else doing to it. [Laughter]
ASTRID: Was she right?
HILARY: No, no. But we very gingerly talked her through the editing process, and she made some minor changes and some major changes, and we had a good relationship with Carmel, and it went on for a long time. We suggested books for her to write, like the little manual on writing, I've forgotten the title. But she is someone who knows exactly what she wants. So someone like that who has been around writing and publishing can self-publish. She publishes with Transit, and so she certainly shares all that. But I think the kind of self-publishing that's touted on the Internet looks so amateurish. There's no typography in the business, the pages are hideous. The papers are awful. They get shiny covers and that's the end of it. They go into someone's garage and come out in a god knows where they're sold. They're given to people for presents, I don't know.
ASTRID: So as a true publisher, tell me about the importance of typography. Because I think a lot of writers just assume you can work something up in Microsoft Word, PDF it and there you go.
HILARY: You can't. If you want a book to be read and if you want the words to actually lodge in your brain, the more beautiful the page is and the more appropriate the design is to the words, the better. And there are wonderful typographers, and there are terrible people who just mark things up automatically like machines, and they're not typographers. So typographers, when we began, were people who really knew what they were all about, and they'd talk to you about the spaces between letters being terribly significant.
ASTRID: So in addition to the typography obviously which can be difficult if you're a self-publisher, talk to me about the importance of a title.
HILARY: I think a title is crucial, it is terribly, terribly important. I've been criticised because people say this title is too soft, it's not fashionable enough.
ASTRID: What does fashionable mean?
HILARY: I don't know. It's something that's shouting at you. This is not a shouty title. I've had a couple of a few comments like that, not many. I wanted it to be called Other People's Houses for obvious reasons.
ASTRID: Your first book was Other People's Words.
HILARY: Yes, and therefore... But even I muddle them up. I ask for one when I mean the other. But other people's titles... God there's some wonderful titles and there are some ghastly titles, and titles as a... Fashion is important in titles obviously, and there are titles that look terribly dated to me and other titles that I think, 'God, is that where are we going now?' which are very shouty, and sometimes very rude and in your face, and I think that's fabulous if that's their market. You know, it's all about marketing. The title is about marketing, isn't it? But it's also a bit like a poem, it has to enable the book to hang off it, all of those things.
ASTRID: Book design is also important. Now, we are sitting in front of a copy of Other People's Houses. The ideal for any writer in a bookstore is to have a very large pile of the books, you know, right up front as a potential buyer, as a potential reader, walks in and they see the book and it's gorgeous, it appeals, and they pick it up and buy it. So, talk me through this cover, because you have pictures of other books on it. Did you choose those books?
HILARY: No, I didn't. And that's a painting by a friend of mine, Kathryn Hattam, who had a show when I was in the editing process with MUP, and I went to her exhibition, and she's a woman who riffs off words like very few pages do and she riffs off book titles. She was married for a long time to a writer, and so books were very important in her married life as well. And when I saw this particular painting on the wall I thought immediately that saying something to me, because it's saying something about houses and rooms and work and all the things that my book is about, so I suddenly thought this will save me from having to go through the cover process, where I know I'm going to be difficult. I know I'm going to say, 'I hate it'. And I don't know how tolerant MUP will be of me, because the people are a bit scared of me. And I was rather hoping that I could give MUP an idea for a cover and they would like it. So, I sent a photo of this particular painting to Sally Heath, who was at MUP and had been my publisher right through the process. And she immediately said, 'Yes that's perfect', and Cath said, 'Yes, that's perfect'. So that's where we got it. But the title of the books, some of which you can't quite read, some of them aren't books I've even read, but they're a bit psychological and they're a bit odd and they're sort of old fashioned, and I thought they suited the book. And there's also a picture of a house with a big black sign on the gate as if you can't re-enter that space, that kind of marital space was how I thought of it, which is very much what the book is about as well. So I grabbed that.
But I do think – I was in the Brunswick Street bookstore last night, I always do my Christmas shopping there, buying some books – and I was looking for mine in that nervous way that writers do with looking. So, I didn't want anyone to know I was looking for it. And I couldn't find it. And then I saw it on a shelf face forward, which was fabulous.
ASTRID: Face forward is what you want.
HILARY: It is what I want. And I thought it looked lovely, but I didn't think it was holding its own against all the new stuff really. I thought it looked slightly... old fashioned. What do you think? You tell me.
ASTRID: I read a lot of books, and I don't like the shining covers. You mentioned the word shiny before, and I don't like the ones with a lot of graphics that I don't necessarily understand on first impressions. I get sent, you know, five or ten books a week, and I care about covers. So, I understood yours. I didn't know necessarily what I was going to find inside.
ASTRID: But it felt like something that I could be welcomed into.
HILARY: Good. That's what I wanted, and I felt that too. And the fact that it’s got some funny little round spectacles on top of the pile of books kind of summed up my writing life in that very odd period that I'm writing about.
ASTRID: Yes. Now this is a very odd period that you're writing about. personally. Health wise, and just the actual writing assignment that you had taken on. So perhaps let's start there. You were approached in a very roundabout way to write some form of book – and the formal book kept changing – for the former Crown Prince of Jordan. Now that had to be unexpected.
HILARY: It was totally unexpected. And was something... it was like a gift to me actually, because I always wanted to go back to that part of the world that was part of my very early life, when I was in my very first marriage, and I went on a cargo boat. Nobody goes on cargo boats anymore, but I went up the Shatt al-Arab, which was where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet, I went to Basra, went to Baghdad, went to Iran after that, and I always wanted to go back and never got back - because I was interested in of course – who isn't? – Mesopotamia, and the archaeology, which I kept on following all my life, really. I read about what's happening in that part of the world. And of course ,the Iraq War had happened, and I was very conscious like everyone was here of how dire it was that we'd gone in and all that. And suddenly out of the blue I get a suggestion that I go into Jordan and talk about a writing project - that was the only information I was given. And it felt like an extraordinary opportunity.
And I was very irritated, because they were not very efficient in offering this particular project or telling me what it was or why they wanted me. And when I was in London before I went there I mentioned this to people, and people would say, 'That can't be right. Why would they want an Australian?' The British owned that part of the world, it was quite clear. My publishing friends were astonished that they would ask an Australian.
So off I went to Jordan and was really seduced into this writing project by being given a tour of Prince Hassan's favourite sites in Jordan and all of those things. He was a great raconteur, and I fell for it big time.
ASTRID: I can't think of anyone who wouldn't.
HILARY: Exactly, exactly. But I didn't ask many questions. I didn't say, you know, how will the project be resourced? Or will I have any help to do it? Because obviously it was not quite clear what they wanted anyway. And his wife, who came into the meeting with the Prince right at the beginning and said, you know, introduced me to her husband and said, 'He needs to do this project. It's something he really needs to do. Don't let him, you know, not ask you properly about it'. So, she made it very clear that she was keen. Her daughter had made it very clear that she was keen too.
And it was quite clear that he wasn't particularly keen. He looked depressed. He looked like a man to whom something terrible had happened. And something terrible had happened to him. He'd been always throughout his life – he was a man in his I suppose late fifties – but for 30 years he'd been Crown Prince of Jordan. He was the brother of the King, and the King was a playboy, but he was also a fabulous army man, and he fought the battles and did all of public things, the outside Jordan things, the international things. But Prince Hassan, who'd been Crown Prince, was the one really who kept the show on the road back home and built, gradually built, institutions in Jordan. And there were more institutions in Jordan I think than any other part of the Arab world. Beirut probably had, Lebanon probably had a number, but they were not functioning particularly well. Jordan has seemed to me to be functioning reasonably well from what I heard from other people I started talking to.
So, he was an interesting character who expected to inherit the Crown, and when his brother died of a long illness, his brother on his deathbed gave the title to his son, Prince Hassan's nephew. So, it was heartbreaking. This was a man who'd not got the Crown, and he was still nine years later I would say very depressed about this. And I think his wife dreamt up the project of him telling his story to someone like me as a way of... as a form of therapy perhaps, as a way of shaking him out of his misery. I don't know. That's what I pieced together later.
ASTRID: This opens so many ethical and just fascinating questions. You of course have now - and we are sitting here talking about memoir – you know, the act of writing a memoir means all sorts of things once it's out there. And here is this Crown Prince, who may or may not be being forced into it by his relatives, and anything that is written by him or anyone else helping him to write, or ghost writing – is going to be read and passed over by people around the world. And there's the politics and the war and the family politics. How did you even begin to find your way through? I mean, as someone who is so experienced with words, what was the guiding light? Where did you think you could get this idea to?
HILARY: The first project that I was contracted to do was a book. Clearly he didn't want to write and that became apparent to me after I left five, four or five chapters behind, and came back to Australia because my marriage had fallen over and various things happened to me back here. I knew I was going back to Jordan. I left these draft chapters with him to see what he thought. And they were ones based on interviews that somebody else had done and a few interviews that I'd started doing with him to sort of test the process. And I thought they were okay.
He'd had a fabulously interesting life, of course. I was terribly interested in his childhood, and in his mother, in his father. His father had a terrible... he was he was deposed because he had a mental breakdown and ended up in Istanbul on an island where the boys, the young boys were taken to see him off the shore on the... dreadful sad stuff. So I found some marvellous material, and I tailored these five chapters and left them behind. And then when I came back and finally got time with him, with Prince Hassan, to find out what he thought, he was sitting at his great big desk with his great big pen and he'd scribbled all kinds of things on the chapters, the drafts, that I'd left behind. And he'd also written lots of notes, in Arabic obviously but also in English. His English was fabulous because he'd been educated in England, and my Arabic was non-existent, but he'd written on the manuscript. And the words he'd chosen to write on the manuscript, they made it very clear to me that he hated it. That he thought things were frivolous, were froth and bubble really, that sort of stuff. He didn't want to write about his mother, he didn't want to write about his childhood. He didn't want a popular... Nor did I. But he didn't want a sort of conventional memoir or biography of him. The family kept calling it his autobiography, 'his ditty' was the joke in the family.
ASTRID: That's not going to make him feel good.
HILARY: But I knew what they meant. They wanted him to come across to me in the special little pavilion that was set aside for the writing project, and he'd come across the grass looking miserable or sometimes when he started enjoying it he'd come across the grass looking rather like he wanted to spill his ditty to me. And the ditty clearly at this point of those five chapters was not going to happen in that form. And I was very cross and very cast down thinking I'm going to have to reshape this.
And he was much more interested in a serious book about the state of the Middle East, and this was really truly what I was interested in as well. So, we started talking about what kind of book maybe he would want to do. And I started planning it with my publisher’s hats on, really, knowing it would have to be published in England. There's no publishing in Jordan. There's publishing in Egypt and Lebanon, that's Arabic publishing. But he wanted and I wanted the book to be in Arabic and in English, so I would have to find an English publisher for him, and that English publisher would help me find the correct Arabic publisher out of Lebanon or out of Egypt. And he was very keen on all that.
So, we started planning a book about the state the Middle East was in now, with the war still going on – this is 2006, 2007, 2008 that period. And he of course had strong opinions about how the Middle East had been manipulated by the Americans, obviously how the how the war had begun. You know, all of that, he knew a great deal about. We didn't want to write a book about current events so much as how the Middle East got into the state it was in in order to be rolled in the way it was always being rolled by the British, by the French, by the Americans. It was a vulnerable state, and his basic thesis was that the Arab world really should work out its own solutions and come together as the Arab world. So it's not rocket science, but that's what he wants to write about and talk about.
And the process was a talking process, which was one of interview which I hadn't done before. I hadn't done a book by interview and I discovered I was quite good at it. But transcribing had to be done by someone else, I was not going to transcribe this because it's a ghastly process.
ASTRID: It is ghastly. That's why I'm behind with The Garret transcripts.
HILARY: It is a very skilled process too. I would take the transcriptions with me and go back to Italy to work on the book, really piece it together.
ASTRID: Italy is where you had based yourself, you know, after the end of your marriage, but also to be closer to Jordan.
HILARY: It was only four hours out of Amman. To get to Rome was fabulously easy, and I would be back in my little apartment in Amman within sort of four and a half hours or something. It was just fabulous. So that was easy to go backwards and forwards, whereas to go backwards and forwards to Melbourne which they suggested I do would have been hideous. It would have taken me a week to get over jetlag and I would be back on another plane another month.
ASTRID: And also building a life in Italy, which I'd like to come to in a moment. But before we get there... I mean, this second book that you've just described and the process of interviewing Prince Hassan, that is the book that he was interested in working on, he wanted to talk to you. He wanted that to be out in the world. And of course, it didn't ...
HILARY: It did take second place, of course, to his international work. And he was a man in much demand. People going through Jordan, politicians, all kinds of people, would have an appointment to see Prince Hassan if they could get it, because he knew how Jordan worked, obviously having run it for years and years and years. But he also knew everybody, and he was a man with strong opinions about how the world should be. So, he was constantly in demand.
ASTRID: So, what brought the project to a close essentially, without there being a book?
HILARY: Me actually running out of steam. I made a terrific book, which I still have of course a copy of. And it wasn't published. I got a publisher, a terrific publisher who was very good at publishing Middle Eastern material, and he said he'd always wanted to get a book out of Sidi Hassan, as they called him. The family were keen, all of that. The family found a wonderful translator who had just done for Cambridge University Press I think the latest translation of the Koran, and it was a beautiful translation. And so he was going to translate, and everything was set up.
And this is a very long story. Do you want the long story? It's all in the book.
I was all not all alone in the compound where the palace was, but pretty alone,. I mean most of the people who I've worked with were not in Jordan because it was summer and very hot. And the family were in London, as they often were during the summer. And the housekeeper in London and the housekeeper in Jordan, of course, were on the phone to each other all the time. So, we knew what was happening in London and they knew what was happening in Amman.
And the housekeeper said to me she'd just heard that Sidi Hassan was sitting in the garden in London looking very depressed. Now, by this time I knew this man very well, and I knew his depressions were real. And he's sitting with his daughter and his wife in the garden in Amman, looking very depressed. And I asked whether he was looking at paper manuscripts, because he loved paper. When I heard that Prince Hassan was sitting in the garden with his wife and daughter with a pile of paper looking very depressed, I knew the pile of paper was the book. And he had once said to me out of the blue when I was interviewing him and he was talking about what he wanted to talk about, which was political and it was also about what had happened in Jordan, but he was not interested in talking about the succession change. He didn't ever want to talk about that, that was the painful part for him. He wanted to talk about politics and policy.
But when I heard he was sitting in the garden looking terribly depressed with a great big pile of paper, I immediately thought, 'Oh heavens, the family are now going through it very closely and deciding what they want in the book and what they don't'. So when I heard that he was very depressed my heart sank, and I kept saying to his daughter who would ring me wanting changes I'd say, 'Are you sure this is what your father wants? He must tell me himself'. And she would come back, 'No this is what we want. This is what we want'. And it got more... bullying, I suppose. And I got crosser and I kept saying he must, Prince Hassan must tell me himself.
And she would... Never he would never come on the phone and tell me himself. When he didn't come to the phone and tell me himself, and his daughter kept saying in more and more bullying tones, 'I insist, we insist this is what we want said'... they were not major changes, but they were changes I knew were sensitive, and there were changes I knew he almost certainly would not have wanted or I wouldn't have been being talked to like this. And I decided I would not go on with it. I knew the book was ready to go to the publishers, so I said to Badiya, I can't make these changes'. And I left it at that.
I went back to the office in the compound, printed off copies of the manuscript because everybody... knowing they'd need six copies to go to the publisher and all of that. And the footnotes were done, everything was done. But I was not making these last changes. So, I went back to Italy at that point. I got somebody to book me on a plane and off I went still thinking, am I leaving this project or am I going to change my mind by the time I get back to this little town I was living in? And no, by the time I got back I was even more determined that in a way I'd honoured the book and honoured the author. The author was him. I've forgotten, we had a title page definition of my role, how it was going to be acknowledged, but it was his book, clearly his book. And I got back to Cortona and I thought, 'No, no I'm sticking to this'. So, I sent an email explaining exactly why I couldn't go on with it and what I was prepared to do for it in the future. So, if they finalised the text I would go to London as I'd often done and deal with the publisher, and they would get the book they wanted that way and that would be alright.
But I was not going on being bullied by this young person, very young person she was. I worked out she was younger than my daughter by a long shot, and she was speaking to me as if I was a servant or slave. There were slaves still in parts of Jordan.
ASTRID: So, did the book ever see the light of day?
HILARY: No. I kept checking online.
ASTRID: I can imagine!
HILARY: For a while I didn't check, because I knew if it was going to be going through the publisher it would be going through in a truncated form. There were wonderful photographs which we were going to put in the book, and Jordan is a place where books are – well, London is as well, Australia as too, where corporations and universities and business people print books to give away and they print them in colour and they're gorgeous and they're hideous, usually nobody reads them – and I kept thinking that's probably what is going to be the fate of this book. It will end up being an official giveaway with lots of lovely photos of Jordan and the text will be a lame duck text really, not really saying what he wants to say.
I think that's an exaggeration. I think it would never have been edited to that extent, but it may well have come out as a... in my opinion, a lesser book. But it didn't ever appear, and I don't know why it didn't appear. I rang the publisher a few times and it hadn't come, and I said I was very much, very prepared to help it through the press, help with the proofs, but not work for the Hashemites to get it through. So, it didn't ever happen, and I still check to see if it's going to happen and it hasn't.
ASTRID: So I'm interested... I mean you made brief mention of it before and you certainly do write about it in Other People's Houses, the way the book changed and was no longer part of the original contract and how you were actually sworn to secrecy in various ways. And I mean you've now written your own memoir partly about the time that you were working on this book that has never seen the light of day. Have you heard from the Prince or his family or representatives?
HILARY: His wife tried to talk me into staying and emailed me, rang me in Jordan as well, and I again stuck to my guns. I mean, that's the wrong expression, obviously in this context, but I kept saying, 'No, I'm not going to go ahead'. So I stuck with it. I've got a very charming letter from him, which was delivered to Italy with a seal on the back, extraordinary parchment envelope, saying how grateful he was that I've made him think about his work. And that was really the kind of book which we had put together, and that he was sorry it hadn't worked out. So, I have never heard anything more.
And by writing this book I would hope to hear, but I haven't heard. And I sent them of course copies, as I did to everybody named in the book or everybody obviously in the book, and no word. So, I don't know, maybe I will get a thank you note... No, I don't think I will. I think the family won't like it, because it's critical of the daughter. It's critical of her behaviour at the end. She was very helpful, but it was not, it was certainly not the book his wife wanted him to do. And I was aware of that, because at one stage she would make jokes about Prince Hassan being too political. To be too political in that kind of context means that you're criticising people that are really in charge and can help your children get work and all of those things. Their family, they were a big family, were very beholden to the new King. Relations were tricky but not bad, because Prince Hassan was the uncle of the King, and that put the whole family in a different relation. Royal families are very peculiar things! I'd never had anything to do with a monarchy of course and didn't really do any homework on what monarchy means.
ASTRID: No, you just walked right into a Royal Palace and started asking difficult questions. [Laughter]
HILARY: I suppose I did. It was it was a monarchy modelled on very much on English lines, and they lived in the house that had been the house of the British Protectorate in the 1920s. So the history in that compound, I became terribly interested in. And I was shown bullet holes in walls where during all the Intifadas, you know, it was an extraordinary part of the world to be in. Layers of history, layers of wars, layers of everything. And I had an amazing time. I was carried away.
And to come back to Australia and start writing this after a long period of time. And going back into my papers, my emails, my notes. I kept rough journals at the time. If I'd had a difficult day with him I would rush back an email my friend Carmen in London, or just write notes to myself about how pissed off I was. And they were absolutely what I needed to write the book. But I also realised I was writing a book that would not be approved of. So that's all I had to write the book I had to write, and ten you do. That's what you do if you write a book, isn't it?
ASTRID: It is. So what was your motivation for writing this? It is a memoir. We've discussed the writing project and your time in Jordan, but we haven't got to you yet, Hilary. What was the impetus?
HILARY: When I when I came back to Australia after being away for more than five years, coming back into this place was quite difficult for me because of all kinds of things. I'd lost my marriage, and I came back with a sense of a failed book, which was the Royal book, and a failed marriage and all kinds of failure. And it was a bad time. It was when the fires were on here, it was during that awful period. And I'd gone back into the West Bank and seen all of the Palestinian disasters there.
So I was in a fairly grim state. And Louise Adler was a great mate of mine from way back, and MUP I was a fan of and had been on the board of in fact for a while, and was very keen on their general publishing. And Louise talked me into a two book contract, which is another irony because when I was a publisher I used to advise authors never to sign two book contracts, because you end up being stuck with a publisher that may not exist anymore and will sell you on to someone you don't want to be sold on to, or with a publisher that's changed in all kinds of ways you don't want. But Louise is incredibly good at talking people into doing things, and she talked me into a two-book contract and paid me some money, and that made me of course feel utterly beholden. So, I first of all did The Memoirs of A Young Bastard: The diaries of Tim Burstall, which I stumbled on and I'd seen before and I thought that would get me over the writing hump.
ASTRID: That's interesting because in your memoir you actually refer to the moment in time when you did kind of stumble over these diaries, and you referred to it as, you know, I just needed a writing project and this looked like a good one.
HILARY: Yes, I did yes. It was a good one in a way, except it was a man's diary. Tim Burstall was a very irritating extraordinary fellow who did amazing things with his films and wanted to turn himself into a writer. And back in the day, which was the late 1940s early 1950s, when Tim was setting himself writing tasks - 500 words a day was how people used to learn and teach themselves to write - and this was his diary that his wife, who I knew and I'd run into, she had still had his diaries of that era by her bed. And she hadn't read them.
Di Gribble and I had read them and knew they were scurrilous. They were all about how badly behaved Eltham was in those days, you know people trekking out and having affairs all over the place. So, I knew they were publishable and I knew I could turn them into a book that Louise would be interested in. So she was very happy to give me a contract for memoirs. I plodded away doing that book, and gradually got incredibly irritated with Tim Burstall because he was such a... well, that kind of bloke. You know, an all winning male really was how he came to be in my head while I was doing his diary. So I really only worked on one volume of his diaries. There was a second volume, which I read again but I didn't go into. So that book got me back into the writing groove, which meant I had a project, I was working away. And Louise, the other book Louise wanted was my story of course, of the time I'd been away and all that stuff, which I kept putting off, putting off, putting off.
But finally, I started doing it. And it was it was a very difficult book to find the shape of and to find what framed it in my head and to find what kind of book would stack up. I don't like memoir. I don't like most memoirs, because – I'm really talking about autobiographies – cradle to grave stuff I'm not in the slightest bit interested in reading or writing.
But obviously when you think about things that happen to you and when you get older you start being very well aware of the role of your mother, the role of your grandmother, all of those things. And yes, you do start becoming much more contemplative about your own history. But I didn't think anyone would be particularly interested in that, because my background is not particularly exotic or fascinating except to me and to my kids maybe. So I started writing about... I started thinking of it as a second volume to Other People's Words, because books of course framed this period of my life, the Other People's Houses period, very much as well. I had to read a hell of a lot in order to do the project in Jordan.
ASTRID: How long did it take you to write this memoir?
HILARY: It took me the best part of probably five years, but stopping and starting and stopping, and thinking should I cover more than I'm covering here? This this really is about the Jordanian... the time I was away from Australia in other people's houses. Once I realised that was the shape, the title, the book hung off the title for me. It was always going to be Other People's Houses.
And when I found... MUP of course made me write an outline of the book I was going to write, and to my amazement I realised I'd called it Other People's Houses way back when I got the contract from Louise. There it was. And I kind of described it off that. The outline I gave them was really the book I ended up writing. It was, yes, it gave me the shape. The title gave me the shape.
ASTRID: So that's the shape of it, as you said. But I mean in there it's not just a writing project, it's you know, you lose your mother fairly on. So it's your grief after her death. You were ill, you had cancer. And so it's not in detail but you know you receive treatment, you go for check-ups overseas, you are aware of...
HILARY: It becomes a rather minor matter to me. That was what was wonderful about... sorry I'm interrupting you.
ASTRID: No, no, no, please do. But I mean, it's in there and it is a major life event, but it's certainly not... this is by no means a memoir of illness. You know, you cover that very efficiently shall we say. It is a memoir of the grief over your marriage, but also finding the rest of your family and the family coming to you and what your life will be like now.
So I guess my question is when anyone writes a memoir there is that question of what do I put in and what I leave out? You are very respectful to your ex-husband, incredibly so. How did you... what were your own personal lines? I mean, did you think...
HILARY: Do you mean how did I make the decisions to name people and not name them?.
ASTRID: Not necessarily, just more for your own personal boundaries. You're putting your personal story out into the world, people are going to read it. Did you how did you protect yourself and those that you love?
HILARY: Protecting... I don't think protecting myself was what I was trying to do. But it became very important to me that this was a book about me and it was true. It was not, it was not a revenge memoir. It was not a book where I wanted to bash anybody up.
It was more about this extraordinary adventure I'd had, and the way I moved through other people's houses. That gave me the shape to rebuild myself really, and to come back out the other end back into the marital house in a different shape, a different form, and all that stuff. So it's about friendship, and it's about certainly it's about my marriage falling apart to Don Watson. It's absolutely obvious it's him, because he was very much an undertow to all this stuff too. He was ringing me sometimes in Jordan and then telling me it made him too depressed to ring anymore. He would set me writing tasks: Tell me about going to Petra, tell me about... And I would dutifully try and cheer him up because he was in America writing his stuff. So he was definitely an undertow, but it's not a book about Don. It's a book about me and how I was continually reminded of him even though I was in Jordan or Italy or London, because people would talk about him, or I would be find myself listening to the ABC on my little. What were those things called? iPods.
I had a wonderful little iPod that I would hear ABC programs. And I think Ramona, Ramona Koval, sent me an email one day saying, 'I thought I should tell you I'm interviewing Don about his American Journeys'. And I thought I shouldn't listen to this, don't be stupid. And of course I went for a walk in Italy and listened to it. And I was very cross, because he was mocking Tuscany. So, things like that are in the book. Little glimpses of how hard it is to get away from a marital breakdown. You think you get on a plane and leave all the catastrophe behind, but you don't. It goes on, it goes on in your life for ever more. I mean it's all that stuff.
ASTRID: Hilary, what writing or editing or publishing projects do you think you might move to now?
HILARY: I'm still recovering from this.
ASTRID: Yes, a memoir is a big deal.
HILARY: It's been terrific doing talking about the book really. It's been wonderful, but I don't want to do much more about it now, and I don't want to keep writing about myself now. I will find other things to write about. I still help some writers, and that's a great pleasure to me.
ASTRID: Writers are the best. Hilary thank you so much for your time today.
HILARY: It's been terrific. Thank you.