Peter Rose is the Editor of the Australian Book Review. Prior to taking on this role in 2001, he worked as a publisher at Oxford University Press from 1986 until 2000.
Peter’s published works include:
- The House of Vitriol (1990)
- The Catullan Rag (1993), shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year
- Donatello in Wangaratta (1998), shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry and The Age Book of the Year
- Rose Boys (2001), awarded the National Biography Award and shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award
- Rattus Rattus: New and Selected Poems (2005)
- A Case of Knives (2005), longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award
- Roddy Parr (2010)
- Crimson Crop (2012), awarded the Queensland Literary Award and shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award
- The Subject of Feeling (2015), awarded the Victorian Premier’s Poetry Award
- Drama the Dam (2016).
Peter is a previous board member of Melbourne Writers Festival, Meanjin, Oxford University Press and the Robert Rose Foundation.
Nic Brasch: Peter Rose is a poet, a novelist, a memoirist and a playwright. He is the Editor of the Australian Book Review, and he has been a publisher, a judge of several literary awards, and a board member of a number of writing-related organisations. There is a lot to talk about.
Peter, welcome to The Garret.
Peter Rose: Thank you, Nic.
Nic: You come from a very strong sporting family, as described in your memoir and as many people would know, the memoir of course being the Rose Boys. How does someone with that sort of background become immersed in the world of writing and literature?
Peter: Well, I grew up in a house full of books, which is a help. I had a wonderful teacher at a crucial stage in my life, and nearly every writer I’ve worked with has spoken of the really formative value of a great English teacher, often. And I had a teacher who, in a fairly conservative school, had a very innovative way of teaching poetry and introduced me to the work of people like Eliot, Shakespeare, in a brilliant way and at quite an early age. Before I really even new what poetry was, I realised that is what I wanted to do. And even though, as you say, I’ve done an indiscriminate number of things over the course of my career, such as it is, poetry is really central to my work, and in a sense to my imagination and my self, I think, in a way.
So, mine was a particularly long apprenticeship. I didn’t publish a poem until I was 30, I didn’t publish a volume until I was 35, so pretty late, but the identification about the allure, the importance, the glamour really, of poetry, was very early in my adolescence.
Nic: And a number of writers that I have interviewed have also spoken about the influence of a particular teacher. At what age was this teacher…
Peter: Mr Ennis put his hands on us when we were about 14, 15. I had him for three years, and he introduced all of us – I suppose teachers still do – he introduced us to the haiku, which I guess is a great way to teach young people. And then I started writing a bit, and I remember him sending a note home to my mother, interestingly, not my father, to my mother, saying ‘Dear Mrs Rose, do you know that you’ve got a poet in the family?’ That was all very flattering, of course. And my early poetry was negligible in the extreme, but I think he recognised the temperament, the kind of quirky way of regarding the world that a poet must necessarily have.
Nic: You mentioned before the number of books in your house. Your dad, I’m assuming, didn’t have a lot of time to read. Was it your mum who was the reader, or your dad as well?
Peter: They were both readers, my mother in particular. Dad loved a good novel, popular biographies… He was a busy man, but he was a reader. It wasn’t a house where books were foreign, it wasn’t a house where music or ideas were foreign. Even though my father was a great football player and then a coach of Collingwood, or Footscray as it then was, at a time when coaches had big jobs as well, Dad was a busy man, it was a sane civilised house and it didn’t just revolve around football, even though that was a huge part of his life, and in a sense mine too because all our weekends were taken up with football and all of that. But there was balance in that music – my mother was a singer when she was young – music was very important, and music has been enormously important to me.
So, there were a lot of things going on, really, in the house, whereas when I read memoirs or meet people who grew up in bookless homes where ideas and literature were not just irrelevant but maybe despised, then I really shudder to think of what that must be like.
Nic: Yeah, yeah. This teacher, who is teaching all these students poetry, most students would not have embraced poetry. What was it about the poetry that appealed to you? What was the connection?
Peter: Well, he taught us Eliot, the four Preludes, and that had a big effect on me because I really had very little experience of poetry, apart from ballads, I suppose.
Peter: And nursery rhymes and the early very much rhyming material, and so to look at poetry of such intensity about describing the squalor of London streets and hotels with oyster shells on the floor, and it was… And the erotic, which is a very important part of T. S. Eliot, muted, but undeniably there, was very illuminating, really. So, in a sense he was introducing me to a foreign language, and one that I immediately knew I wanted to somehow attempt, later on. And I think it was the kind of fairly powerful identification that say probably a young musician has when he or she picks up a guitar, or maybe a carpenter picks up a tool or whatever, or my brother a football, and there goes your destiny, that’s what he’s going to do. And a cricket bat, in his case. And I think it was… I count myself lucky that I had that early strong committed sense of vocation.
Nic: And is that when you started writing poetry? Did you start writing…
Peter: No, not really. I began to write a lot when I was studying the Romantics at university. We had a great teacher of the Romantics at Monash, and that was… It is very heady when you are introduced to Wordsworth, or Wordsworth particularly for me, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Blake. It is thrilling. And I remember I wrote a lot of poetry in the Romantic style. I remember one semester, well one three month period, young poets tend to count all of their poems, and I remember one winter, three months, and I wrote about 83 poems.
Nic: Oh my goodness me.
Peter: I was very proud of that. Not one of them survives. They were all shocking. I think about 69 of them were all about sunsets… But it was my way of getting into it.
Nic: You love sunsets, obviously.
Peter: It was a very naïve romantic sense of what poetry should be doing. And then I wrote a couple of early novels, not published. So I was really committed to them and starting a career of sorts. And really, it was in my mid 20s that I started to be surer about the type of poetry that I wanted to do. And I was in a sense waiting for something to happen in my life. I think poets often… you know, you want to poeticise before you have a subject. And my subject came along, and then I had something to write about, something personal and intense. And by then I was reading much more seriously in poetry, all over the place, and looking for people who really spoke to me, and then gradually got going and started to place some poems.
Nic: And where was the first one published? And how did you feel when it was published?
Peter: Well, it was published in a wonderful journal, I was very lucky, it was called Scripsi, a very famous journal that Peter Craven and Michael Heyward started. And it was the creme de la creme, you know, and Michael and Peter took a couple of poems of mine, and it gave me a great shock, because one was ‘The House of Vitriol’, which was the title poem of my first book, and it’s very personal. And it was lovely at the time, I was very excited, and then I remember going through a kind of horror at the act of publication, of what it meant. And I still am sometimes, I think, ‘God, you put that on paper, you allowed people to read that?’ Because I’ve written poetry of quite personal subjects, about relationships, about things that happen in my family, and sometimes I am shocked at what we poets do, what we reveal about ourselves, even in our most masked and modernist ways, we are still, basically it is still there. And that was… I remember I was overseas and I didn’t really want to come back to Australia when the volume of Scripsi came out, I was so horrified at the thought of particular people reading the poem.
But then I became more used to that exposure, and loved it. I mean, poets, whatever we say, poets, writers want to reach people at whatever level. You want to reach them. We do this stuff not just to make beautiful sounds in our study, but really to move people, I think. Increasingly for me it is the emotional heft of poetry that interests me. My early stuff, like a lot of young poets, was quite obscure, quite wilfully modernist… If I could resist the intelligence, which was Wallace Steven’s line, I’d do it.
Particularly in my two most recent collections, Crimson Crop and The Subject of Feeling, I know the work is, of the core poems, often about what happened to my brother. It is really there I know I am trying to resonate with readers. I am no longer resistant of that. And I think it was very much the experience of writing that memoir you mentioned, Rose Boys, in 2001 that I’d never attempted anything like that. It is in very plain language, it is telling a strong story, it is not ornate or adorned, it is just telling the story. And I think that had a lasting impact on me and a lasting impact on the poetry.
Nic: We’ll talk about Rose Boys shortly. I’m just wondering whether, I mean, I’m interested in the process of writing poems, as someone who has never done it and would be far too scared to even try.
Peter: It is never too late, never too late.
Nic: I’m wondering if there is a poem you would like to read to us, but then tell us about the development of it from idea through execution.
Peter: Sure. Probably a good example of my often protracted method is the title poem from the title of my current book, The Subject of Feeling, which came out in 2015. And I will often, quite often, write a poem, a draft, I think of it as a painter’s sketch, an emotion. I never get an idea sitting for a poem sitting at my desk. Never. Always at a gallery, in a cinema, on the beach, at dinner… Often in the most inconvenient ways and I think, ‘Oh here we go again’. And then I jot something down, or key it in, nowadays. And often that sketch might sit there for six months, two years. But they are always there. I can’t always go back and resuscitate them, which means they weren’t any good, they are not viable poems in the first place, but I can go back and then the state of the editorial craft is much more important.
But it is very rare for me to actually forget one of these, and that’s what I did with this one. And there must be some reason for it.
My brother, who as you know, had been a quadriplegic for 25 years, he died in 1999. And about five years ago I came across this draft of this poem called ‘The Subject of Feeling’ which I had completely forgotten. And it describes the funeral and it culminates talking about the accident 25 years earlier which had left him a quadriplegic, when he was trapped in a car for two hours and they had to cut him out, and a woman crawled into the car, and it was a moving story, which she told me when writing Rose Boys. Anyway I went back to it and I was surprised to find it and it assumed a completely different shape from the initial draft, which is slightly unusual. Normally they will maintain their shape. But I realised I wanted a very different form for it. I’d been reading a lot of the Robert Lowell of the Life Studies period, those beautiful delicate five line lyrics, stances, five line stanzas, with more rhyme and half rhyme than I do, I’m not a big rhyming poet, and I realised that for such a dark subject as attending a funeral it needed a more lyric shape, and it takes a quite lyric shape at the end, as you will hear. And it took a lot of drafts. And that was a poem that in the end took me ten years to write and finish.
Nic: And in the drafting, is this going through in your mind as you are walking, or does that all take place at your desk?
Peter: I will get… Very often… It is more like a mood, something happens to me, it is quite beautiful, it is a bit druggy, it is a nice feeling. And only poetry really does that.
Peter: And often a phrase will come with an opening line, and then because I’m a very associative poet, and I’ll go back to my computer as soon as I can and key it, and often it will be about half the length of the finished product, and then I’ll add to it and apply some craft.
Nic: OK, half the length and then you add to it rather than the other way around.
Peter: Yeah. I admire poets, and John Ashby is a good example, someone who rarely wrote a second draft. They were finished, magnificent.
Nic: We’d admire that in all genres and types of writing.
Peter: Absolutely. I’m not like that at all. But it is something very… So that is why I think of myself as a very impressionistic poet, not an intellectual or an analytical poet. I mean, I’ve known many great poets, Peter Porter is a great example, who sit down and say, ‘Oh, today I’ll write a sistena’ or something.
Well, that’s not what turns me on at all. That s not what I… I wait for the poems to come, and happily they will. And this is probably a good example of that kind of method.
So, the poem is called ‘The Subject of Feeling’.
Outside the church, unmemoried,
names of the dearest
deserting me, I turn as they
load you in the hearse, set off
with a small police escort.
For a quarter of a century
we have been ramming you
in cars of various sorts,
long before the age
of ramps and hoists.
They took longer to prise you
from the giddified wreck –
two hours was the report.
Eschatology is a slow
While they forged above
a woman squeezed inside
and stayed with you,
marvelled at your composure,
heard about a new daughter.
Then the subject of feeling –
why you had none in your feet.
Men ground the car with steel
and flung it open
like a sack of wheat.
Peter: So the title, as you can see, is obviously ambiguous.
Nic: Yes, it is. And as you read it, that was the first time I realised what one of the meanings could be. That was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. And in many ways, some ways, having read the memoir, it was almost like the references to daughter, the length of time, it is almost encapsulating the entire memoir in one short poem.
Peter: That’s what poetry can do.
Nic: Wonderful, absolutely beautiful. So, the process, tell me again about the length of time for that particular poem, drafting and getting it finished.
Peter: Well, the first draft which I forgot was probably about ten years before I went back and finished it. And finishing a poem for me, that is when I really get into it. Nowadays… I don’t devote nearly as much time to poetry sadly as I once did. When I was younger a couple of times I gave up quite interesting jobs to write poetry. I mean, I look back and I think ‘Wow, the audacity of doing it’. But I’m very glad I did. There are times when writers should give up distractions and just do the work, particularly early on when you have a lot to do, when you are young and you have a lot to do, start to publish some poems, have some success, if I can put it like that, gets some interest going, that is when you’re really bursting with poetry. And I knew, I was working in a public library and then I was working in publishing, and I just knew I needed more time to write poems. I wanted it. And I was fortunate enough to be able to do that. I was fortunate, I mean, my family was very supportive of that in terms of not saying, ‘Are you out of your mind giving up these opportunities?’ I always had great emotional support. And in those days I would for some beautiful periods of time I’d be a full time poet, which really does your head in a bit because you are just living inside poetry.
Now the time I spend on poetry, around what is a pretty big job editing the magazine, is much shorter, so it might take me once I get into a poem about a month or two or three to finish it. I’ve learnt patience, I think poetry is a steady business, and I’m not in… When your young you do want to publish a lot of poems, you want to publish as many books as possible. Later, now I think, I bide my time. I think for me now a new book every three or five years, I think that’s enough for me and probably enough for readers.
Nic: That’s right. Lets talk about writing a memoir. Rose Boys, which won awards and rightly so, it’s a very moving and wonderful story, which was principally about your brothers years, his accident and years as a quadriplegic and the effect on the family. What made you want to write it? Was it for… Did you write it for you? Did you write it for Robert? Did you write it for the family? I mean, it is an intensely personal experience. You chose to write about it shortly after this death. Why?
Peter: Well, a publisher asked me, which helps. John Ironmonger, a wonderful poet at Allen & Unwin, in his last couple of years, sadly. Robert died in 1999 and there was a big reaction to his death, even though his sporting career had ended obviously 25 years earlier. His personal story was well known. My father, who was still alive, was much loved and very much a force…
Nic: And the two of them were very present at sporting events in Melbourne.
Peter: And they were conspicuous. People loved Robert for his many qualities, his good humour, he was a very witty man. He had amazing Stoicism, amazing bravery, really. And it was a pretty… In a way, an important example of how someone who becomes a quadriplegic – which is a terrible burden, a terrible disability, hard stuff, emotionally, financially, physically – it was a notable example of how someone can remake their life with a lot of support from those around them.
When Robert became a quadriplegic in 1974, disability was much less conspicuous, really. And Robert was probably one of the more conspicuous success stories in those days, of a kind now, you know, it is fantastic that paraplegics and quadriplegics are very publicly celebrated and known. It wasn’t the case then. And of course the Collingwood factor was a big… I can never underestimated the importance of that in the recognition of Robert’s story, and to some extent mine. Also, I was finishing up in publishing, I’d been a publisher for a long time at Oxford University Press. I wanted a break from that, I wanted to go and write novels. And so when I moved to Adelaide in 2000 John spoke to me at the writers week and suggested a book. And while it surprised me and was not something I had ever expected to do, ever, I never thought of myself as writing a non-fiction book, the old publisher in me saw – you know, I’m a realist and a publisher – realised yes, there might be some interest in that among readers. And it was something else to try to do.
I had never discussed it with Robert. I don’t think he would have approved of it, so much. Well, maybe not appreciated it, really. He had been someone who had not spoken publicly about his disability. He I think did not identify, in a way, because of the nature of the career he had had. And he might not really have wanted what is a very personal story. I made it a pretty direct visceral story, I wanted to provide a text for people going through what my family went through in 1974, and say, ‘This is what it is going to be like for you for a while and you can come through it’.
Some people in the family loved it and wanted me to do it. I think my mother would have preferred I didn’t write about the story, but she didn’t say don’t. It is a very very complex business, writing any book, but if you write about misfortune in your family a few months after the person has died, then look out.
Nic: Your role in the book is not so much as an active participant, you are almost an observer, at times, you were an investigator of information. How does a memoirist decide how much of themselves to put in a book, how much of their voice to put in there?
Peter: Well, I was determined not to write a mawkish book. Robert would have hated that and I am not a mawkish kind of guy. I didn’t want a straight forward sporting biography, that had no interest for me. It is a psychological study, really. And I also wanted to do something different from similar autobiographies, biographies and autobiographies. And really there was only one example that I could think of, the Wherret brothers, who… did they publisher a book together? Richard Wherret, a great theatre man, about their weird parenting. And that was about the only one.
And so I conceived of it as a study in, as I put it rather pompously in the book, a fraternal juxtaposition, contrasting… I mean I don’t think you could have hoped for two more different boys.
Peter: And the differences were stark. And so, I thought, I decided to put a little of my story in it – probably about ten percent of the story is mine – while maintaining the appropriate focus, which is on Robert’s story. And that was to give it some difference. I position myself in the book pretty much as, as you say, as an observer, and here I was very much influenced by the great American novelist, essayist, Janet Malcom. And that attitude of being a kind of like, I’m almost a journalist in the book.
Nic: Very much,
Peter: I went in and talk about interviewing my sister-in-law, my parents, Robert’s daughter, in ways that Malcom will do, and some of the great sportsmen Robert had played with. That was my way of giving myself some distance from the emotional qualities in the book.
Nic: Ok. To help you deal with the writing?
Peter: Yeah. And it gave it somehow a shape. But I was really learning on the job. I mean, I’d never written a book of this kind.
Nic: Were you writing it full time? What was the process?
Peter: I had left publishing. I had moved to Adelaide to live with my partner, whom I had met the previous year. And so that was the last – 18 years ago, that was last time I had a full year to write. My god, I’d kill for that. And I just started to write. It was a very difficult book to justify to myself, very difficult book to shape. And there was one day when I thought ‘God, Rose, if you don’t go upstairs and start this book, you are never going to do it’. And you may as well return the advance and go back to novels. And I did go upstairs and I did start it, gropingly, and then it rushed out. I wrote, it is about 80,000 words, and I wrote it about three months.
Peter: By the end it was around the clock stuff. It was a… It is a cliché, but it was my one experience of just sitting at the computer and having the book write itself. I was just the stenographer. Robert’s story was just pouring out. And I am glad it did, because it was… Even when I knew and was more confident about the shape and the force of the book, it was an unhappy book, really, because I learnt things about him. I was looking at a lot of documented material, a lot of interviews, I had access to enormous correspondence, journalism written about him, and I learnt things about him that were very saddening. The interviews with people, I mean, when disability like that has such a terrible effect on so many people, a tragic effect, and that was something. There were the ethical considerations for me in what I would write and not write. And then, as some people who have written memoirs of this kind, I have a very very active unconscious – my dream life, my god I wish I could switch it off – but it went crazy, and it was a terrible time, really, so it was really a kind of possession. But it had to be like that. I mean, the book clearly mattered to me. And it was a powerful story, and I just went through it. But I was pleased when it was over.
Nic: At what point did you show what you had written to family members, and I am thinking particularly obviously of you mother and your father, and Robert’s daughter, I guess. Did you wait until it was published, or did you give them…
Peter: I… My mother had told me at the outset, which wasn’t all that long ago, which was like eight months before, really, but she told me in what was very sensible act of generosity towards me and an act of self-preservation, that she would never read the book.
Nic: Oh, she never read it?
Peter: She told me she would never read the book.
Peter: My father was very supportive of the venture, so I gave him the manuscript. It was classic, really. I gave it to him, I went to Tasmania for the weekend because if Dad had disliked it I would not have published it. So it was quite a significant moment.
Nic: Wow. Very significant.
Peter: And he rang me up when I got back, and he said ‘I’d like to have lunch with you’. And I thought, ‘Well there goes the book, if he wants to have lunch with me’. And he... My father was a wonderful man, we were incredibly close. And he came and he had one of his very neat pencilled lists, about twelve points, and looked at upside down they looked even more menacing. And then he said that he had a few changes to suggest. And the first one was – and by this time I thought this is over now – the first one was that he said, ‘On page such an such you have me playing my fourth game for Collingwood in a Preliminary Final in 1948 in front of 95, 678. In fact, I’ve gone back to the records and it was 96,249’. And down the list he went, and they were all statistical, and I thought, ‘Fine, home and hosed’.
My mother, even though we are very close – my mother is alive, Dad is not – she chose not to read it. She came to the launch in Collingwood, Eddie McGuire launched it and whatever, and that was her decision, I completely respected it.
Peter: But then one day she told a friend, she didn’t tell me, this was about ten years on, that she had read the thing and she said in the end she felt that she had to read it because all her friends at the golf club would say ‘And Elsie, that wonderful book that Peter has written, you must love it’. And she would have to admit she had never read it, and they were really shocked. So in the end, she thought she better read it. And she sat up one night and read it, and apparently it was a very difficult experience for her, and one she said she was glad she had done but never wanted to repeat.
So, everyone is different. That’s what a memoirist, a family memoirist, must weight up. You might have a wonderfully supportive parent but the other one might hate the thought of that act of exposure.. And you’ve just got to balance it and justify it as best you can whilst still in the end observing the artist’s freedom and the artist’s need to tell his or her own story.
Nic: It is a difficult position, isn’t it?
Nic: I’m just going to get you to put another of your hats on now as we move through. The Australian Book Review, which you edit and have edited since 2001, is a very important part of the Australian publishing literary scene. A couple of questions. Given the number of books that are published in Australia, how do you decide what to include, what to review?
Peter: Some books choose themselves, really. A new Garner, a new Carey, Coetzee, must be reviewed or we would look a bit silly.
Nic: A Malouf.
Peter: Then it is a question of balance, hunches. We don’t just follow the path of every other publication. We don’t, for instance, publish reviews of popular fiction or popular biography. We have a very inquiring educated well traveled liberal-minded readership. We know they are not frightened of ideas. We publish a lot of scholarly stuff, probably 10 per cent of our books are fiction, so an enormous body of non-fiction is reviewed there. One looks for balance within an issue. Each issue should be slightly different from the past ones, so if there has been a lot of politics in the previous one there might be less focused on that. We’re an encyclopaedic magazine, so that in any issue as well as the core stuff like politics and history and fiction and poetry you might get archaeology, philosophy, science, classics, blah blah. So in that sense, we are very much like TLS (The Times Literary Supplement).
I have advisors, but basically, in the end it is up to the editor of any publication to give it a shape. So there are a lot of competing factors, you know, about 25 per cent of the books we review are overseas ones, so there is that to consider, there are national ones, there are gender considerations. Are we honouring the forces and the strengths of Australian literature enough?
Nic: Do you review YA at all?
Peter: We do some YA fiction, less than in the past. And children’s books were a big part of Australian Book Review when it was founded in the 1960s and revived in 1978. We are celebrating the 40th birthday of the second series this year. A big part. That has lapsed a bit, I must say, partly as the magazine has changed so much. We now publish reviews of the Arts in it, we publish long articles, fellowships, Callibre’s, Q&As and whatever. Space is pretty tight. And there are now… It is such an amazing publishing sector we have. It is such a credit to Australian writers and publishers the quality and volume of stuff being published.
When I started, I like to think that’s every consequential Australian publication, as I would put it, every serious book, every major book would be reviewed in ABR. We can’t do that anymore, it is too big. So that means more choices.
I think it gives, in a sense, the magazine, no longer a magazine a record. We can’t record everything published. It gives it more freedom. We are an independent publication, we choose our editorial destiny, I suppose. But I hope we do it as thoughtfully and responsibly as we can, but inevitably some people are going to be disappointed. You know, just because we can’t review every big book.
Nic: How do you match books with reviewers? And given we have a thriving industry, but it is quite a small industry, conflict of interest issues, do they arise?
Peter: Of course they do. You know, I often quip, though there may be some truth in it, that editors only need two things: good grammar and long memories. And I think the later is very important. You’ve got to remember and think when you try to place a book that, ‘Oh hang on, didn’t that author give that reviewer a stinker 14 years ago? Or didn’t I hear about some contretemps?’ You’ve got to be alert to forces that might complicate a review. But really, in my experience, I think the times, the occasions when I’ve been as it were set up by a review who has taken a book or asked for a book for the wrong reasons, I could number on both hands, of the thousands of reviews. I think Australian reviewers are overwhelmingly responsible, morally responsible in their approach to it, pretty zealous in doing justice to a book, and I think they are in it for the right reasons.
Also I think in the sector there is a great regard for Australian Book Review, not because what I might have done over a few years there, but for the entity. And I think people respect it, they want it to survive, as we all do, and I think they bring to it real professionalism and honourableness. They might not always write brilliant reviews, that is not always possible, but I think in nine out of ten cases I have no scruple about their reasons for being involved in it.
Nic: Of course, of course. Now, as a publisher, an editor, as a reader, your reaction to books may well help some of our emerging writers who listen to this podcast. What I mean by that is that, what is it that excites you in a book? What takes a book from being a good read to being a great read?
Peter: Such a combination of things, isn’t it. Originality, I’m very drawn to…
Nic: Originality of idea or originality isn’t he way …
Peter: Of style, a distinctive style. And I think genres fluctuate. I think in fiction, I don’t think we are overloaded with highly individual styles at present, I think there is a certain sameness in a lot of the fiction we see, which I don’t think applies to poetry. I think poetry is going through a very interesting and exploratory phrase, and very different types of poetry are being written.
I look for many things. High degree of literacy, I mean, I really like people who understand the language and grammar and syntax and all the amazing potential of English, a thrilling language to work in.
If something is sloppy, if I think writers aren’t capable of composing and mounting quite a complicated argument or paragraph, then I begin to – I’m speaking personally now, a lot of people like a plain trope of English, I don’t.
But basically, you are looking for something that is, a bit like music, that you know pretty soon that this person, whatever they are writing, whatever their style, they are doing it differently than the rest. That I really respect and look for. I don’t want just to be regurgitation.
The problem… The publishing scene needs to regurgitate, in a sense, because once they have a great success, there is a big urge to repeat that success with other people. You want more of that stuff.
Nic: Is it too hard for publishers to take risks in Australia because of the market, there is not much…
Peter: I think we have an unusual number of really bright cookies running our publishing lists. I think this is a good time in publishing. It would be invidious to name some of them. I think they are really impressive people, and I think they are doing it for the right reason, because for a passion for books, And some of them certainly are certainly committed, some of them are practitioners themselves, and they want a literature that is flourishing and interesting and stylistically innovative.
But the reality is that publishing is a hard game, and it is getting harder and harder to sell those things. And I think highly individual styles, highly avant-garde work, highly modernist prose say, I think we don’t think nearly as much of it as we did. And the stylists that I grew up loving, Patrick White first and foremost in fiction, sometimes you wonder how the Patrick White of the arts story would fair in a market that really likes plainness, directness, short sentences, great story, all of that stuff. And I think while publishers are as courageous and risk taking as they can be, I think there are really limits now on what they can do, because the market is small, the market is probably shrinking, and the overseas competition is phenomenal, the costs of doing business in publishing here are really really expensive. It is not an easy time, I think, especially as personal tastes are changing ,and people are just buying fewer books, and wanting different kinds of books because of the extraordinary recreational alternatives that exist in our society.
Nic: Just finally, just wondering, which books have you read recently have excited you, or which Australian books I’m talking about or asking about, and which current Australian authors most excite you?
Peter: Oh god, I’ve always got about a dozen on the go, it is the nature of the work.
Nic: But not all are exciting you or have excited you recently.
Peter: No, I might not finish them if they fo that. I’m really enjoying reading two new novels by two great stylists, Australian stylists I admire, Gail Jones.
Nic: Yeah, she’s remarkable, isn’t she.
Peter: A nd Rodney Hall, whose work I love. Captivity Captive, The Grisly Wife, you know, probably out of print now, but they should never be out of print, they are two of our great novels. Rodney has his first novel in about a decade, that is an event, The Stolen Season.
A wonderful young historian whom I have loved publishing, Billy Griffiths, I think ABR published some of his first reviews, has written a very important book on Australian pre-history that Black Inc is doing in April, and then I read a lot of overseas stuff too. But that would be some that I have been reading over the summer with great enjoyment.
Nic: It has been an absolute pleasure. I could go on for hours, it has been an absolute pleasure, but we don’t have hours, unfortunately.
Peter: Thank you very much, Nic, and greetings to your listeners.