Writers are always readers first, as I talk about in my 2015 publishing memoir Under Cover. I remember the excitement I felt back in grade seven at Brisbane’s Ironside State School when our inspirational young teacher (now the notorious Sydney shock-jock Alan Jones) read out a beautiful essay by one of my talented classmates. That someone my own age had created this lush and vivid wordscape made me want to try writing something that conveyed such readerly pleasure. I’d always devoured fiction from my local library at Toowong (still there but alas no longer a library), so my aspiration was to become an author of stories and novels. And because my father had been a wartime pilot, my first efforts were Biggles-esque flying stories. Realising I’d caught the literary bug, my encouraging parents bought me for my fourteenth birthday a secondhand Antares Domus portable typewriter. This sleek Italian machine was two-tone cream and maroon, and I prized it almost as much as my (also secondhand) bike on which I roamed the streets. Addicted to speed, I fitted a speedometer to my bike and raced down Mt Coot-tha, watching the speedo needle flicker towards 50 mph. With my racy typewriter however I discovered how intensely rewarding it was to roam the outer reaches of my imagination.
What obstacles did I have to overcome as a writer?
My first publication was a Keats-inspired poem about sunset for my high school magazine and I made a strategic decision to always answer the poetry question in English exams, which helped me score a high distinction in my matriculation year. I was subsequently offered a journalism cadetship at the Courier-Mail and became an apprentice wordsmith at the age of seventeen. None of the inconsequential news stories I wrote inspired me and instead I discovered an aptitude for sub-editing other people’s stories. When I became a publishing editor at UQP aged twenty-one I was back with my beloved books again and have been there ever since. Without success I kept writing – stories, poems and even a novel – and it was only when I wrote an honours thesis on the editing and publication of Xavier Herbert’s novel Capricornia that I found my voice as a writer (and researcher) of biography and book history. I’ve now added memoir to my repertoire and have found it the most challenging in terms of building an effective narrative voice.
How do I arrange my working space?
Unusually, I share a small home office with my busy media-historian wife Bridget Griffen-Foley. We work back to back, facing the east (me) and west walls, with light from a northern window falling conveniently over our shoulders. Incredibly this arrangement works to our mutual benefit as we only interrupt each other to solve some wordy problem or other. Bridget is a fast touch-typist whereas I pound away two-finger journo style on the keyboard. At this slower speed however I like to think I make fewer errors, but the impact of my incessant tapping has worn the white letter ‘e’ off that particular computer key. Because I feel cosy and relaxed in the presence of physical (paper) books, my east wall is lined to the ceiling with my research works. Propped on one of the shelves just above my screen are three cherished drawings my now London-based friend David Mackintosh sent me. David is a much published children’s picture book author, and one of his birthday cartoons shows me at the wheel of a very racy Alfa Romeo coupe.
What are my essential tools?
A large desktop computer screen and now rather worn k yboard (with that invisible ‘e’); an iPhone; a hand-me-down iPad (that only works with WiFi); three pairs of reading glasses in different parts of our townhouse; and most important of all – a 2B pencil for editing my drafts and those of my friends, family and writing mentees. Drafting and redrafting on-screen is super efficient but in order to step back into an analogue space to reassess any piece of writing as it evolves, there’s no substitute for a pencil on paper rewrite.
Advice to other writers and editors?
Just two words, which brilliant book editor (and former Queensland Rhodes Scholar) PR ‘Inky’ Stephensen wrote to Xavier Herbert in July 1933 after reading an early, half-million-word draft of Herbert’s novel Capricornia: ‘diabolical persistence’ – something Inky advised the budding novelist he’d need if his novel was ever to see the light of day. This fictional masterpiece of northern Australia was finally published five years and many dramas later and has never been out of print in 80 years.
Craig Munro is a biographer and editor as well as QWC’s founding chair. As UQP’s inaugural fiction editor, he launched the careers of both Peter Carey and David Malouf, and his memoir Under Cover: adventures in the art of editing was published in 2015 by Scribe. His other books include Wild Man of Letters: The Story of PR Stephensen and Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946-2005, co-edited with Robyn Sheahan-Bright.