In 1989, the year after World Expo, South Brisbane was a wasteland. As a member of the steering committee trying to set up a writers centre, I spent many weekends driving around the deserted back streets. My targets were the former Expo admin buildings – one of which I hoped might make a suitable home for our fledgling centre.

Representing the interests of local writers groups, my fellow committee members and I wanted a location close to the CBD and transport. Although South Bank’s Performing Arts Centre, Gallery, and new State Library had recently been built, the area still felt like a ghost town.

Eventually, the Goss regime found a space for us across the river at the back of a century-old public service building in William Street – opposite the Government Printery. Its chief virtue was a good-sized meeting room in addition to several offices. For the new staff, including inaugural director Robyn Sheahan-Bright, it was also hot and in need of refurbishment.

I’ll never forget our first AGM there – held in the unairconditioned meeting room one humid evening. Unfamiliar with meeting procedure, I’d spent days reading up on this, especially after hearing that a disgruntled faction might be planning some kind of coup.

Prior to the meeting, we closed all the freeway-facing windows but the room quickly became uninhabitable – so we opened them again and everyone had to shout over the roar of traffic from the six-lane Riverside Expressway.

The threatened coup never eventuated but it wasn’t long before I’d talked myself hoarse.

It had been another, less rowdy meeting in Adelaide several years before that had inspired me – as an author and publisher – to help establish a writers centre in Queensland.

The Literature Board’s new Director, poet Tom Shapcott, had called an informal meeting during Writers Week to discuss setting up such centres. Tom’s meeting was timely, as the South Australian Writers Centre – the first in the country – had just opened its doors.

I came away from Adelaide determined to push for a Brisbane-based centre. Before long our steering committee began meeting every few weeks in UQP’s boardroom at St Lucia.

Robyn has written about writers centres in the book she and I edited – Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946–2005.

‘From the beginning,’ says Robyn, ‘there was confusion about the purpose of writers centres … Their brief was to run courses and provide writers with information.

‘There was [however] much discussion about how writers would actually use a centre’s physical space.’

I recall visiting the early South Australian centre which had desks set up so writers could work, well away from household distractions. This aspect was something our early steering committee spent a lot of time discussing, yet as writers centres evolved, in Brisbane and then other cities, ‘hot desking’ ceased to be such a priority.

In her chapter, Robyn charts the development of centres as they moved from supporting non-professional and emerging writers to embracing professionals as well. Over more than two decades, the number of centres has mushroomed.

In NSW, for example, regional writers centres are now dotted all over the state from Broken Hill to Armidale – most on university campuses. The very successful Byron Bay Writers Festival was originally hosted by the local writers centre, and in Western Australia, there was even a Broome branch office of the main centre in Perth.

Our original steering committee reflected the writing groups and genres we collectively represented. I was a biographer and literary historian, but there were also poets, novelists, screenwriters and my playwright friend Errol O’Neill.

As a postgrad student during the early 1980s, my English Department office had adjoined that of Errol’s brother: the brilliant lecturer, orator and radical activist Dan O’Neill.

When QBuild decided to eject QWC from William Street and renovate the space for someone else, they found us another disused building. This one was larger: a two-storey former medical laboratory on upper Wickham Terrace, near Brisbane Grammar School. Robyn, however, was disappointed that the only room suitable for meetings was lined on four sides with wide timber laboratory benches. Heavens knows what gruesome experiments had once taken place there!

So, one weekend – in Clint Eastwood mode – Errol and I brought in our heaviest hammers and steel crowbars. Like a pair of Russian anarchists, we pounded and jemmied all this shelving off the walls to create a spacious, well-lit meeting place.

Robyn and her QWC team had helped organise the hugely successful Writers Train from Brisbane to Charleville, and she framed a series of writer photographs – including scribes Hugh Lunn and Thea Astley, Tom Keneally and Rodney Hall – to adorn the walls of that reinvigorated space.

Largely due to the dedication and creativity of successive directors and staff, the Queensland Writers Centre has become one of the most respected in the country. Among its many important initiatives is a nationwide bestseller: Australian Writers Marketplace, the must-have directory for every serious writer.

As a QWC member for 25 years, I could not have developed my own skills and contacts as a writer, editor and publisher without this dynamic centre which has few peers in Australia or internationally.

Over that eventful quarter-century, the literary landscape has become extraordinarily diverse – with writing genres to suit every taste. The timing of QWC’s establishment could not have been more propitious, as the 1980s had been a boom time for Australian writing and publishing.

The Queensland Writers Centre grew rapidly to maturity during the communications revolution of the 1990s – with the globe-shrinking internet and the instant gratification of emails and mobile phones.

Twenty-five years ago, in the old analogue world, I’d cruised at walking pace in my university Ford Falcon around the streets and by-ways of South Brisbane. Though I searched high and low, I never found what I was looking for.

Tonight, snug in QWC’s State Library embrace, I feel I’ve come home at last to the place of my dreams.

 

Craig Munro is an award-winning biographer and publishing editor as well as the founding chair of the Queensland Writers Centre. He was UQP’s inaugural fiction editor, launching the careers of both Peter Carey and David Malouf, and until 2000 was UQP publishing manager. In 1985 Craig won the Barbara Ramsden Award for Editing and later studied book publishing in the US and Canada on a Churchill Fellowship. His memoir Under Cover: Adventures in the Art of Editing was published to wide acclaim in 2015 by Scribe.

This piece was originally published in WQ magazine, Issue 255, December 2016, for QWC’s 25th anniversary.

 

Read a history of QWC from WQ magazine, Issue 72, March 1999.