My Invisible Thread Interview
February 11, 2013 — 5:24

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: 7 Writers Anthologies Canberra literary communities short stories  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 2

My Invisible Thread interview is finally up on youtube. I’m the lucky last in the series that Irma Gold, editor extraordinaire, has made for the anthology, The Invisible Thread: a hundred years of words, celebrating the centenary of Canberra. I’m proud to be included. Both the interviews and the book are marvellous chronicles of writing produced in and about the national capital.





The Next Big Thing
January 24, 2013 — 22:40

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: 7 Writers Anthologies Austraian literary history Canberra literary communities short stories  Tags: , ,   Comments: 0

Irma Gold tagged me for the ‘Next Big Thing’. If you haven’t reached this post from her blog post about the next big thing then you can read it here.

What is ‘The Next Big Thing’? It’s like one of those old-fashioned chain letters where authors promote their own work and tag five of their colleagues to create a huge network of linked web and facebook pages about what everyone hopes will be ‘The Next Big Thing’.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Nine Pieces on Prostitution

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The book will be a collection of my prostitution stories written over some thirty years, so obviously ideas for stories came from different places; but one, which is a very long story, almost novella length was inspired by a client dying ‘on the job’ as it were, and what the women did with the body.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Short stories

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Now that’s a curly one: I can’t somehow see a movie of a short story collection; but one, in particular, I think would make a great movie. It’s called ‘An Artist’s Story’ and is about an architect who’s hired to design a brothel, and her friend, ho becomes involved with the house, and the women who work there. The female lead I envisage being played by Cate Blanchett. The music score would include lots of Tracy Chapman.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A collection of stories on a theme that has intrigued me for my entire writing life.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I plan to self-publish the collection on Smashwords.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

No single story took me very long, perhaps a couple of months for ‘Where The Ladders Start’, the longest in the collection.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

John Clanchy’s ‘Her Father’s Daughter’ is a collection of stories on the theme of father/daughter relationships, and, since I admire Clanchy’s writing very much, I’ll be so bold as to cite it here. While there are obviously plenty of short story collections based around a theme, I really don’t think there is much of a precedent for my ‘Nine Pieces’.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My first novel, Tunnel Vision is set in a Melbourne massage parlour in the 1970s, and the oldest story in ‘Nine Pieces’ was written in the ‘70s as well. I think it was the extreme oddness of the sex industry in Melbourne at that time, the theatricality and subterfuge and madness! of it that got me in, and that has stayed with me.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Some – more than half – the stories are very Canberra. I think prostitution is a great way to write about the underside of our national capital. I would also like to mention that one of the stories, titled ‘Mrs B’ has been chosen for inclusion in Meanjin’s Canberra centenary issue. I’ll be writing about this special issue in a later post.
If you’d like to read more about Nine Pieces on Prostitution you can do so here.

I have tagged Lucy Sussex

Lucy Sussex is a writer, reviewer and editor, whose work ranges from children’s writing to the herstory of women crime writers. She has either written or edited over 20 books, published internationally. Her next big thing, deadline July, is VICTORIAN BLOCKBUSTER: FERGUS HUME AND THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB. It looks at the story behind the biggest-selling detective novel of the 1800s, one which created the market for Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. VB touches on much, from theatre history to a copycat murder, and how a small-press book from the colonies conquered the crime-reading world.

And Margaret Innes, who says,

I have one completed manuscript of contemporary fiction titled A Bracelet of Bright Hair requiring some redrafting. I’m also well into an historical novel City of Men where I examine the life of one of the earliest surgeons, William Redfern. Writing this has proved one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a writer.

Maureen Cashman writes

The flyleaf note of Maureen Cashman’s memoir, ‘Charlie and Me in
Val-Paradis’ published by Simon and Schuster in 2008, begins, ‘With a
poodle clutched in one arm and notes for an epic historical novel in
the other’. That epic historical novel is still simmering away, but
meanwhile, Maureen is working on a story that’s been on her backburner
much longer. We will soon be able to read twelve-year-old Francie
Keegan’s Secret Compositions, written in 1956, which tell the real
story of her life and of the bizarre events of her last year in
primary school at the mercy of a manipulative teacher.


Republics of Letters
January 20, 2013 — 23:01

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: 7 Writers Austraian literary history Canberra literary communities  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 6

This post is a follow-on from my last one, in that I’m writing it out of a resurgence of memories regarding literary Canberra. A nice bit of serendipity over the weekend has resulted in my website going live at the same time as James Ley’s review of ‘Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia’, edited by Peter Kirkpatrick and Robert Dixon, was published in The Australian. It’s a thoughtful review, engaging with the book’s arguments about literary communities and the fraught nature of the term, and including a wide range of examples.

And it’s taken me back to D’Arcy Randall’s chapter on 7 Writers.

D’Arcy begins by remarking how, in ‘the 1970s, Australia’s thriving literary scene was typically associated with networks of male writers in such urban bohemian venues as Balmain in Sydney and Carlton in Melbourne.’

And how well I remember that! I was trying to be a writer in Carlton in the ‘70s and it was very important to drink in the right pubs, and to look the part. When my journalist partner was offered a job in the Press Gallery, instead of moving to Canberra with him, I decided on a foolish geographical compromise called Sydney. Then, after ten months on the highway – I was often too poor to afford the train fare and I’m lucky I didn’t end up buried in the Belanglo State forest – I gave in and settled in Canberra.

The relief was enormous. Here was a small, feisty literary community – and yes, I use the term ‘community’ aware that contains many kinds of ambivalence – where it didn’t matter what pub you drank in, or if you drank in any pub at all.

D’Arcy has been painstaking in gathering information about our writers’ group – where we met, how often, what we did, how many books we published between us. How torn we often were!

Of course, we’re still publishing, but 7 Writers ended its collective life in the late 1990s, and with, its end, the centrifugal pull, the push outwards, the ongoing battle between solitary creative compulsion and the possibility of actually sharing flowed away.

I’ve always liked Edith Wharton’s description of how writers view their work, indeed are forced to view their work, from the back of the tapestry. They can’t walk around the front and look at it; this is an impossibility. Well, writers’ groups are like that too, I’m discovering. It’s a strange, unsettling, delightful experience to have something you participated in, were intimate with, for almost twenty years, presented from the right side of the tapestry, but without the presentation glossing over or hiding the knots. Thank you, D’Arcy!

And ‘Republics of Letters’ contains other treats as well, including a chapter on my favourite Australian writer, Christina Stead and her no-longer neglected masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children.

* D’Arcy Randall was born and educated in the US, but during the 1980s she lived in Brisbane, where she was senior editor at the University of Queensland Press. She there worked with Marian Eldridge and Marion Halligan on their first books. After returning to the US, she founded the journal Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and began a teaching career at the University of Texas at Austin.

Feelings of deja vu
January 18, 2012 — 22:06

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: 7 Writers Anthologies Canberra  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 16


I have decided to call my first blog post ‘Feelings of déjà vu’ because I’ve recently been back to Canberra, for a book launch and an exhibition opening, and these visits have brought back many memories and images from my life in the national capital. I lived in Canberra for thirty years before returning to Victoria in 2008.

‘The Women who made Canberra’ exhibition, on at the Canberra Museum and Gallery , is part of the city’s centenary celebrations, and open till March 2013. It features women who contributed to Canberra’s political, social, sporting and cultural life over the past hundred years.

It includes a possum cloak belonging to Matilda House, an elder who identifies with the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people of Canberra.


Matilda House’s possum cloak, photographed by David Paterson for the Canberra Museum and Gallery


Matilda House performed the welcome to country ceremony at the opening of the 42nd Parliament in Canberra on 12 February 2008. It was the first time a welcome to country ceremony had been held for the opening of the Federal Parliament. As Mrs House explained on that day, “A welcome to country acknowledges our people and pays respect to our ancestors’ spirits who have created the lands…It is a good and honest and decent and human act to reach out and make sure everyone has a place and is welcome.”

Mrs House burned the designs on the cloak, drawing on imagery of the Murrumbidgee River, the Brindabella Range, bush tucker and the wedge-tailed eagle and brolga.

The youngest woman in the exhibition is Lauren Jackson, born in 1981 and now an internationally famous basketball star.

And my writer’s group, 7 Writers, is featured as well.

This is my favourite photograph of us, taken by Brenda Runnegar. The seven are, from left to right: Sara Dowse, Marion Halligan, Margaret Barbalet, me, Dorothy Horsfield,  Suzanne Edgar and Marian Eldridge.

The display for the exhibition includes a selection of our books and notes taken by Suzanne Edgar at one of our monthly meetings.

We started meeting as a writers’ workshop in the early 1980s and continued until after Marian Eldridge’s death in 1997. We became known for our longevity and the vigour of our discussions (some of which were televised!) I think we continue to be of interest to the reading public because of a mistaken, but persistent view that Canberra is somehow inimical to the creative life. The myth is fading, but it still pops up in the most surprising places. I’ve written about it in an essay called Disturbing Undertones.

For anyone interested in reading more about ‘7 Writers’ and other Australian literary communities, an excellent book has recently been published called Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia. Our chapter, by D’Arcy Randall, is called ‘Seven Writers and Australia’s Literary Capital’.

While I was in Canberra, I recorded an interview as part of the publicity for The Invisible Thread : One Hundred Years of Words. The anthology includes a story of mine called ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’.

Here is an impressionistic account of the interview. When I sat down to write the account, it came out differently from the way I intended; I think of it as an example of the unpredictable way that memories surface.


Two kayaks are going past, as silently as swans. I am sitting in the shade of European trees, around the corner from where both my children were born, from where the hospital used to be that so spectacularly killed a girl when it imploded. And I think of my son, of whom I am about to speak, who lay desperately ill in that same hospital, only eleven months after he came out into the world inside it. And how long it took him! And how happy and exhausted I was! I am not here to speak about the birth, but about the illness, which gave rise to the story which began my love affair with Canberra. A literary love affair, but that makes it sound too cerebral, too much a matter of the mind alone. My story, ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’, has found its way into an anthology called The Invisible Thread, celebrating a hundred years since the founding of our national capital. A curious word that, ‘founding’ – like being born and yet not like it at all.

I’m here to be interviewed about literary Canberra, and I give my interview, under the shadow of the trees, but in my heart thirty years have lifted off. Thirty years lift off my shoulders and I’m around the corner, with the hospital rising at my back, and my son whom I cannot bear to look at no bigger than a skinny mouse with tubes going every which way, and on the lake an old man in a long coat, going round the edges, looking for a way out…

I’ve written a great deal about Canberra, from fictional and non fictional points of view. But I know that, now I’ve found them again, nothing will ever again replace those earliest images, and the desperation that gave rise to them.