Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 12, 2011

Meet an Aussie Author: Roger McDonald

Roger McDonald. (Photo courtesy of Random House)

Roger McDonald is a highly successful author.  He has been a full-time writer since his thirties, and his debut novel, 1915: A Novel of Gallipoli won the Age Book of the Year and was made into a mini-series for the ABC.  This was followed by Slipstream, (1982) Rough Wallaby (1988), Water Man (1993) (which was nominated for the Miles Franklin in 1994) and The Slap (1996), together with film novelisations of Melba (1988) and Flynn (1992).  Most of these seem to be out of print now, but the ones pictured below are still available and I have 1915 on my TBR.  (As you would expect, I am always on the lookout for the others in second-hand stores!)  I’ve read and enjoyed McDonald’s best-selling Mr Darwin’s Shooter  which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin in 1999.  It also made a clean sweep of the New South Wales, Victorian, and South Australian Premiers’ Literary Awards, and took out the National Fiction Award at the 2000 Adelaide Writers’ Week too. 

McDonald writes non-fiction as well, including an account of travelling the outback with a team of New Zealand shearers, Shearer’s Motel, which won the 1992 National Book Council Banjo Award for non-fiction.  Australia’s Wild Places (2009) is a beautiful book that celebrates the Australian landscape using photos from the National Library of Australia and contemporary photographers.

The Ballad of Desmond Kale won the Miles Franklin in 2006, and his most recent novel, When Colts Ran has been shortlisted for the 2011 award, (see my review here).  (A long story that became part of this book was awarded the O. Henry Prize (USA) in 2008).

McDonald’s interest in rural living derives from his childhood in Young, New South Wales.  He was educated at country schools and in Sydney. His career has included a short stint as a teacher, an ABC producer, and book editing, and he wrote poetry for several years until he decided that fiction was better suited to the ‘larger panorama of Australian life’ that he wanted to portray. 

 The poetry of fiction is not a writing style but something in people’s lives, where a place or a season, an occupation or an obsession transforms existence – where something powerful but not perhaps well understood by the participants creates the drama out of a handful of dust and a few drops of water.  I like the humour of observation, he says. Describe accurately, get a laugh, the sting of truth is always surprising. Trust the Australian accent and find connection to the rocks and dirt as swift as lightning.

These days McDonald lives on a farm outside Braidwood, and kindly agreed to participate in this Meet an Aussie Author series.

 1.I was born…at Young, NSW, in 1941. We lived at Bribbaree, a cluster of rickety houses and a pub on the Forbes-Stockinbingal railway line. It has hardly changed – though I have (turning 70 this year)- yet not really believing it – because there is still a feeling of a wide, flat heat-shimmering landscape of early childhood dominating, where my presence on this earth, if it is felt to be real, has to be invented in order to fill the emptiness.

2.When I was a child I wrote… when young I wrote school compositions, and liked impressing with long words. This was disapproved of (you had to know what you meant). Again – I still find this childhood attitude dominates. As a writer I don’t know what I am writing until I have written my way into a situation, finding out what it is as I go. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that a writer’s duty is to follow through as completely as possible the obligations laid down by the first sentence in a piece of work.

3.The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write is/was…I would love to say I had good teachers, inspiring mentors in my life as a writer, but I didn’t. I had to mentor myself the whole way and even to breathe those words, “I want to write”, was a secret as guilty as guilty secrets came. However for some years now I have been guided by Boris Pasternak’s dictum, “Each thing, to be itself, must excel itself.” Before I write something I think of it as something I might like to read, but which hasn’t been written yet.

4.I write…mostly where I live, at 800 metres on a ridge the Great Dividing Range, about 100 kms east of Canberra. Once a work is on the way, I can write anywhere (and have) as long as there’s no conversation or music to distract. (They are rival creations. A jack hammer’s not a bother.) I love the bush outside my window and the huge diversity of the natural world. People keep intruding on that, but there’s no novel without them.

5.I write…when I’ve had breakfast, gathered firewood, fed the chooks, and made coffee. I usually start around 8.30, but when the writing gathers momentum, will get up at two in the morning and work through weeks in a state of mounting exhaustion. I don’t write if I don’t have something to write. Writing all the time is not living.

6.Research is…. is what scientists and scholars do. A fiction writer trawls for convincing detail – sometimes only just ahead of the paragraph in hand. When thinking about what I might possibly write I do a lot of reading – technical books, personal accounts, but as if behind them (yet only reachable through them) is something only I can express, or know.

7.I keep my published work/s in … messy disorder, giving away copies when moved to do so, until I find myself without them.

8.On the day my first book was published, I… believed I had in my hands the most marvellous, glowing, tactile and sweet-smelling distillation of ineffable experience ever brought down to earth. It was a book of poetry, now thankfully forgotten.

9. “At the moment I’m writing…” is a phrase you will never hear me speak. How do I know what I’m writing until I’ve finished? To speak of where that finish might lie (as in “I’m writing a book about X”)is to bring everything to a premature halt, and chain X down to some part-way point. My advice to anyone writing fiction is to get to a finish in the total, hermetically sealed privacy of imagination and poetic vision. It will not be the finish, there will be much revision from this point and other people (friends, family, editors) can be involved.

10.When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase…I reach for Roget’s Thesaurus.

Thank you for participating, Roger!

1915: A Novel of Gallipoli The Ballad of Desmond KaleWhen Colts RanMr Darwin's ShooterShearer's MotelAustralia's Wild Places


  1. Great post.
    Having had just one book published myself, I totally understand Roger’s feeling on holding his first published work. “I believed I had in my hands the most marvellous, glowing, tactile and sweet-smelling distillation of ineffable experience ever brought down to earth.” Beautifully put.
    I love the descriptiveness of “feeling of a wide, flat heat-shimmering landscape of early childhood dominating”.
    Terrific writer. Lovely to “get to know him” a little through your prompts.


    • The thrill for me with my little book was actually seeing my name on the cover. Until I saw that, I never really believed it was going to happen.


  2. The best meet an Aussie author post yet Lisa – great intro and very interesting and detailed answers provided to your questions. ‘Mr Darwin’s Shooter’ looks very interesting – another to go on the TBR! Cheers


    • Yes, I think Roger has been very generous with his time:)


  3. I have very fond memories of reading 1915 (sometime in the mid-1980s) and it is one of my all-time favourite reads. Such a shame that so much of his stuff seems to be out of print.


    • On the strength of that recommendation, Kim, I’m going to move it up my TBR…


  4. good stuff from Roger. I was fascinated that he confirmed my recent report on Alan Gould who said McDonald told him to start with a sentence. McDonald practices what he preaches!


    • Maybe he reads Whispering Gums!


  5. […] that, I had the honour to chat with Roger McDonald, who is one of my all-time favourite Aussie authors.  Usually when I go to writers festivals or […]


  6. […] Chronicler of Oz, in conversation with Roger McDonald, the Miles Franklin winning author who christened me ‘Ambassador for Australian […]


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