Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2011

Meet an Aussie Author: Kate Grenville

Photo by Kathleen Smith, courtesy of Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville is one of my favourite authors.  I discovered her work in 2000 when she won the Orange Prize for The Idea of Perfection and then read everything I could get my hands on, starting with Lilian’s Story which won the Vogel in 1985, and then Dark Places (which won the Victorian Premier’s Prize in 1995).    I read The Secret River (2005) within a week of its release, and was delighted when it won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Christina Stead Award, the NSW Premier’s Community Relations Award, and the NSW Premier’s Community Relations Prize, and was shortlisted for The Booker, the Miles Franklin Award and the 2007 International IMPAC Award.   The Lieutenant (2008) was next and I read that with the same enthusiasm.  I read Searching for the Secret River: The Story Behind the Bestselling Novel too, and I’ve also got  The Writing Book: A Workbook for Fiction Writers (just in case I ever decide to venture into writing a novel myself!)

There is one more book I have yet to find: Dreamhouse (1986) and two to read: Joan Makes History (1988) which I have only recently acquired after a bit of a hunt, and Sarah Thornhill, the last in the Secret History trilogy, which has only just been released.  (Well, maybe the last.  At the Melbourne Writers’ Festival she hinted that she might not be quite ready to ‘let go of’ the Thornhills just yet!)

What I really admire about Grenville is that she is internationally famous for writing distinctively Australian and very readable novels which are about big, important ideas and issues.  So I was delighted when she agreed to participate in Meet an Aussie Author.  Here are her responses:

1.  I was born in Manly, Sydney, though I grew up in North Sydney when it was    still just a quiet suburb – hard to believe now, but it even still had patches  of bush.

2.  When I was a child I wrote stories inspired by the Boys’ Own  adventure books I’d inherited from my older brothers –  in my heart of hearts I  wanted to be a boy because from my reading it was obvious they had all the  fun.

3.  The person who encouraged me to write was my mother, who gave me  family stories that got me thinking and writing – years later they surfaced in The Secret River and Sarah Thornhill.

4.  I write in the shed at the bottom of the garden – the chooks murmuring away to each other close by and the cat sitting on the fence wondering if it’s time for food yet.

5.  I write at any time of day but these days I like the mornings best.   Being a mother of young children when I started to write, I learned to jot things down whenever there was a moment, not wait for a “proper time” to write.

6.  Research is where I get my inspiration – reality is fascinating.  I’ve always loved reading history – we know enough about the past to be intrigued but not enough to have all the answers about it.  Australian history is full of secrets and silences that are a great starting-point for a novelist.

7.  I keep my published works in the shed where I work.  On a really bad day, it’s encouraging to look at them and think, it’s been this hard before and came right – it will again.

8.  On the day my first book was published, I went up to the local shops and walked around holding it ever-so-casually, hoping (in vain) that someone would comment on it.

9.  At the moment, I’ve just published a book  inspired by some of those stories my mother told me: Sarah Thornhill is the daughter of the main character in The Secret River, but she also has something of my great-great-grandmother.  Tough, brave & passionate – I’d love to have met her.

10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I
keep moving on and come back to it later.  The subconscious gets to work on it if I stop pestering, and it usually comes up with an answer.

Sarah Thornhill The Lieutenant The Secret River The Idea of Perfection Searching for the Secret River: The Story Behind the Bestselling Novel Dark Places Lilian's Story The Writing Book: A Workbook for Fiction Writers

Isn’t it amazing to think of someone like Kate having a ‘really bad day’? What we see and enjoy seems so effortless and yet we know that it is the result of many hours of determination and sheer hard work. I am always so grateful to my favourite authors that they are willing to slave away to produce these marvels for my reading pleasure!

PS I’ve just found a fascinating paper by Kate on the National Library of Australia site.   It’s called ‘The Novelist as Barbarian’ and in it she talks about doing her ‘usual smash-and-grab raid on history’, researching ‘only until I find something juicy, and then I’ll run off with it and turn it into something else’.  Check it out here.

Many thanks to Jane Novak, Publicity Manager for Text Publishing for her assistance with contacting Kate.

To purchase any of Kate’s books click the book covers for links to Fishpond.


  1. Great minds … I was thinking recently that I haven’t done a favourite writers post for yonks and that I really wanted to do one on Kate Grenville! I will do it … but probably in a week or so when I’ve got my thoughts more together. In the meantime, thanks for this.


    • My goodness, that was quick! Why are we both up so late tonight?


  2. I read and admired ‘The Secret River’, and I may have read ‘The Idea of Perfection’. I liked Grenville’s short brisk answers to your leads.


  3. Re. Isn’t it amazing to think of someone like Kate having a ‘really bad day’?

    I had a similar thought yesterday while I was reading Ruskin’s diaries, and discovered that at the same time he was writing Modern Painters (this great, euphonious, decisive book) he was calling himself “lazy.” “It is strange — I work and work and cannot get on.” “Didn’t write much.” “Worked a good deal but got on very slowly.”


    • Strange isn’t it? One of the aspects of an author’s character that I have so often noted at author events is the sense that they are ‘driven’, The theme ‘chose me’, they say; I *had to* write it that way; or, ‘it was in my head all the time’.
      Sometimes when I’m reading a book and I have an idea about it, I just *have to* write that idea down before I ‘lose it’. Imagine, then, having a whole book in your head and having the same sense of panic that you might ‘lose it’!


  4. Hi Lisa,
    I’m really enjoying getting to know all our Aussie authors a bit better. Like you, I’m fascinated by the act of writing as much as I am by reading. These posts give us a ‘peek behind the curtain’. I agree with you about ‘driven’ – perserverence pays in writing, I’m sure of it. Cheers.
    John @ LD


    • Thanks, John:)
      I’m always so grateful that these authors are willing to spare the time to participate.


  5. Cos we’re mad! I hope you find Dreamhouse. It was the first of hers that I read back in the late 80s. It was adapted rather astonishingly, as you may know, into a film titled Traps, set in Vietnam.


    • I am trying to resist going to AbeBooks for it. I am going through a phase of post-MWF abstinence LOL


  6. Thanks for posting the interview with Kate. I’ve always admired her writing and am delighted she’s getting such recognition.
    PS How can I add a photo to my name?


  7. Hi Anna – you need a gravator, a globally recognised avatar. If you blog with wordpress you can get one within the dashboard; otherwise Visit
    You will need a picture of yourself that can be resized to quite small, and it’s best if it’s already square though I think it can crop a larger image if needed.


  8. Oh, I did enjoy that interview. Thanks Lisa!

    I have Lillian’s Story on the shelf, this should get me motivated.


    • I’ll watch out for your review, Sarah:)


  9. Wow! Great to see Kate Grenville participating in your series, Lisa.

    I love that she writes in a shed with chooks nearby — only an Australian writer would have such a set-up!

    Admittedly, I have at least three of her books in the TBR but so far I have only ever managed to read The Secret River. I remember enjoying it very much. Once I’ve read all these Canadian novels, I must get back to some Aussie books, I think.


    • Yes, a chook shed! But you know that when she had young children, she would drop them off at her mother’s for a couple of hours and then drive somewhere peaceful and write in the car with her notepad on her knee? It’s amazing what some writers have to do, eh?


  10. Lisa, thanks for this interview. I loved The Secret River (and the controversy that it sparked with Inga Clendinnen.) It was lovely to read Kate’s responses. She sounds so down to earth. I certainly can relate to jotting down notes whenever the chance arises – and being inspired by research.
    Looking forward to your next interview.


    • Hi Elisabeth, nice to see you here – and what a coincidence – it was today that The Spouse (a BSc in pursuit now of a BA) went off to his first lecture about the Etruscans. Thanks to you I may be able to hold my own (a little bit) in conversation that ensues!


      • I’m jealous. I’d love to be doing a further degree in history. Mind you I feel like I could write a thesis on the Etruscans – not as much fun as writing a novel on them, though! Cheers


  11. […] my review All That I Am by Anna Funder, see my review and a Sensational Snippet Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville, see my review Five Bells by Gail Jones, see Kim’s review at Reading Matters and one from […]


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