Robyn Annear is my one of my all-time favourite authors – unusually so because she writes non-fiction, local Australian history in particular – and while I like reading history, it’s usually the topic that grabs my interest, not the author.
I discovered Robyn’s zany sense of humour at one of the first Melbourne Writers Festivals I attended, which I went to because it was about strategies for research. (I was flirting with journalism at the time, doing a unit on writing history.) The other speakers were very learned, very serious, and a little bit intimidating because they all seemed to be suggesting that research was a never-ending prerequisite for writing anything worthwhile.
Well, as I discovered when chatting outside in the book-signing queue, other members of the audience had found all the speakers interesting, but it was Robyn who’d won our hearts. She talked about ‘the shoe-box method’ of research: finding interesting snippets and writing them on cards, and filing the cards in a shoe-box. When the shoe-box was full, that was how you knew you’d done enough research!
As I discovered when the book was at last in my hands at the festival bookshop, that obviously meticulous research had been transformed into the most entertaining, quirky history of Melbourne you are ever likely to read. Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne (Mandarin, 1995; Black Inc, 2005) is full of fascinating stories about the very early days of our city, and for months after reading it, I was looking at its streets and lanes with a fresh eye. The book won the 1995 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and was shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. (And I still have my autographed copy, Robyn!)
I’ve just picked up a copy of Nothing but Gold : the Diggers of 1852 (Text Publishing, 1999) from the library, and I’m looking forward to reading it. It explores the history of the Gold Rush, which transformed Victoria from a village into Marvellous Melbourne, for a time, the richest city in the world. This was followed by The Man Who Lost Himself: The Fabulous Story of the Tichborne Claimant (Text Publishing, 2002), the true story of a butcher from Wagga who passed himself off as the heir to an estate and a title in England. (I read that one a couple of weeks ago and you can see my review here.)
Fly a Rebel Flag (black dog books, 2004) is a children’s book, shortlisted in the Young Readers category, NSW Premier’s History Awards. I have it on the shelves in my school library; the kids love it. A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne followed in 2005. Whelan the Wrecker was a demolition firm from 1892 to 1992, and Robyn uses their demolition sites to reveal the layers of our city that lie beneath the surface. I have that one on my shelves already.
What I love about Robyn’s writing style is her infectious enthusiasm for Melbourne and Victoria’s history. She makes history fun, and funny.
So you can imagine how delighted I was when I managed to track Robyn down and she agreed to take part in Meet an Aussie Author! She leads a frenetically busy life but she somehow managed to find time to pen these answers to my questions:
1. I was born in June 1960, as Whelan the Wreckers were pulling down the Eastern Market in Bourke Street.
2. When I was a child I wrote on the walls of my bedroom, signed my name, then denied authorship.
3. The person who gave me confidence to write was Diana Gribble.
4. I write in a bunker in my backyard.
5. I write when I can’t avoid it any longer.
6. Research is bliss.
7. I keep my published works in case I think I dreamt them.
8. On the day my first book was published, I laughed.
9. At the moment, I’m writing hardly anything. Working fulltime in a busy public library gives me no time to think; and my reward at day’s end is mental exhaustion. One thing I’ve learned – which surprised me – is that having time to think (about writing, about anything) is even more important than having time to write.
10. When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I leaf through an old dictionary.
How interesting to learn that it was the late Diana Gribble who encouraged Robyn to write: another talented author nurtured by her creative genius…
To buy Robyn’s books, click the book covers (which link to Fishpond).