Frank Moorhouse: Colin Roderick Lecture
Multi-award winning author Frank Moorhouse is on the festival circuit talking about his latest book, Cold Light, the third book in the Edith trilogy, which was nominated for the Miles Franklin award this year.
"My life has been thrown into turmoil because I lost my mobile," he says after his appearance at the Southern Highlands Festival.
"You can imagine, it's like losing an arm."
He describes his trilogy, which took five years of research and writing apiece, and which, apart from festival touring and talks, has earned him a sabbatical.
"It's about the old League of Nations in Geneva, about a young woman who goes to work for them, hoping to put an end to war in the '20s," he says.
"The new book picks up her story when The League of Nations has collapsed and she comes back to Australia hoping to be a diplomat."
The protagonist, Edith Campbell-Berry, ends up being part of the creation of Australia's capital city Canberra, billed to be a city unlike any other.
It's a fascinating tale not just because of the historical aspects but because of the inner life of Edith, an older woman fighting for her place in the world, as well as that of her husband, Ambrose, who works for the British Foreign Office and whom Moorhouse describes as leading "an androgynous sexual life".
Edith has to deal with society in Canberra, her communist brother turning up, and a new love in her life.
Frank, who spent years in Canberra researching Cold Light, as well as years in Geneva and France researching Grand Days and Dark Palace, seems happy with the nation's capital.
"It is a great success story," he says.
He began his research by delving into the archives of The League of Nations, and looking at their personnel files, and came across a woman, Mary McGeachy, who fitted the period he was writing about.
"I followed the files and I noted her career path, and then I created the character and her personal life," Frank says.
What Frank didn't realise was that Mary McGeachy was still alive.
"I was at a dinner party in France and there were some Canadians there, who said they knew a McGeachy family," Frank says.
"A month later when I had finished Grand Days I found her. She was the only living person getting a pension from the United Nations Pension Fund."
Amazed at his find, Frank flew to Montreal to meet her.
"She held my hand during the weeks I was there," he says.
"She was well into her 90s and enjoyed a martini, which of course is my favourite drink (gin martini with a good splash of vermouth, and olives).
"I remember she asked me the title of the book and I said, 'Grand Days', and she said, 'ah yes, they were grand days'."
On a subsequent visit, Frank ended up telling her about her life.
"She said she'd forgotten everything and asked me what she'd done," he says.
"Instead of it being research, I gave back her life."
Frank says readers at festivals around the country love his characters.
They will have the chance to revisit them on stage in a play based on the trilogy to be produced in 2013 for Canberra's centenary.
Even Frank has had difficulty letting go of his characters after such a long time and because of their historical significance.
"It seemed everyone had forgotten about The League of Nations and the great hope that it was, and I felt the characters were saying, 'don't put us back in the grave'," he says.
Frank sees great life in history, describing historical archives as "huge, big sleeping stories".
Despite declaring he is on a break, he says he still wakes up in the mornings wanting to write.
"I started writing in high school and I still want to get out of bed to write," he says.
"I go to my computer with a piece of toast and coffee and start."
Frank started his professional life as a cadet on the Sydney Daily Telegraph.
His writing developed as a journalist on the Wagga Wagga Advertiser and he edited weekly newspapers, discovering some of Australia's great heroes and characters.
"I loved journalism but I always wanted to be a fiction writer so by my late 20s I had made the move," he says.
"I started doing short stories and now have developed to write large books but I suppose the biggest change in my writing is the discovery of research, in working with historical archives."
Meeting Mary McGeachy, the former League of Nations worker, on whom his trilogy is based, he describes as the highlight of his career, especially considering how it happened.
"I tell anyone writing a postgraduate history or a young writer to tell people what you're doing as you never know what may happen," he says.
"It is remarkable."
At JCU, he will talk about how he creates fictional characters out of archival work and the ethics of writing about people who have lived.
Frank is a big fan of the writers' festival circuit and says it's one of the most amazing things happening in Australia, growing by up to 15 per cent each year.
"I do feel like an old horse on the rodeo circuit," he says.
"Sometimes I ride badly and sometimes I ride well."
But it shows that people still love books.
He raised the issue of the Queensland Premier's literary award being cancelled this year.
"People are disbelieving," he says.
"Readers and writers are part of the Australian electorate and vote for both parties - they are not greenies."
Frank describes the festivals as a movement of new bohemians.
"They are not like 19th century bohemians on the left bank in Paris, but they are well dressed and like to read and eat and drink good wine and coffee."
Frank also likes wining and dining, saying that he prefers a menu every night, than homecooking.
"I also go on trips into the bush, trekking with a backpack through the Budawang ranges," he says.
"I've been exploring it for years and it still surprises me."
"It is rugged and difficult with a lot of creeks and rivers but I find it very restorative."
He is planning a long trip but it is weather dependent.
"If the rain ever stops here," he says.
"I don't like the leeches."
>>Frank Moorhouse will deliver the Colin Roderick lecture Stories From the Archives: Creating the Edith Trilogy on Wednesday August 1 from 6pm-7.30pm at Crowther Lecture Theatre 1 (A3.1), James Cook University. Admission by gold coin.
NEW CAIRNS.COM.AU COMMENT POLICY
We welcome your comments on this story. Comments are submitted for possible publication on the condition that they may be edited. Comments submitted without a full name and suburb/location will not be considered for publication. Please read our full comment policy and publication guidelines.
Share this article
Cold Light : Frank Moorhouse puts the spotlight on his craft