Priority Magazine Issue 48
Issue 48

Literary legends

Published Date: March 2010

Annually since 1997, Australia Post has bestowed the status of "legend" on a select group of Australians, with stamps designed in their honour. The previous 42 recipients of the Australia Post Australian Legends Award have come from the fields of philanthropy, sport, entertainment, medical science, fashion design and horse racing, among others. This year's legends come from the world of writing - novelists Bryce Courtenay, Colleen McCullough, Thomas Keneally, David Malouf, Tim Winton and Peter Carey. Stamps featuring each of these acclaimed writers were released on 21 January to coincide with the announcement of this year's award winners. Here, we celebrate the six authors who have made an indelible mark on Australia's literary history.

Bryce Courtenay
Bryce Courtenay

Naturalised Australian Bryce Courtenay was born in South Africa in 1933 and spent his early years in a small village in the northern and north-eastern Transvaal.

At the age of 11, he won a scholarship to a private boarding school in Johannesburg and then moved to England at 21, where he studied at the London School of Journalism. It was here that he met his future wife, an Australian, and subsequently moved to Sydney in 1958; he has lived in New South Wales ever since. Following a career in advertising, Courtenay reinvented himself as a full-time writer in 1988, at the age of 55.

He is the author of 20 books and one of Australia's top-selling novelists. His stories are usually set in either his adopted country or the land of his birth.

His first novel, The Power of One, was published in 1989 and immediately reaped acclaim all over the world. It has sold around seven million copies, has been published in 18 languages and was awarded the Best New Novel in the 1990 British Book Awards. Telling the story of an English boy named Peekay growing up during the 1940s in a racially divided South Africa, the book spawned a successful film of the same name in 1992.

Courtenay's novel April Fool's Day is about medically induced AIDS and was based on the experience of his haemophiliac son, Damon, who contracted this condition as a result of a blood transfusion and died at the age of 24.

In 1995, Courtenay was made a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service to advertising and marketing to the community, and as an author.

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Colleen McCullough
Colleen McCullough

A self-taught reader by the time she was three, Colleen McCullough exhibited a sharp mind and a precocious talent for learning at an early age.

She was born in 1937 in Wellington, central New South Wales, and her childhood dream was not to be a writer but rather a doctor - a dream that was dashed in her first year of medical studies at the University of Sydney when she contracted dermatitis from the surgical soap. Instead, she became a neurophysiologist, working in hospitals in Sydney and England before spending a decade as a research associate in the Department of Neurology at Yale Medical School in the United States. It was during her time at Yale that she began writing; her first novel Tim was published in New York in 1974, followed three years later by The Thorn Birds.

The Thorn Birds is McCullough's best-known work and remains the highest selling novel in Australia.

McCullough's work has ranged over a number of genres - family saga in The Thorn Birds; historical fiction in the Masters of Rome series, a collection of seven novels in which she chronicles the lives of the ancient Romans; crime-thriller fiction with On, Off (2006) and Too Many Murders (2009); and a kind of postmodern re-imagining with The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet (2008), in which she retrieves Jane Austen's character from literary obscurity.

In 1997, she became a National Trust Living Treasure and in 2006 was made an Officer of the Order of Australia. She is a member of the New York Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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Thomas Keneally
Thomas Keneally

Born in Sydney in 1935, Thomas Keneally had a passion for sport as a boy but asthma kept him on the sidelines. Sport's loss was the literary world's gain as the young Keneally turned to books, thus planting the seed for his love of the written word.

Before emerging as one of Australia's key writing talents, the Irish Catholic Keneally studied for the priesthood for six years. He left the seminary before ordination and became a schoolteacher in 1960. It wasn't until the publication of his third novel, Bring Larks and Heroes, for which he received the 1967 Miles Franklin Award, that Keneally considered writing as a full-time career.

The following year, he won the Miles Franklin for Three Cheers for the Paraclete.

A prolific author with more than 40 published works for print, stage and screen, Keneally is best known for his historical novel Schindler's Ark, for which he was awarded the prestigious Booker Prize in 1982.

He has been short-listed for the Booker for three other novels, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), Gossip from the Forest (1975) and Confederates (1979).

While Keneally is renowned for his fiction, he is also an author of non-fiction, with an abiding interest in history. Most recently, he published the first volume of his history of Australia, titled Australians: Origins to Eureka, which was launched in August last year by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Keneally was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for his services to Australian literature in 1983 and was given an honorary doctorate of letters by the University of Queensland. In 1997, he was named a Living Treasure by the National Trust.

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David Malouf
David Malouf

Renowned for his lyrical style and explorations of identity, place and belonging, David Malouf has been the recipient of a raft of literary awards and has been short-listed for numerous others.

Born in Brisbane in 1934, he worked as a teacher in England and then at the University of Sydney before turning to writing.

Malouf's first published works were of poetry and he began publishing prose in the mid-1970s. His first novel, Johnno (1975), was a semi-autobiographical tale of a young man growing up in Brisbane in World War II.

In 1978, Malouf was awarded the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award for An Imaginary Life and four years later he received The Age Book of the Year Award for Fly Away Peter. In 1991, he won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and France's Prix Femina Étranger for The Great World. Two years later, he was short-listed for the Booker Prize for his highly regarded Remembering Babylon, which won the Miles Franklin Award and a host of other honours. Malouf's collection of short stories, The Complete Stories, was short-listed for the inaugural Australian Prime Minister's Literary Award in 2008.

In 1987, he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for his service to literature and was given an honorary doctorate of letters by Macquarie University in 1990, the University of Queensland in 1992 and the University of Sydney in 1998. In 2001, Malouf received a Centenary Medal for his services to Australian society.

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Peter Carey
Peter Carey

Peter Carey's distinctive style and blend of realism and surrealism have attracted an arsenal of literary awards and a loyal readership. He is one of only two writers to have won the Booker Prize twice and he has won the Miles Franklin Award three times.

Born in Bacchus Marsh in 1943, Carey supported his early literary career by writing advertising copy. His first successes came with Fat Man in History, a collection of short stories published in 1974, and then War Crimes, for which he won the Miles Franklin in 1979.

He published Bliss in 1981, for which he won the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award. His off-beat Illywhacker (1985) scooped several major awards and was short-listed for the Booker Prize, which he subsequently won in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang. Carey has also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize twice, first for Jack Maggs in 1998 and then True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001.

Since 1990, Carey has lived in New York, where he teaches creative writing. He is an honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities. In 2004, The Australian listed Carey as one of the 40 most influential Australians.

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Tim Winton
Tim Winton

Novelist and short-story writer Tim Winton was born in 1960 in Perth, Western Australia, the state in which he continues to live and to which his fiction is deeply connected.

Winton studied creative writing at Perth's Curtin University and soon after established a promising career as a novelist with An Open Swimmer. Just three years later, in 1984, he won the Miles Franklin Award for Shallows, an award he collected again for Cloudstreet in 1991, Dirt Music in 2002 and - for an unprecedented fourth time - Breath in 2009.

On the international stage, the critically acclaimed Winton was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1995 for The Riders, for which he received a Commonwealth Writers Prize that same year. He was again short-listed for the Booker in 2002 for Dirt Music.

A number of Winton's works have been adapted for stage and screen or are in development.

Winton is actively involved in the Australian environmental movement and is an advocate for marine life. He has been named a Living Treasure by the National Trust and in 2001 was awarded the Centenary Medal for service to literature and the community. In 2003, he was also co-recipient of the inaugural Australian Society of Authors (ASA) Medal in recognition of his work in the campaign to save the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia.

Winton was included on The Bulletin's 100 Most Influential Australians list in 2006.

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Behind the Legends

Two special publications have been written to commemorate the 2010 Australian Legends Award.

Novel Lives: Legends of the Written Word, by The Age literary editor Jason Steger, includes an introductory section on Australia's literary heritage followed by a biographical portrait of each of this year's award winners. The 64-page book gives the reader a strong sense of the personality behind each writer.

The second publication is a booklet titled Australian Legends of the Written Word. As well as using extracts from Steger's interviews with the six novelists, it focuses on a single title by each. As a special feature for collectors, the booklet includes colour-separation pages of the stamp artwork.

Both publications are available at Australia Post retail outlets, priced at $19.95 and $24.95 respectively.

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