- Read the latest author interviews from our monthly newsletter
North Melbourne Books: It's been twenty years since we've had a biography of Sir Robert Menzies, Australia's longest serving prime minister. What made you want to take up the challenge? What appealed to you about researching Menzies' life?
Troy Bramston: The discovery of a series of interviews that Menzies gave in the 1970s for his official biography that was never completed was the motivation. I was lucky to secure access to them at the National Library of Australia and when I sat down and read the transcripts and listened to the tapes, I was stunned. This was a Eureka moment for a historian and they deserved to go in a book that told the story of his life and examined his legacy. So many historians have ignored his papers at the National Library - 650-plus boxes - so I went through them and found lots of new material: diary notes, letters, memos, photos and verse. I wanted to make sure what I wrote was written as much as possible on primary sources and would be fresh.
NMB: Robert Menzies uses new material, most notably previously unreleased interviews with Menzies. You also conducted many interviews yourself with people who knew Menzies. What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learnt?
TB: I interviewed the surviving ministers, several of his staff, some public servants and his daughter, Heather Henderson. They all knew different aspects of Menzies, which was useful in unpacking what he was really like in cabinet, in the party room, in his office and at home. I was struck by his shyness and his kindness towards staff, which is not the Menzies that the public got to see. He had a friendship with John Curtin and Ben Chifley - two Labor PMs - which was much deeper and genuine than I had realised. The Menzies-Curtin letters are very affectionate. I discovered that Menzies cried the night Chifley died, and did not mind who saw him.
NMB: Menzies can be a divisive figure, yet your portrait remains balanced and judicious. We learn of a man both brilliant and flawed. What's your view of Menzies' character and legacy?
TB: This is a great story of a man born in 1894 in a small country town in Victoria who became prime minister. He wasn't from the born-to-rule set or the establishment. He was a man of decency and integrity, and he was in politics because he believed in public service. That matters. He has some big achievements such as expanding universities, funding non-government schools, developing Canberra, the ANZUS treaty and signing a trade deal with Japan. But there are significant misjudgements such as the Vietnam War and he maintained the White Australia Policy, was reluctant to condemn South Africa's apartheid regime and had retrograde views about Aboriginal Australians. But he reflected the views of many people born in the 19th century. So I tried to provide a balanced account of his life and legacy.
NMB: Federal politics today is particularly volatile in turning over prime ministers. What can today's politicians learn from Menzies?
TB: He lived a long life with many ups and downs and he was often written off but he always learnt from his mistakes, rebuilt his standing and consolidated his position. So how he did it and became the longest-serving PM makes for a compelling story. The most relevant aspect of his legacy today is how he practiced politics rather than the enduring nature of his policies. Politicians can learn a lot from him, such as how to manage a party, run a proper cabinet process, articulate values and communicate effectively, and develop and implement policy.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
I'm reading Robert Caro's Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, which is terrific, but of course his fans (like me) would rather read the concluding volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography! I enjoyed Jon Ward's Camelot's End about the battle between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1980. And I recently read Sally Young's Paper Emperors about the newspaper industry in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics, by Troy Bramston. Scribe Publications $49.99
(Author photo Julian Dolman).
North Melbourne Books: When eleven-year-old Tippy Chan's mother goes on a short holiday, she is left in the care of her fabulous and fun Uncle Pike and his new boyfriend, Devon. Suddenly a grisly murder happens in their small town, Riverstone, causing Tippy and Uncle Pike form The Nancys, a crime solving club inspired by their joint love of Nancy Drew mysteries.
The story is a mixture of glittering comedy, great characters, a gently ironic, sometimes droll narration by Tippy and a page-turning crime mystery. It's quite an original book. How did you come up with the idea for the novel?
R.W.R. McDonald: It started in 2006 with an internal thread of thought from Tippy (before I knew it was Tippy). The thought was this kid talking about her friend Todd Landers and her looking for clues in a murder. It really followed on from that. I wanted to know who this kid was and why and how she would be investigating a murder. From there her irresponsible babysitting Uncle Pike came into focus and his new boyfriend Devon and it led on from there. For ten years they rattled around and formed until I started writing the first draft. I was discovering them, the other characters, and the story as I went along.
NMB: Tippy is a great character. She's only eleven, but is mature beyond her years, still dealing with the grief of losing her father. Was she based on anyone?
RM: My two incredible daughters are around Tippy’s age and similar in some ways but I had made a conscious decision from the beginning of writing The Nancys not to plagiarise their childhood or dialogue. For research though my daughters were fantastic sources of information and for running lines with, for example asking them whether they or their friends would use certain words or phrases etc.
I never base my characters on real people. For me they are their own entities, they may share a similar trait to someone, or sometimes I can recognise a part of myself but otherwise they seem to come into their own as I write further into the story.
I got to know Tippy over many re-drafts. Early on I was very protective of her, not wanting her to feel any pain. It wasn’t until I let go and allowed her character to experience the world that I got to know her better.
NMB: We learn that Uncle Pike fled New Zealand for Sydney as a teenager and when he returns to Riverstone, there is still emotional baggage from his past that needs to be sorted out. It's tempting to ask, did you add any autobiographical elements to the story?
RM: I guess all of the novel has some part of my lived experience in one way or another (except for the murder of course!). I did leave home for boarding school as a teenager and from there never returned home to live except to visit my family. As I grew older and travelled I slowly began to see the beauty in a place I once described as a “dump” – albeit only in my teenage years!
What I did not anticipate in writing a novel was the almost meta-data effect. Seeing patterns in the story which I had not consciously intended. I think it is fascinating tapping into the subconscious through writing, things appear on the page that at the time you have no idea what they mean or why they are there – for example a line of dialogue from a character which makes no immediate sense but you just know it’s important - and it is only much later, sometimes a couple of drafts later, that suddenly something clicks and you realise why it was there the whole time. It really is a type of magic.
NMB: The Nancys has many comic elements. There are so many brilliant characters, especially Uncle Pike and Devon. You have an ebullient style. It reminded me a bit of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series, perhaps crossed with The Wizard of Oz (Tippy does overcome a lot with the help of her mercurial uncle and his boyfriend). Who are the writers that inspire you the most?
RM: All of them, published and unpublished, but that is probably cheating the answer. Writers who have informed and challenged my idea of story are across genre and form. This list really is only the tip of the iceberg: Roald Dhal, Virginia Woolf, Dr Seuss, Margaret Mahy, Hunter S. Thompson, Cormac McCarthy, e. e. cummings, Carolyn Keene, Victor Canning, Ngaio Marsh, Marianne Keyes, Ben Okri, Sylvia Plath, Maurice Gee, Toni Jordan, Salman Rushdie, Emily Bronte, Agatha Christie, Paddy O’Reilly, Kerri Hume, Witi Ihimeara, Toni Morrison, Charlie Kaufman, Stevie Smith – really the list goes on and on!
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
RM: The Shining Wall by Melissa Ferguson and Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic with Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg, Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng and Bodies of Men by Nigel Featherstone lined up next. My to be read pile keeps growing!!!
The Nancys, by R.W.R. McDonald. Published by Allen & Unwin. $29.99