Working with Words: Hilary McPhee

Working with Words is a new Wheeler Centre web series, where we’ll talk to writers and publishing folk about their work and other bookish things. We kick off with Hilary McPhee, one of Australian writing’s most beloved and respected figures.

Hilary McPhee co-founded McPhee Gribble Publishers (with Di Gribble) in 1974. McPhee Gribble was one of the first publishers committed to nurturing Australian writers and writing; it launched the careers of Helen Garner, Tim Winton and many other successful Australian writers. These days, Hilary is an editor and writer.

What was the first job you had in publishing – and how did you get it?

Ancient history. Penguin Books was still at Ringwood when I was taken on as their first ever editorial anything. I then blew it by living with the MD and the parent company made it clear I had to leave. I started again writing stuff for McKinseys, then Heinemann rescued me for a year before Di Gribble and I started McPhee Gribble in 1974.

What was the best thing about working as a publisher?

Two things for me: working face–to-face with authors for as long as they needed it. And being able to think up books that were needed and persuade authors to write them.

What was the worst thing about working as a publisher?

The treadmill of having to dream up non-existent books for three-year forecasts: when McPhee Gribble was seeking investors during a big recession and later at Penguin and Pan Macmillan for the international companies’ three-year plans.

What’s been the most significant moment in your career so far? And why?

I didn’t ever think of myself as having a career, so can’t really answer this. I thought more of having something marvellous to do during the day.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about the publishing industry?

Worst advice: Don’t publish fiction. Stick to books about ballet and horses.

Best advice: Remember that everyone in publishing in New York and London knows everyone else.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever read or heard about yourself?

That I’m tough and really scary.

If you weren’t working in the world of books and writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Anthropology and archaeology.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what do you think?

Writing can be taught, creative is something else. Short-term gigs are the best, I think. Mavericks are better than career academics. But it depends utterly on the writer – as student and as teacher. The ones that bother me produce a sameness to the work (and to the acknowledgements).

What’s your advice for someone wanting to break into publishing?

Work for as many parts of the industry as you can and work for peanuts.

If you could date a fictional character, who would it be – and why?

Edith Campbell Berry from Frank Moorhouse’s great trilogy. I adore the scale of her ambition to fix the world, her readiness to take huge risks with herself, and the portrait of the times from the 1920s to the 1970s.

If you could have dinner with a fictional character, who would it be – and why?

I’d rather have dinner with Frank, so I could try to get a glimmer of how he did it.

Hilary McPhee will be appearing in a free event at the Wheeler Centre this month to talk about her latest book, Memoirs of a Young Bastard, the edited diaries of celebrated film-maker Tim Burstall. The diaries provide a window into the past – and paint a stark portrait of the language of sex and gender conventions in 1950s Australia, an area of study close to McPhee’s heart.

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