Tim Winton, Helen Garner, Paul Keating, Deng Adut: the stories behind the year's best biographies

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Bernadette Brennan

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work (Text)

For Bernadette Brennan, there were many surprises during the time it took to complete her biography of Helen Garner – perhaps chief among them, the pleasure of working with a living writer.

I was surprised to discover the extent of Garner’s research for Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and This House of Grief (2014). In these books Garner adopts a seemingly naïve voice, repeatedly pitting her gut reactions against the intellect and reason of the law. In fact, by the time she wrote the books she had studied dozens of legal judgments and textbooks on the relevant concepts. In every instance Garner had information that would have strengthened her arguments and established her narrative positions more solidly. She chose not to reveal some of what she knew because she was aware of the hurt she could cause to others.

She is a deeply ethical person and writer. Garner has commented in interviews that she grew a thicker skin after the fallout from The First Stone (1995). I wasn’t convinced about that until I saw some of the some of the later drafts for Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004). Repeatedly her editor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen, cautions: “You’re vulnerable here.” Each time Garner pencils in: “Yes”, “OK” or even “don’t care”. Invariably, these were the moments in the book for which she was later criticised.

I was also surprised to discover the extent to which she reads Australian writers, and supports younger Australian writers through advice, correspondence, endorsements and book launches.

The most surprising thing I learnt about the process of writing this literary biography was how satisfying it is to work with a living writer. Helen Garner was not only a very interesting and challenging subject, she was a lot of fun to work with.

Tim Winton

The Boy Behind the Curtain (Penguin Random House)

Tim Winton’s collection of essays ranges across matters of class, personal trauma, childhood and environmental concerns. Writing it, he was surprised to discover he was less of a coward than he’d assumed – and that taking risks paid off.

For a long time I worked from two assumptions I now see were false.

The first was that, given trauma and havoc made me a hater of surprises and a lover of predictability and order, it was probably inevitable that as an adult I’d be a bit conservative, even a coward. As I say somewhere in the book, “being a copper’s son, I’ve always got one eye out for trouble. But I don’t go looking for it anymore.”

The second notion is that having grown up as a religious fundamentalist and sticking out all those childhood years “like a rat on a birthday cake”, to quote one of my fictional characters, that the yearning to be normal, or at least socially conventional, would be overwhelming. But having written The Boy Behind the Curtain I see that neither is true. Apparently I’m not a coward, and it seems I can live with not being safely ordinary.

Though I do feel pretty unexceptional and I don’t truly think I’m brave. But when I look back on my life I see I’ve continued to be a risk-taker. What else can you be as an artist, especially when you’re from the working class and you stay home and fight and write the provincial corner you’re from? Looking back, I see I put everything on the line to be a writer; there was never any plan B. And all through those perilous early years there was always the “pram in the hall” that Cyril Connolly believed to be “the great enemy of art”. So according to the high priests of modernism I did every possible thing wrong. And yet the sky did not fall in.

The older I get the wilder and riskier and, yes, the luckier my life looks. No suit, no cardigan? No worries.

Deng Thiak Adut (with Ben McKelvey)

Songs of a War Boy (Hachette)

Deng Thiak Adut, a former refugee who is now a lawyer and public speaker, has told the tragic story of his life as a Sudanese child soldier many times in his life. But writing it in detail for his biography, in collaboration with Ben McKelvey, opened many wounds he didn’t expect. As told to Gabriel Wilder.

Songs of a War Boy involved writing nearly everything in my life, including things that I didn’t want to talk about. It was a nightmare. Even [cowriter] Ben [McKelvey] himself had nightmares of being shot at. But the story is not just mine, it is everyone’s that has been in my shoes. It’s the story of a few of my fellow Sudanese that committed suicide in this country. What good were we? We just came here broken like broken glass.

So it affected me that way and it still affects me. To have lost all. And to try and get back on my feet. I still have the same monkey on my back. It’s not going anywhere. It could be natural to feel that way but I don’t want people to sympathise with me, I want them to understand. Understanding is something that we all forget.

Ben has been in my shoes. He went to Sudan, he met my family, he met everyone. He met people that I was in the war with. He spoke to them and of course they treated him with dignity. He is not just a white fella, he is another Sudanese in many ways. He is a brother that I would be proud of. You don’t just succeed by yourself in a war without having a brother.

He was a replacement for my late brother [who died in Sudan in 2014] in terms of being able to finish the book, because me and my brother were trying to write a book together and I still haven’t even touched anything of his – his old personal effects, I don’t want to touch them.

But Ben, he got me a lot.

Writing the book gave me nightmares but it gave me a brother. It was a great result, that we found each other that way. That is what I didn’t expect.

Judith Brett

The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Text)

Judith Brett already knew Alfred Deakin had a knack for duplicity before she began researching the life of the Australian prime minister – but she says the lengths to which he went never ceased to amaze her.

From 1901 to 1913, including during his three periods as prime minister, Alfred Deakin wrote an anonymous weekly letter on Australian politics for London’s conservative daily newspaper the Morning Post. I already knew this when I started my research, as John La Nauze had published a collection of these letters, but its audacity – and duplicity – has never ceased to amaze me.

It started in 1900 when he was in London to help shepherd Australia’s constitution through the British parliament. The editor of the Morning Post offered him £500 a year and Deakin accepted, on the proviso of anonymity. He had long complained that the English press took little interest in Australian affairs, except for cricket, and, after losing badly in the financial disasters of the early 1890s, he could do with the extra money.

So for the next 13 years Deakin wrote about events in which he was a key player, drew pen portraits of his colleagues and enemies, speculated on his own motives, and even interviewed himself. In as he was negotiating with Joseph Cook over the fusion of his Liberal Protectionist party with Cook’s Sydney based anti-socialists, he wrote that, “For reasons known only to himself … Mr Deakin pursues his enigmatic methods of action”.

Deakin, a Melburnian, went to great lengths to protect his identity: he adopted a Sydney persona; pretended to support free trade when he was in fact an ardent protectionist; and had his daughters address envelopes lest someone in the post office recognise his handwriting. “The situation,” he wrote to one of the few in on his secret, “is fit for fiction rather than real life and that is one of its attractions”.

Joan Healy

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia (Monash University)

Joan Healy met Nee Meas while working as a volunteer in a refugee camp in Cambodia. She was shocked when Nee, who had trained as doctor, defied the camp’s brutal guards in order to protect a patient.

I met Nee Meas at a refugee in a camp where 180,000 Cambodians were held behind barbed wire at the border of Thailand. He was an emaciated young man carrying a big dream for the recovery of his people after their long years of suffering.

He had already survived the Khmer Rouge killing fields and nine years of harsh life in this camp controlled by a military faction that demanded unquestioning compliance. His father, when dying at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, had said, “Son, when this is over our country will need healers”. Nee had trained as a medic and was setting up a centre for mental health and traditional healing. When Nee defied the camp leadership in order to protect a patient, I was afraid. Chilled. Shocked. I now see that it was inevitable. To heal suffering he had to challenge the causes of suffering.

When the camp closed the refugees were bussed back into Cambodia. I worked in Battambang province and my friendship with the Meas family deepened. Decades passed. Nee’s dream did not change, it expanded. He responded to the suffering of individual people, then villages, then communes. He led people to think and choose, to hold an independent opinion.

An election campaign is happening now in Cambodia. Hun Sen, the prime minister, will retain the power he has already held for 33 years. The main opposition party is dissolved and its leader in prison. In a climate of fear, Nee does not desist from what he must do. Family and friends dread the risks he takes while he, though realistic, keeps a grip on courage. I did not imagine that it would come to this.

Troy Bramston

Paul Keating: The Big-Picture Leader (Scribe)

Paul Keating may have left school at 14 but he understood the value of knowledge. During Bramston’s tireless research for his book, he discovered that the former PM sought the advice of many doyens from the left and right, and that he almost didn’t make it into politics.

The Catholic nuns and brothers taught Keating what was in his soul but it was the nonagenarian former premier Jack Lang who instructed him in his politics. In Canberra, he was mindful of Lang’s advice: “People will say you have plenty of time – but the truth is you haven’t got a second to lose.”

Keating understood that politics was a learning profession. As a young man, he got to know Arthur Calwell. He ate breakfast with Labor men twice his age at Canberra’s Kurrajong Hotel. He befriended Rex Connor. He studied John Gorton and Billy McMahon. He was an astute judge of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser.

In government, he marshalled power in several ways: working caucus numbers, doing deals at party conferences, persuading cabinet colleagues, dominating in parliament, developing relationships with journalists, building contacts in the public service, meeting with business leaders.

Tony Blair told me that he saw Paul Keating as a “towering” and “influential” figure in global centre-left politics and relied on him as a secret adviser while he was British prime minister. This showed the Keating-Blair relationship was far deeper and influential than previously understood.

In the 60s, Keating managed a rock and blues band called the Ramrods. Band members recall that Keating imagined himself like the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. The Ramrods were a part-time band but Keating wanted them to go full-time. He told them that he would give up politics if they were serious about their music. They could not commit. So Keating devoted himself to politics. The rest is history.

• The National Biography award is announced on


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