ACU academic pens biography of Miles Franklin winner Thea Astley

Published: Monday 15th June 2015

The life and work of Thea Astley, one of Australia’s favourite writers, is the subject of a fascinating new biography by ACU’s Dr Karen Lamb.

In Inventing Her Own Weather, written over a 10-year period, Dr Lamb draws upon interviews and correspondence to paint both a personal and professional portrait of Astley.

Dr Lamb, who teaches literature and communication at ACU’s Strathfield campus, was drawn to Astley’s work when she first met her in the late 1980s.

“I was struck then by her vivacious wit, and acerbic observations about the world.  At about the same time I happened to write a book review of her novel It’s Raining in Mango. That novel prompted my interest in her other novels, and in her writing career, but it wasn’t until much later – the mid-1990s – that I realised Astley was an author who merited serious bio-critical attention, and there had been none at that time, and so I began my postdoctoral work on her novels and interviews with her.”

Thea Astley, who was born into a Catholic family in Brisbane in 1925, was a wife, mother and teacher before she became a writer.  She juggled work and family commitments to produce a steady stream of novels and short stories over a 50-year period.

 Her writing explored the issues affecting her own life – the limited options available to women, the restrictions of marriage, motherhood, anxiety, depression, sexuality, fidelity and faith. 

These are all issues which still affect women today and Lamb said she hopes Inventing Her Own Weather brings Astley’s work to a whole new audience.

“Biography is an important part of scholarship.  For the author who is the subject of a biography, the biography can build a bridge back to readers who always enjoyed their novels, as well as introducing a new generation of readers to their work.”

Astley’s work was critically acclaimed and she won many awards, including the Miles Franklin Award four times - in 1962 for The Well Dressed Explorer, in 1965 for The Slow Natives, in 1972 for The Acolyte and in 2000 for Drylands.

However, she never felt like a success and suffered from insecurity. She could also be prickly and difficult and was fond of tackling literary critics and editors, sometimes even before they reviewed her work.  Astley was also considered to be an early feminist and was dismissive of the assumption that women’s writing was less important than men’s.

Dr Lamb has spent the past few months hitting the publicity trail.  She has been interviewed by Virginia Trioli on ABC Breakfast, ABC Radio National’s Books and Arts program and by The Courier Mail.  She also made several appearances at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival.

“It has been a very busy period and more lies ahead – I’ll be at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in early September and have other library and festival commitments running into next year.  It has been a great pleasure because the book has been so well received.”

Inventing Her Own Weather has received positive reviews with The Sydney Morning Herald stating that Dr Lamb: “paints this portrait with exactly the right balance of candour, critical engagement and evident affection for her subject that you would expect in a biography.”

Dr Lamb is now planning her next book which will examine the personal stories that lie behind the writing of biography.

“After my own long and rich writing journey, I have become quite fascinated by the personal stories that lie behind the writing of biography. They are often quite eccentric – not included in the biography itself.  Australia now boasts some major works in the field, and I am planning a work where biographers can reflect – sometimes years later – on an aspect of their experience in the writing of biography that readers would enjoy.”