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A Remarkable Life: Q&A with Grantlee Kieza on writing Banjo

November 22, 2018

About The Author

Award-winning journalist Grantlee Kieza has held senior editorial positions at The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Courier-Mail. He is a Walkley Award finalist and the author of twelve acclaimed books, including the recent bestsellers Mrs KellyMonashSons of the Southern Cross and Bert Hinkler.

Purchase a copy of Banjo here 

Read our full review of Banjo here 

Banjo is a lively and captivating portrait of a truly great Australian storyteller and celebrated poet – Banjo Paterson. What inspired you to write this biography?

The timeless beauty of his language inspired me. I don’t think any Australian writer has so captured the uplifting qualities of Australia’s great outdoors the way Banjo did. I’ve loved his poetry since first hearing it as a schoolboy 50 years ago and in 2015 on a trip to Longreach I listened to a local musician John Hawkes sing “Clancy of the Overflow’’ while having a night-time barbecue by the shores of the Thomson River.

Has there ever been a more beautiful line in Australian writing than:

“And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.’’

A biography of this scale is no small feat, and undoubtedly called for a great deal of research. What materials and resources did you use? How much research was required?

I firstly travelled to all the places Banjo lived to get a sense of space and the environment, and to the places where his intrepid grandparents had tried to tame a wilderness. I went to Narrambla, outside Orange, where Banjo was born; to Buckinbah Station and Illalong Station where he grew up immersed in bush life. Then on to Rockend Cottage in Gladesville where he lived with his grandma. I visited museums dedicated to him and looked at all the correspondence kept by his grandmother and mother. There were also the records he kept in his dealings with his publishers. And of course, there was his vast volumes of published writings and recollections. Not many people realize Banjo’s brilliance as a war correspondent and newspaper feature writer. Hopefully more people will know about that aspect of his career with this book.

Banjo Paterson is such a beloved and admired figure in Australian history and culture. Why do you think his legacy still lives on today?

Banjo’s poetry invokes a sense of an idealized Australia. He knew how tough the bush could be, with floods and droughts and fires. His own father was ruined financially by the vagaries of bush life. But Banjo’s writing was eternally optimistic. Like his own mum who put up with all sorts of hardships as a poor woman on the land with a big family and sick husband, Banjo could always find something to smile about, always glean some sort of positive from a grim situation. Even his jolly swagman had the last laugh on the troopers trying to arrest him. So, I think that eternal optimism is a major reason why his writings have had such longevity. In the book I recall the survivors of the hospital ship Centaur, torpedoed by the Japanese off the Queensland coast during World War II and how, surrounded by the dead bodies of their comrades and with bull sharks circling, they clung to a raft singing “Waltzing Matilda’’ to keep their spirits afloat.

Biographies are a detailed account of another person’s life – however, as the person writing the book, it is your voice telling the story. As a result of this, do you find that you (subconsciously or consciously) inject pieces of yourself into the biography? Or do you remain entirely impartial? Tell us about your writing process.

I tried to write from a distance – being impartial to Banjo’s strengths and failings. I also tried to find Banjo’s voice and personality through his writings. He was always cheeky, always wondering what the hell he was doing stuck in a dirty cramped office in the city when he could be out riding beside the Snowy River or sleeping in some beautiful corner of wild Australia under the everlasting stars. I think many of us, to some extent, feel the same way in our super-techno, supercharged lives with their big city stresses. So, I tried to bring that feeling of restlessness – that love for the free life and to be done with the boss – into this book. I saw it as a celebration of the freedom that Banjo always loved.

What do you hope readers will take away from this biography?

I hope it makes them feel happy inside and that they really appreciate Banjo’s love for the countryside and the people all around him – from the snow-capped mountains and the raging waters to the dusty plains and the dry creek beds. I hope they get a smile from the quirky characters that he created based on people he had met. I also hope that they come to a greater appreciation of the beauty of his words and his talents as a writer. And I really hope that his optimism and wry take on life inspires them to look at any dark times in their lives a little differently.

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