To celebrate their 40th anniversary, Alan Carter tells the story of unique WA publisher Fremantle Press.
“The first forty years of life give us the text: the next thirty supply the commentary.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
Tim Winton, Gail Jones, Kim Scott, Joan London, A.B. Facey, Craig Silvey, Elizabeth Jolley, Sally Morgan, John Kinsella – what do they have in common? Their lives and careers have all crossed the path of Western Australia’s Fremantle Press – the little publishing house that could.
Fremantle Press publishes new and emerging Western Australian authors and shares their uniquely Western Australian stories with the world. It is celebrating its 40th birthday this year; established in 1976 by the City of Fremantle and with a $11,500 grant from the WA Arts Council. Known back then as Fremantle Arts Centre Press, it had a staff of three and a leased IBM composer for typesetting, and operated in a pokey attic at the Fremantle Arts Centre, the former women’s asylum.
The first publication was Soundings: a selection of Western Australian poetry edited by Veronica Brady. Its first single-author publications included Elizabeth Jolley’s Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories and T.A.G. Hungerford’s Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox. The books were priced between $2.95 & $3.95 with 20 cents for postage.
Since then, dozens of writers have become household names thanks to this tiny company, including Kim Scott, the first Aboriginal Miles Franklin winner, and Craig Silvey, whose hit first novel, Rhubarb, was published by Fremantle Press in 1984. They’ve helped propel names like Elizabeth Jolley, Albert “A Fortunate Life” Facey and Sally “My Place” Morgan to literary stardom.
The publication of Sally Morgan’s My Place in 1987 is widely regarded as the turning point in Indigenous publishing in Australia and is credited with paving the way for other Indigenous authors. It won the Human Rights Award for Literature and went on to become an international success, published by Virago in the UK and in a further 16 territories. Alice Walker, author of The Colour Purple, called the book ‘Sad and wise and funny … unbelievably and unexpectedly moving’.
That was just the beginning of for Fremantle Press. Not long after Sally Morgan’s book, Bawoo Stories by May O’Brien was one of the first books in Australia to feature an Indigenous language – Wongutha. Others followed such as Under a Bilari Tree I Born – Alice Bilari Smith’s story about life up north in the Pilbara. And of course Kim Scott became the first Indigenous author to win the Miles Franklin Award, for his second novel, Benang.
CEO Jane Fraser sees Indigenous writers and themes as a key component of Fremantle Press’s sense of identity. ‘The fact that some of our best-selling and most successful titles have been by Indigenous authors has helped define us. It’s something we’re proud of and which we hope helped open doors for other Indigenous writers across Australia. Fremantle Press definitely connects very strongly to local history and local stories. Taking those very particular and peculiar parts of our history and getting that story told to a broader audience is really satisfying.’
And those stories are indeed reaching a broader audience. Over its 40 years Fremantle Press has been well-represented on the literary red carpet with authors regularly gracing the awards shortlists and often snaffling them too and across all forms: children’s fiction, young adult, poetry, adult fiction, science and speculative fiction, non-fiction, gardening, cookery, biography, history, you name it.
Fremantle Press authors and poets are not just garnering awards and critical plaudits. They’re also bestsellers, not just in Australia but overseas too. This tiny outfit operating on a shoestring budget is punching well above its weight. They’re clearly making good choices about their authors and what they publish and, having made the choice, working hard to promote and develop that talent. Little wonder then that both established and aspiring authors are knocking at the door of Fremantle Press now based in an historic former soap factory just along the road from their old home in the asylum.
As Jane Fraser puts it: ‘Many of those writers seek us out because we have a reputation for excellence. Others we discover and are proud to support at the beginning of their career. We publish the books we are passionate about and the stories that we are compelled to champion. We are one of very few publishers who still accept unsolicited manuscripts, and many of our finest writers have been discovered that way. Local authors appreciate the chance to work face to face with a local publishing team.’
Every year Fremantle Press receives around 600 manuscripts and publishes an average of 25 books. One avenue for discovering new talent is the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for an unpublished first manuscript first established in the 1990s and supported by City of Fremantle funding. The winners are published by Fremantle Press: alumni include Gail Jones, Brenda Walker, and Kim Scott.
In the last few years Fremantle Press has been garnering new attention and praise for its crime fiction list. WA’s underbelly has been a feature of the Fremantle Press output since the 1990s. This year there was a particularly neat symmetry with one of its earliest crime successes, Dave Warner, who released City of Light with them in 1995 returning 20 years later to win this year’s Ned Kelly with Before It Breaks.
Andrew Nette, in The Guardian, noted ‘Fremantle Press, (is) a key force in the emergence of WA’s crime fiction scene…’ and Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald, writes ‘Fremantle Press has, in recent years, produced some remarkable crime fiction…’
Over half the Fremantle Press crime novels were published from 2010 onwards when Georgia Richter published Felicity Young’s Take Out as one of her first books as the adult fiction publisher. Over the past six years she has developed a small but critically acclaimed list of crime novels that have won two Ned Kellys as well another Neddy shortlisting and a longlisting for the Miles Franklin.
So what is it about WA, Fremantle Press, and crime? Something in the water? The boom state, the bloody colonial history, the spectacular and extreme landscape, all are fertile ground for crime fiction. Dorothy Hewett once observed that ‘Perth’s air of manufactured innocence … was in fact the perfect field for corruption’. And Tim Winton has written of a ‘kind of hardness and blindness that comes with an invader’s ethos.’
Jane Fraser: ‘What we’re seeing right now is authors grappling with our invader past, present and future in works by writers like Peter Docker and Jacqueline Wright. Crime fiction has a way of turning a forensic eye on unpalatable subjects that we may be reluctant to encounter in ‘real life’ and of provoking thought even as it entertains. It’s not an easy space to write in – nor is it always a comfortable space to publish from – but we believe it’s important.’
And it is reaping rewards for Fremantle Press with their crime list authors selling well, garnering critical acclaim, gracing the awards lists, and being sold into European and other territories.
For Dave Warner there are parallels between the harsh bright sunshine of LA in the early hard-boiled novels and his own beloved WA. ‘I grew up here but I never got to read fiction stories set in my world so I wanted to tell our stories. From the LA originators like Chandler and Hammett who’d first influenced me, there was an established tradition of corruption being integral to the story and I used that template for City of Light but I’m as happy to explore what’s good or funny about the country as what’s bad.’
Times have changed since Warner wrote City of Light back in the mid-1990s. ‘When I started writing crime there was only Peter Corris and one or two Sydney writers, Shane Maloney from Melbourne. I didn’t know anybody from that world and am only now meeting a few – I feel a real kinship with the Fremantle Press authors telling WA stories. They’re a talented bunch and I’m pleased to be part of the gang even if it’s only on a warehouse shelf in North Fremantle.’
So where to next for the little publishing house that could? Well one thing is for sure; be it the seedy criminal underbelly, the landscape and history of literary imagination, the Vikings and robots of a child’s fantasy, the secret of Fremantle Press’s ongoing success is in continuing to make some very good choices about its authors and what they write.
Jane Fraser: ‘Ultimately, while these stories germinate in a Western Australian context, what they reveal about the self and society has no borders. I think the best kind of books are those that speak to us personally as readers. Books that help us know ourselves and have empathy for others. Books that transport and transform. Our job at Fremantle Press is to find those stories here in Western Australia, then share them with the world.’
And so say all of us.