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Vale Andrew McGahan (1966-2019)

February 2, 2019

My reading group was only talking about Andrew McGahan (1966-2019) this week. We knew he was terminally ill, but little did we know that his end was so near. How very sad, then, to hear today that he died just yesterday, at only 52 years of age.

Andrew McGahan, Praise, Allen and UnwinNow, I know that Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has written a tribute but I do want to write one too, because he’s an author who made an impression on me. After all, he introduced me to a genre that would not be my natural calling – grunge lit (or, perhaps more “formally” known as dirty realism!) I enjoyed it. Well, I appreciated his books anyhow. I read both Praise (1992) and 1988 (1995), back in the mid-1990s, which was long before blogging. I wrote to my Californian friend in 1995 – my letters to her are a useful resource sometimes – that I found 1988 “interesting reading” even if I found the 21-year-old protagonist “frustrating in his inability to take hold of his life”. Frustrating perhaps, but the vivid sense of hopelessness and helplessness that McGahan conveyed in these books has stayed with me, which says something about his writing. (It helped too that the protagonist’s girlfriend in Praise suffered from eczema. There’s something validating, as many of you know, in reading about a character whose challenges are yours!)

Andrew McGahan, The white earthAnyhow, I went on to read his very different novel, The white earth (2004), a rather ambitious multi-generation book about indigenous and non-indigenous Australian love of land/country. It was inspired by the 1992 native title legislation and the conflicting attitudes towards it. It was controversial in some quarters. I liked it. In my letter to my Californian friend, I did say it was a little “clumsy” and used some fairly conventional images and symbolism, but again, over time, it’s a book whose “message”, whose heart really, has stayed with me, while other books I read back then haven’t.

I haven’t read any other of McGahan’s novels. though he wrote three more, Last drinks (2000), Underground (2007) and Wonders of a godless world (2009). According to Wikipedia, he also wrote young adult novels, a play and the screenplay for the film of Praise. The reason he came up at my reading group earlier this week was because one of our members – a recently retired rep for McGahan’s publisher Allen & Unwin – was reading Last drinks. It’s about police corruption in Queensland, and she was wondering if Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe was going to visit similar ground. It doesn’t – but she did tell us that McGahan was taking his diagnosis philosophically and was continuing to work on his new novel. It will be published later this year.

The wonderful thing about McGahan was his versatility, having tried his hand at several genres and forms. He didn’t do a bad job at them either, as the following awards for literary, crime, science fiction and children’s fiction reveal:

  • Praise: the Australian/Vogel Award (for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under 35 years of age); the Commonwealth Writers Prize for First Novel (Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region)
  • Praise (screenplay): AFI Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; the Queensland Premier’s Award for Best Drama Script.
  • Last drinks: Ned Kelly Award for Crime Writing for Best First Novel. (That must mean best first crime novel?)
  • The white earth: Miles Franklin Award; Commonwealth Writers Prize Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region; Age Book of the Year; Courier Mail Book of the Year.
  • Wonders of a godless world: Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.
  • The coming of the whirlpool: CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) Book of the Year.

For a lovely insight into who McGahan was, albeit from 2004 when The white earth came out, check out this article with him in The Age. The Guardian Australia’s announcement of his death and tribute is also worth reading.

I am very sorry to hear that he has died, and pass my sympathy to his family, friends and colleagues. Fifty-two is just too young to die. He may not have been, for me, the “perfect” writer, but he made a lasting impression on me, so much so that those three books I’ve read frequently come to mind. In the end, what writer could ask for more? (Except for some more years, perhaps!)

20 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2019 10:30 pm

    Last Drinks was ok, but very conventional, not to say disappointing, after his first two. Then The White Earth must have been read on the ABC as I remember it quite well and how much I disliked its appropriation of Indigenous imagery.

    But yes 52 is too young, I only wish I were 52 again.

    • February 2, 2019 10:56 pm

      Haha, Bill, I do too.

      As for The white earth, I do think we have to give credit to writers for tackling these issues. It’s really only because some writers (including Thomas Keneally) were prepared to tackle indigenous issues, before a lot of indigenous writers were being published by our publishers, that we are now having the conversations we are having. Don’t you think? I admire their heart and bravery, really, even if today we might question their decisions. I understand that he said that was his hardest novel to write.

  2. February 2, 2019 10:42 pm

    Police corruption in Qld is fertile ground for authors (I’m thinking of Matthew Condon) but I can’t think of any tackling corruption in NSW. Which is surely fertile ground too?

    • February 2, 2019 11:09 pm

      No I can’t either Lisa – off the top of my head (except for the Underbelly TV series that is). But the books doing that tend not to be in genres I read so it’s possible it’s been done? It would be great to hear from others if it has been done wouldn’t it?

  3. Carolyn permalink
    February 3, 2019 1:05 am

    That was a beautiful tribute and so glad your letters to me helped bring back your first feelings of appreciation for his work.

    • February 3, 2019 8:38 am

      Haha thanks Carolyn. I wondered if you’d see that! I’m so glad we write to each other, for many reasons including that side-benefit!

  4. Sara Dowse permalink
    February 3, 2019 7:32 am

    A great shame that it’s only after his all too premature death that I feel compelled to read his books, The White Earth especially. That’s often the case, though, isn’t it? After Peter Corris died I read as many of his Cliff Hardys I could find. Such a shame that that is the way with so many writers, artists too. That too often it’s after they’re gone that we realise what we’ve lost. As for pancreatic cancer, it seems to be one of the worst. I’ve lost two cousins to it, both, like McGahan, in their fifties. Immeasurably sad.

    • February 3, 2019 8:44 am

      It does seem to be often the case doesn’t it, Sara! At least, unlike some, McGahan and Corris did experience a lot of appreciation in their own lives as well.

      I’m sorry about your cousins, too, Sara. I do hope they find better treatment and/or earlier diagnosis for this cancer, given the strides that have been made with so many others.

  5. February 3, 2019 9:42 am

    Very sad. You certainly wrote a lovely tribute. 🤠🐧

  6. February 4, 2019 4:09 pm

    An Australian “grunge lit” writer found my blog through Bill’s, and so I interviewed her and have heard of the genre. Justine Ettler was her name.

    Though this is a tribute to an author, I’m also curious about this friend in California — how you met and if you’ve talked about books over all these years.

    • February 4, 2019 4:50 pm

      I’ve heard of Ettler through Bill Melanie, but not read her.

      Re my friend, we met when I lived in CA back in the early 90s. We discovered we had a lot in common…reading was one of the clues. We (ie my husband, kids and I) left the USA in late 93 and she and I have written snail mail letters almost weekly ever since. We ALWAYS mention books and films. She’s been here once and we’ve gone back there for visits 3 or 4 times. It’s a special friendship.

  7. February 4, 2019 11:27 pm

    Sorry to hear about McGahan’s passing. I have not read his books but based upon your commentary he sounds like he was worth reading. When an author does so young I always wonder what books will be left unread.

    • February 4, 2019 11:27 pm

      I meant to say I wonder what books will be left unwritten.

      • February 5, 2019 9:00 am

        Haha,Brian, thanks. I guessed that’s what you meant. It is of course my biggest sadness about Austen, who was only 42.

    • February 5, 2019 8:59 am

      Thanks Brian. It’s probably not surprising you haven’t heard of him. He won quite a few awards here but probably didn’t get much overseas exposure.

      • ian darling permalink
        February 5, 2019 10:22 pm

        So many fascinating novelists who are not known outside their own country. McGahan sounds like an interesting and versatile writer. I had not come upon the phrase Grunge Lit before though I know what is meant by the phrase. Was it big in Australia?

        • February 5, 2019 11:03 pm

          No, I wouldn’t say it was exactly big here, Ian, but it had a flurry in the 90s in particular. He was versatile, which is impressive, particularly given he was well-received in most of the areas he wrote in.

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