Monday musings on Australian literature: Fremantle Press

Given I am currently in Fremantle, I felt it appropriate to give a little shout out to one of the first independent presses I became aware of, back in the 1980s, the Fremantle Press. Then it was called the Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and it published one of my favourite authors at the time, Elizabeth Jolley

Elizabeth Jolley's Diary of a weekend farmer

I must admit that felt sorry for them – and a little cross with Jolley – when she left them for Penguin, but I understood too. Writing is a tough business, and being in the stable of a company with the reputation and clout of Penguin must certainly help your visibility and thus your sales and income. Nonetheless, these small presses, which tend to be the ones to take a risk on new writers, are so important to Australia’s literary culture, so we need to support them.

A little history

Fremantle Arts Centre Press was established in 1976, and publishes a wide range of works – fiction and nonfiction, adult’s and children’s. The write that their

core purpose is to identify talented new and emerging Western Australian writers and artists, and to publish and distribute their work to the widest possible audience.

How did they start, though, and when did their name change? This sort of information is hard to find when organisations don’t document it on their site – and Fremantle doesn’t on their About Us page. My Internet search retrieved, of course, lots of hits on specific books they’ve published or the occasional news item about an award. However, I persevered and found an article written in the University of Western Australia’s Mots Pluriels (no. 5, 1998) by academic Phillip Winn. The issue is devoted to a study of the Press, and containsinterviews with authors and staff of the Press, as well as Winn’s article.

Winn’s article is titled “The Fremantle Arts Centre Press: a case study of a smaller publishing house”, and he explains the case study’s aims and hints at its findings:

Armed with a barrage of questions designed to expose the ‘how to’ of getting published in Western Australia, it soon became apparent that the search for a general response was the least fruitful. How do lesser-known authors get published? Is it easy? What help does a publisher give a budding writer? What is a good book in the eyes of the reading committee? In this study of FACP, such questions have been more meaningfully answered on the individual rather than the corporate level; for the dominant theme to emerge from this series of interviews is the importance of the personal touch. Public questions of universal interest have, it seems, very private and personal answers.

Winn documents a bit more of the Press’ history, saying that it is part of the cultural heritage of Fremantle itself. He says that by the mid 1970s, the Fremantle Arts Centre “had established a highly successful, community based, creative writing program” and that on the basis of this, the Centre’s then dire actor, Ian Templeman, “saw the possibility of establishing a press to gain wider recognition for Western Australian authors”. Winn says that the creation of the Press (FACP) in 1975 (not 1976 as the website says), “is now considered a watershed in Western Australian history”. He argues that part of the Press’s significance was that it was able to reduce ‘the so-called “brain-drain phenomenon”‘, that common problem in Australia’s artistic scene, whereby “those with talent in search of recognition are first seduced eastwards to Sydney and Melbourne, and then overseas”.

From the beginning, FACP’s focus was Western Australian artists and writers, and its early writers from the 1970s and 80s, like Elizabeth Jolley, Albert Facey (My fortunate life) and Sally Morgan (My place), are still internationally renowned.

This early success continued in the 1990s, with authors like Kim Scott, whose Benang won the 1999 Miles Franklin Award. Winn notes that in this decade FACP diversified, with their catalogue at the time of his writing, including “a wide variety of texts in the fields of art, history, education, biography and autobiography, cultural studies, and children’s books as well as their traditional lines of literary prose and poetry.”

Margaret Rose Stringer, And then like my dreams

And this has continued. Fremantle books I have reviewed in recent years include Margaret Rose Stringer’s memoir, And then like my dreams (2013), and Madelaine Dickie’s novels Troppo (2016) and Red can origami (2019). Fremantle has also started republishing classics, in a series they call Treasures. Books in this series include a collection of stories by T.A.G. Hungerford, Stories from Suburban Road.

As for when it became “just” the Fremantle Press, that I found in Wikipedia – and it was 2007. Wikipedia doesn’t explain why, though.

In April 2022, the Fremantle Library unveiled “its extensive new collection” of Fremantle Press books. Local author David Whish-Wilson is quoted as saying:

“I applaud the step taken by Fremantle Library to gather Fremantle Press’ entire list and back-list in one place, and I, for one, will be eagerly perusing the shelves.”

Any initiative which aims to ensure continued availability of backlists (like the Untapped project I wrote about earlier this year) must be commended. Of course, you would expect libraries to be at the forefront of such endeavours, but in these days of reduced resources, even they cannot always provide the depth of collection that we would expect of them.

As well as publishing books, Fremantle sponsors two writers’ awards:

Book cover for Madelaine Dickie's Troppo
  • the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award, co-sponsored by the City of Fremantle and Fremantle Press, is “Western Australia’s most prestigious award for an unpublished work of adult fiction, narrative non-fiction or young adult fiction by an unpublished writer”. The prize is $15,000 cash and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.
  • The Fogarty Literary Award, co-sponsored by the Fogarty Foundation and Fremantle Press, is a biennial award for an unpublished manuscript (of adult fiction, narrative non-fiction or young adult fiction) by a Western Australian author aged between 18 and 35. The prize is $20,000 cash and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.

Fremantle Press is a non-profit publisher.

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Fremantle Press

  1. I hope Fremantle is as delightful a little town as it was when I spent my first two years out of school working in its public library. And my father opened his law practice there – that was a bit of a while back. 🙂
    Thank-you for the shout-out, ST – you are such a good friend !

  2. Fremantle Press have a terrific list: I’ve reviewed 44 of their books including 8 Hungerford award winners, and there was not a dud among them.
    I hadn’t thought about arresting the brain-drain, but of course you are right, and it’s enabled the emergence of a distinctive WA style. I think it’s the attention to weather and landscape, no matter what they’re writing about or where it’s set.

    • Thanks Lisa … I haven’t reviewed that many on my blog but have read so many over the years. Weather and landscape are so defining aren’t they … in Australia in particular. They drive the lifestyle so much. Our big cities of course are starting to break away from that influence?

      • Yes, and although I don’t agree that all cities are much the same, I think it’s harder for writers to make a city identifiable unless they do cliched things like trams and The Bridge, or name streets and parks and so on. And many of them don’t want to do that because they’re pitching the book at other markets.

        • I have just read Bill’s post on Ernestine Hill where she mentions the “sameness of cities”. That helped me work out my response here, which is that cities can be differentiated of course but that the difference can feel more superficial. I’m not sure I can actually defend this with examples, but it’s how I feel it plays out for me.

  3. You’ve mentioned many old “friends” here, WG. FACP was one important source for me when contemporary OZLIT was my focus through the 1980s especially – and Sally Morgan, Tom Hungerford, Elizabeth Jolley… Nearly four-and-a-half years since I was last in Fremantle. The first time was January, 1976 – I note this is around the time the Press had either just started or was about to start – depending on whose establishment date one can trust!

      • And even though every Aussie publisher – including various University Presses (UQP, MUP etc) seems to have established a particular presence – I am struck by Fremantle and Magabala – out of WA – as of particular importance! My visit with my wife to WA at the very end of 1975, (in fact New Year’s Eve was spent in Esperance) and the beginning of 1976 (and still 200 or so “miles” of unsealed road on the Null-Arbor crossing remained) preceded by five months our travels via Asia and the Trans Siberian railway to the northern hemisphere over the following 19 months. And by which stage as young as we were we had only the Northern Territory till then unvisited. We were heading abroad quite well travelled through most of Australia… Your thoughtful and indeed fascinating posts always arouse in me so many memories not only of my reading history but also of place, too. Thank-you.

  4. My favourite Fremantle Arts Centre Press book is Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes, first pub. 2000, and best characterised as comic SF. But did you go and see the building, it’s beautiful.

  5. I’m intrigued by the note about “brain-drain phenomenon.” I know that in the US we have authors who tend to move towards the coast, particularly New York City where all of our big publishers are. But I hadn’t really thought about the fact that those people moving away was actually taking away cultural development and talent in other smaller areas. Actually, now that I think about it, I can’t really think of any place in the west coast where writers would travel to. Like I said, it’s just mainly New York city. But these days who can afford to live there?? I’m also hoping that people are willing to consider living in other states outside of New York because we’ve learned from the pandemic that there is so much we can do from our own homes just with wi-fi. I do want to read more books that are set in places that are not New York City. One of my favorite authors is Bonnie Jo Campbell, who lives in Michigan and always writes with a Michigan setting.

    • Thanks Melanie. I guess the brain drain thing has been more obvious here because in the past they would leave Australia altogether. Most to England, traditionally, but to the USA too.

      Reading books with your own setting is special I think, particularly for those of us living in places that don’t get that much!

  6. As you say, it’s really important to support small presses wherever possible, and they often have such interesting lists – as you’ve ably demonstrated here! I didn’t realise that Elizabeth Jolley started her career with Fremantle before moving to Penguin – totally understandable that she made the move, but they must have been very sorry to lose her.

  7. Pingback: ≫ Reflexiones del lunes sobre la literatura australiana: Fremantle Press > Mejor Precio Online 2022

  8. To celebrate their 40 yrs of publishing, they selected five books for a Treasures Series. I have Kim Scott’s Benang – it’s a beautiful hardback edition. One of the Jolley’s was also included from memory.

    • Thanks Brona … yes, I remember those books … and The newspaper of Claremont Street, my sentimental Jolley favourite, was the one I think. I always hoped they publish more. I should get this edition of Benang.

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