Samples of Sonya Hartnett's papers on a table

Melbourne’s Sonya Hartnett has been a writer for nearly 30 years. The State Library has collected Sonya’s papers since 1999, building a major archive of her career. As part of our current Annual Appeal we are seeking to acquire further literary papers from her novels Golden boys, Butterfly and The ghost’s child. This acquisition would mark a major step forward in the Library’s commitment to conserve the life’s work of this celebrated Australian author.

The following is an abridged version of a recent speech Sonya gave at the State Library.

The word manuscript has always been magical to me. Ever since I was a child I have loved books not only for their stories, but for the covers they are wrapped in, the paper on which they’re printed, the photos and illustrations inside.

To write in my teenage years I saved to buy typing paper and flimsy silver brackets to bind the fine pages, and Liquid Paper to paint over the mistakes. I rarely planned ahead as I wrote, so the manuscripts became lumpen with inserts, patches of story sticky-taped in at the last moment, sometimes entire extra pages that folded out like accordions.

When the writing was complete, it was the work of a quiet and exquisite afternoon to align the pages and punch twin holes in them, and attach to each hole a white sticky ring to reinforce it; and then to shuffle the pages together, check and double-check their numbers were in order, and bind them in a pair of metal clasps. The title page bore, as my title pages still do for no reason other than thirty years of tradition, the story’s name, and my name, and my address and phone number, and the date.

I would slip the precious object into an envelope and make the 15 minute walk to the Squash Bowl, where a tennis racquet stringer sold stamps. I always took it to the mailbox myself. Before it dropped out of my hands, I would give it a kiss goodbye. I haven’t thought about that for years, even decades: the fleet but important farewell kiss.

Some of the manuscripts I never saw again. Others came home to me eventually, scuffed by secret travels. I poured into those ill-formed manuscripts my great dreams, my childish courage. I endured waiting and criticism and disappointment with the stoicism of the young. Looking back, I marvel at my tenacity, and I know that beneath it, was my love for the thing itself. I didn’t want to be a writer as much as I wanted to create those manuscripts, and shuffle the pages straight, and number them and bind them, and know that feeling of having created something out of nothing, something as good and orderly as I could make it be.

By the late ’80s I was going to RMIT and passing the State Library most days: my world was changing, and manuscripts were changing too. The little click-clack typewriter had been replaced with an electric machine which showed a few words before slamming them onto the page, and that machine would be replaced by a small, grey screened word processor which I used for years, forgiving the tendency of its discs to lose, at the slightest mishap, the 28 pages that could be stored on them.

Through the ’90s and the first decade of the new century – past Sleeping dogs and Thursday’s child and Of a boy, beyond The silver donkey and Surrender and right up to The ghost’s child, there was always the black words on white paper at the end, always the title page with the book’s name and my name, always, even, the handwritten number on every page: always there was the snow-white object of humble form and simple beauty, the manuscript.

I now email my work directly to Penguin. All the days and weeks and months and years of effort behind a novel like Golden boys are reduced to a few words in the Subject line: ‘New ms, don’t delete, please acknowledge receipt.’ There’s no afternoon of straightening pages into a pile and feeling their comfortable weight, and knowing, with that weight, that the hardest work is done. And that is, when I think on it, an anticlimax of such magnitude that the child I was would wonder how anyone could endure it. And I would tell her that life is change, and it’s necessary to move with the times – but that some things are preserved. I remain deeply interested and involved in every facet of the book’s physical appearance. What my work looks like still matters to me as much as it did when I was kid squeezing out drops of my very own blood to illustrate a story’s most dramatic scene.

Book cover of Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett

It’s not only an honour but also a relief, to me, that the State Library holds so much of my work in its safekeeping. I am a Victorian, Melbourne-born; I’ve never lived anywhere but here. When I used to pass the Library in my RMIT years, I was always aware of the manuscript collection, but I never expected my work to be part of it. Nobody dreams that boldly. Even now, when the Library owns far more of my history than I do, the situation feels surreal, yet reassuring.

The past – this country’s past, the past that is the inheritance of all of us – is secure in these walls, and the future is likewise shielded. The more objects of rarity, strangeness and worth that can be preserved, in a world that is narrowing itself down to the charmless subject lines of emails, the better off we, and those who come after us, will be: because life may well be change, but some things are, I think all of us here would agree, better the way they were.

Sonya Hartnett’s manuscripts and literary papers can be accessed in the State Library’s manuscripts collection. To support the Library’s Annual Appeal, go to our Current campaigns.

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