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To be Frank: In conversation with Catharine Lumby

  • 24 November 2023
Frank Moorhouse was a renowned, award-winning writer of rare alchemical skill and puissance, turning thoughts, beliefs, words and phrases into the gold of critical and popular acclaim. Moorhouse wrought his magic through journalism, essays, screen plays, novels and non-fiction treatises, and spent his days prophetically supporting once-wildly unpopular causes. Barry Gittins talks with the author of Frank Moorhouse: A Life, journalist, author, academic and witness to Moorhouse’s truths, Professor Catharine Lumby, about this man of letters and contradictions.  Barry Gittins: As a friend and beneficiary of Moorhouse’s mentoring and advice, Catharine, you were approached by him to write a warts-and-all uncensored biography; you then had to weigh up the many and varied threads of Frank’s life, selecting which of these you would weave into your book. The adage with some 19th century cultures was that a photograph could steal the soul of those who posed; is this comparable with the pursuit of the essence of a person in biographies? Is representation always a subjective dance, or can we find common agreement on a human life?

Catharine Lumby: Well no, we can never find a sole commonality. What I say is that this is a biography written from a subjective point of view. This is not a hagiography.

I tried to go to as many sources as possible as well as working through around 160 boxes of archival material. I included the views of as many interview subjects as possible. Generally speaking, most of the people I spoke to were personally or professionally connected to Frank. I wanted to add as much shade and texture as possible. The experience tempered our friendship.


What can a biography capture, and what is it ill-suited to?

It depends on the biography, the biographer and the subject. Mikey Robbins, at the launch, said I had taken a vast bowl of stock and boiled it down to a jus. I like that.  Other biographers will have other approaches: Matthew Lamb’s two-volume biography of Frank is coming out soon, and he will offer a different perspective, and I suspect a more detail-driven one.

Biography is never one thing; the genre can’t be simply parsed. Look at David Marr’s biography of Patrick White — that is the gold standard. Biographies can be from a literary perspective, or sociological.

The trap for biographers is to end up writing hagiography. You have to put the ruler over yourself. Frank told me: ‘Your task is to dig up