National Biography Award

About the National Biography Award

National Biography Award

The National Biography Award is administered and presented by the State Library of NSW on behalf of the award's benefactors, Dr Geoffrey Cains and Mr Michael Crouch AO.

The Award was established to encourage the highest standards of writing in the fields of biography and autobiography and to promote public interest in these genres. The Award’s growth and success recognises and reflects the continuing interest in stories about ordinary people with extraordinary lives.

The total prize value is $31,000 – $25,000 for the winner and $1,000 each for shortlisted authors – making it the richest national prize dedicated to Australian biographical writing and memoir.

The winner for 2015 was announced on Monday 3 August. See media release.

2015 National Biography Award WINNER

An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of C J Dennis

Philip Butterss (Wakefield Press)

An Unsentimental Bloke

The Sentimental Bloke and Doreen are famous characters in Australian popular culture, but their creator deserves to be better known. C J Dennis transformed the larrikin from a street thug into a respectable image of Australian identity, and helped shape the Anzac legend.

Many people regarded Dennis himself as a sentimental bloke, but this book shows he was a much more complex and sometimes darker personality - not only examining his humorous and lovable side, but also his struggles with alcohol and depression, his political activism, his marriage and his financial dealings.

An Unsentimental Bloke traces Dennis's early years in rural South Australia, his work on a bohemian newspaper in Adelaide and move to Melbourne as a freelancer for the Bulletin, his period of political involvement, followed by enormous successes (he was more popular than Banjo Paterson or Henry Lawson ever were), spectacular fall, and re-emergence as an elder statesman of Australian letters.

Judges' Comments

An Unsentimental Bloke is a meticulously researched account of the life and times of C J Dennis, possibly the most popular writer ever to pen stories and poems for an Australian audience.  A great work of recovery, this biography recreates Dennis’s public and private life and also provides an illuminating analysis of the oeuvre, and its spinoffs, for which Dennis was famous and, briefly, rich.

Butterss builds a portrait of the little boy whose strict and severe father was countered by adoring aunts, then the restless young man who became both a dandy and a larrikin. This sets up the development of a story that illuminates the cultural ethos of the times as well as the character of a talented writer unable to change with those times. 
An Unsentimental Bloke is deeply researched and fluent in style. The writing is scholarly in the best sense – informed, perceptive and very readable. This first full biography of the man who wrote The Songs of the Sentimental Bloke is long overdue. Butterss’ book explains how cultural change as well as Dennis’s own colourful personal history created this gap in the record of our literature, now brilliantly filled in by a first-class biography which is richly rewarding.

About the Author

Philip Butterss grew up in Melbourne, studied at the University of Sydney, where he completed a PhD on Australian ballads, and now teaches Australian literature and film at the University of Adelaide. He has published widely on Australian cultural history and is currently working on a history of literary Adelaide.

2015 National Biography Award Shortlist

Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family

Gabrielle Carey (UQP)

Moving Among Strangers

As her mother Joan lies dying, Gabrielle Carey writes a letter to Joan’s childhood friend, the reclusive novelist Randolph Stow. This letter sets in motion a literary pilgrimage that reveals long-buried family secrets. Like her mother, Stow had grown up in Western Australia. After early literary success and a Miles Franklin Award win in 1958 for his novel To the Islands, he left for England and a life of self-imposed exile.

Living most of her life on the east coast, Gabrielle was also estranged from her family’s west Australian roots, but never questioned why. A devoted fan of Stow’s writing, she becomes fascinated by his connection with her extended family, but before she can meet him he dies. With only a few pieces of correspondence to guide her, Gabrielle embarks on a journey from the red-dirt landscape of Western Australia to the English seaside town of Harwich in a quest to understand her family’s past and Stow’s place in it.

Moving Among Strangers is a celebration of one of Australia’s most enigmatic and visionary writers.

Judges' Comments

This tale about friendship, love and loss is unified around Gabrielle Carey’s interest in researching the life and work of Randolph Stow. Her mother, Joan, who knew Stow, was so private about her past that the daughter had to begin this companion volume to the earlier The Waiting Room from scratch. With a few letters as her starting point, she unravels a network of connections and revelations that resurrect a fascinating patchwork of family history.

Part biography, part literary analysis, the writing is also very personal, reflecting curiosity and sensitivity.  The book has narrative intensity and is a charming reflection on the process of writing the biography of people no longer living. Stow writes about silence and despite his correspondence with Carey remained reticent on many issues. 

There is a tender artistry in the way Carey has managed to recover ‘missing pages’, as she puts it, from her family’s past and simultaneously explore both Stow’s fiction and the country or culture he was compelled to disown.  Moving Among Strangers is a little masterwork.

About the Author

Gabrielle Carey is the author of novels, biography, autobiography, essays, articles and short stories. She teaches writing at the University of Technology, Sydney, where her infatuation with Randolph Stow is happily tolerated. In addition to Moving Among Strangers her most recent book was the memoir, The Waiting Room (2009).

Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799 - 1815

Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury)

Citizen Emperor

Napoleon's legend is so persistent that it confounds the historical reality in the popular imagination. He himself contributed much towards the construction of his own myth, from his youth even until after he fell from power, when, while in exile, he dictated his memoirs to a group of disciples who took down his every word in the hope that his version of history would prevail. Such were Napoleon's skills as a chronicler that much of the legend is still unquestioningly accepted...'

This second volume of Philip Dwyer's outstanding biography sheds further fresh light on one of the great figures of modern history. After a meteoric rise, a military-political coup in 1799 established Napoleon Bonaparte in government, aged just thirty. This meticulously researched study examines the man in power, from his brooding obsessions and capacity for violence, to his ability to inspire others and realise his visionary ideas. One of the first truly modern politicians, Napoleon skilfully fashioned the image of himself that laid the foundation of the legend that endures to this day; Philip Dwyer's ambitious, definitive work separates myth from history to offer us anew one of history's most charismatic and able leaders.

Judges' Comments

Philip Dwyer’s biography of Napoleon is magisterial. In this, the second volume, he is able to compose an enormous amount of information into a readable, constantly surprising, and satisfying narrative. 
The book shows the life and times of a leader, and with a big historical approach it invites our understanding of that leader. Within the macro-history of France, and of Europe, there is the micro-history of Napoleon and the Bonaparte family.

Dwyer explains why and how Napoleon inspired France. His challenge in this volume was to excavate a life from the legend.  The subject had to be as much a nation as a man. Even after his abdication following Waterloo, Napoleon himself skillfully participated in the making of his image, so Dwyer had to separate out biography and history from myth, which required unflinching research.
Dwyer’s command of the vast archival material on Napoleon and his times is impressive. This is an absorbing biography about power and opportunism, a big achievement, and one which could only have been carried out by a writer with the control and elegance of Dwyer.

About the Author

Philip Dwyer studied in Perth (Australia), Berlin and Paris, where he was a student of France's pre-eminent Napoleonic scholar, Jean Tulard. He has published widely on the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, and is Director of the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

To Begin To Know: Walking in the Shadows of My Father

David Leser (Allen & Unwin)

To Begin To Know

More than a decade ago, journalist David Leser started writing a biography of his famous father, legendary magazine publisher, Bernard Leser. But David couldn't finish the project because he didn't want to employ his investigative and forensic feature writer's skills to unmask his father - to do so seemed utterly at odds with his desire to be the loving son he wanted to be. But freed from the obligation of having to think of his father as a book project, David started seeing him as a man, as both a son and a father, as someone loved and familiar but also flawed and unknowable. And the harder he looked at his father, the more he saw himself and how his own life had been lived both in tribute to and rebellion from the legacy of his father.

A lyrical, deeply moving and searingly honest memoir of two men, father and son, and their shared truths and burdens, To Begin to Know is a story of love and forgiveness, of acceptance and hope. It goes to the heart of a family - the hearts of all families - and asks questions crucial to us all.

Judges' Comments

This book is a rich amalgam of self-exploration, family memoir, and documentary of an important period in Australian media history. The story begins with a Jewish family’s escape from Nazi Germany to Australasia where David’s father, Bernie Leser, rose to become the publisher/founder of Vogue Australia, and managing director and chief executive of Conde Nast in the UK.

Leser applies his exceptional skills as a feature journalist to his self-portrait. He recounts episodes from his life with disarming honesty and humour, in an attempt to understand why and how his father’s shadow continues to fall over his life. Along the way, Leser writes about writing memoir itself. And he grapples with understanding his father just as he grapples, unsuccessfully in some ways, with understanding himself.

In the end, this is a book about love and relationships. Why we become the people we are is part of the author’s narration of a family history and it is the struggle within the memoir, and Leser’s almost painful desire to know himself, that gives this book its poignant depth.

About the Author

David Leser has been a Middle East and Washington D. C. correspondent as well as feature writer in Australia for the Murdoch, Packer and Fairfax presses. He's more recently gained a reputation as a brilliant profile writer; among his subjects are Alan Jones, Dame Edna Everage, Helen Garner, Margaret Whitlam, Oriana Fallaci, the Dalai Lama and Xena, Warrior Princess. The recipient of a number of awards, David has worked as a staff feature writer for the Daily Telegraph, The Australian, HQ, The Bulletin, The Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend and the Australian Women's Weekly.

A Singular Vision, Harry Seidler

Helen O'Neill (Harper Collins Publishers)

A Singular Vision, Harry Seidler

The power, passions and private life of the architect who shaped modern Australia. Harry Seidler, a stylish, decisive and highly opinionated man, was a key figure in international modern architecture and in the establishment of post-war modern design in Australia.

He emerged as Australia's preeminent architect, the man who effectively shaped the look of modern, urban Australia. While many know his buildings, few know his fascinating story. Born in Austria to an affluent Jewish family, his world fell apart when as a young boy he had to flee the looming Nazi threat. Without family and without a word of English, he escaped to England. Later, cruelly, he was interned as an enemy alien during the war, and sent to Canada. During his time in the Canadian camp, he virtually taught himself architecture, and once the war was over, studied in Canada and at Harvard in the United States.

His parents moved to Australia after the war, and in 1948, Harry came to Australia in response to their invitation to design a house for them. The house he built for them, now known as the Rose Seidler House, represented a huge shift in Australian modern domestic architecture. It was soon followed by a succession of innovative house designs. He followed these with amibitious, towering office blocks, such as Australia Square and the MLC Centre, forever changing the skyline of Australia's cities.

Without Harry Seidler, our cities and homes would look very, very different. A lavishly illustrated, stylish and beautifully designed book, A Singular Vision is a celebration of one man's extraordinary life, his influence, and his many towering achievements.

Judges' Comments

This resonant, entertaining and important biography recounts the life of the Vienna-born architect whose obsessive dedication to modernism had such a profound effect on Australian cities.

Helen O’Neill describes Seidler’s flight from Nazi Germany, his years in both Canada and the United States, and his unlikely settling in Australia, where his parents had migrated.

This is a respectful and careful biography, but O’Neill also provides much information about Seidler’s controversial opinions and ruthless drive. We get a vivid picture of the architect as he engaged so passionately in often acrimonious battles about the built landscape, particularly of Sydney. O’Neill writes compassionately and with discretion about this great figure, and while the writer had access to family papers, she does not resile from describing difficult episodes with clarity.

Seidler comes to life in this biography, and we begin to understand his strong personality through the descriptions of the work he created. He was an authoritarian personality who was unbending in some ways, as was some of his important work in concrete. This is an important work that provides a strong basis for discussion about built environments and their uses. It’s also an impressive portrait of a singular human being.

About the Author

Helen O'Neill's work has been published in Australia, the US and the UK.  Her books include the critically acclaimed, award-winning bestseller Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret and Extraordinary Lives, based on the life and art of the brilliant wallpaper and fabric designer Florence Broadhurst, and David Jones' 175 Years.

The Feel-Good Hit of the Year: A Memoir

Liam Pieper (Pengiun Books Australia)

The Feel Good Hit of the Year  

Liam Pieper was raised by his bohemian parents to believe in freedom and creativity, and that there's nothing wrong with smoking a little marijuana to make life more interesting.

A fast learner, Liam combined hippie self-actualisation with gen Y entrepreneurialism. By his early teens he had a fledgling drug habit, and a thriving business selling pot around the suburbs of Melbourne from the back of his pushbike. He picked up important life skills, like how to befriend a deranged jujitsu master, how to impress his girlfriend's mother by getting arrested in front of her, and how to negotiate pocket money based on how much he was charging his parents for an ounce.

But from these highs (chemical, financial and otherwise), Liam's life fell to dramatic lows. The muddled flower child became a petty criminal and an amoral coke monster. After a family tragedy and then his arrest on several counts of possession and trafficking, Liam had to consider: had it been a mistake to adopt the practices of a counterculture without any of its ethics?

Judges' Comments

This memoir provides us with a confronting example of how important it can be, in a civil and caring society, to give a young person a second (or even third) chance.

Pieper’s story is about growing up in a house where drugs seemed normal, and the children were cared for but relatively free from restraint. Smart, but not so clever, teenage Pieper becomes a petty criminal, and narrowly escapes what would have been a life-changing prison sentence. Even the death of his brother, who overdoses on heroin, doesn’t quite sound the wake-up call, but it does crack open the veneer.

While the story is dramatic, Pieper never succumbs to exploiting that drama, so his account has a quiet intensity. There is also the quirky but controlled self-deprecating humour, which gives the book a consistent tone. Unsentimental and never pathetic, this story offers a case study in the responsibility of communities and families to provide safety nets for children. It is also a kind of coming-of-age book of a writer, who emerges at the end of his narration with an optimistic and encouraging conviction about his own path forward.

About the Author

Liam Pieper lives in Melbourne. He studied creative writing and then journalism and now works as a freelance writer. Before that he worked as a cook, a music critic, a non-union itinerant labourer and a mediocre criminal. His work has appeared in The Age, the Saturday Paper, the Good Weekend, Meanjin, The Best of the Lifted Brow and The Sleepers Almanac, and he is the co-recipient of the 2014 M Literary Residency.

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