Cities are great subjects for literary non-fiction – most Australians live in them – but, when it comes to writing about cities, they are usually given the guidebook treatment, rather than prompting memorable pieces of writing. So the inspiration for this series was literary, not some pointy-headed urge to make a grand statement about Australia’s cities.
Cities are so often labelled cosmopolitan, or global, or one of the world’s ‘most liveable’, as if they’re part of a huge marketing exercise in which we’re all implicated. But what does this mean for those of us quietly going about our lives on the ground? While people may read local histories, or dispassionate general histories about where they live, we rarely get the chance to read about our own cities in a way that resonates with our own experience and resurrects memories.
Fiction does this beautifully. And, while there is some really superb non-fiction writing about place, it tends to be about nature. So I wanted to ask some of our best novelists and writers to write non-fiction about the cities they lived in – or have adopted – in a way that would evoke intense sense memories for people who are familiar with them and give those who aren’t a sense of what it’s like to live in Brisbane or Adelaide or wherever.
There are some other well-known series where famous writers have tackled Paris or Prague, but they’re usually not locals. They’re temporary visitors. I wanted writers who have a stake in a city to write about it, which is why we first billed them as ‘travel books where no one leaves home’.
I think the idea really started percolating in my mind when I read something on Kerryn Goldsworthy’s blog about a visit to Adelaide’s Central Market. I felt I was there; it gave me such a visceral sense of what it was like to be someone going about their business in a city thousands of miles away from me in Sydney.
It was fun thinking about who might write the books and publishing them has been the most gratifying experience of my career. Thankfully readers have thought so too: the series has been a critical and a commercial success.
Phillipa McGuinness is the publisher of NewSouth's City series, which includes Hobart by Peter Timms, Brisbane by Matthew Condon, Sydney by Delia Falconer, Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham, Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy, Canberra by Paul Daley, Alice Springs by Eleanor Hogan, Perth by David Whish-Wilson and the forthcoming Darwin by Tess Lea.