This was an extraordinary task you set yourself. How did you decide to do it in the first place?
I was actually asked to do it. Lesley Mackay, who has a bookshop in Double Bay that I go to, was doing a bit of publishing and packaging, and it suddenly occurred to her that while there was a Writer’s France and a Writer’s Britain there hadn’t been a Writer’s Australia, so she came to me with the idea. She thought she could package the idea to a publisher and would I write it? I thought, what a wonderful idea and signed the contract, and then realised that what I was going to do was write an entire literary history of Australia, and every chapter could have been a book on its own, and probably should have been.
That’s partly why it turned into two volumes. When I started getting the material together, I had a folder full of material for cities the size of a book. According to the original concept I would have had to deal with each city in about two or three pages. I was also supposed to do it in eight months; it’s taken two and a half years. It could have taken a lot longer, and it probably should have, but on the other hand, all the time I was working on it I knew I was over deadline, so it did concentrate my attention wonderfully.