TALES FROM THE BACKLIST: A Fortunate Life turns 30

A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey turns 30 on Anzac Day 2011. First published by Fremantle Press and now licensed to Penguin, the bestselling memoir was pulled from the submissions pile by Fremantle Press Commissioning Editor Wendy Jenkins. In this article Wendy remembers what it was like to find a classic Australian story.

Fremantle Press has accepted unsolicited manuscripts almost from its inception. They have come in all shapes and sizes and ways, bearing the hopes of their authors or the good intentions of surviving relatives and heirs.

Some manuscripts achieved unforgettable in-house status before they were even read. There was the 6-box 450,000-word work delivered and stacked in the hallway as if the author was planning to move in. There was the brief autobiography, handwritten on a roll of toilet paper. This format might have been funny if the tale of domestic violence that uncoiled from it had not suggested the author’s need to disguise the fact and output of her writing.

A Fortunate Life arrived as a roughly typed manuscript (from memory, single-spaced), and tied together with green and white waxed string. It did not look promising but almost immediately had my attention – and kept it. I read with growing interest, then excitement, skipping ahead to get a sense of the sweep of the life and to see if the story and voice were sustained. I probably also wanted to know, like the hundreds of thousands of readers after me, what happened to that little boy born in turn-of- last-century Australia into such nation-shaping and difficult times.

It was obvious pretty quickly that the manuscript was an important social document as well as a compelling personal story simply told. I experienced that almost visceral feeling I have had maybe 3 or 4 times when reading a manuscript by an unknown author that has arrived truly out of the blue. This is special. This is important. This is unique. It lifted from the pages and insisted on itself.

I was new to assessment and didn’t realise until later that it was an unusual manuscript to have got excited about. In a sense I didn’t know enough to pass it up. I was guided by the properties of the work with not much thought to received ideas of market or publish-ability, or how much work would be involved in realising its potential. Ray Coffey and others at the Press quickly shared the enthusiasm and the manuscript consumed a good deal of our time across the coming months–we had hooked onto a whale and it would be quite a ride.

The mark of many good books is that they are disarmingly ‘simple’. In the case of memoir it can seem as if a life has been transferred to the page by an act of perfect dictation. All the writer had to do was get down the relevant facts in the right order. Anyone could do it. This of course, is utter mirage – as anyone who has battled to distil complexity into simple lucid prose could tell you. Simplicity is not easy.

The first editor of Albert Facey was time. Barely literate till his teens, he told and retold stories to himself and others. In the process, his memory and stories rubbed down into the lines and shapes that would so memorably underpin the extended memoir that became A Fortunate Life.

Books discussed
A Fortunate Life
A Fortunate Life for Younger Readers
Fremantle Press Treasures: A Fortunate Life

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