Author Christopher Koch. Photo: Simon Schluter
Christopher Koch once described writing as an absurd occupation: ''All writers are obviously neurotic … For various reasons, writers retreat into an imaginary world because they find ordinary life rather difficult or boring or both.''
But it was an occupation he loved and to which he eventually devoted his life, one that came to an end early Monday morning in Hobart. He was 81 and had been diagnosed with cancer a few months before his last novel, Lost Voices, was published to critical acclaim a year ago. He lived for many years in Sydney and Asia, but in 2004, returned to Tasmania, where he said he felt at home.
His writing life began with poetry and he first published in The Bulletin when he was still a teenager. But he swiftly realised he wanted to write fiction: ''From the age of 18 there was nothing else I wanted to do.''
His first novel, The Boys in the Island, was published in Britain in 1958 and enthusiastic reviews encouraged him to carry on with his writing while he worked for the ABC. He won the Miles Franklin in 1985 for The Doubleman, about which Graham Greene wrote: ''Koch has an extraordinary power of evoking place, and I feel now that Tasmania is part of my memory.''
Koch won again in 1996 for Highways to a War.
He published eight novels and was probably best known for The Year of Living Dangerously, which appeared in 1978 and was filmed by Peter Weir, with Mel Gibson as the Australian journalist embroiled in Indonesian political turmoil. It also won The Age book of the year.
The book has recently been adapted as a stage musical and is due to have its first reading next week in New York. Koch's agent, Margaret Connolly, said the production team had been exchanging long emails with the author.
In 1972, Koch left the ABC, where he had worked as a producer, to write full time. ''Everyone thought I was crazy,'' he said. ''I left a really very good job and went back to Launceston and wrote The Year of Living Dangerously, which, fortunately, pulled me out of the mire, and I haven't done an honest job since.''
Editor of The Cambridge History of Australian Literature Peter Pierce said Koch had reconfigured historical fiction in Australia ''because of his profound sense that the past was always present and immanent. Something like Lost Voices or Out of Ireland don't have any fustiness in them because of the emotional urgency invested in his sense of history.''
He also credited Koch as the pioneer of the return to Asia of Australian writers: ''He was the first of a whole mob of Australians to make Asia the setting for their fiction.''
Shona Martyn published Out of Ireland when she worked at Random House and ''tried to lure him straight away'' when she became publishing director at HarperCollins. She eventually succeeded and in addition to publishing Lost Voices has republished his earlier novels. ''That was very special to him. Even last week, he was still talking to editors about punctuation and design. He had such great commitment,'' she said.
Connolly said she always wanted Koch to write a memoir because of his sense of history and experience of Australia's literary history. ''He told me he started to write one, but it turned into Lost Voices.''