Irma Gold, editor of an anthology of Canberra Writers. Photo: Rohan Thomson
'Landscape'' is a word that often springs up in talks about Canberra, usually in reference to politics or the city's much lauded - and carefully planned - bush-city aesthetic.
But what about Canberra's literary landscape? Can a city as young as Canberra even have such a thing? Of course it can, even if it might not be immediately apparent to the casual visitor. For the past century, poets, novelists, journalists and historians have been inspired by the city and its surrounds, through living here for long periods or passing through the region. Their writings have been influenced, either directly or peripherally, by experiences of Canberra, but such links have often been overlooked.
One such writer, long-time Canberra resident Irma Gold, has spent the past year collating an anthology of works in time for the next year's Centenary celebrations, celebrating the many ways in which writers have been inspired by the area. The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words is a timely reminder of the surprising reach of Canberra's intellectual landscape.
The book has been three years in the making, inspired by a 2009 anthology of Melbourne writers, published in celebration of that city being named a UNESCO City of Literature. Gold recalls a conversation with the then director of the ACT Writers Centre Anne-Maree Britton, about how Canberra was undervalued for its contribution to Australian literature.
''We really should have an anthology of Canberra writers because there are so many incredible writers who've lived here,'' she says over midweek coffee in a suburban cafe.
''Although Melbourne's the official city of literature, in fact Canberra punches above its weight in terms of the number of writers we've had here, and the literary landscape here, which is incredibly rich and diverse.''
As soon as she began hearing talk about the upcoming Centenary celebrations, Gold realised that the time had come for such a collection. Within a short space of time, she had an advisory committee of literary experts and writers, with Britten as chair, a publisher and funding for her own position as editor.
Of course, in the scheme of things, three years is hardly any time when you're putting together an anthology; the reading process alone took the committee at least a year.
''We had this enormous wealth of material, absolutely spoilt for choice in terms of choosing what went in there,'' she says. ''We had over 150 writers we were looking at, and we were trying to read as much as we could in their body of work … We were reading all of those novels, works of history, memoirs, but then also looking at short story collections, individual essays in journals and so on. It was a huge undertaking.''
The finished product has just 75 works, eclectic in both style and Canberra association. Some are obvious; Miles Franklin grew up in the Brindabellas, informing the setting for My Brilliant Career, while many people would be unaware that the poet Judith Wright lived in Braidwood and spent her final years in Canberra. The novelist Alex Miller, usually associated with the Melbourne literary scene, once worked in the Commonwealth public service, an experience he defined as soul-destroying, but spent time in the Araluen Valley, a formative period of creativity. The poet Les Murray lived in Canberra on two occasions and Blanche D'Alpuget landed here, like many writers do, as a journalist. Others, such as Bill Gammage, Rosemary Dobson, Marion Halligan and Michael McKernan, are Canberra fixtures.
One of the committee members, writer and poet Adrian Caesar, says one of the best things about the resulting selection is the sweep of styles, formats and authors.
''What's nice about the anthology is that there's a kind of historical sweep over that 100 years - younger writers are represented as well as older ones,'' he says. Judith Wright's poem is a reflection on ageing, for example, while the poet and rapper Omar Musa writes about his childhood in Queanbeyan.
''I think that one of the strengths of the book is that sweep of non-fiction, fiction, history, short story, extracts from novels, poems, journalism - it's a richly various collection.''
The anthology's committee spent many weekends whittling down the list to just 75, and Gold was then faced with the daunting task of shaping the anthology.
''What I didn't want it to be was a catalogue of writers. I actually wanted it to be an engaging, lyrical work, which is why it's also not a tome,'' Gold says.
''I spent a long time thinking about it, because there were a number of different ways that it could have been structured. ''It could have been structured by theme, for example, and there did emerge some really interesting themes in the book, but in the end I decided against that because it actually constrained the pieces, and also I felt it narrowed the way that they would be read and interpreted.''
She also decided against presenting the works in chronological order, the better to juxtapose voices from different eras and challenge the way we would normally read the so-called ''classics''.
''I really wanted to allow the works to converse with each other and speak to each other across the decades. The thing about that is that it's allowed for a much richer collection, I think, because it means that the pieces illuminate or challenge or complement each other in ways that they wouldn't be able to. And it also means that you have contemporary works alongside works that were written 100 years ago or 80 years ago, and actually that puts them into a new context and allows you to read them in different ways.'' The resulting book is in four loose sections - ''each deliberately open-ended and kaleidoscopic'' - starting with a battlefield setting by official war correspondent Charles Bean, and ending with a meditation on life-changing moments by Marion Halligan.
She says that while there are several pieces that take Canberra as the setting or starting point, the anthology is not solely about Canberra.
''That's partly because the people writing here are interested in the things that all Australians are interested in. We wanted to be able to reflect that,'' she says. ''[I]n talking to people, one of things everybody said is that Canberra really is the perfect environment to write. We've got all the national institutions for a start, but we've also got that balance of city and bush, we don't waste our time in traffic jams, and one of the things that I think in working on this anthology has become very evident, is that Canberra is really a very thoughtful place, people here really have the space and the time to just think, and that is a characteristic of the quality of the writing that has come out of Canberra.''
>> The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words, edited by Irma Gold, is published by Halstead Press. The Canberra Times will run extracts from the collection in Times2 over summer.