While physical author readings and signings are curtailed, it's a good time to look back at nearly 40 years of the literary partnership between The Canberra Times and the Australian National University.
The first reference to the Meet the Author events was in April 1982 when The Canberra Times recorded that "the first of a series of literary lunches" would take place on May 12 with American author Lisa Alther.
The lunch was organised by the then literary editor of the Canberra Times Susan Nicholls with the support of editor Ian Matthews. For $10, participants received a two course meal at the Canberra Rex hotel and the opportunity to hear Alther speak and get books signed.
This was also the year Alison Broinowski had the idea of a Canberra biennial literary festival, the National Word Festival (yes, there was one well before the Canberra Writers Festival), which ran from 1983 to 1997. The festival, supported by The Canberra Times, featured overseas authors such as Alan Garner, Raymond Carver, Doris Lessing (who terrified questioners at the official dinner at what was then the Lakeside), Melvyn Bragg, Penelope Lively and Margaret Drabble. Australian authors included Thomas Keneally, Thea Astley, George Turner, Elizabeth Jolley and the then up-and-coming Tim Winton and Kate Grenville, whom the Bulletin magazine in 1985 called the fesival's "second eleven".
The literary void left in the rest of the year was filled when the ANU and The Canberra Times combined for regular literary lunches at University House.
This author became the convenor, working with a succession of accomplished literary editors who followed Susan Nicholls, namely Peter Fuller, Bob Hefner, Jennifer Moran, Gia Metherell and now Sally Pryor.
Between 20 and 25 lunches were held each year. Authors included Peter Ackroyd, Elmore Leonard, Bryce Courtenay Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Graham Swift, Armistead Maupin, Richard Ford, Michael Oondatje, Richard Flanagan, David Malouf and Marion Halligan .
Patricia Cornwell, with her first novel, only attracted 60 attendees as she was relatively unknown (this was well before she began travelling to events in an armoured car). Terry Pratchett, mistakenly billed by his then publishers as "the new Evelyn Waugh", was another relatively unknown author when he spoke in 1990 at the first of his six Meet the Author events in Canberra. Bill Bryson did one, but never returned, possibly fearing reaction to his very critical comments on Canberra in his book, In a Sunburned Country.
For big name luncheons, the Lakeside, now QT, was used for events with Blanche d'Alpuget, Joanna Trollope, Ian Rankin, Edna O'Brien and Salman Rushdie, who was mobbed by admirers, as was Neil Gaiman a decade later.
The most scatological speaker was Kathy Lette, and the most bibulous, Peter Ackroyd, John Mortimer and Michael Dibdin. Ackroyd had two bottles of red wine at lunchtime, leading him to sign my copy of his first book, Dressing Up -Transvestitism and Drag, "for Colin, with such an enormous interest in the subject". John Mortimer's contract with his publisher for his tour in 1987 apparently allowed him three bottles of champagne a day. It was clear when he arrived for the dinner at University House that he had already imbibed well.
The only person to ever miss his event was Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker fame. Adams was notorious for not finishing his manuscripts on time. His London editor twice refused to let him board the plane for Australia until he finished, leading to the cancellation of his events in Perth and Canberra. As a result, the publisher gave everyone who booked a $30 book voucher and reimbursed University House for 230 frozen veal cutlets, which were then resold in Boffins restaurant.
One of the most unusual events was with Barry Humphries, who was appearing at the Canberra Theatre, but did not confirm his availability to appear until the day before, which made pre-publicity almost impossible. Only around 30 people, therefore, turned up to meet him at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery, causing the Co-op Bookshop, to recycle their staff pretending to be members of the public. Humphries said at one point, "Haven't I seen you before?" as one bookshop member passed through for a third time to get a copy of Humphries autobiography signed.
In contrast, many signing queues have been long, as with Stan Grant, Ruth Rendell, P.D.James,Tim Winton and Ian Rankin. Terry Pratchett holds the record with a four-hour signing in the - sadly, for many - now demolished Manning Clark Centre. Alexander McCall Smith not only signed for the over 500 people who attended his talk, but posed with everyone who wanted selfies, as did Kevin Rudd, much to the delight of many of ANU's Chinese students.
Embassy functions were particularly successful, until security issues prevented them after 9/11. Events included Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer's Tuscan Cookbook launch with matching food at the Italian Ambassador's residence, the Irish Ambassador's extremely social party at the then residence in O'Malley, where Guinness flowed freely for Thomas Keneally's The Great Shame, and the US Embassy, where Alison Lurie famously compared Canberra to Washington in the 18th century.
We also joined with Canberra's cultural institutions. A young Naomi Woolf packed out the National Gallery with The Beauty Myth - did a young Angus Taylor attend, one wonders? Woolf told the audience that "unattractive old men run the world". In 2020, one wonders what has changed.
David Stratton spoke at the National Film and Sound Archive, Annie Proulx at the National Portrait Gallery, Amy Tan at the National Library, and Manu cooked for a sold-out Commonwealth Club Meet the Chef dinner. David Suzuki filled the ANU's Llewellyn Hall, as have Kerry O'Brien, Eric Idle, Stan Grant and Archie Roach, and every December, Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales.
In 1999, Meet the Author events moved to evening events. Long lunches were becoming less feasible for most people, and parking for 200 at ANU at lunchtime was beginning to morph into its present impossibility. With an average of 30 events a year since 1999, authors are too numerous to mention, but have included Hugh Mackay, Tim Flannery, Magda Szubanski, Anna Funder and Alain De Botton.
Canberra is an advantage as speakers have included many politicians and political commentators, including Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Carr, Laura Tingle, Christopher Pyne, Gareth Evans, Peter Garrett, Nikki Savva, Katharine Murphy, Michelle Grattan, David Speers, and Laurie Oakes.
Apart from the pleasure of listening to and meeting stimulating authors, not forgetting the numerous talented Canberra conversationalists, the ANU has always seen Meet the Author as a major public outreach program; the podcasts are among the most popular ANU downloads.
Reflecting that impact, the ANU, through Vice- Chancellor Brian Schmidt, technically underpinned the inaugural virtual event on April 23, with Malcolm Turnbull and Katharine Murphy. Six hundred watched the live conversation and many more subsequently via the ANU television recording. Virtual meet the author events continue until Canberra's book lovers can all meet again in person.