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Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville
File:Kate Grenville 15July2011.jpg
Born 14 October 1950 (1950-10-14) (age 65)
Sydney, Australia
Occupation Novelist, teacher of creative writing
Nationality Australian
Genre General fiction, historical fiction, short stories

Dr Kate Grenville FAAH (born 14 October 1950) is one of Australia's best-known authors. She has published nine novels, a collection of short stories, and four books about the writing process.

Her books have been awarded many prizes in Australia, as well as the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and Britain's Orange Prize. The Secret River was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Her novels have been published all over the world and been translated into many languages. Two have been made into feature films.


Kate Grenville was born in Sydney in 1950. She was educated at Cremorne Girls' High School, the University of Sydney (BA Hons) and the University of Colorado (MA), and has worked as an editor of documentary films at Film Australia, a sub-editor of subtitles at SBS Television, and a teacher of Creative Writing.

In 2006 she was awarded a Doctorate of Creative Arts by the University of Technology, Sydney[1][2] under the supervision of Associate Professors Glenda Adams and Paula Hamilton.

She received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of New South Wales in 2010, from the University of Sydney in 2012,[3] and from Macquarie University in 2013.[4] In 2014 the Library Council of New South Wales awarded her the Dixson Medal.[5]

Grenville lives in Sydney with her husband, son and daughter. Her leisure activities include learning to play the cello[6] and performing in an amateur orchestra.


Kate Grenville's reputation as a short story writer was made by the publication in 1984 of her collection Bearded Ladies.[7] On its publication, Peter Carey wrote "Here is someone who can really write".

Lilian's Story was her first published novel (1985) and won the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award. It has become one of Australia's best-loved novels and was made into a 1996 film, starring Ruth Cracknell and Toni Collette; Collette won the Australian Film Institute award for supporting actress for her performance as the young Lilian.

Dreamhouse followed in 1986, appearing as the film Traps a few years later. Joan Makes History – the recipient of an Australian Bicentennial Commission – was published in 1988.

In 1994 Grenville returned to the characters and setting of Lilian's Story with a companion novel – Dark Places – that re-tells the events of the earlier novel from the point of view of Lilian's incestuous father. Dark Places won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award in 1995. (In the US this novel is titled Albion's Story.)

The Idea of Perfection appeared in 2000 and won the Orange Prize for Fiction, at the time Britain's richest literary award.

In 2006 The Secret River was published, the first of Grenville's books that take Australia's colonial past, and relations with Australia's indigenous people, as its subject. The Secret River was inspired by the story of her own great-great-great grandfather, a convict sent to Australia from London in 1806. This book won the Commonwealth Prize, the Christina Stead Award, and the NSW Premier's Community Relations Prize, and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Searching for The Secret River (2006) is a memoir about the research and writing of the novel, tracing the journey of her increasing awareness of how Australia's colonial past informs its present.

The Lieutenant (2008) is set thirty years earlier than The Secret River. Based on the historical notebooks of Lieutenant William Dawes, it tells the story of the friendship between a soldier with the First Fleet and a young Gadigal girl. These two novels together explore something of the complexity of black-white relations in Australia's past.

Sarah Thornhill (2011) is the sequel to The Secret River and takes up the story of William Thornhill's youngest daughter. It can be read as a stand-alone novel, without having read The Secret River.

Her latest book is "One Life: My Mother's Story", in which Grenville uses the fragments of memoir that her mother left to construct the story of a woman whose life - in some ways typical of her times, in other ways remarkable - spanned a century of tumult and dramatic change.

Grenville has also written or co-written several books about the writing process which are widely used in Creative Writing workshops and in schools and universities: The Writing Book; Writing from Start to Finish; and Making Stories ( co-written with Sue Woolfe).

Grenville has been awarded fellowships from the International Association of University Women and from the Literary Arts Board of the Australia Council.[7] Her novels have all been published in the UK and US as well as Australia and have been translated into many languages, including German, Swedish, French, Hebrew and Chinese.

Grenville's website is and her Facebook fan page is

Style and subject matter

Grenville's early fiction presented characters trying to free themselves from social and gender stereotypes. Bearded Ladies is a collection of short stories about women trying to free themselves from the gender stereotypes of their society: metaphorically they are the "bearded ladies" of the title.

Lilian's Story, set in the early twentieth century, takes as its subject a woman who rejects her middle-class background and the conventional future that's expected of her. Instead she chooses to live as a street person, making a living by offering recitations from Shakespeare. At the end of her life she declares joyously: "Drive on, George. I am ready for whatever comes next."

Joan Makes History is a satirical re-writing of Australia's history, foregrounding the women rather than the men. Joan is an Everywoman character who in various guises lives through all the iconic moments of Australia's past. She "makes history" both by simply living her life, and by (re)making history by writing it.

Dreamhouse is a black comedy about a marriage on the rocks. It explores themes of both men and women freeing themselves from stereotypes to accept their true selves. Both partners in the marriage are attracted to their own sex: the wife is prepared to acknowledge that and act on it while the husband refuses to.

The Idea of Perfection is about people haunted by the impossible ideal of perfection. The two main characters are both middle-aged and frumpish, and consider themselves unlovably flawed. The journey they make is to recognise that to be "imperfect" is simply to be human, and carries its own power. As the epigraph from Leonardo da Vinci asserts: "An arch is two weaknesses that together make a strength".

The Secret River is set in early nineteenth century Australia and is based on the story of one of Grenville's convict ancestors, Solomon Wiseman, a London boatman transported for theft.[8] She takes that story as a means of exploring a wider theme: the dark legacy of colonialism, especially its impact on Australia's Aboriginal peoples. The title comes from the anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner, who wrote about a "secret river of blood flowing through Australia's history": the story of white Australia's relationship with the Aboriginal people.

The Lieutenant is the story of one of the very earliest moments of black-white relationship in Australia, at the time of first settlement in 1788. Based on a historical source – the Gadigal-language notebooks of Lieutenant William Dawes – the novel tells the story of a unique friendship. In learning the Gadigal language from a young girl, Dawes wrote down word-for-word parts of their conversations. Grenville has used these fragments as the basis for a novel exploring how it might be possible for two people to reach across the gulfs of language and culture that separate them, and arrive at a relationship of mutual warmth and respect. She has described it as a "mirror-image" of "The Secret River".

Sarah Thornhill is a sequel to The Secret River. It tells the story of one of the children of the main character in the earlier book. Sarah Thornhill grows up knowing nothing of the dark secret in her family's past, and when she has to confront it, the direction of her life and her thinking is changed. It's a story about secrets and lies, and how to deal with a dark legacy from the past. Grenville has said that the book is set in the nineteenth century, but is as much about the ugly secrets in Australian history that her own generation inherited.

These three books form a loose trilogy – "The Colonial Trilogy" – about the first three generations of white settlement in Australia, and what that shared black/white history means for contemporary Australians. The themes of the three books reach beyond Australia: all are widely read in other countries where colonialism has left a problematic legacy.

Grenville frequently does extensive research for her novels, often using historical or other sources as the starting-point for the work of the imagination. She says of her books that they are "sometimes inspired by historical events, but they are imaginative constructs, not an attempt to write history".[1]

Awards and nominations




Short story collections



  • The Writing Book: A Manual for Fiction Writers (1990) ISBN 0-04-442124-9
  • Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written (1993), with Woolfe, Sue ISBN 1-86373-316-7
  • Writing from Start to Finish: a Six-Step Guide (2001)
  • Searching for the Secret River (2006) ISBN 1-921145-39-0


Grenville's work has appeared in: Swedish, Dutch, German, French, Italian, Czech, Bulgarian, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Norwegian, Greek, and Mandarin.


  1. ^ a b Interview with Kate Grenville, Peter_Ellis, 1 August 2009
  2. ^ Searching for the secret river, 2006-12-06, accessed 2 August 2009
  3. ^ "About Kate Grenville". Retrieved 27 November 2014. 
  4. ^ "Celebrated Australian writer Kate Grenville receives an honorary doctorate". Macquarie University. 19 April 2013. Retrieved 27 November 2014. 
  5. ^ "Dame Marie Bashir receives top honours at NSW State Library (pdf)" (PDF). State Library of New South Wales. 21 October 2014. Retrieved 27 November 2014. 
  6. ^ Kate Grenville My Life A Biographical Note at the Wayback Machine (archived May 1, 2008)
  7. ^ a b Whitlock (1989) p.2
  8. ^ "The Secret River". One Hundred exhibition. State Library of NSW. Retrieved 25 February 2013. 
  9. ^


  • Whitlock, Gillian (ed) (1989) Eight Voices of the Eighties: Stories, Journalism and Criticism by Australian Women Writers, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press

External links

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