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Who is Christopher Koch?

Everyone has a favourite author. Mine is Christopher Koch. But whenever I mention him to people (especially people of my generation), they always ask: “Christopher who?”

I’m surprised Christopher Koch is unknown to most people, because he had a huge reputation in the literary world and is considered Australia’s best writer of fiction ever (yes, even better than Richard Flanagan and Tim Winton). All his books (eight novels and two books of nonfiction) have sold well, especially the one that made him successful: The Year of Living Dangerously (published in 1979), which was adapted into a film starring Mel Gibson in 1982. Two of his novels (The Doubleman and Highways to a War) won Australia’s top literary award, the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

But it’s not because he wrote bestsellers and won awards that makes him Australia’s best writer. It’s because he wrote with great purity. His writing is never flamboyant, and he never showed off.

“I think that, in the novel, you should say what you have to say as clearly as you can,” he said in a radio interview in 2007. “Saying it clearly may not always be simple, but generally it should be.”

He was also a perfectionist, often re-writing, re-writing, and re-writing his work again to ensure that readers were going to get novels of the highest quality. Highways to a War, along with its companion novel Out of Ireland, took Koch seven years to write.

Here’s an example of his writing:

The whole of dry, Time-flattened Australia lies north of latitude forty, its climate Mediterranean and then sub-tropical. But small, mountainous Tasmania, filled with lakes and rivers, is south of latitude forty; and this makes it different. Politically, it is part of the Commonwealth of Australia; physically, it is not. (from The Doubleman, page 24 of the 2013 edition)

See what I mean?

Born in Tasmania in 1932, Koch went to Clemes College, St. Virgil’s College, and Hobart High School. After graduating from the University of Tasmania in 1954 with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours, he travelled through south Asia and Europe, ending up in London where he worked as a waiter and a teacher for a period of time before returning to Australia. While he was in London, he submitted his first novel, The Boys in the Island, to a publishing house; it was published shortly after he returned to Australia.

After winning a writing fellowship in the early-1960s, he worked on and subsequently published his second novel, Across the Sea Wall, at Stanford University in the US where he met fellow authors Ken Kesey and Frank O’Connor, among others.

He then returned to Australia once again, and took up a job as a radio producer at the ABC in Sydney. But because of the demands of being a full-time radio producer, as well as raising a family, he had no time to write, which was his passion.

By the late-1970s, he’d decided to become a full-time writer. He left the ABC and came to live in Tasmania to write the novel which became The Year of Living Dangerously. In order to support himself financially until the novel’s publication, he lived off the rent of a set of terraces which he’d bought cheaply and renovated before quitting the ABC.

The Year of Living Dangerously became a bestseller after it was published, and Koch enjoyed a successful career as a writer until his death from cancer in 2013. He was 81-years-old.

I’ve picked up quite a few things about the craft of writing from Koch’s books. I’m willing to bet that my fellow UTas students will be able to pick up a thing or three as well, so I strongly encourage them to read one or more of his books. I’d personally recommend starting with Highways to a War, which tells a story about the search for a war photographer who disappears inside Cambodia.

 

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