Like any virgin author, I’m excited to see my first history book ANTIPODES: IN SEARCH OF THE SOUTHERN CONTINENT in stores. It has been a long and at times difficult road to publication. The truth is, it very nearly wasn’t so. Here’s how the book, mimicking the southern continent about which it muses, sputtered into and out of existence.
1: It started with an inland sea
The book is about the European idea of—then relentless search for—a massive continent in the southern hemisphere, particularly from the 16th through 18th centuries. So, first things first: I never intended to write a single word about Terra Australis, which is what this imagined land came to be known as.
When I began research for a PhD at the University of Queensland, my topic was the 19th century idea of an inland sea in the Australian interior. Great topic (was then, still is now, and I encourage any budding PhD students to tackle it). But, before I did any research on the non-existent Australian inland sea, I brushed up on the broader and longer history of what Europeans imagined for the entire southern hemisphere.
A year later I was still brushing up… and realised that there were so many interesting avenues of inquiry, so many things still to be said and so many maps to ponder that I was now in the Antipodes business (apologies to my PhD supervisor who must have thought I was utterly insane).
2: I did not know anything about anything
How does one become an expert? Decide you need to become an expert then read everything you can get your hands on, think about the subject constantly and have the audacity to both put your own ideas out there and be willing to tell others they are wrong (preferably when they are).
It was a truly daunting prospect having to learn all that had to be learned—completely from scratch. My subject covers two thousand years of history, from antiquity to the modern era. It involves all manner of sources from many different places (try communicating as a non-Italian speaker with Italian libraries for a fun experience), and covers multiple fields of scholarly inquiry.
Had I appreciated the true size of the subject and how unreasonable it was for a young scholar to try to understand it all, I would never have started. I had no idea I would need to translate ancient Greek philosophy! Or understand symbols on Medieval maps! Or grapple with the mental state of Christian explorers!
What may have looked like arrogance on my part, tackling such a broad swathe of history, was in fact pure naivety. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, much like many of the explorers who set out in search of knowledge in the Age of Discovery and after. Luckily, I didn’t end up as a pile of sun-bleached bones in a desert, though at times it felt like I was as lost as Leichhardt.
That is why it took me 5 years to finish my research and complete my thesis—that, and the presence of a bean bag in my office.
3: Based on a PhD that was based on the book that didn’t exist
When I was a graduate student I was not shy in my disdain for the manner in which many research theses are executed at universities. My opinion on the matter has only firmed now that I work professionally as an academic editor.
That is, theses are often obscure and preposterously narrow in their focus (I used to joke to new people I met that I was researching the history of beer bottle caps, or the history of chip-board in Australia; no one ever quibbled).
They often focus on intrinsically uninteresting and unimportant content (but then everyone thinks what they are doing is important, yours truly included).
And, worst of all misdemeanours, they are often written as if the scholar is functionally illiterate and has relied on a random word generator—or hates readers and wishes them to suffer as much as they did writing the monstrosity.
So, I said to hell with literature reviews and other such wastes of everybody’s time, to hell with fusty academic phrasing and credential establishing, I’m writing a damned book and that is going to be my PhD. So I did, with informal language (sacrilege), a less than reverent tone (scoundrel), no literature review (fool) and so on (again, apologies to my supervisor; there was more than the odd raised brow and cautionary word over my caper).
It was all a bit iffy as to whether my examiners would throw me out of the academy or welcome me with open arms. In the end, I was lambasted for my attitude, and applauded for my content. The book is now considerably different to that PhD thesis, but the same heart beats in both.
4: My first publisher dropped me
In academic publishing, promising work is sent out to academic reviewers for their opinion and to give a yay or nay for publication. Some academics do this reviewing in a straightforward and fairly objective manner. Others are rooting for the writer; they know how hard it all is and choose to see the positive.
And then others—far too many others—seek to flay the writer no matter what, in the act that I heard Australian historian Tom Griffiths aptly describe as boundary riding. They seek to protect what is theirs, and with some academics what is theirs is all of academia—so get out of my territory!
To be blunt, they can be complete and utter miserable bastards. The whole process is notoriously bruising and disliked by just about everyone who has ever written a manuscript that must be signed off on by academics.
So, I was very pleased when after more than six months of messing around a respected English publisher received their reader reports and told me they wanted to publish. Many months more down the path, they unceremoniously dropped me—over email.
Their Australian agent had finally told them my book would not sell enough copies in Australia (we shall see). Unfortunately, these processes don’t take months, but years, and so I was set back so badly I very nearly decided not to bother trying to find another publisher.
I could not let it go, and finally I did find a good home at Monash (thanks to Nathan Hollier at the Press for not messing around in the least when it came to expressing interest and deciding to take it to print). But the book took 5 years to write, and then 6 years to publish. 11 years!
No, the book should definitely not exist.
But I’m glad it does. It is not boring and it is not pointless and it is not written to frustrate readers. In that sense, it should exist. Many said the same about Terra Australis, and they made that exist, too.
To see how, you’ll need to read the book. It won’t take 11 years. Unless you are my wife. She still hasn’t read it, but I am assured it is the very next history book she will read.