Acclaimed author to deliver Madgwick Lecture

Published 29 September 2009

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Acclaimed Australian author, Steven Conte, will enjoy a homecoming of sorts when he delivers the 18th annual Sir Robert Madgwick Lecture at the University of New England next Wednesday (October 7).

Dr Conte spent his formative years in Guyra and boarded for six at The Armidale School before embarking on an overseas adventure, an experience that later inspired his first novel, The Zookeeper’s War, which won the $100,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2008.

Walking into Fiction is the title of Dr Conte’s free lecture, which he will deliver at the UNE Arts Theatre at 12 noon next Wednesday.

The title is apt, as Dr Conte’s backpacking odyssey saw him hitchhike 3000km around Europe, including a three month stay in Berlin, a period which had a major influence on his writing.

It also alludes to the fact that at 43, he did not rush into a literary career.

“I’m one of these overnight successes for 25 years,” he laughed.

“I had been aspiring to be a writer since I was in my teens, so have been chipping away at it for a long time.”

On his return to Australia Dr Conte moved to Canberra, where he studied professional writing at the University of Canberra, as well as Australian literature (as a civilian) at the Defence Force Academy.

He worked at various jobs to support his writing, including as a barman, life model, taxi driver, public servant and book reviewer.

After a decade in the nation’s capital Dr Conte moved to Melbourne in 1999 and completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.

It was here that he developed the manuscript that became The Zookeeper’s War, which was published in 2007.

The book is set in a Berlin zoo in 1943, where an Australian woman, Vera, and her German husband, Axel, the zoo’s director, struggle to look after the animals through the air raids and food shortages of war.

While some writers and artists keenly feel the pressure of early success, Dr Conte, on the contrary, finds it liberating.

“Success certainly creates expectations, but I’m not feeling it as pressure,” he said.

“The benefit of not having success until middle age is that the work is undoubtedly better than it would have been had I rushed it out five years earlier.

“The advantage of waiting is that you turn out something that is more measured and considered, and more likely to succeed.”

Dr Conte’s Madgwick Lecture will centre on the creative process behind The Zookeeper’s War.

“I will be telling the story of how the book came into being and hope that by describing the process and the real life experiences that inspired it, I can give an insight into part of the mechanism behind creating a novel,” he said.

“Also, as I didn’t live through that time, I will speak about the interaction between research and personal experience and how this can influence the development of history in a novel.”

Head of the School of Arts at UNE, Professor Jennie Shaw, said the Sir Robert Madgwick Lecture is held in honour of UNE’s first Vice-Chancellor, who was a strong advocate of the role of UNE in promoting education for the whole community.

“The inaugural lecture was delivered by Sir Hermann Black. Other eminent citizens who have delivered the lecture include Emeritus Professor Manning Clark, Dr Barbara Thiering, Assoc Prof John S. Ryan, Richard Butler, Ruth Cracknell, Kerry O’Brien, David Martin and Tim Fischer,” she said.

“We are delighted that Dr Conte has accepted our invitation to deliver the 2009 Madgwick Lecture, especially as he has strong local connections both in Guyra and Armidale.

“The Lecture provides a wonderful opportunity for university staff, students and members of the local community to come together to hear one of Australia’s rising stars.”

For more information on the Madgwick Lecture phone 6773 2534.