Portrait

A tragic accident, a life cut short, and the moving memories left behind. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

The 17th storey

Robert Watkins has baked a coffee and cardamom cake. He is Hachette Australia’s commissioning editor. He says the marketing director is likely coming. The publishing director is already there. “Our CEO Matt Richell might pop in to say hello.”

I wipe my sweaty palms on my skirt underneath the table, accept a cup of English breakfast. I’m under no illusions: publishing CEOs don’t pop in to say hello to unknown, unsigned writers.

Ten minutes later, on the heels of the marketing director, Matt Richell breezes in, lithe frame riding atop an easy saunter. He gently handshakes a hello, casually pulls out a seat, leans back with right foot balanced on left knee, accepts a slice of cake, jokes about the coffee-kick. He starts talking about his vision for the publishing house, how committed he is to publishing Australian voices. A few sentences in, he suddenly breaks train. “Are those really sleeve cuffs, Robert?” 

His commissioning editor leans over, displays the antique silver bracelet-type rings holding his folded shirt sleeves in place. Matt inspects them incredulously, wide white grin flashing in disbelief. Five o’clock shadow. Honest eyes. Measured gaze. He’s alarmingly present, all carefully constrained energy, as if a cricket ball suddenly hurtled this way his hand would calmly shoot up to catch it before his head even turned. Straight-backed, straighter-talking. Unassuming: a sit-next-to-at-the-footy kind of guy. Only strangely so, enigmatically so. Unforgettably unassuming. Like if you did sit next to him at the footy, if he spoke to you about the weather while in the meat-pie line, you’d somehow, inexplicably, remember him. Not just that evening, but for the rest of your life – and you’d be completely unable to articulate why.

The conversation turns to social media, the new website in the works, what the online space can do for an author in difficult publishing times. “Of course, that social media stuff takes up time. My wife’s also a writer…you’ve got young kids, there may just be times when you need six months off for your writing, need people to be kept at bay. We could also help you with that…” 

Outside, in the foyer, my agent turns to me. “What did you think of Matt? He’s great … not really like a CEO at all. He’s…” The lift doors close on the 17th-storey publishing house and she trails off.

Matt’s comments weren’t ordinary pitch material, I realise that day after meetings at three more publishing houses. That was just Matt, laying things bare in the centre of the spin. Matt, being the partner of a successful writer and mother, and a father to charming, boisterous littlies. Matt, knowing what that means for a wordsmith. Matt, saying I see you, and I see your life, and I know what this is going to take. 

Contagiously calm

A year later, Matt Richell’s sitting underneath the elaborate chandeliers of the Langham Hotel, spine flat to the back of his chair, denim jeans and dark knitted jumper a foil for the Melbourne weather. He looks around the table, all crinkled laughter lines. Talk falls to the panel he’s about to chair as part of the 2014 Leading Edge Books Conference: Nurturing Australian Authors. “I’m sorry, but I have to fly back straight afterwards. I’ve got to be home this evening,” he apologises. 

Someone mentions his littlies, the fact it’s a Saturday. Matt says he’s looking forward to getting back to his family, mentions something about a marathon he has to run tomorrow, half-shrugs at the collective guffaw, as if he’s just announced he’s going to mow the lawn. Later I learn he was running to help raise funds for an inner-city writing centre for marginalised young people.    

Talk turns to fashion. The author Favel Parrett has just purchased a stunning black skirt from a Melbourne vintage shop. Brooke Davis and I look it over admiringly. “We should convince Matt to employ a Hachette seamstress,” I joke. Soon I’m pitching Matt the myriad benefits of having superbly dressed authors. His mock-serious nod is betrayed by laughing eyes and twitching mouth.

Inside the conference hall, Matt extricates our stories for a packed room of pin-drop-quiet independent booksellers: articulate as ever, but casually animated, as if he’s chatting to mates over a pint. There’s genuine pride in his authors and the industry that carries their words. 

A few hours after the panel, most likely while waiting at the airport, Matt sends me and the other authors emails congratulating us on a job well done. Two weeks after the conference, each of us receives a gift voucher in the mail for the Melbourne shop where Favel bought her vintage skirt. The card is signed: Sincerely, The Hachette Wardrobe Department.

This is the Matt Richell I knew: Matt, in that first meeting; Matt, running marathons to help fund writing programs; English Matt, championing Australian writers within an international publishing house; Matt, surrounded by his publishing colleagues, always contagiously calm and wearing respect on his sleeve. Matt, standing on a chair in the centre of Hachette’s author party at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, dapper and suited-up, joking about how he’s always wanted to stand on a chair in a suit and scream, introducing each author by name and book title in his soft-spoken way. I knew the Matt who okayed a Hachette Wardrobe Department. 

Many tributes will follow, from those who knew Matt Richell far better than me. He was most significantly a loved, cherished and dedicated husband, father, brother and son. This is just the rough sketch one writer could muster, of a man she greatly admired, drawn from where she stood. 

A fitting tribute

Hachette contacts Hannah Richell, to let her know I’m planning on sketching a portrait of the man she shared her whole world with. “This would have made Matt very, very happy,” her return email reads. “… and a little bit embarrassed, but in the nicest way possible.” 

And just like that I see him: reading somewhere in the ocean breeze, blushing slightly at all the fuss. I see Matt, folding this newspaper in half, tucking it under his arm, standing, striding away with as much purpose in his step as always.

Author proceeds from this piece will be donated to the Sydney Story Factory, a charity Matt Richell supported.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "The 17th storey". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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