Profile

Terri-ann White’s long career has been marked by a certain wildness, but her latest project – starting a new publishing house in the midst of a pandemic – is probably the boldest. By Brooke Boland.

Terri-ann White

Terri-ann White.
Credit: Robert Frith

“Did I tell you the story of taking Michael to a Tupperware party?” Terri-ann White is talking about the late INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, whom she knew when she was 18, before she became one of Australia’s most respected book publishers. “My first and last,” she jokes. “Not sure about his.”

White met the charismatic 17-year-old Hutchence when INXS were called the Farriss Brothers. The band returned home to Western Australia in the late ’70s and White briefly acted as their agent, booking gigs across the city, mostly at high school socials and later in hotels and pubs.

“He always had a face covered in acne but was seriously sexy,” White says. She never understood why he came to the Tupperware party with her that day. Years later, she recounted the story to his sister, who commented: “Michael was always where the women were.”

White admits to being “slightly wild” as a university student in Perth, although I have a feeling we could drop the adverb. “These were heady days of going to gigs in hotels and nightclubs, even before I started my own gigs, and then having to front up at 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning for classes.” She ended up taking a year off her bachelor of arts to work in the local rock scene, once packing out Perth’s Pagoda Ballroom with 1700 people.

White has a knack for knowing what will resonate. She’s astute and selective – important characteristics in an editor and publisher – but she always works from feeling; she is genuinely moved by the books she publishes. “I’m always interested in replicating the perfect thing that I’d like to go to,” she says. The live music events were driven by that instinct, as was Arcane Bookshop, which she opened at 23. It also drove her work as the director and publisher at University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP) – a position she held for 14 years.

Two years ago, in November 2019, White faced her biggest crisis as a publisher: the attempted shutdown of the successful UWAP by the university itself. The news came as White touched down at Perth Airport after attending the Sharjah International Book Fair. Completely unprepared and on a natural high after a successful trip, she was pulled into a meeting the following morning and told UWAP was to cease operations. “We were told we were out, that we were going to be out within a month,” she says. The plan was to transition UWAP to an open-source digital publishing model. According to the memo, staff were “surplus to requirements”.

The logic behind the decision remains clouded. “I was given support all the way down the line until a new person came from London and saw it as being disposable,” White says. Her feeling is that the decision was made unilaterally, without consideration of the role university presses play in Australia’s publishing landscape, which has evolved differently from its British counterparts.

“They hadn’t looked at [UWAP’s] long, long history and the tentacles that we’d built out into multiple communities; into an academic community, a university community, a literary one, a political one, an Aboriginal one, and particularly the Noongar community in Western Australia,” says White. “We really penetrated into large parts of the society we live in and that wasn’t noted.”

The controversial closure became news overnight. Within days a petition received more than 10,000 signatures. Email systems and LinkedIn crashed for the senate members – the governing authority of UWA – as they were inundated with support for UWAP.

White emerged from the frenzy in a daze. “[The support] helped me through that time,” she says. “It made me feel stronger and certainly made me feel like I could push back.”

She lobbied everyone in a position to reverse the decision and engaged a lawyer to attend follow-up meetings. “It was a hugely spirited set of weeks: exhausting and rousing. You might say it was successful, as UWAP is still alive.”

A writer herself, White had worked at UWA for 25 years. She taught writing and literature and later became the founder and director of the Institute of Advanced Studies. In 2004 she shaped the first fiction list at UWA Publishing, and was appointed director two years later. “That fiction list was about addressing partly the fact that hundreds of people were going through PhDs and MAs in Australian universities,” she explains. “Most of those books weren’t being published … I just saw the huge waste attached there.”

She published about 450 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction at UWAP. The press became known for publishing established names such as John Kinsella, as well as first-time and marginalised authors. Among them was Josephine Wilson’s first novel Cusp – the result of a master’s degree at University of Queensland – in 2005. Years later Wilson received the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award – also set up by White – for the manuscript of Extinctions and went on to publish with UWAP a second time. “When I read her second novel, Extinctions, I felt utterly thrilled,” says White. Her instinct paid off: the book went on to win the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Despite her fight to reinstate the university press, White exited in June 2020. UWAP has since appointed a new editorial board. For the rest of that year, she immersed herself in writing the 400-page tome Sharing Stories in an Ancient Land: The Western Australian Museum, which coincided with the museum’s redevelopment and opening of the WA Museum Boola Bardip. But at the back of her mind, White knew she wasn’t done with publishing.

Melbourne writer Belinda Probert began sending her pages of a new book she’d started during the early days of lockdown. “She was writing a thousand words a day and sending them to me. She just did a brilliant job of completing a significant amount of work,” White says. “I decided: let’s get going with this.”

In December last year, White announced the launch of a new non-profit imprint, Upswell – with Probert’s book among the first three to be released in 2021, alongside John Hughes and Monique Truong. “I don’t feel like I have done everything that I wanted to do in publishing,” she says. “This was really about my continuing zeal for working with great writers.”

There’s a boldness to White that is deeply likeable; she’s just the type of person to launch a new publishing venture in the middle of a pandemic. “I’ve always been a bit like this. I’m ambitious and kind of jump in at the deep end,” she says.

As a 12-year-old in her suburban bedroom in Perth, she read Patrick White’s The Vivisector, followed by In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey, that stayed with her for their intensity and unusual use of language. “I was always interested in things that were outside of a standard reading experience, outside of a plot-driven or a character-driven work of fiction,” she says.

Her interest in cultural endurance – books that remain part of the cultural imagination for 50 years, 100 years, or longer – took root through the 1980s as a bookseller and writer. It was timely: British publishers such as Virago and Women’s Press began to release books by women that had gone out of print or were overlooked altogether. For White, longevity became a guiding ethos.

In the early days of running her own bookstore, when customers were rare, she recalls lying on the floor of her shop reading book after book. She came to understand how an author’s career is built across long stretches, throughout an entire lifetime of experience and consideration of the craft of writing. This fascinated White. “I only stocked things that I liked,” she laughs. “People would come in and they’d see that there was a very particular consciousness that had put together this collection of books.” She was interested in literary fiction, art and photography, feminist theory, gay and lesbian books and “serious” poetry collections. “I refused to stock anything like self-help or sport,” she says.

Her strategy paid off. “These things always work if you’ve got a strong sense of what you want to do. It’s now called curation, but it’s really about putting things together that speak to each other across their different historical periods or geographical places.”

She is known as an evangelist for literary writers at a time when publishing lists are dominated by blockbuster novels by journalists, hit series or debut memoirs by new authors. The manuscripts she selects aren’t the result of social media hype – she’s not interested in “marketing-led publishing” – or celebrity culture. White’s attention is on language and expression.

“There are simply too many books being published,” she says. As a result, books tend to have a shorter life span on the shelf and in public discourse, becoming old news after only a few weeks. Finding readers amid the noise is difficult. “There is still that sense of precariousness for literary writers,” she says. “The number of opportunities to be published, I think, continues to reduce and there is so much competition out there now.”

In a 2017 essay in the Sydney Review of Books, White lamented the state of Australian publishing. “Something has gone wrong in this past decade,” she wrote. “Part of it comes from the dominance of a celebrity culture where achievement through thinking and making has been distilled down to image and status.”

When I ask her to explain further, she says for her it is never about the heights, although many of the books she has published have been shortlisted or received awards. “It’s about the long, slow progress,” she says. “Achievements are wonderful, but reading is better.”

These days, White is feeling settled. The advance copies of Upswell’s three forthcoming books have just arrived at her home office. “We’ve done a few little adjustments to them before the final printing goes ahead.”

Even though Upswell hasn’t opened for submissions, White has already received piles of manuscripts, some from well-known writers she has worked with before. “I’m overwhelmed with the beauty of some of the manuscripts that I’m receiving,” she says. “For a while there, I had a little crisis of thinking: what do I do if I’ve got more than 10 incredible opportunities each year?” She remains committed to publishing no more than 10, an annual quota she decided early on, to manage the workload.

White has already committed to another five books, including a lyric essay collection by celebrated pianist Simon Tedeschi. “He sent me the manuscript and I read it that night. I wrote to him and said, ‘This has blown my mind.’ From page one, I knew what he was doing, and I knew how powerful it was.”

As with every manuscript she reviews, White focuses on the sentences. She reads the first page, the last page, and a “random page in the middle”. The books she loves the most over the years have all passed the test.

“For me, it’s always at the level of the sentence,” she says. “And just how bold that voice is, whether it’s a quiet voice or a big, loud voice, but how bold the writer is in the way that they give us an entry into that manuscript.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 19, 2021 as "For the love of books".

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Brooke Boland is a writer from the south coast of NSW.