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National Biography Award

For a published literary work of biographical or autobiographical writing. The National Biography Award was established in 1996 to encourage the highest standards of writing biography and autobiography and to promote public interest in those genres. The winner receives a $20,000 cash prize.

The National Biography Award is administered and presented by the NSW State Library (official site) on behalf of its generous benefactors Geoffrey Cains and Michael Crouch AO.

Past winners of the prize include East of Time by Jacob G. Rosenberg, Robert Hillman's for The Boy in the Green Suit: An Innocent Abroad in the Middle East, Peter Rose's Rose Boys: a Memoir of Life with Robert, and Roberta Sykes's 1998 winner, the extraordinary, Snake Cradle: Autobiography of a Black Woman.

2010 Winner & Shortlists

Clare writer and Flinders University Professor Brian Matthews has won the 2010 National Biography Award for his book, Manning Clark A Life.

Manning Clark: A Life | Andrew Fisher: Prime Minister of Australia | Doing Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley | House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann | Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography |The Weight of Silence: A Memoir

The other shortlisted books were Andrew Fisher: Prime Minister of Australia (HarperCollins) by David Day (ACT); Doing Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley (UWA Press) by Brian Dibble (NSW); House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann (Giramondo Press) by Evelyn Juers (NSW); Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography (HarperCollins) by Jill Roe (NSW); and The Weight of Silence: A Memoir (Hachette Australia) by Catherine Therese (WA)

2009 National Biography Award Winner & Shortlist

From a record 58 entries in biographical and memoir writing, six were chosen:

I am Melba | Arthur Blackburn, VC: An Australian Hero, His Men, and Their Two World Wars | The Bone Man of Kokoda |flower_hunter | Desert Queen: The Many Lives and Loves of Daisy Bates | Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall

   Winner: I am Melba by Ann Blainey, Black Inc.

Other shortlisted
   Arthur Blackburn, VC: An Australian Hero, His Men, and Their Two World Warsby Andrew Faulkner, Wakefield Press
    The Bone Man of Kokoda by Charles Happell, Macmillan
    The Flower Hunter: The Remarkable Life of Ellis Rowan by Christine & Michael Morton-Evans, S&S
    Desert Queen: The Many Lives and Loves of Daisy Bates by Susanna De Vries, HarperCollins
    Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall by Greg de Moore, A&U.

2009 Award judges Louis Nowra, David Headon and Michael McGirr commented that ‘the process of judging was demanding but extremely enjoyable’. ‘We were quite taken by the subtle but significant movements in people’s lives … it’s a quality field and it produced an outstanding shortlist.’

Joint winners for $20,000 2008 National Biography Award


For the third time in the prize’s history, two authors of vastly different stories have been named joint winners of the $20,000 National Biography Award for 2008. The winners were , Philip Dwyer for Napoleon: v. 1: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799 and Graham Seal for These Few Lines: A Convict Romance - The Lost Lives of Myra and William Sykes, were presented with the annual award by NSW State Librarian, Regina Sutton. On presenting the Award, Regina Sutton said: “The judges’ selection of two winners rather than one demonstrates the strength of biographical writing right now.”

Philip Dwyer’s ambitious biography on the infamous French leader, and Graham Seal’s powerful and moving 19th century convict story, were shortlisted from 33 entries. Additional titles shortlisted were: Lucy Osburn, A Lady Displaced (book link to Sydney University Press) by Judith Godden; A Thinking Reed by Barry Jones; The Mascot: The Extraordinary Story of a Jewish Boy and an SS Extermination Squad by Mark Kurzem; and Jonestown: The Power and the Myth of Alan Jones by Chris Masters. (Link to Sydney University Press)

The judges praised the winners for “the meticulous scholarship” of their books, “coupled with an engaging structure and a bright, individual style of writing.” The judges for this year’s Award were critic and writer Carmel Bird, academic and writer John Dale and author Gideon Haigh.

2008 Winners

Description Napoleon: v. 1: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799 by Philip Dwyer
dwyer_philipNapoleon Bonaparte's rise to power was neither inevitable nor smooth; it was full of mistakes, wrong turns and pitfalls. During his formative years, his identity was constantly shifting, his character ambiguous and his intentions often ill-defined. As a young and inexperienced general, he covered up his defeats and exaggerated his victories, never hesitating to blame others for his failures and failings. He was, however, highly ambitious, and it was this ruthless drive that advanced his career and his social status.

This book examines the extraordinary evolution of Napoleon's character and the means by which at the age of thirty he became head of the most powerful country in Europe: from his Corsican origins to his French education, from his melancholy youth to his involvement in Corsican political faction-fighting during the Revolution, and from his flirtation with the radicals of the French Revolution to his first military campaigns in Italy and Egypt - and the political-military coup that brought him to power in 1799. Philip Dwyer's expansive study sheds new light on the darker aspects of Napoleon's character - his brooding obsessions and potential for violence - and also his passionate nature: his loves, his ability to inspire others and the capacity to realise his visionary ideas. One of the first truly modern politicians, Napoleon skillfully fashioned the image of himself that laid the foundation of the legend that endures to this day. Fresh, innovative and broad in scope, this outstanding biography mints anew one of the great figures of modern history.

Dwyer focuses acutely on Napoleon’s formative years, from his Corsican origins to his French education, from his melancholy youth to his flirtation with radicals of the French Revolution, from his first military campaigns in Italy and Egypt to the political-military coup that brought him to power in 1799. One of the first truly modern politicians, Napoleon was a master of “spin,” using the media to project an idealized image of himself. Dwyer’s biography of the young Napoleon provides a fascinating new perspective on one of the great figures of modern history.

About the author- Philip Dwyer studied at the Sorbonne under France's pre-eminent Napoleonic scholar, Jean Tulard, and is now lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He is the editor of Napoleon and Europe (Longman, 2001) and author of Talleyrand (Longman, 2002).

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These Few Lines: A Convict Romance - The Lost Lives of Myra and William Sykes, Graham Seal

seal_grahamGraham Seal is Professor of Folklore at Curtin University. He is director of the Centre for Advanced Studies in Australia, Asia and the Pacific, director of the Australian Folklore Research Unit and deputy director of the interdisciplinary Australian Regional Research Unit.

His research activities are extensive and involve working with industry, government, community and academic partners throughout Western Australia, Australia and internationally He is frequent commentator in Australian and international media and has consulted for the National Library of Australia, the National Museum of Australia and the Smithsonian Institution, among others. He has written many books and articles published in Australia and internationally.

Graham is a member of the International Australian Studies Association, The Australian Folklore Association, the Folklore Society and the English Folk Dance and Song Society. He is the founder and convener of the Australian Folklore Network. He is an editorial board member of the Journal of Australian Studies, Australian Folklore and Perfect Beat.

2008 Shortlisted titles

lady_osburn_coverLucy Osburn, A Lady Displacedby Judith Godden (link to Sydney University Press)

Lucy Osburn (1836-1891) was the founder of modern nursing in Australia who also pioneered the employment of high status professional women in public institutions. Osburn learned her vocation at Florence Nightingale's school of nursing in London, but her relationship with Nightingale was not the smooth discourse of "Victorian ladies".

Godden uses extensive and frank correspondence to build an intriguing picture of life for an independent middle-class woman. Osburn's triumphs and trials in New South Wales typify the struggles the colony faced in its relations with the Mother Country, and with new roles in the workplace for women.

I found it impossible to put down as each chapter revealed yet more about this independent, stubborn, courageous and sometimes misguided woman who always seemed to relish a fight. – Judith A Cornell, Nursing. Aust

Site publishers note: Lucy Osburn, A Lady Displaced is one of many titles that achieve peer recogition published by small or university based publishers. It is important that we all support the efforts of those such as Sydney University Press- without them we would be bereft of countless excellent works. This book can be purchased directly from the publishers online via their secure internet facility.

A Thinking Reed by Barry Jones

From quiz kid to Australian Minister for Science, from frustrated school teacher to National President of the ALP, from the suburbs of Melbourne to UNESCO in Paris, Barry Jones has had a prodigious public life. Barry Jones first came to public prominence as Pick-a-Box quiz champion, and from then on he has embraced a myriad of passions and causes. A Thinking Reed spans his remarkable career, from a lonely childhood in Melbourne of the 1930s and 1940s to the fight he led against the death penalty to his crusade to make scienctinking_reede and the future prominent issues on the political agenda.

He has worked tirelessly on both a global and local scale to rethink education, to improve and preserve our heritage, to revive the nations's film industry, and to build a better Australia. Almost unique among politicians, Barry Jones is held in enormous public affection. And while he reveals many insights into the political process - both the problems of office and the atrophy of Opposition - he concentrates above all on the life of the mind; a mind with deep, passionate and often witty insights into history, philosophy, music and literature.

A Thinking Reed is a generous gift from an extraordinary Australian. 'A Thinking Reed is a book that works through accumulation and accretion ...and in his requiem for contemporary politics, we reach the finale of what we now see has been a symphony, and one with Mahleresque intimations of tragedy'. - Australian Literary Review

'Barry Jones has written the best autobiography of a politician I have ever read'. - Don Aitkin, Canberra Historical Journal

mascot_coverThe Mascot: The Extraordinary Story of a Jewish Boy and an SS Extermination Squad by Mark Kurzem

Part thriller, part psychological drama, part puzzle with a strange twist,The Mascot is one of the most astonishing stories to emerge from the Second World War. It tells the remarkable true story of how Alex Kurzem unraveled the shocking secrets of his wartime past. With the support of Mark, his son, Alex began to recall how he evaded the German-led execution squad that decimated his village, but witnessed the murder of his Jewish mother and siblings. He scavenged amongst the trees and protected himself from wolves, before falling into the hands of a Latvian police battalion. The soldiers adopted him as their mascot and Alex accompanied the unit everywhere as it changed its identity and duties to those of an SS unit on the rampage. He even appeared in propaganda films and newspaper articles, riding into Riga in a military parade...yet he was Jewish. At the age of five, was Alex Kurzem a collaborator or just a lost little boy? Caught up in a world of war-crime hunters, former war criminals and security agents with unclear agendas, he has since been threatened by many who believe he has betrayed them.

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Jonestown: The Power and the Myth of Alan Jones by Chris Masters (left).

masters_chrisjonestown_cover'Tough and impassioned this is a finely written and sparkling book.' Bridget Griffen-Foley, The Sydney Morning Herald 'Masters unveils a richly detailed and surprisingly rounded portrait ofJones...the account of how Jones wields and abuses his power as a broadcaster makes for profoundly disturbing reading.' Matthew Ricketson, The Age

How do we rank a man who raises millions for people in need but whose actions waste millions in support of unworthy mates and poor public policy? How do we define someone who on his own finds jobs for the out of work but who routinely trashes the careers of others? These are some of the many paradoxes of Alan Jones. Why is he adored? Why is he reviled? Why does this talk radio host have the power to dine with presidents, lecture prime ministers and premiers, and influence government ministers? And how is it that he could not only survive such a scandal as the 'cash for comment' affair, but go on to greater reward?

Chris Masters seeks the answers to these questions and in doing so reveals a complex individual and the potent relationship he has with both Struggle Street and the big end of town. Compelling and probing, Jonestown takes us to the hazardous intersection of populism and politics. It reaches deep into a powerful industry and exposes the myth and the magic of a very powerful man. a very powerful man.

Hear an extended interview with Chris Master about Jonestown with Kerry O'Brien, 7.30 Report, October 23, 2006.Real Media | Windows Media | MP3

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Rosenberg's Genius - Winner of the 2007 National Biography Award East of Timeeast_of_time_cover

"So how do we describe Jacob G. Rosenberg's particular type of greatness? Inevitably you start to make comparisons when encountering such things. Rosenberg's lyricism and mastery of language puts him up there with other Jewish masters of story: Singer, Potok and Levi. He has that essential element of greatness, a flavour all his own, a voice and style distinct from any other." Juliette Hughes

Thus wrote Juliette Hughes in an Age article in September, 2005 about Jacob Rosenberg's East of Time. This collection of stories, set in Poland under the Nazis, in the Lodz ghetto, when the author, Jacob Rosenberg, was a boy captures fragments that tell of the people he knew and what happened to them with a poignancy that is both darkly ironic and poetic. The book previously won the the 2006 NSW Premier's Literary Award for Non-Fiction. The sequel of the book, Sunrise West (link to amazon.com in USA) has since won the 2008 Adelaide Festival Award for non-fiction.

Jacob G. Rosenberg was born in Lodz, Poland, the youngest member of a working-class family. After the Germans occupied Poland he was confined, with his parents, his two sisters and their little girls, to the hermetically sealed Lodz Ghetto, from which they were eventually transported to Auschwitz. With the exception of one sister (who committed suicide a few days later) all the members of his family were gassed on the day of their arrival. He remained in Auschwitz for about two months, then spent the rest of the war in other concentration camps.

In 1948 he emigrated to Australia with his wife Esther. Their only child, Marcia, was born in Melbourne. Rosenberg’s poetry and prose have been published in both Australia and overseas, and a number of poems have been translated into Hebrew and Russian.

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Previous winners 1996-2007

Seek Books maintains a stock-list of all the winners back to the beginning which is a beautiful thing. Go to National Biogrpahy Award Page @ Seek Books

Jacob Rosenberg for East of Time, Brandl & Schlesinger. (see above)


John Hughes for (amazon link) The Idea of Home Autobiographical Essays, Sydney, Giramondo.

Robert Hillman for The Boy in the Green Suit: An Innocent Abroad in the Middle East, Melbourne, Scribe Publications.

A funny and beautifully written travel memoir about the charmed life of an innocent. Robert Hillman, 16, lives a Walter Mittyesque existence in rural Victoria, Australia. Disliked by his stepmother and misunderstood by his father, Bobby is bored and lonely. He fantasizes about finding an island paradise in the Indian Ocean inhabited by half-naked women.

Inspired by his impossible dream, Bobby sets sail for Ceylon dressed in his best suit, carrying a cardboard suitcase full of books and a typewriter. He has no money, no return ticket and, seemingly, no concerns for his future. Dropping anchor not in Ceylon but Athens, he barters his way through Istanbul, Tehran and Kuwait, lurching from slums to brothels to an implausible job at a hotel in Pakistan and even a fleeting jail term.

Barry Hill for Broken Song: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession, nb:(amazon link. List price seems very expensive; try ebay or order from your local bookshop)Sydney, Random House.

Barry Hill's ambitious 757-page biography of Australian anthropologist Ted Strehlow is almost exactly the same length as Strehlow's monumental Songs of Central Australia. Strehlow's powerful but strangely anachronistic work makes a case for elevating the Aranda Aboriginal poetic corpus to the level of the European epic canon, which includes Beowulf and the Norse Sagas. Broken Song revisits the complex life of perhaps the most interesting of all anthropologists of Indigenous Australia. Strehlow's immensely detailed and excruciatingly confessional diaries, which begin at the age of fourteen, are a biographer's goldmine.

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2003 Joint winners
Peter Rose for Rose Boys: a Memoir of Life with Robert, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2001, and
Don Watson, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: a portrait of Paul Keating PM, (14/4/08 currently unavailable new document.write, Sydney, Random House, 2002.rose_boys

About The Rose Boys- A family. Two brothers. And a moment which robbed one of his future and changed forever the lives of those around him. This is the story of two young men - profoundly different, compellingly linked by blood ties, the famous sporting family they belonged to, and the immense misfortune that befell one of them. At 22, Robert Rose faced a rare choice. He could devote his talents to cricket with every prospect of a place among the best of his generation. Or he could take the path his father had made, to the top of Australian Rules football. And then, on a country road late at night he became a quadriplegic. He lived for another twenty-five years, totally dependent on others. Now his brother, Peter Rose - a leading literary figure - has written Robert's story. It tells of change - from a glamorous and hedonistic youth to a man of enormous dignity and insight. Robert's story is contrasted with the author's very different experience and his unlikely membership of a classic Australian sporting milieu. In beatrice_daviestelling the two brothers' story, Peter Rose draws on his journals, the journalism written about his brother and father, and interviews with many of the key people in Robert's life. The result is a moving account of candour and penetration. Along the way, many themes are touched on: family, loyalty, physical and emotional dependence - and above all, mortality

Jacqueline Kent for A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis, a Literary Life, Ringwood, Victoria, Viking.

Beatrice Davis, 1909-1992, was Australia's most acclaimed book editor, the 'backroom girl of Australian literature'. As general editor at Angus and Robertson from the late thirties to the early seventies, she nurtured the talents of a host of well-known writers, including Thea Astley, Miles Franklin, Xavier Herbert, Ruth Park, Hal Porter and Patricia Wrightson. Her position as a judge of several major prizes, including the prestigious Miles Franklin Award, reinforced her pivotal role in Australia's literary culture - a role that saw her by turns respected, feared, courted and berated. Click here for a review of a Certain Style from Maryanne Dever

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carvaggio_cover2000 Joint winners
Peter Robb for M: Caravaggio, Sydney, Duffy & Snellgrove,
This work provides a biography of Carvaggio, piecing together together what happened during his short, brilliant, violent, and ill-documented life. It evokes early 17th-century Italy and the cities where Carvaggio lived and painted in all their seething, crude and dangerous colour.

Mandy Sayer for Dreamtime Alice: a memoir, Milson's Point, NSW, Vintage. (14/4/08 currently unavailable new document.write

Roberta Sykes for Snake Cradle: Autobiography of a Black Woman, St Leonards, NSW, Allen & Unwin.

Abraham Biderman for The world of my past, (14/4/08 currently unavailable new document.writeMelbourne, Victoria, AHB Publications

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