Meet the Author: Doug Munro

25 October 2021

‘The Press also works with authors … I’m as sure as I can be that my book would not be as good as it is – well, as good as I think it is – had I gone with another publisher. I’m not sure that any other publisher would have done as well.’

Doug Munro is a Wellington-based biographer and historian, and an Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Queensland. In an earlier incarnation he was a historian of the Pacific Islands with specialisms in trade and traders, indentured labour, and the role of Island pastors. Doug has published four books with ANU Press, including his latest title History Wars: The Peter Ryan – Manning Clark Controversy.

1. Your latest book, History Wars, discusses publisher Peter Ryan’s very public attack on Manning Clark, his best-selling author, in the conservative journal Quadrant. What drove you to research and write this book?

It was a case of one thing leading to another. I didn’t follow the Ryan–Clark controversy when it erupted in 1993, but it increasingly came to my attention thanks to a developing interest in biography and specifically my work on individual historians. This, in turn, led to an interest in academic controversies. Although not an academic himself, Peter Ryan popped up from time to time during the course of my research. Another impetus was the appearance of the two big biographies of Manning Clark, by Brian Matthews and Mark McKenna, which confirmed that Ryan’s criticisms of Clark and his six-volume A History of Australia didn’t stack up. In these ways the Ryan–Clark controversy increasingly came to my attention and I decided to write a journal article on the subject but it blew out into a book. It is curiosity-driven research. Ryan was economical with the truth and I wanted to know what drove him to say what he said and to act as he did. The urge to write, after all, comes from not knowing and wanting to find out.

2. Why do you believe this story is important to tell? What impact do you hope your research will have?

I thought it was important to get to the bottom of the matter and to set the record straight. The Ryan–Clark controversy has been an unresolved issue. It was divisive at the time and it has locked into Australia’s continuing History Wars. I was encouraged along the way by the interest that colleagues took in what I was doing. As for impact, I expect that it will create some controversy given the nature of History Wars, but ultimately I hope it settles a question that has been nagging away for almost 30 years as well as demonstrating the futility of the conduct of History Wars.

3. Can you take us through the process of writing this book? What challenges did you face?

One difficulty was the comparative lack of time to do the actual research. I live in New Zealand but had to do the archival research on what I call smash-and-grab raids when visiting family in Australia. It would have been impossible before the advent of the digital camera, and it was just as well I completed the research before the Covid lockdowns and travel restrictions, otherwise I would have been in a real bind. The biggest challenge, though, was not the actual writing of the book. The words came out quickly enough once I got into the swing of things. The toughest part was organising my narrative and getting the shape of the thing right. That was easily the hardest part. It caused endless difficulties and these persisted right to the end.

4. Why did you choose to publish with ANU Press?

I’ve had uniformly positive dealings with the Press in the past and I greatly value their diligent peer-review and editing. As well, the rigorous feedback I received in this instance from the Social Sciences Editorial Board was crucial. It’s true that you have to follow strict guidelines and that it can get a bit bureaucratic, but the processes and requirements are eminently sound. The Press also works with authors. To put it bluntly, this has not often been my experience with other publishers who don’t communicate and in one case reneged on agreements. I’m as sure as I can be that my book would not be as good as it is – well, as good as I think it is – had I gone with another publisher. I’m not sure that any other publisher would have done as well.

5. How have you found the open-access publishing model?

That’s another reason for publishing with the ANU Press – to get the book ‘out there’ and to be readily available to whoever wants to read it. Questions of cost and availability are non-issues because anyone can access my book as a free download. Besides, there is provision for hard copies should someone want the book in that format.

6. What excites you about your book being available to a much wider audience?

Simple. Your question answers itself: the fact that open access means that more people are likely to dip into my book.

7. What would you tell someone looking to publish with ANU Press?

Go for it!

8. What is next for you?

I’ve started on a much larger book, which I’ll probably call Varieties of Historians, where I get back to my interest in telling academic lives. It will contain chapters on some 15 individual historians, mostly Australians, organised around themes such as reputation, controversy, gender, activism and institutional building. It’s a big project and I’ve hit a bit of a snag because I cannot come to Australia on research trips for the foreseeable future. My wife has dementia and I have to be here in Wellington to look after her. But I’m far enough into the research and writing of the book to know that it can be done. So I’ll play it by ear and deal with any future problems as they arise.