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Marion Mildred Halligan (1940–2024)

by Jane Sullivan

Marion Halligan, 2005, by Loui Seselja

Marion Halligan, 2005, by Loui Seselja

National Library of Australia, #NL39431a

"My business is words," Marion Halligan wrote. But it was more than a business: it was a passion and a vocation that inspired many award-winning books, a host of devoted readers and a secure place as one of Australia's most important writers.

Her writing could be sensuous and playful, witty and Gothic, and sometimes resonated with the experience of more than a life's fair share of tragedy. Fellow author Alice Pung described her as "a writer of unfathomable grace and stoicism".

Marion Mildred Crothall was born and educated in Newcastle, New South Wales. Her father was a public servant and she was the eldest of three sisters. "My father was very patriarchal but very affectionate and proud of me ... I was the good child, Rosie and Brenda were naughty," she said of her childhood. The book that changed her life was The Rocks of Han, a Sunday-school anniversary prize when she was five. The words and pictures were perfect, she said.

She worked as a school teacher and journalist, and moved to Canberra in 1963, when she married Graham Halligan. They had two children, James and Lucy. She started writing in her 30s in whatever time she had: she described taking her children to music lessons and sitting in the car, writing. But as she approached her 40th birthday she decided now was the time to get serious about writing.

That year she sent out short stories to literary magazines and three were published - but the next 28 were all rejected. Rejection was great training, she said: "It never stopped me from trying again."

When UQP suggested she should submit a novel instead of a short-story collection, she wrote her first, Self Possession, published in 1987. Over the following years she wrote 11 novels, five short-story collections, five essay collections and a children's book, as well as reviews and contributions to other books and journals.

She joined a Canberra writers' group that met from the 1980s onwards to provide critiques of their work. The "Canberra Seven" (Halligan, Dorothy Johnston, Margaret Barbalet, Sara Dowse, Suzanne Edgar, Marian Eldridge and Dorothy Horsfield) became legendary. They published a 1988 book of their short stories, Canberra Tales. She said the group was hugely motivating and criticism was kind. "It's your heart's blood, you can't be too cruel."

Margaret Barbalet remembers the early days of the group. "Marion was very hard-working and ambitious and that, for me as a fellow writer, was wonderful. I didn't need praise or softness. She spurred me on. We shared an obsession with words and language, and often in a noisy, argumentative group we found ourselves on the same side.

"It was not an easy thing, writing as a woman in the 1980s. But Marion was unsentimental, tough and independent-minded."

Halligan's many awards include The Age Book of the Year Award and the Nita Kibble Award for her 1992 novel Lovers' Knots. She was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and was awarded the ACT Book of the Year (three times), the Steele Rudd Award, the Braille Book of the Year, the 3M Talking Book of the Year and the Geraldine Pascall Prize for critical writing.

She was also revered for her public roles. She served as chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council and the Australian National Word Festival. In the 2006 Birthday Honours she was appointed Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to literature and for her work in promoting Australian literature.

Some of her most-acclaimed work was inspired by personal tragedy. She lost her husband of 35 years to cancer. Both her sisters died before her. Her daughter Lucy died at the age of 38, and her son James died of brain cancer in 2022. Halligan herself was born with one kidney and later in life spent time in dialysis treatment.

Graham Halligan's death inspired a 2001 novel, The Fog Garden, in which the central character, Clare, is also newly widowed. She describes her grief for her lost love as a vast cathedral, and Halligan always acknowledged this was based on her own experience. But readers who assumed that, like Clare, Halligan went on to enjoy an active sex life in the midst of her grief were assured this was fiction.

She was annoyed when The Fog Garden was refused entry for the Miles Franklin fiction award on the grounds it was a memoir, and pointed out it said "A Novel" on the cover. But she also often mused on the porous boundary between truth and fiction. "Anything I write has to be true, but truths can be different," she wrote. And clarified in an interview: "Facts have to be right. But if I think something is a truth, then it is a truth."

She turned to memoir to explore another tragedy in her life. Her daughter Lucy was born with a heart condition and was not expected to live long, but she lived a good life until she was 38, and died in her sleep with her beloved cat on the bed.

It took Halligan 18 years before she could write about her in her 2022 book Words for Lucy. In an interview she sat on stage at the National Library of Australia wearing Lucy's denim jacket and said it was important to her that Lucy should have a lot of words said about her. "But you've got to get them right and not be too gushing."

Halligan loved clothes and shoes, Australian pottery and painting, cooking, dining and fine wine. Her writing on food, whether in fiction or in essays, was vivid and voluptuous. She could spend a page describing the taste of an apricot, or the exchange of flavours between a tomato and a basil leaf. Friends remember how they used to meet in each others' kitchens. One friend, Anna Prosser, was surprised to find a detailed description of her own kitchen in Halligan's novel Murder on the Apricot Coast.

She could be stroppy with editors who wanted her to put in commas. When her sister, Rosie Fitzgibbon, edited her work, she said, "Don't tinker with my prose." Fitzgibbon replied: "It's my job to tinker, it's your job to ignore me."

She inspired great love and loyalty. Margaret Barbalet, a friend for more than 40 years, remembers a long conversation they had last year in Halligan's aged care centre about Richard Flanagan's Question 7, which Halligan admired for its honest writing about ordinary people. "I loved our conversations," Barbalet said. "I can hear her saying, 'Mind you' ..."

The writer Carmel Bird met Halligan at an ABC studio in 1988 and they clicked immediately. Although they lived in different cities, Bird would call her at nine every Sunday morning and they would have great fun talking for hours about literary matters. The calls only went unanswered in the last two weeks of Halligan's life, when her dialysis was failing and she was too ill to answer the phone.

Halligan kept writing until the end. She said in a 2022 National Library of Australia interview that in her 50s she had a huge amount of energy. In her 60s she calmed down a bit. "Now I just potter through. I read quite a bit." Her advice on reading was "Read a wise book and lay its balm on your soul". Many of her readers have felt that balm.

She is survived by her partner of the past two decades, the poet John Stokes, and grandchildren Bianca, 14, and Edgar, six.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jane Sullivan, 'Halligan, Marion Mildred (1940–2024)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/halligan-marion-mildred-34208/text42922, accessed 23 May 2024.

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