by Walter Mason

Helen OneillI remember stumbling upon Helen O’Neill’s exquisite illustrated biography of Florence Broadhurst when it was first released. I suffered a terrible author envy witnessing such a lushly illustrated and produced object. It is every writer’s dream to create such a text, but Helen is one of the rare few to have it realized. A couple of weeks ago I received her new book, a lavishly illustrated biography of the iconic Australian architect Harry Seidler, published by Harper Collins. As well as looking beautiful, with its modernist-influence half-slipcase, it is very well written and offers a fascinating insight into a man who helped re-invent Sydney’s image of itself.

Helen came up to the third floor of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts to chat with me at the Tom Keneally Centre. I had been dying to meet her ever since I finished “A Singular Vision: Harry Seidler.” Anyone who had so obsessively pursued the study of an important life and been able to turn that study into such an object of beauty had to be worth talking to.

I asked how it was she began to write such distinctive and quite amazing books. I knew that in the world of modern publishing it is difficult to get such elaborate and expensive projects off the ground. “It was coming across the Florence Broadhurst story,” she said, speaking of her legendary book “Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret & Extraordinary Lives.” “As soon as I heard her story I knew there was a visual archive. There are some stories you can’t tell with just a textual narrative. You need a visual story running alongside it. With Florence there was an amazing, and largely unseen, archive that was available. I was lucky to find a publisher (Hardie Grant) that was equally committed to making this a beautiful book. Books are collaborative things, and I got the chance to work with a wonderful designer as well.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by the creativity of people,” she continued. “Artists, film makers, scientists. I was also brought up in quite a creative household. My mother is a very good illustrator. And then I did a fully illustrated book on the history of David Jones, which gave me a chance to go into the Max Dupain photographic archive and we were also able to pull out old fashion illustrations. It was a history, not just of a department store, but of art and design in this country.”

How did the Harry Seidler book come about, I wanted to know? “I did a profile of Penelope Seidler some years ago, and later she approached me about doing the book. Up until that time it had never occurred to me that Seidler might be a topic for me to write about. But if you’re a curious person it gives you a chance to step into new worlds and see how they work.”

Having spent years studying an architect, Helen finds herself far more conscious of architecture wherever she goes. “I walked into a room recently that made me feel so creeped out. Immediately, because of what I had learned from my new researches, I started to wonder if it was because of the dimensions of the room.”

“The very best architects are playing with space, and that is difficult. I had never really appreciated that before. And with architecture nothing can proceed unless you have a client, a site and a budget. And then you need the strength of mind to be able to do what it is you want to do.”

And what about the art of writing, I asked, what’s the knack to writing for a living? “For a long time I never thought I would write books,” she said. “I never thought anyone would be interested enough in anything I had to write about at that length. I think you need to develop your own voice – an actual voice you hear in your head as you are writing. Hear it talk, even sing! You need to find something that fascinates you. And then you have to commit to it completely. For me the first third of that process is something of a nightmare. But then the book develops a life that starts pulling you in different directions.”

“The Seidler book took me about three and a half years to write. I was fascinated by his diaries, childhood diaries he had begun to keep in 1938! You can see things coming through in them. When you are dealing with first-hand material like this you get a chance to almost step through these events with the person.”

Helen O’Neill has built a career on capturing visual moments in Australia’s history. She is fascinated by colour and even a cursory glance at her books proves the acuity of her visual sense. She is a “super-seer” and a super writer.

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