Frank Bongiorno is passionate about telling stories. The Canberra academic, historian – and winner of the 2023 ACT Book of the Year award – reckons “that’s at the heart of the enterprise”.
For the past 30 years, the Australian National University scholar has told stories: some for academic publications, others for his own books. He has published four as a single author, and his latest, Dreamers and Schemers, has just been named the ACT Book of the Year.
It has been described as “a compelling and comprehensive account of Australia’s political life, from pre-settlement Indigenous systems to the present day”.
“It was a surprise to hear I’d won,” Frank said. “You don’t write books to win prizes – you’d be disappointed if you did, but to win this award was a lovely honour. It is also a great encouragement to ACT writers.”
It’s the second time he has won the award – he was honoured in 2014 for his book, The Sex Lives of Australians: A History.
“There are structural and language differences in writing for academic works and for a general audience, but the underlying principle is the same – telling stories”.
“There is something all-consuming about writing,” he said. “It’s quite a heavy commitment to undertake. Few writers have the luxury to sit around all day and just write.”
Frank says he feels fortunate to live and work in Canberra where he has access to great research institutions, like the National Library of Australia and the National Archives – and working at the ANU as Associate Professor of History.
He describes Canberra as “culturally rich”, not only because of its cultural institutions, “but its people – and because of the great literary and cultural events here”.
“I also learn a lot at the ANU as a teacher,” he said. “I feel really fortunate to work in such an environment of learning.”
When he began his writing career around 30 years ago, Frank said one of the most important lessons he learned early on was to have confidence in what he wrote – advice he passes on to today’s aspiring authors.
“You have to have confidence in the story you want to tell,” he said. “That is so important.
“When you start out, you have to build up your confidence that people will want to read your words.
“You also have to be patient. Developing such confidence doesn’t necessarily come quickly. It takes time to develop your own style. It was certainly something I had to work at.”
The 2023 judging panel for the ACT Book of the Year, Kaaron Warren, Adam Broinowski and Dylan Van Den Berg, said: “Through Dreamers and Schemers, Frank Bongiorno has skilfully combined multiple elements to deliver a captivating account of Australia’s political history. The book’s perceptive honesty and contemporary sensibility shine throughout the narrative, providing readers with a fresh perspective on the subject. Bongiorno has achieved the difficult task of synthesising a large volume of material in a coherent, clear and accessible manner, and his fluent style allows deeper insight into the complex dynamics that have shaped politics in Australia.”
ACT Minister for the Arts Tara Cheyne presented the award and described Dreamers and Schemers as an enthralling political history like no other, “which will transform the way you look at Australian politics”.
“I’d also like to congratulate Julianne Lamond and Marion Halligan for their incredible highly commended works and, of course, the remaining shortlisted authors, Niki Savva, Kate Marson and Robert Bowker.”
As the winner, Frank receives $10,000 from the ACT Government.
And as for the next book – “I have a few projects on the go,” he said.