Introducing biographer Anna Cahill

Who is Douglas MacDiarmid’s biographer and how did she come to write his life story?

Colours of a Life: the Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid was written by Anna Cahill, a journalist by trade and Douglas’ niece. Here is a snapshot of her career and motivation to write her uncle’s biography.

About the author

Anna Cahill is a New Zealand writer, now based in Brisbane, Australia. Born in Auckland, she grew up in Port Chalmers with a colourful uncle on the other side of the world that she seldom met. Later she too became an expatriate and moved across the Tasman with her own young family in the 1980s.

Life as a wordsmith was sealed at the age of eleven, when she first heard the word ‘reporter’. Anna left school with a journalism cadetship on the Otago Daily Times in Dunedin before taking her fascination for words on to radio broadcasting, photo journalism, corporate communication, public relations, editing and writing tuition.

She has worked for newspapers big and small, served as a radio journalist and newsreader with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation in Invercargill, driven the expanses of North Queensland with a camera and notebook in search of compelling human-interest stories, and written for city and country councils. A distinguished corporate career led to executive roles in Queensland, directing media, communication and publication teams for State Government departments. To mix things up a bit, she took on private sector community engagement contracts for a major infrastructure development and an anti-obesity campaign.

Anna co-authored Fruit Fly Fighters, a history and crisis-management reference on the successful Queensland eradication of one of the world’s most invasive exotic pests, that was published by CSIRO in 2002. She takes more pride in a volunteer assignment with Cerebral Palsy Queensland, helping a wheelchair-bound woman find her voice to write and publish Wonky, a personal view of disability, in 2015.

A challenge of a different sort

Colours of a Life was a challenge of a different sort, working across three countries to chronicle the extraordinary career of a remarkable uncle, a task made possible with unlimited access to his personal papers, thoughts and considerable recall.

“My father Ron was Douglas’ only sibling but the devoted doctor and the passionate artist were too bound up in their work to be close. I could count on one hand the number of times we actually met before I started to travel to Europe in middle age.

“But we did correspond – he wrote the most amazing letters. When I was failing French at school, I would proudly write very basic sentences badly, and he would respond with a pages of lyrical narrative that had me buried in the dictionary.

“Sometimes years passed without exchanging words, but we never felt out of touch. Other times he was the best mentor and sounding board anyone could wish for. Those handwritten letters and a bundle of more dutiful ones he wrote to my father, were the starting point for this biography.”

Knowing how much it meant to him, Anna made a rather rash promise to give Douglas a book in his lifetime, with very little notion of what she was letting myself in for.

“Yes, I could write, but being a biographer is an artform in itself, as I was soon to discover.”

Writing a biography

Sometimes it takes more than 90 years for a life to be ready to be told. The timing was right for Douglas. He no longer had the motor skills to paint to his satisfaction but was eager to set his mind to one more, big creative project.

“I took a year off work to see how far we could get, came to New Zealand a week later to get my bearings, and landed in Paris two weeks after that for the first of three three-month stays. It felt a bit like running away to join the circus.”

So began three-and-a-half years of seven day weeks and more than 112,000 words. The chapters took shape through hours of recorded conversations and the recollections of friends, with gaps filled by researching the vast repository of mostly handwritten letters, and some early journals and diaries, archived in New Zealand libraries.

“I photographed 5000-odd pages of correspondence in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington alone, and transcribed them, before the actual writing began.”

Despite his age, Douglas was intimately involved in the creation of his biography throughout. During the editing process in Paris, they sometimes managed as little as one page a day as Douglas deliberated over every word on every page and each point of punctuation and grammar.

“He suffered little strokes, and then he rallied again; sometimes ending our sessions grey with exhaustion. I didn’t think we would ever finish, but didn’t want it to end, because we had grown so close we were anticipating one another’s thoughts and finishing the other’s sentences.

“Along the way, I’ve learnt as much about myself as about Douglas. Neither of us can count past two, but his complete disregard for numbers, dates, definitions was almost our undoing when trying to piece together his life line.

“Writing this book has been both a privilege and a pleasure. My way of giving thanks.

Somehow, I’ve kept that promise, and Douglas thoughtfully stayed alive to see it. He has his divine brick of a biography in hand. No pressure!”

Anna sees herself simply as the medium through which his extraordinary story has passed.

“I was really apprehensive that identifying myself too closely as his niece would suggest some homesy memoir knocked out by family, and somehow diminish its value. The enthusiastic response to this book has been deeply humbling. I’m elated for Douglas that people like what they see of the man and his work. Finally, he is receiving due recognition as an outstanding talent.”

A family endeavour

Bringing this book into being has been very much a team effort, involving four generations of the family, as well as the generous support of many others who have given unstintingly of their time and knowledge. As Anna’s daughter Sonia Cahill said while emceeing the book launches in New Zealand: “It takes a village to raise a child and it has certainly taken a global network to publish Douglas’ biography.”

As the project evolved, so did the need for a framework to manage it – and the MacDiarmid Arts Trust was formed by Anna and her daughters, Rebecca and Sonia. Colours of a Life is but one component of this initiative. The trust is now a registered charity in New Zealand, wholly responsible for managing Douglas’ creative interests to protect and preserve the integrity of his work. It also upholds an educational role through this dedicated website and his Facebook page.

As biographer and custodian of a lifetime of art diaries and travel notes, Anna regularly answers inquiries, sourcing background information about paintings for private collectors, galleries and auction houses. In this, and other ways, the MacDiarmid Arts Trust will continue to give back to the community.

Colours of a Life – the Life and Times of Douglas MacDiarmid is available for purchase online or from all good bookstores across New Zealand. Watch the video message from Douglas MacDiarmid to hear what he had to say about writing his biography with niece Anna Cahill.

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