Bram Presser’s 2017 debut novel, The Book of Dirt, drawn from his experience as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, has won many awards. But he would never have been able to finish it without getting a studio at Glenfern.
The 1850s Gothic mansion in St Kilda East has been a peaceful home away from home for writers for the past 16 years. At least 150 writers have used its nine studios over time – including this year’s Miles Franklin winner, Jennifer Down – and many have written award-winning and successful books within its walls. As Presser says, it’s unique in Australia in offering long-term, private work spaces, through fellowships or affordable rents.
But now its use as a haven for writers is under threat. The National Trust of Australia (Victoria), which owns the building and grounds, is proposing to install a Steiner kindergarten, child care center and playground. The writers believe the use of space and noise would make it impossible for the studios to continue.
Although plans for the kindergarten have been going ahead for a year, the Glenfern writers say they were not consulted and were not even aware of the proposal until they noticed strangers on the site and a container load of Steiner equipment in the car park. One of the writers, Anna Sublet, did some digging and discovered the Steiner kindergarten was given two grants totaling more than $1.8 million towards the project from the state education department last year, subject to approval from the Trust and a 10-year lease.
Representatives of the writers, Iola Mathews and Writers Victoria CEO Lucy Hamilton, will speak to the Trust board before its next meeting on August 29 about their concerns. They believe the Steiner project contravenes the will of Amy Ostberg, who bequeathed Glenfern to the Trust in the 1980s.
But aside from the legalities, the writers are appalled at the proposal and argue that if it goes ahead, it will destroy a vital resource for Australian literature. Several authors told The Age Glenfern was the place where they first took themselves seriously as writers and could press ahead and finish projects.
Presser said he had been working on The Book of Dirt for six years, desperate to find peaceful spaces to think and write. Then he won a fellowship to Glenfern. “It was like the dam broke almost overnight… it took only eight months to finish a book I was almost convinced I would never see the light of day.
“To have a house almost entirely dedicated to the pursuit of writing, where authors can have long-term tenancies so they can escape their otherwise rowdy home or work spaces and dedicate themselves to their books is truly a gift from the literary gods. To lose Glenfern would be to severe a limb from our country’s literary culture.”