Published next week, Dr Philip Nitschke’s autobiography Damned If I Do (Melbourne University Press) represents my third attempt to collaborate with him.* Some years ago, after I’d successfully and enjoyably carried out similar exercises with Fred Hollows, environmentalist John Sinclair and actor Ray Barrett, I was keen do more of the same. I was interested in people who’d had active, not merely cerebral, lives, and who, above all, were people I admired. My agent contacted Philip to see if he was interested and a meeting was arranged.
We met in one of my favourite places in Sydney – the University Motel in Glebe. Now demolished, it had a seedy history as one of the places prostitute Sallie Anne Huckstepp used to take her clients. I’d stayed there myself and frequently used it as ‘safe house’ or assignation point in my Cliff Hardy novels. It was cheap.
Philip was in one of the back rooms, away from the traffic. We sat and talked for about an hour and had a beer. I liked him immediately – found him direct and unpretentious – but he was very busy. There was talk of a film in prospect and other ventures and he reckoned it was premature to think about an autobiography.
I was disappointed but accepted his decision. Euthanasia and Philip Nitschke were frequently in the news and I kept an eye on developments. The next approach came about five years later from Philip himself and his partner, Fiona Stewart. The time seemed right.
We had several meetings – with one publisher at my agent’s office, with another at the publisher’s city office. I’d read Killing Me Softly, the book Philip and Fiona had published in 2004, and some press cuttings they had provided. I prepared a ‘pitch’ document they approved of for the publishers.
Several publishers passed on the project. It was a time of extreme publisher caution, not perhaps as extreme as now, with the e-book challenge, but strong enough. Disappointment again.
In 2011 Louise Adler, the publisher at Melbourne University Press, attended a workshop run by Philip. She was impressed, as anyone who has seen him in action as a presenter – diffident but forceful, modest, compelling, anecdotal and funny – would be. Louise is married to Max Gillies, whom I’d known at Melbourne High School in the 1950s and had had occasional friendly meetings with ever since. Louise contacted me, saying she was keen to publish Philip’s autobiography. I was enthusiastic and things went on from there.
I conducted ten interviews with Philip between August 2010 and April 2012. Several of these were in Philip’s and Fiona’s tiny unit at Kings Cross, several in my place at Newtown, and one in Darwin in December 2010.
There were two major difficulties in getting the job done. The first was simply the hectic pace of Philip’s and Fiona’s activities. They were overseas, they were in several different states, they had only two days in Sydney … We fitted in the interviews as best we could, complemented by phone calls and emails.
The second difficulty came when, a week before Christmas, with much of the work done but still much to do, I was hit by a truck and suffered a smashed elbow and a broken leg, which put me in a rehab hospital for six weeks. For most of that time I had a cast on my arm and couldn’t write.
Philip Nitschke easily meets my criteria for a collaborative autobiography – an active, varied life, committed to a cause I approve of, pursued with a courage and commitment I admire. It was my task to help bring these qualities into sharp focus as I think they are in Damned If I Do.
* This is an edited version of my note at the conclusion of Damned If I Do.