Where are they now: Luke Stegemann writes straight from the shoulder
With this year’s Queensland Literary Award announcements on the horizon, we checked back in with 2021 University of Queensland Non-Fiction Award-winner Luke Stegemann.
What’s Luke been up to? After a one-two punch of prizes in 2021 for Amnesia Road (NewSouth Books), the cultural historian is back to work on a long-term research project. Read on to discover what keeps Luke’s writing life in balance.
You’re both a boxing referee and a writer/editor — what do these arts have in common?
Funnily enough, and despite the vast literature around the sport of boxing, I don’t think they have much in common. My interest in boxing goes back nearly 25 years now. I have always participated, a few times as a fighter but mainly as an official, for the opportunity it affords me to escape from ‘the life of the mind’. It’s not a matter of not thinking — there are some very smart, very literate people involved in amateur boxing in Queensland — but more the visceral attraction of something so physical. I need that balance in my life.
You recently gave a workshop in Brisbane on the ethics of writing cultural history. If you could offer only one piece of advice on this topic, what would it be?
It’s important, I think, for writers to be fearless in approaching historical matters. This of course does not mean one has a licence to write anything — there are fundamental codes of respect and decency that must be followed. But history is such a contingent and malleable thing; the way it is read and understood is constantly in flux, so writers must never feel they need to write to suit a particular cultural mood or tendency. They must write their own truth, in good faith, and not be afraid to provoke and question established ideas.
What are you working on now, and how does your present reading tie in?
I’m currently a few years into a long book — a massive research project — so that takes up most of my reading time. Ever since I visited and then lived in Madrid in the late 1980s, it has been my favourite city in the world. Astonishingly, there is no closely detailed biography of the city in English — so I am writing one.
When you take on a political, social and cultural biography of a city with 1200 years of history, the scale of the task can seem impossible, but endlessly exciting too. I need to investigate – and this is just a brief outline – how people lived and loved, how they organised their lives and their governments, how they designed and destroyed and rebuilt their cities, their churches, hospitals, asylums, markets and cemeteries, the art they produced and the books they wrote. Their revolutions and their wars, their ideas, ideals, myths and folklore.
This all needs to be placed into a compelling narrative that makes sense within a broader European and global perspective … so as you can imagine, I’m not short of things to be reading! For example, I’m currently reading a book on early twentieth century modernism in Madrid, and another on the political battles of the early eighteenth century.
Is there any news from the past year you’d like to share with us?
I was thrilled, after the QLA win, to have Amnesia Road go on to win the Mark & Evette Moran Nib Literary Award, as well as runner-up in the NSW Premier’s Prize for Australian History. Awards such as these are never expected; it never enters your head, when writing, that this sort of success may come. It’s a huge thrill, but such things are only ever fleeting. There is always more work to do and new challenges to meet.