Varuna, The Writers' House
Varuna, The National Writers’ House is Australia's national residential writers' house in the former home of writers Eleanor Dark and Dr Eric Dark. In 1989 their son Mick Dark gifted their home to the Australian public through The Eleanor Dark Foundation. Due to this extraordinary act of philanthropy, Varuna has become Australia's most eminent residential program for writers.
Since 1989 Varuna the National Writers' House has inspired the creation of new Australian writing and provided support for a thriving writing community and growing Alumni. Along with its Residential Program, Varuna also has a lively literary program, including the Varuna & Sydney Writers Festival, Varuna Open Day and various workshops and consultations.
Located in Katoomba two hours from Sydney, in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales Australia, Varuna is a short walk from the centre of town, and a short walk from the edge of the escarpment looking down into the magnificent Jamison Valley.
The Varuna Residential Program supports intensive work, conversation and community for writers at all levels of experience and across a wide range of writing practice. The program runs continuously throughout the year with up to five writers, each with an identified project, invited to be in residence at Varuna at any one time. Each year Varuna hosts almost 200 writers’ residencies.
The five streams of the Varuna Residential Program are Fellowships, Publisher Introduction Program, Guided Programs, Invitation by Request Residencies and Residential Partnerships.
Varuna is also works within the broader community through its community engagement programs. It has an active Varuna Alumni program, the annual Varuna & Sydney Writers Festival, Varuna Open Day and various writer development workshops, consultations and events.
Varuna, named after the ancient Indian god of the heavens and the waters, a powerful deity indeed, was the home built, or rather rebuilt, on two acres of land by Eleanor Dark and Eric Dark in 1939. A bright and roomy house with modernist stucco exterior, certainly larger than any other house in the neighbourhood, it has been described by Eleanor's biographer Barbara Brooks as 'a bit of a monument.' The studio, added later, still boasts Eleanor's sprawling desk scored with cigarette burns and a custom built cabinet with a separate drawer for each developing chapter.
In days gone by it has served as a focus for the local community of writers by playing host to book readings, launches, forums, festival events and, not least, some raucous and rambunctious curry nights; Dorothy Hewett holding court in the lounge room, while her husband Merv Lilley dispensed mulled wine from the tureen in the boot of his car outside. These sumptuous communal feasts allowed Varuna to play a galvanising role for visiting and local writers, something that Mick Dark loved. They brought a focus to a common ideal, namely a shared understanding of the value of writing and of writers in a local, national, and international context. Indeed many friendships and writerly liaisons have been formed there.
It was at one of these curry nights, with children full of chocolate biscuits sliding up and down the staircase, that Mick Dark told the story of why the fireplace in Dr Dark's GP's office did not draw properly and had a tendency to fill the room with smoke whenever it was lit. As a boy, when the builders were constructing the chimney, young Michael climbed onto the roof to see what the bricklayers had been up to. Peering down he dislodged a new brick, still wet with an icing of fresh cement, and knocked it down the chimney. Where it stuck. A secret he kept for many years. It sounds like the sort of mischievous exploit of Tony Griffiths, the wonderful character from Eleanor's story 'Sweet and Low' in Lantana Lane, might get up to. A reminder that apart from its standing as a cultural icon it is also a living, breathing home, where Eleanor's grandson Rod Dark still tends the garden, and the roving family of writers moves through the doors in a shimmering wealth of words adding steadily to the cumulative sense of community and purpose.
The Dark Family
Eleanor Dark was one of Australia's finest writers of the 20th century, and Varuna owes its existence today to Eleanor, her husband Dr Eric Dark and their family. Eleanor was born in 1901 in Sydney, Australia. She was the second of three children born to the poet, writer and parliamentarian, Dowell Philip O’Reilly and Eleanor McCulloch O'Reilly. On finishing school and unable to enter university, having failed mathematics, Eleanor learnt typing and took a secretarial job. In 1922 she married Dr Eric Payten Dark, and in January 1923 the couple moved to Katoomba, where Eleanor wrote eight of her 10 novels, as well as short stories and articles.Her best known novel was the best-selling The Timeless Land (1941), the first part of a trilogy, with Storm of Time (1948) and No Barrier (1953).
Dr Eric Payten Dark (1889–1987), Eleanor's husband, was a general practitioner who wrote books, articles and pamphlets on politics and medicine. Eric Dark was born in Mittagong, New South Wales and qualified as a medical practitioner at Sydney University in 1914, qualifying a year early because of the war. He was among the first hundred Australian doctors who sailed to England to join the Royal Army Medical Corps. Dr Dark, who was recommended for the Military Cross after the battle of the Somme, was eventually awarded the Military Cross for his service at Passchendaele. Dr Dark later became an active member of the Labor left in NSW, was involved in contemporary political debate and was a committed socialist, although, contrary to local rumour, was never a member of the Communist Party. His books include The World Against Russia and Who are the Reds.
Michael (Mick) Dark is the son of Eleanor and Dr Eric Dark, and it was he who decided that Varuna, their family home, should become a gift to Australian literature in memory of his parents. Mick spent his childhood and youth living at Varuna. After the death of his parents, for environmental and personal reasons, he did not want to sell Varuna and in November 1987 he eagerly responded to a suggestion that it could become a residential writers' centre. In 1989 the Eleanor Dark Foundation was formed and Mick gifted the property to the Foundation.
Like his parents before him, Mick was a committed environmentalist. In the 60s and 70s he was a member of the Colong Committee (now Colong Foundation for Wilderness). He was also past President of the Lower and of the Upper Blue Mountains Conservation Societies, now combined as Blue Mountains Conservation Society, of which he was an Honorary Life member. He was also a member of Greenpeace and the Australian Conservation Foundation. He was the Life President of the Eleanor Dark Foundation Board, taking an active role in the life of Varuna until his death in 2015.
Varuna alumni include:
- Dianne Bates
- Gail Bell
- David Brooks
- Dymphna Clark
- Craig Cormick
- Tegan Bennett Daylight
- Anne Deveson
- Robert Drewe
- Ali Cobby Eckermann
- Delia Falconer
- Anna Goldsworthy
- Glenda Guest
- Steven Herrick
- Linda Jaivin
- Cate Kennedy
- Benjamin Law
- Melinda Marchetta
- Gillian Mears
- Patti Miller
- Drusilla Modjeska
- Eileen Naseby
- Dorothy Porter
- Heather Rose
- Margaret Simons
- Anne Summers
- "Australia Council pays tribute to Mick Dark | Australia Council". www.australiacouncil.gov.au. Retrieved 5 December 2017.
- "What We Do". Retrieved 5 December 2017.
- "https://www.truelocal.com.au/business/varuna-the-writers-house/katoomba". truelocal.com.au. Retrieved 5 December 2017. External link in
- O'Flynn, Mark (2016). "Varuna | The Dictionary of Sydney". dictionaryofsydney.org. Retrieved 5 December 2017.
- "Program Overview". Retrieved 5 December 2017.
- Brooks, Barbara (1998). Eleanor Dark: A Writer's Life. Sydney: Pan Macmillan. p. 220.
- "The Darks". Retrieved 5 December 2017.