In this episode of Biographers in Conversation, Cathy Perkins chats with Gabriella about the choices she made while writing The Shelf Life of Zora Cross, the biography of Zora Cross,  a prolific writer who caused a literary sensation in 1917 with her provocative series of erotic sonnets that celebrated sexual passion. The Shelf Life of Zora Cross was shortlisted in the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Awards and highly commended in the 2021 National Biography Awards. This second editionof the acclaimed biography includes a foreword by Bernadette Brennan, winner of the National Biography Award in 2022.

Cathy Perkins clarifies the meaning of the book’s title: The Shelf Life of Zora Cross and why she opens the book with a scene of a young girl sitting and writing on her parents’ verandah. She discloses why she includes excerpts from Zora’s constant stream of stories published in the ‘Children’s Corner’ of the Australian Town and Country Journal and why she quotes from so many of Zora’s 340 lengthy letters to the Sydney publisher George Robertson. Cathy explains why she shaped the narrative around a series of self-contained chapters, each of them centred on Zora’s relationship with a literary luminary, and the novelistic devices she employed to craft lyrical narrative. She also reflects on the extent to which she believes she captured the truth of her subject, and her thoughts on the role of a biographer.

Shortlisted: 2020 NSW Premier’s History Awards 

Highly commended: 2021 National Biography Awards  

‘A beguiling narrative … splendidly told.’

Brenda Niall

Australian poet and journalist Zora Cross caused a sensation in 1917 with her book Songs of Love and Life. Here was a young woman who looked like a Sunday school teacher, celebrating sexual passion in a provocative series of sonnets. She was hailed as a genius, and many expected her to endure as a household name alongside Shakespeare and Rossetti. While Cross’s fame didn’t last, she kept writing through financial hardship, personal tragedies and two world wars, producing an impressive body of work. Her verse, prose and correspondence with the likes of Ethel Turner, George Robertson (of Angus & Robertson) and Mary Gilmore place Zora Cross among the key personalities of Australia’s literary world in the early twentieth century. The Shelf Life of Zora Cross reveals the life of a neglected writer and intriguing person.

‘Cathy Perkins’s The Shelf Life of Zora Cross, concerning a forgotten but hugely significant early 20th century bohemian poet from Sydney, is a joyous, thoughtful, and much needed reclamation. Our literary canon is smarter – and far sexier – than you could have imagined.’

Geordie Williamson, The Australian

‘The Shelf Life of Zora Cross, by the esteemed writer, researcher and editor Cathy Perkins, brings Zora Cross – the woman, the writer – to us with immediacy and complexity. The book is not only a significant addition to Australian literary history, but also one that makes strong connections to contemporary life and literary culture. There are many details that strike me about Zora Cross from Perkins’s evocative portrayal of her in Shelf Life: her drive, ambition and appetite for life; her courage and her vigour; her strong sense of vocation – that she lived to write, and that she worked hard to secure the ability to do so. Money, time and space remain crucial, and often hard-won, necessities for writers today, especially women. There was a particular moment early in the book where Zora leapt from the page for me – a description of an encounter with a journalist in Brisbane in 1915, when Zora was working concurrently as a writer, a teacher, an actor and the editor of arts and social newspaper the Bohemian. This life of moving between roles and projects is a familiar scenario for contemporary writers. Then, as now, this way of working requires strong reserves of energy and focus.’

Vanessa Berry

Cathy Perkins

Cathy Perkins is a Sydney-based writer and editor, who works at the State Library of NSW. Her essays on Zora Cross have been published in Meanjin and Inside Story. Her book The Shelf Life of Zora Cross was shortlisted for the Australian History Prize of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and highly commended in the National Biography Award.

Learn More: 

Vanessa Berry reflects on The Shelf Life of Zora Cross: Vanessa Berry reflects on The Shelf Life of Zora Cross – Monash University Publishing

A daughter puts her mother’s reputation in the hands of her biographer: Inside Story - Poet, writer, daughter


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