Prichard was born in Levuka, Fiji, and spent her childhood in Launceston, Tasmania, before moving to Melbourne, where she won a scholarship to South Melbourne College. Her father, Tom Prichard, was editor of the Melbourne Sun newspaper. She worked as a governess and journalist in Victoria then travelled to England in 1908. Her first novel, The Pioneers (1915), won a Hodder & Stoughton literary competition. After her return to Australia, the romance Windlestraws and her first novel of a mining community, Black Opal were published.
Prichard moved with her husband, war hero Hugo “Jim” Throssell, VC, to Greenmount, Western Australia, in 1920 and lived at 11 Old York Road for much of the rest of her life. She wrote most of her novels and stories in a self-contained weatherboard workroom near the house. While Prichard was visiting the Soviet Union in 1933 Throssell committed suicide when his business failed during the Great Depression. They had one son, Ric Throssell, later a diplomat and writer. In her personal life she always referred to herself as Mrs Hugo Throssell. Her friends called her Katie.
Prichard was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia in 1921 and remained a member for the rest of her life. She worked to organise unemployed workers and founded left-wing women’s groups, and during the 1930s she campaigned in support of the Spanish Republic and other left-wing causes. Although she had frequent arguments with other Communist writers such as Frank Hardy and Judah Waten over the correct application of the doctrine of socialist realism to Australian fiction, she remained supportive of the Soviet Union and its cultural policies when many other intellectuals, such as Eric Lambert and Stephen Murray-Smith, left the party during the 1950s. Some critics maintain that her novels suffered because of her efforts to make them conform to Communist Party standards.
Her two major novels, which were to give her national and international prominence, were written in Western Australia in the early years of her marriage. The novels were Working Bullocks (1926), which dramatised the physical and emotional traumas of timber workers in the karri country of Australia’s south-west, and Coonardoo (1929), a sensitive and often poetic novel which became notorious for its candid portrayal of relationships between white men and black women in the north-west.
The far north-west of Australia provided inspiration and setting for her daring play Brumby Innes. Most of the short stories in the first of her four collections, Kiss on the Lips (1932), were also from the 1920s, her amazing decade of creative activity. During this time she wrote her most adventurous novels, stories and plays.
In 1934 her membership of the Communist Party of Australia and the Movement Against War and Fascism led her to lead the Egon Kisch welcome committee which rapidly metamorphised into the committee to defend Kisch from exclusion from Australia.
The novel Intimate Strangers (1937), was a turning point in her life. The ‘fire of a regenerating idea’ referred to in the novel’s revised conclusion was reflected in the author’s life; as pamphleteer and public speaker, Katharine Prichard fearlessly and emotionally promoted the cause of peace and social justice.
Her massive work, The Goldfields Trilogy—The Roaring Nineties (1946), Golden Miles (1948), and Winged Seeds (1950)—is a major reconstruction of social and personal histories in Western Australia’s goldfields from the 1890s to 1946. The linking character in the trilogy is a woman after the author’s own heart: energetic, engaging and an unconventionally free spirit.
Prichard died at her home in Greenmount. Her ashes were scattered on the surrounding hills.
The home has now become the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, a foundation promoting humanitarianism, the study of Katharine Susannah Prichard, and encouraging writing in Western Australia, where Prichard spent the majority of her life.
The Mundaring council library in Greenmount is named after her as well.
The 1996 Australian film Shine depicts the close correspondence between Pritchard and Australian pianist David Helfgott. Pritchard helped raise money for Helfgott, to enable him to go to the United States to study music.