Episode 31: Richard Fidler

Richard Fidler is an author and host of Conversations.

Penmanship podcast episode 31: Richard Fidler, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016Since 2005, he has hosted a national radio program that sees him interviewing a wide range of guests, for around an hour at a time. Named Conversations, Richard likes to think of it as a form of guided storytelling, and over the years he has spoken with everyone from prime ministers to average Australians who have a remarkable story to tell. The host records four of these conversations every week, and the results are never less than fascinating: to my ears, he is among the top interviewers in the country. In July 2016, he published a book named Ghost Empire, an ambitious, multi-year project which blends ancient history with a travel story of personal significance.

A few years ago, Richard travelled to Italy and Turkey with his 14 year-old son, Joe, to retrace the rise and fall of Constantinople, the magnificent eastern Roman city that endured for a thousand years, and saw every aspect of human nature unfold within and outside its imposing walls. “The story of how Constantinople flourished into greatness and expired in terrible violence is one of the strangest and most moving stories I know,” Richard writes in the book’s introduction. When reviewing Ghost Empire for The Weekend Australian, I wrote, “We already know he is an interviewer of great empathy; now we know he mirrors that skill on the page, too. The beauty of this book is its accessibility. It has been written by a man who sits near the centre of Australian culture, and his name on the cover will draw many new readers to this old tale. It certainly attracted me.”

In early August, I met with Richard at the ABC building in South Bank, Brisbane, and he kindly offered the use of his studio recording equipment for this interview. After fiddling with the audio levels for a few moments, like a master pianist tinkling the keys to warm up, he allowed me the rare chance to ask him all sorts of questions for around an hour. Once we had finished, I got another glimpse at his efficient workflow, when he quickly edited out a minor blemish where he had accidentally cleared his throat mid-sentence. Our conversation touches on how his approach to storytelling for the radio program helped him when researching and writing Ghost Empire; how he struck upon the structure of interspersing historical detail with present-day travel vignettes; what he got out of reading the book aloud to his son during the writing process; where his love for stories began; what he learned about making radio programs from This American Life host Ira Glass a few years ago, and how being behind the microphone at Conversations has changed how Richard thinks about storytelling.

Richard Fidler presents Conversations, an in-depth, up close and personal interview program broadcast across Australia on ABC Radio. He has interviewed prime ministers, astronauts, writers and scientists, but the program often features remarkable people who are unknown to the wider world. The program attracts a large listening audience around the nation, and is the most popular ABC podcast in Australia, with over 16 million downloaded programs in 2015. Richard has also presented several television series over the years, including the acclaimed Race Around The World, and he was the creator of Aftershock, a documentary series on disruptive new technologies. In another life Richard was a member of Australian comedy trio The Doug Anthony Allstars (DAAS), which played to audiences all over the world. Richard’s first non-fiction book Ghost Empire was released in July 2016. It blends travel memoir with history, following his journey into Istanbul with his fourteen-year-old son Joe, to uncover the history of Constantinople, the lost capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Richard Fidler on Twitter: @rfidler

Direct download | iTunes | Stitcher | Libsyn | YouTube

Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

Episode 30: Kate Hennessy

Kate Hennessy is a freelance writer and editor.

Penmanship podcast episode 30: Kate Hennessy, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016I first read Kate’s work in about 2009, when we were both contributors to the Australian music website Mess+Noise, where she was a critic and feature writer whose work I admired greatly from afar, since she was based in Sydney. It wasn’t until 2016 that we met for the first time, at the Rock & Roll Writers Festival in Brisbane, where we were both guest speakers. In the intervening years since I first saw her byline, Kate has worked as a music and arts critic for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian Australia and The Quietus, among others, as well as travel writing for a range of Australian and overseas publications. Outside of freelancing, she works in corporate writing and editing, and teaches courses on music journalism and professional business writing.

It was the latter skillset that brought Kate to Brisbane in mid-May, and we met at her hotel room so I could ask her a few questions over a bottle of white wine. Our conversation touches on how she learned to make boring things interesting while working for a corporate writing agency; why she decided to become a freelancer as she approached the age of 30, and how it turned out to be a perfect fit for her; why she received hate mail from a musician after writing about his band in The Sydney Morning Herald; why the supply-and-demand in the travel writing business is worse than in music journalism, and why she thinks live music is like sex.

Kate Hennessy‘s music and arts criticism appears in The Guardian, ABC Arts, Fairfax, Australian Book Review, Noisey, Limelight, Mess+Noise and UK magazines The Wire and The Quietus. Kate talks about arts on ABC TV and has spoken at Vivid Ideas, Darwin Writers’ Festival, the Rock & Roll Writers’ Festival, Bigsound and at live events for Sydney’s FBi Radio. Kate is an Australian Music Prize judge, a founding member of feminist collective LISTEN and a teacher of five years at the Australian Writers’ Centre. She developed a masterclass for The Guardian called ‘How To Be A Music Journalist‘, offered in Sydney and Melbourne, and as a festival workshop at Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival. Kate’s travel journalism has taken her to Africa, Papua New Guinea, Turkey, Solomon Islands, Germany, Peru, Taiwan and remote Indigenous communities in Australia. She has a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing major) from Wollongong University and won a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, where she completed a double major in Political Science and History.

Kate Hennessy on Twitter: @smallestroom

Direct download | iTunes | Stitcher | Libsyn | YouTube

Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

Episode 29: Erik Jensen

Erik Jensen is an author and founding editor of The Saturday Paper.

Penmanship podcast episode 29: Erik Jensen, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016At the age of 15, he fronted up to the office of a Sydney street press and became a music critic and journalist, then received a job offer from The Sydney Morning Herald after finishing high school. Since then, he has written a biography of Australian artist Adam Cullen and became the founding editor of The Saturday Paper, a Schwartz Media publication which recently celebrated its second birthday. Now 27, Erik has seen the business of journalism change from up close, and the weekly newspaper he edits has become an integral part of the Australian media landscape.

When he visited Brisbane in mid-June to host a panel at the Inspire Festival, Erik and I met for the first time at the hotel where he was staying. I have written a couple of stories for The Saturday Paper, so this episode marks the first time I’ve interviewed a current editor of mine on Penmanship. Our conversation touches on how Erik’s apprenticeship as a news journalist began with sitting nearby fearsome reporters such as David Marr and Kate McClymont; how launching The Saturday Paper drove him to the point of physical exhaustion in its first six months of existence; what happened when the producers of Australian Story attempted to film a television documentary about his life, and how learning to write in shorthand helped him immensely when he sat down to write his book Acute Misfortune following four years of reporting.

Erik Jensen is the founding editor of The Saturday Paper. Before that, he was a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald, where he won the Walkley Award for Young Print Journalist of the Year and the UNAA’s Media Peace Award. His first book, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, won the Nib Prize and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and the Walkley Book Award. He has written for various publications, and for the sitcom Please Like Me.

Erik Jensen on Twitter: @ErikOJensen

Direct download | iTunes | Stitcher | Libsyn | YouTube

Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

Episode 28: Tim Levinson (Urthboy)

Tim Levinson is a songwriter and musician.

Penmanship podcast episode 28: Tim Levinson (Urthboy), interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016Within the Australian hip-hop scene, he’s better known by his stage name, Urthboy, under which he performs as a solo artist and as a member of the eight-piece band The Herd. I’ve watched and listened to his music closely for more than a decade, and I’ve interviewed Tim several times, including for my book Talking Smack. When he visited Brisbane on a Saturday in early June while touring for his latest album, The Past Beats Inside Me Like A Second Heartbeat, I met at his hotel room during the afternoon, where his band and manager were relaxing soon after arriving from a show on the Sunshine Coast the previous night.

Our conversation touches on how his songwriting style has changed over the years to reflect a broader range of perspectives and emotions; the handful of times in his career where he has felt like he’s truly nailed a song’s execution; the members of the inner circle of people who he feels comfortable showing early drafts of his work to; why he decided to write a song about his mother for his newest album, and his father for his last album; and the creative breakthroughs that can emerge while writing lyrics alone at 3.00am.

Tim Levinson, otherwise known as Urthboy, is an award-winning Australian hip-hop artist based in Sydney. His second solo album The Signal was hailed as ‘a classic’ by Rolling Stone, received numerous award nominations and was shortlisted in the 2007 Australian Music Prize. He is one of the main songwriters in eight-piece band The Herd, and also manages Elefant Traks, an independent record label which includes artists such as Hermitude and Horrorshow. Celebrating the government’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, Urthboy worked with GetUp to re-imagine the song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow‘, at Paul Kelly’s personal request. The song helped raise over $100,000 for Indigenous run health and education programs. Urthboy has released five solo albums, the most recent of which is 2016’s The Past Beats Inside Me Like A Second Heartbeat.

Tim Levinson on Twitter: @Urthboy

Direct download | iTunes | Stitcher | Libsyn | YouTube

Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

Episode 27: Cory Taylor

Cory Taylor is an author and screenwriter.

Penmanship podcast episode 27: Cory Taylor, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016In May 2016, she published a book named Dying: A Memoir. As the title suggests, it will her last public writing, for Cory is dying of melanoma-related brain cancer. Structured around three essays, Cory writes of how her body has failed her since the initial diagnosis in 2005, just before her 50th birthday. While her once full life has since contracted to just two rooms – her bedroom and her living room, where she spends most of her days now – her mind remains sharp and active, and in the book she describes the arc of her narrative with vivid detail. She writes: “When you’re dying, even your unhappiest memories can induce a sort of fondness, as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread”. At once sad and proud, her writing in these pages is truly masterly. Readers of any age will find much to learn here, and it is difficult to imagine a finer note on which to close.

Cory and I live on the same street in inner-city Brisbane – Montague Road in West End – and I met her for the first time on a rainy Wednesday morning in mid June. She was propped up on the day bed in her living room, and in between occasional interruptions from friends and carers, Cory kindly allowed me to ask her a few questions about her life as a writer. There’s a bit of ambient noise in the background of the recording, as traffic rushes past on the wet street outside. But the living room itself is a wonderful sanctuary of art and literature, and despite the fact that her body is wasting away, Cory’s love for words and language burns brightly. Our conversation touches on how she decided to write about her impending death; the hardest parts of writing about dying; her early experiences working as a freelance screenwriter in the 1980s; how her PhD research into the internment of Japanese immigrants during the Second World War led to her second novel, and what she aimed to achieve by writing her final book.

Cory Taylor is an award-winning screenwriter who has also published short fiction and children’s books. Her first novel, Me and Mr Booker, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Pacific Region) and her second, My Beautiful Enemy, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Her most recent book is Dying: A Memoir.

Direct download | iTunes | Stitcher | Libsyn | YouTube

Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

Episode 26: Sarah Ferguson

Sarah Ferguson is a journalist and author.

Penmanship podcast episode 26: Sarah Ferguson, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016Last year, ABC television screened her three-part documentary series The Killing Season, which examined the forces that shaped the Australian Labor Party during the recent years in which Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard led the party, and the nation. Based on Sarah’s lengthy and insightful interviews with key political players, and filmed with the drama and style of the Netflix series House Of Cards, it was pitch-perfect television that resonated strongly across the country, attracting around a million viewers each episode. The series further established Sarah’s reputation as one of Australia’s finest television interviewers and presenters. Since 2008, she has worked as an award-winning investigative journalist on current affairs program Four Corners – which she currently hosts – as well as filling in for Leigh Sales as the host of 7.30 in 2014, and conducting several hard-hitting political interviews during that time.

In 2016, Sarah became an author with The Killing Season Uncut. Co-written with series researcher Patricia Drum and published in April by Melbourne University Publishing, Sarah’s book goes behind the scenes to candidly reveal the stories behind the interviews with Rudd, Gillard and a host of other key players. I found that her asides into the craft of journalism were a highlight of the book, such as this quote: “The business of persuasion is a fraught one for journalists. Persuasiveness is one thing, bullshit is another. You have to understand your subject intimately and what their purpose is in speaking on camera. I prefer candour but it’s not enough by itself. And you are not friends, although it can appear that way. The line you shouldn’t cross is usually only visible when it’s behind you.”

When Sarah was on a day trip to Brisbane in early May, we met at her inner-city hotel room so that I could ask her a few questions before she had to dash off to a radio interview across town. It was a thrill to be sitting across from one of the country’s most formidable journalistic brains; within a few minutes, she had called me out for incorrectly attributing a quote from the book to her, rather than Julia Gillard. Our conversation touches on how her writing style has developed across her career; her early writing influences, including her love of poetry; how she comes up with ideas for her Four Corners stories; why she posted a Julia Gillard quote above her desk; who she turns to when she’s having trouble with a story; and how she decided to open a live budget night interview on 7.30 with a particularly devastating question for then treasurer Joe Hockey.

Sarah Ferguson is an author and ABC journalist. In the same year that she worked on The Killing Season, she also wrote and presented Hitting Home, the landmark series on domestic violence. She has presented the ABC’s 7.30 and worked as a journalist on Four Corners, where she won four Walkleys – including the Gold Walkley in 2011 for ‘A Bloody Business‘ – the Melbourne Press Club Gold Quill Award, four Logies for most outstanding public affairs report, as well as the George Munster Award for Independent Journalism and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award.

Sarah Ferguson on Twitter: @FergusonNews

Direct download | iTunes | Stitcher | Libsyn | YouTube

Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

Episode 25: Luke Williams

Luke Williams is an author and freelance journalist.

Penmanship podcast episode 25: Luke Williams, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016I first became aware of his writing when The Saturday Paper published his feature story, ‘Life As A Crystal Meth Addict‘, in August 2014. In that story, he wrote about his decision to investigate the issue of crystal methamphetamine abuse by moving into a sharehouse with a couple of addicts, but it wasn’t long before the writer became addicted to the drug, too. It was an eye-opening article for which he later became a finalist in the feature writing category at the Walkley Awards that same year. I emailed Luke after I read that initial story, and we’ve been in sporadic contact since, as we’re both freelance journalists with an interest in writing honestly about drug use.

That story in The Saturday Paper led to a book deal with Scribe, and the result was published in May 2016. Entitled The Ice Age: A Journey Into Crystal-Meth Addiction, it’s a lengthy and detailed exploration of the drug’s surge in popularity from both a personal and journalistic perspective. When I reviewed the book for The Weekend Australian, I wrote that it offers something that has never before been attempted by an Australian author, and I described it as “a ­remarkable, original and compelling journey”. When he visited Brisbane in early May for an event at Avid Reader bookstore, I launched The Ice Age for Luke before a highly engaged audience, who appreciated the rare chance to speak openly about the realities of crystal meth use and abuse.

In the afternoon before the book launch, I met with Luke at his hotel room in inner Brisbane. Our conversation touches on how he went about pursuing a book deal immediately after the publication of that story for The Saturday Paper; how he pitched to his drug-addicted housemates the fact that he planned to write a book about their lives; how he approached the tricky task of writing about his drug-induced psychosis; how he became a reporter for Triple J’s current affairs program, Hack; and why he now prefers to work as a freelance writer while living in south-east Asia, rather than in Australia.

Luke Williams is an Australian journalist and author. He has previously worked as a reporter and broadcaster at ABC Radio. His written work has been published in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Saturday PaperBrisbane Times, Crikey, The Global Mail, The Weekend Australian and Eureka Street. In 2013 he was nominated for a Human Rights Media Award for a long-form investigative piece in The Global Mail, and in 2014 his article on ice addiction, ‘Life as a Crystal Meth Addict‘, was a finalist in the Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism. His book The Ice Age: A Journey Into Crystal-Meth Addiction was published in May 2016 by Scribe.

Luke Williams on Twitter: @LukeWilliamsj

Direct download | iTunes | Stitcher | Libsyn | YouTube

Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

Episode 24: Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is an author, freelance journalist, columnist and screenwriter.

Penmanship podcast episode 24: Benjamin Law, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016Since I first ventured into full-time freelance journalism in 2009, he’s been someone that I’ve greatly admired, not only for his ability to write well across a range of publications and styles, but also for the simple fact that he’s a generous and enthusiastic supporter of other writers. I first met him in early 2010, when I emailed him to introduce myself and ask for a meeting, and from that point, he has remained as a firm friend and mentor. I interviewed him for The Courier-Mail that same year, for an article that coincided with the release of his first book, The Family Law, a memoir which described his upbringing as a Chinese-Australian. The following year, he spoke about freelance journalism alongside John Birmingham at an event I hosted in Brisbane as part of National Young Writers’ Month. I reviewed his excellent second book, Gaysia, for The Weekend Australian in 2012, and since then, he has taken me suit shopping, offered me a place to crash while visiting Sydney, and provided some timely advice when I was negotiating my first book contract.

As you’ve no doubt already gathered, I’m a big fan of Benjamin’s. His career has recently taken an interesting turn into screenwriting, as his first book was turned into a six-part SBS television series. The Family Law debuted on Australian screens in early 2016; it was very well-received, and Benjamin is currently writing the second season. His regular writing gig is his weekly column in Good Weekend, which never fails to make me laugh. When he visited Brisbane in late April for a QUT Journalism and Media Society event, where we were both speaking to university students about feature writing, I took the opportunity to interview Benjamin in an empty classroom before the crowds arrived. Our conversation touches on how a mentorship with Matthew Condon helped him to pitch stories and get his head around writing longform features; how he was approached by a publisher to write The Family Law; what he learned about the book industry while working at Brisbane bookstore Avid Reader; how he comes up with ideas for his Good Weekend column, and how he views being in a relationship where both partners work in the creative industries.

Benjamin Law is a Sydney-based TV screenwriter, journalist and newspaper columnist, who has PhD in creative writing and cultural studies. He’s the author of two books—The Family Law (2010) and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (2012)—and the co-author of the comedy book Shit Asian Mothers Say (2014) with his sister Michelle and illustrator Oslo Davis. Both of his books have been nominated for Australian Book Industry Awards. The Family Law is now in its fourth reprint, has been translated into French and is now a major SBS TV series. Gaysia was published in India in 2013 and North America in 2014. Benjamin is a frequent contributor to Good Weekend (The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age), frankie and The Monthly. He has also written for over 50 publications, businesses and agencies in Australia and worldwide.

Benjamin Law on Twitter: @mrbenjaminlaw

Direct download | iTunes | Stitcher | Libsyn | YouTube

Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

Episode 23: Anne Summers

Anne Summers is an author, journalist, editor, publisher and columnist.

Penmanship podcast episode 23: Anne Summers, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016The fact that I need to use five adjectives to accurately describe her role in Australian writing culture speaks volumes about Anne’s impact, influence and ability. To my knowledge, she is the first guest of Penmanship to appear on an Australian postage stamp, as part of a series celebrating Australian legends in 2011. Her career began with the publication of an ambitious and controversial book named Damned Whores and God’s Police in 1975. Anne has written eight books so far, but it’s the updated 2016 edition of that first title which brings her to Brisbane in late April for an event at Avid Reader bookstore.

Before the 40th anniversary book launch at Avid, I met Anne at her hotel room in South Brisbane for a conversation which touches on how she became a contributing writer to Australian newspapers and radio while still a child; the difficult and lengthy process of writing Damned Whores and God’s Police; how she made the transition from journalism to working for a prime minister – twice! – in 1983 and 1992; what makes a great magazine profile, and how she decided to launch her online magazine Anne Summers Reports after a disagreement with an editor at a major Australian magazine.

Dr Anne Summers AO is a best-selling author and journalist with a long career in politics, the media, business and the non-government sector in Australia, Europe and the United States. She is author of eight books, including the classic Damned Whores and God’s Police, first published in 1975. This bestseller was updated in 1994 and, again, in 2002 and stayed continuously in print until 2008. A new edition was published on International Women’s Day 2016. In 1975 she became a journalist, first on The National Times, then in 1979 was appointed Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and then the paper’s North American editor. In 1987 in New York she was editor-in-chief of Ms. – America’s landmark feminist magazine – and the following year, with business partner Sandra Yates bought Ms. and Sassy magazines in the second only women-led management buyout in US corporate history. In November 2012 she began publishing Anne Summers Reports, a lavish free digital magazine that promises to be ‘Sane, Factual, Relevant’ and which reports on politics, social issues, art, architecture and other subjects not covered adequately by the mainstream media. In September 2013, Anne launched her series of Anne Summers Conversations events with former prime minister Julia Gillard in front of a packed Sydney Opera House. In 1989 she was made an Officer in the Order of Australia for her services to journalism and to women. In 2011, along with three other women, Anne was honoured as an Australian Legend with her image placed on a postage stamp.

Anne Summers on Twitter: @SummersAnne

Direct download | iTunes | Stitcher | Libsyn | YouTube

Click here to read the show notes for this episode.

Episode 22: Bernard Zuel

Bernard Zuel is senior music writer at The Sydney Morning Herald.

Penmanship podcast episode 22: Bernard Zuel, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016He was visiting Brisbane in early April as a guest speaker at the inaugural Rock and Roll Writers Festival, so after a day of inspiring and enlightening discussions about all things music writing, we went back to his hotel room in Fortitude Valley to talk more about that very topic. I’ve been reading his album reviews and features in The Sydney Morning Herald for years, so it w as a treat to pick the brains of one of Australia’s most prolific and enduring writers in this field.

In 2016, Bernard is actually one of very few journalists in the country to be employed as a full-time music writer for a newspaper. We talk about this very fact, and the shrinking nature of such jobs, as well as how he chooses which artists to write about; how he manages to juggle writing up to six album reviews per week; how he prefers to take notes in dark rooms when attending concerts; why he hates the five-star ranking system; the value he sees in writing negative music criticism, and why he now uses voice recognition software rather than typing.

Bernard Zuel has been writing about music since typewriters, C90 mixtapes and coming home stinking of everyone else’s smokes. Having written for RAM, Rolling Stone and street press, and talked on TV/radio for anyone who asked and paid nothing, he’s been covering arts at The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media for more than 20 years, the past 12 or so as senior music writer and chief critic. He still buys records and discs and sound files because it’s great.

Bernard Zuel on Twitter: @BernardZuel

Direct download | iTunes | Stitcher | Libsyn | YouTube

Click here to read the show notes for this episode.