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

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4.30 Two years ago, aged 34, Luke started a legal career and left after five weeks because he learned that working in an office all day wasn’t right for him

6.00 “I thought, ‘If I can get my writing skills to an acceptable level, then there’s a whole lot of stories here that I could tell that I think people would be far more interested in, than people’s boring lives in office jobs”

7.30 Luke’s cover story for The Saturday Paper, ‘Life as a Crystal Meth Addict‘, came about after living among drug users ‘Beck’ and ‘Smithy’ in Pakenham, Victoria and pitching the story with a view to write a book about it

10.30 “A lot of other writers and journalists were shocked when they got glimpses into what I did in my spare time, and a lot of the time they thought I was lying, because it just seemed too out-there”

11.00 In 2008, Luke wrote a book about going to rehab which he never sent to some agents, but never to any publishers

12.30 Luke’s relationship with The Saturday Paper‘s editor, Erik Jensen, was such that he would send bundles of research materials, and Erik would pick out something for Luke to focus on and write about

13.30 “Older editors can be very conservative in what they want to publish at times, so I never felt confident before that about putting any of that side of my life out to an editor, because I thought they’d say ‘no'”

14.30 As soon as the story was published in The Saturday Paper, Luke contacted an agent, “because I thought that it would result in a book”

16.30 “I was happy to take whatever I could get [on the book contract]; I was living at my parents’ house in Bundaberg, at age 34”

17.30 The initial plan was to get the book done in about four and a half months, on a schedule of writing one chapter per week

20.30 Luke loves researching, as it’s part of his obsessive and addictive nature: “I can’t stop reading stuff or getting to the bottom of stuff, so when it’s channeled, it works quite well”

23.30 “The majority of our drug policy spend is actually being spent on taking people to court because they’re smoking marijuana”

27.30 How Luke first raised with his two housemates at the Pakenham house the fact that he wanted to write about their lives and their crystal methamphetamine use

30.30 “They knew I was writing a book … But they were so involved in their addictions that they didn’t have time to sit back and think about what I was doing”

31.30 “When The Saturday Paper article came out, they were furious; they so angry. [Investigative journalism TV program] Four Corners rang them to talk about it, and they said it was all fiction”

33.30 Neither ‘Beck’ nor ‘Smithy’, Luke’s two drug-addicted housemates in Pakenham, have spoken to him since the article came out in 2014

38.30 “When you’re on crystal meth, you get into repetitive loops; you have short-term memory loss”

40.00 How Luke went about reporting for the newspaper article and the book while he was living in the Pakenham house

43.00 How Luke went about the difficult task of capturing his drug-induced psychotic episodes on the page in The Ice Age

44.00 “It really is just like telling a make-believe story, in a sense, because you’re just talking about something that’s come out of your imagination that you’ve misconstrued, and that you’ve taken literally”

48.00 Luke grew up not far from Pakenham, Victoria, where he went to a private school before being expelled and attending a “bush school”, where he was ruthlessly bullied after his peers discovered his homosexuality

51.30 Luke eventually finished Year 12 by correspondence, which coincided with his mother “going a bit nutty at times”, culminating in Luke being kicked out of the house and staying with friends

55.30 “It was blatantly unfair, but we’re all nasty little shits when we’re that age, really”

58.00 From a young age, Luke liked to live in fantasy worlds, “but it wasn’t tapped into as something I could do as a career, because my parents were working class”

61.30 Luke was a reporter on Triple J’s Hack current affairs program in his early 20s for four years, after progressing through the ranks at a community radio station

64.00 Luke’s favourite interviewee from his Hack reporting was a guy who had sex with his dog, a female Labrador

66.30 He found it easy to talk to and get along with people as a reporter, as he enjoyed hearing peoples’ stories

68.30 How he views the precarious lifestyle of freelance journalism, and the process of pitching stories and trying to get assignments; he recently moved to south-east Asia, where the cost of living is much lower than in Australia

72.00 “In somewhere like India, where you can live somewhere for $1.50 a night, and food is like $4 a day, then if you sell one book a day, that might just get you through”

73.00 Writing comes easily to Luke, and it has since a young age: “Once I’m in that flow of it, then it just comes, thousands of words at a time”

76.00 Luke misses writing while using meth, but not because of the quality; instead, it got him in the pattern of just sitting down and writing

77.00 “I don’t need motivation to get writing, I need to ensure that it’s good quality, and that the attention to detail is right. You can’t do that when you’re on drugs”

78.30 After his promotional tour for The Ice Age, Luke is going to Indonesia to work on a fantasy novel that occurred to him while he was in his “borderline psychosis experimentations”

81.00 “That’s why I’m not taking drugs now, because I’ve got enough of that big-thinking, imaginative kind of thinking. It’s about being disciplined, looking at my sentences, and whether the story makes sense”

81.30 He plans to live off $2,000 in Indonesia for two months while working on the novel, and not having to do any freelance work to supplement his income

82.30 Luke’s 2008 book about going to rehab was published by SBS Online in October 2015 as an illustrated longform feature, ‘The Rehab Diaries

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