Episode 20: Kathleen Noonan

Kathleen Noonan is a journalist and weekly columnist at The Courier-Mail.

Penmanship podcast episode 20: Kathleen Noonan, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016For 13 years, she has written a column in the Saturday Courier-Mail named ‘Last Word’. It’s a blank canvas where she is tasked with writing one thousand words about whatever has caught her eye or piqued her interest out in the world that week. It seems no topic is too big or too small for this canvas: I’ve been reading her every Saturday for about six years, and that column is among the most consistently fascinating, moving and insightful pages I’ll read all week. Besides being an eminently experienced and capable journalist, I have long wondered how Kathleen manages to write such wonderfully original material based only on her careful observations and analysis of herself and other people. It’s a brilliant trick, and her name has been near the top of my list since I first conceived of using Penmanship as a vehicle to meet and interview my favourite Australian writers.

I met Kathleen at her home in East Brisbane on a Monday morning in mid-March, where I was enthusiastically greeted by her white Jack Russell puppy, Basil, who was keen on playing with the stranger in his house while we chatted nearby Kathleen’s writing desk. The sounds of suburbia were in chorus that morning, prompting her to shut the window and doors to avoid power tools and leaf blowers on a couple of occasions. Our conversation touches on how Kathleen manages to come up with fresh ideas for ‘Last Word’ each week; how she decided to write a column about the recent passing of her beloved greyhound, which prompted an unexpected flood of reader mail; what led her to seek out a job as a cadet reporter in North Queensland; how she handled the tricky task of performing ‘death knocks’, and the advice that she tends to give when aspiring journalists contact her.

Kathleen Noonan is a Brisbane-based journalist and columnist.  She has written a weekly opinion column named ‘Last Word’ in Saturday’s Courier-Mail for 13 years. Raised on a farm amid paddocks of sugarcane in north Queensland, Kathleen did her early news reporting in the Mackay district. After reporting in South Africa through the dying years of apartheid and release of Nelson Mandela, and a stint travelling and writing in the UK, Kathleen returned home, working as a freelance journalist for publications including The Australian. She returned to The Courier-Mail as a news reporter, sub-editor, section head and senior features writer. Her weekly column explores everything from love, death, books, running, music, poetry, teachers, refugees and chooks. She is also chair of the Second Chance committee, the only charity in Australia that raises money exclusively for homeless women. It helps fund crisis accommodation for elderly women, young teenagers with babies, and at-risk women and children in Queensland’s domestic violence shelters.

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2.30 On a Monday morning, Kathleen can usually be found conducting an interview or thinking about ideas for next week’s column

3.30 Kathleen has been approached to write books, but enjoys the challenge of writing a 1,000 word column each week

4.30 With the ‘Last Word’ column, Kathleen thinks she has a one-in-three strike rate: with the first, she’s happy with because she gave herself enough time; the second was a good idea that didn’t have enough time, and the third “probably wasn’t such a great idea to start with, but you’ve still got to get it up in the end”

6.00 “I’m always really impressed when I see a news report that I know would’ve been produced on the day, and it’s also beautifully written; that’s talent”

8.00 “I think the strongest columns I write have more [journalism; picking up the phone and interviewing people], because that’s where my beginnings are”

9.00 How Kathleen writes columns on weeks where she’s really stuck for fresh ideas; running and reading poetry are two of her go-to strategies

11.00 “When I started, I was a bit more ‘Oh my god, that’s ridiculous, I can’t believe that’s happened’, but I’ve become a bit more optimistic”

12.00 “I’ve been writing this year about 13 years, which I’d never have imagined; I was originally asked by Brian Crisp, and I said I’d do it for ten weeks, because nobody’s got anything interesting to say after ten weeks”

14.00 Kathleen receives a range of emails from readers of her column, because “I don’t go out there to annoy a certain group of people”

14.30 “I will never engage or reply to anything anonymous; I don’t even look at comments under stories, I think that is a really pointless, damaging, toxic… just don’t even go there, and you’ll have a much happier life”

16.30 Kathleen chooses not to look at email feedback while she’s writing the next week’s column because she needs to be in a different headspace when she sits down to write “something fresh”

17.30 In early March 2016, Kathleen wrote about the death of her greyhound, Dory, in a column titled “Loved Racer Crosses Her Finish Line

19.00 “You’ve got to write what you want to write; what moves you. You can’t even try to think about what other people would like to read”

20.00 Kathleen decided that she would write about Dory’s death “pretty quickly after it happened”, though she thinks columnists writing about their pets “can be a bit of a problem sometimes”

21.00 She wrote the column about Dory first in order to work out how she felt about it, then to see whether she could do it “without being too schmaltzy”; she felt a lot better after she’d finished writing it

25.00 “In my family, we all tend to come from the land; we’re farmers, we’ve always had dogs, and we all talk about our dogs as if they talk, and what they think, and they look at you like you’re being an idiot”

25.30 Kathleen showed the column about Dory to her daughter, Pip, before publication; she cried, and was “most pleased that she got a little sideways mention”, because she was there for the process of putting Dory down, and wants to be a vet

26.30 For the first few years of writing ‘Last Word’, Kathleen never mentioned her daughters or her family, choosing instead to draw a line between her professional and private lives

28.30 Kathleen was first employed at The Courier-Mail by Greg Chamberlin, and has since worked under several editors; for the last couple of years, she works from home and files the weekly column to the Canvas editor

30.00 The column appears in print exactly as Kathleen files it; a level of autonomy that tends to surprise some people who think she is told what to write

31.30 Her weekly deadline for the column is Friday afternoon, though sometimes she misses that deadline

33.00 In the 13 years she’s been writing ‘Last Word’, Kathleen has written more than 600 columns, totalling more than 600,000 words

35.00 Kathleen regularly hosts book launches at stores around Brisbane, including Avid Reader in West End, which is owned by previous Penmanship guest Fiona Stager

38.00 On the wall in front of Kathleen’s desk, she has posted a few photographs and drawings, as well as two quotes: “Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it all going to end?” by Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1967, and “Journalists, like teachers, are society’s narrators. The good ones discern our fears, anxieties and curiosities and tell stories that make life meaningful and manageable,” by Max Frankel in The New York Times, 1997

40.30 “I didn’t go to university, so writing a thousand words a week for me is like practicing essay writing”

42.00 Kathleen reads “any newspaper I can get my hands on”; The Courier-Mail first thing in the morning, The Australian over coffee, then The Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian online, as well as The Saturday Paper and Queensland Country Life 369

45.00 In terms of Australian journalists, Kathleen loves Annabel Crabbe, as well as political insiders like Niki Savva and Graham Richardson, and previous Penmanship guest Hedley Thomas, investigative reporter at The Australian

48.30 Kathleen grew up in North Queensland, the youngest of six siblings: five girls, one boy

50.30 Her love for language emerged during dinner time, where everyone would sit around the table discussing and debating; her father is a great verbal storyteller, as was her paternal grandmother

52.30 Kathleen didn’t try very hard in school; she liked English, and “I got into trouble a bit; I don’t see laws and rules applying to me. I’m not even proud of that; it’s just ridiculous”

54.30 “I remember loving the library, and the newspapers in the library. But we were very much in a cocoon at [boarding] school [in Yeppoon, Queensland]”

56.00 Kathleen remembers reading Phillip Adams’s column in The Australian, which was “so different to what everyone around me was saying”

56.30 On the first day of her holidays after finishing high school, her father asked her at the breakfast table, “So, what job are you applying for today?”

57.30 She applied for a job as a receptionist at the Mackay City Council office, which she did for a year, while badgering the local newspaper for a cadetship as a reporter

59.30 Her first year working at the Mackay Daily Mercury was at the end of the 1983, and her first job was reporting on local council matters

60.30 “It was exactly how you’d want a newsroom to be […] Everyone smoked, and everyone went at dinnertime to the pub next door and drank quite large amounts, and still came back and put out the newspaper with remarkably few errors”

61.30 Kathleen completed her cadetship “very quickly”; she knew a lot of people locally because of her father, and she liked to “have a go at anything”

62.30 “I don’t think I got any actual training in how to be a journalist; I got to watch other people be journalists. You just get thrown in the deep end, and you do cope”

64.00 Kathleen wrote a piece on the Canegrowers’ Association during her first year; she got a tip-off about a deal that had failed, and there were threats of being sued. She never got a reassuring chat with the editor; she was asked to hand over her notebooks, and felt as she’d “been left out to dry”

65.30 “It’s hard as a young journalist, because everyone thinks you’re a lot more confident than you are. You’ve got to project a certain confidence in everything you do, but your work is held up to scrutiny all the time”

66.30 Kathleen found it easy to talk to people as a journalist, because “most people like to talk about themselves, and if you ask them questions, they’re happy to do that – even if it’s a death knock”

68.00 “It’s remarkable how much people want to talk about the person they’ve lost”

68.30 She would often begin by asking people whether they’d had anything to do with the press before. “I think that’s a valid question for most people that you interview, because some people will have had a lot of experience, but others will say ‘no'”

72.00 When contacted by young people who want to be journalists, Kathleen always encourages them to seek work at regional media outlets, because “you can make all your mistakes with no-one really watching, and you get a go at everything”

73.00 Her first job at The Courier-Mail was as a sub-editor in 1988, and was there for about a year before heading to South Africa with her boyfriend at the time, who was an Australian national cricketer

76.00 Kathleen saw up close how news was reported differently for the black and white populations in South Africa; she stayed for two years, or two cricket seasons

77.30 She was reporting for a newspaper there when Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison on February 11, 1990

78.30 “I had nothing but really good experiences there. I made good friends, and I’m so grateful that reporting gave me that opportunity”

84.00 Journalism hasn’t been at all what Kathleen expected; “It’s been surprising at every turn”

85.30 After South Africa, Kathleen returned to The Courier-Mail as a full-time section editor and feature writer

87.00 What Kathleen has noticed about the differences between hard news reporting and feature writing at a length of 2000+ words

87.30 “At the essence of every good piece is being moved or outraged for one person. Clever feature writers tend to write it in a circle; they tend to start somewhere, take you a lot of other places, and you’re not quite sure where they’re going – then you find yourself coming back and completing that circle”

88.30 What the future holds for Kathleen as a writer: “I have no idea, which sometimes fills [me] with a lot of terror”

89.30 Her income as a columnist has increased over the 13 years she’s been writing it, but she makes a point of never comparing it to anyone else, because “either way, someone’s going to be disappointed”

91.00 “I think I’m still learning how to do it. Isn’t that ridiculous?”


1 comment… add one
  • Christina Downs

    I miss your column in the paper…it seems so long since you last wrote in the Courier Mail. You are a writer of such insight and excellence, and compassion… thankyou.

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