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


2.00 Anne is visiting Brisbane for an event at Avid Reader bookstore – owned by previous Penmanship guest Fiona Stager – to coincide with the republication and 40th anniversary of her debut book, Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975)

4.00 “It’s obviously something I never thought would happen, and it’s interesting that there’s now a real resurgence of feminism happening, both in Australia and around the world, and so there’s an audience for the book that there probably wouldn’t have been ten years ago”

5.00 Anne was 27 when she started writing Damned Whores and God’s Police, which was originally proposed as a book about women and mateship in Australian society – until Anne decided that the question wasn’t sufficiently big enough, and so the book was expanded in its scope

6.30 At the time, Anne was studying at the University of Sydney, and she had a postgraduate scholarship to do a PhD; her supervisor, Professor Henry Mayer, encouraged her to write about the women’s movement in Australia, and to focus on her book contract with Penguin rather than the PhD

9.00 The book was eventually accepted as a PhD at the University of Sydney, although they had problems with its title

10.00 While writing the book, Anne was politically active in the “embryonic” women’s movement; she was involved in the establishment of Australia’s first women’s refuge, Elsie, in 1974, and also pursuing freelance journalism assignments

11.00 “The two things I wanted to do was write a book and be a journalist, and I was very lucky [that] in 1975, both of those things happened: I published my book, and I got my first job as a journalist with The National Times

12.00 Anne did a lot of writing as a child, including short stories, books, for the children’s pages in newspapers, and a show on ABC Radio called The Argonauts Club, which encouraged children to contribute

13.30 When Anne first moved to Sydney in about 1971, she went around to all the newspaper and magazine editors and asked for work; she got some freelance writing assignments as a result of this approach

15.00 The editor of The National Times, Max Suich, was “very uninterested” in Anne at first because she came from Sydney University; “He said he didn’t want any ‘fucking academics’ on the paper, and I assured him I wasn’t a ‘fucking academic'”

16.30 The National Times elected to run Damned Whores and God’s Police as a cover story in 1975, to Anne’s complete surprise; she was not contacted or interviewed prior to publication

19.00 Because she got that reporting job immediately after completing a national publicity tour for the book, Anne became absorbed in that role rather than attempting to write a second book, which was her original plan

20.30 The National Times was unique in Australian media at that time as it subscribed to the New Journalism approach, which encouraged its writers to establish their own voice and presence in a story

22.30 Several of Anne’s stories for The National Times had a major impact on Australian journalism, including a group assignment she reported in 1976 with two male colleagues about a culture of gang rape in the Far North Queensland town of Ingham, named How Women Are Trained

24.30 Another story published in 1977 saw Anne paired with reporter David Marr, and together they wrote about a gang rape at a women’s college for a story named The Animal Act of the Year

25.30 As a student of New Journalism, Anne learned that any subject was permissible: “You could write about anything, you didn’t have to be distant and objective, and you could bring yourself into the story”

30.00 “I’ve always been interested in stories that other people aren’t telling, or aren’t telling adequately. I have a great curiosity about society and the world, so I think one of the things that journalism should be doing is telling these stories”

33.30 Anne spent several years living and working in New York City, attempting to break into the freelance writing market there, with the goal of being published in The New York Times

35.00 Anne was a political reporter at The Australian Financial Review between 1979 and 1983, based in Canberra and reporting on politics from Parliament House

36.30 “[Work] was totally my life, I didn’t have anything else… You’d get to work around ten in the morning, and leave around midnight”

37.30 Anne was hesitant about moving from journalism to working in politics, as an advisor to Paul Keating on women’s issues prior to the 1993 federal election, but was ultimately glad she did it

379.00 As editor of Good Weekend magazine from 1993 to 1997, Anne managed six staff writers and two staff photographers, “so we could do really big, extravagant pieces, and spend a fair bit of money on them”

42.30 Anne once devoted an entire issue of Good Weekend to a reprinted Village Voice story, ‘A Rape In Cyberspace‘, which was written by freelance journalist Julian Dibbell and went for “about 40 pages”

45.30 For magazine editors, “the environment that you create in which a story exists is as important as the story itself”

46.30 Anne Summers Reports, or ASR, is an online magazine that’s “a digital version of a print magazine; I like to think of it as combining the best of Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and old Esquire

47.00 “I’m very keen on having big, interesting features, and good profiles; I don’t think we have good profiles much in this country anymore […] They’re all very bland and anodyne, and people just want to puff people, they don’t want to explore people”

49.30 Its tagline is “Sane, factual, relevant”, which took Anne “about 30 seconds” to come up with while reading The Australian and deciding that her magazine would be the opposite of how she saw that newspaper

50.30 ASR‘s origins were in a lengthy profile of Australian public figure and businessman David Gonski, which Anne had been commissioned to write for The Monthly, but she withdrew it from publication after having a dispute with the editor about how the piece was edited

51.30 “I thought, ‘what will I do with it? Oh fuck it, I’ll publish it myself’. So I created the magazine in a couple of weeks around that idea of a basic cover story”

52.30 “The problem with publishing [ASR] as a PDF is it’s not really searchable, or shareable, and all of the things you need to build audience or get advertising, you can’t really do with a PDF”

54.00 Anne’s only regular writing gig outside of ASR is a fortnightly column for Fairfax Media

55.00 Her current major project is finishing off a manuscript that’s two years overdue; it’s a memoir that will cover her early career in journalism, and she has currently written about 90,000 words

56.30 Working on ASR without a steady supply of income would be impossible if Anne’s partner wasn’t working full-time; “It’s been very hard to sustain the magazine, because I don’t really have enough money to hire people to help me do what needs to be done to get the money; it’s one of those vicious circles”

57.30 Anne also runs a series of live interviews, named Anne Summers Conversations, which kicked off with Julia Gillard in September 2013 at the Sydney Opera House

59.30 “I tend to refer to it as ASR now, rather than Anne Summers Reports, but I’ve been quite amazed that no-one has said ‘you’re up yourself’ or ‘what a wanker’ [after deciding to use her name in the title]”

62.00 “I used to measure my progress in [number of] words written; I’ve always kept a diary of how many words I wrote every day”

63.00 “What’s more important than getting down a big number of words is getting the thinking right, and working out what story this book’s trying to tell, and how I’m trying to tell it”

64.00 Anne tends to work during the day now, rather than night; some days she gets up at 5am to write, but she finds that after about 10 or 12 hours she’s “a bit buggered”

65.00 How Anne decides whether something she’s written is good, bad or indifferent

66.30 Anne finds isn’t as good as editing her own work as she is at editing others: “It’s always easier to see what’s wrong with other peoples’ work”

67.00 “Baz Luhrmann says, ‘You never finish a film, they just take it away from you’, and I think it’s bit the same with books”



1 comment… add one
  • Dena Sewell

    Anne Summers was such a stellar guest for your podcast this week!My wife actually knew who this was as she is a Professor of Woman’s Studies at SUNY New Paltz here in upstate New York.
    Thank you for another great podcast.

Leave a Comment

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.