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

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3.30 At 11am on an ordinary Tuesday, Richard would usually be interviewing a guest for Conversations, but on this occasion he’s the interview subject, which feels “perverse and unnatural”

4.30 “It feels really luxurious to answer questions rather than prepare an interview”

5.30 Richard’s earlier books include D*A*A*S Book (1989) with fellow Doug Anthony Allstars members Tim Ferguson and Paul McDermott. In 2007, Richard co-wrote An Insider’s Guide To Power In Australia with Peter Hoysted (aka Jack The Insider), and in 2010 he published a collection of Conversations interviews in book form, edited by Pauline Turnbull

6.30 “My show is called Conversations, but it’s really a guided form of storytelling, where I move the narrative along, and ask questions here and there”

7.30 Richard found fun in recording the audiobook version of Ghost Empire, which he completed over two weekends

8.00 The idea behind Ghost Empire had been “rattling around” in Richard’s head for about seven years prior to its publication; a source of inspiration was Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast

9.30 Richard found that, while researching and writing the book, he was essentially looking for characters through which to tell the story, which is not dissimilar to what he does on Conversations

11.00 As part of his research for the book, Richard read a lot of the popular histories in this area; he also found that the State Library of Queensland is “surprisingly well-endowed with obscure, translated books on Byzantine history”

12.00 “I just kept drilling down into stuff until I could find the nugget of what it was I was looking for,  and then pull back, and put them together, and try to get a multi-faceted perspective on it”

12.30 The radio program meant that Richard has a “fair bit of practice” of absorbing large amounts of information into his head and synthesising it into a story form

13.30 The book’s structure moves between ancient history and the near present of Richard’s trip to Turkey and Italy with his teen-aged son, Joe

14.30 Richard knew he needed Joe’s permission to write the book in that way, and he read every bit out loud to Joe as he lay on a couch, listening

15.30 During the writing process, Richard paid Joe to paint the front fence; he’d write and then read the material aloud while Joe painted, to get his feedback and see if it was working, which “worked out pretty well”

16.30 “I don’t want to expose him too much to the glare of publicity; I’ve been pretty careful about that”

17.00 Richard’s children sometimes get feedback on their father’s interviews from their teachers, which they find excruciating and embarrassing

18.00 In the book, Richard writes movingly of the birth of Joe, his first child, and of how the jokey banter between new father is “an act of concealment, papering over the powerful and unsettling surge of love” they feel for their newborn

20.00 “When Joe was born, I burst into tears, and I wondered where they came from; I was really quite undone, and I think a lot of fathers are in that moment”

23.00 Richard also writes of his observation that males find it difficult to talk face-to-face, but are much more open to speaking frankly while positioned side-by-side

24.30 “I’ve noticed this with my own son, too: when Joe asks me a question about history, he’ll turn his head to the side, looking away from me, so he can digest it and ruminate on it”

25.30 Richard has to have eye contact while he’s interviewing, and “it’s a nightmare sometimes when men won’t make eye contact” because they’re not seeing Richard’s non-verbal cues

26.30 Richard’s love for storytelling began as a child; his father was a great raconteur, and would get kudos for his great storytelling, often prompted by those around him

27.30 In 2011, Richard went overseas on a Churchill Trust Fellowship to meet the teams behind storytelling radio programs such as This American Life and The Moth

29.30 Richard wrote a report about his trip, ‘To Investigate New Forms of Public Radio’, which included several conclusions such as: “True stories are most powerful when told by the people who own them”

30.00 Some of Richard’s favourite moments while hosting Conversations is when guests get caught up in relaying a memory, almost like they’re watching a movie that’s screening before their eyes

32.00 Another conclusion from his Churchill report was that “curiosity and discovery are infectious on radio; more so than any other medium”

33.00 “Curiosity is the best thing to pull [radio] along, which is why I try to be allergic to cliches, and the kind of pompous banalities that still exist in some forms of radio”

34.00 As a child, the first book Richard really loved was Through The Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, which opened his eyes to new ways of seeing the world

35.30 After high school, Richard studied Arts at Australian National University in Canberra, just for something to do, rather than out of a passion for the arts in particular

36.30 Richard has been busking in Adelaide during high school, and continued to do so when his family moved to Canberra; he met Tim Ferguson first, and the pair of them began performing together

37.30 They later met Paul McDermott, and the three of them formed a musical comedy group named The Doug Anthony Allstars, which kicked off a collaborative writing process wherein the three members found that they wanted to be around each other all the time, constantly creating new material

39.00 At the time, Richard was into the Sex Pistols and Violent Femmes, as well as the alternative comedy scene in the USA and UK

41.30 “I think I’m just someone who’s pursuing his cultural obsessions, really, in all different media”

42.00 With each episode of Conversations, the last thing Richard usually writes is the introduction for his guest; he generally records four interviews each week

43.30 “I’m always trying to keep my questions short, and as in plain English as possible”; Richard cites ABC Radio PM host Mark Colvin at a master of this form

44.30 “When it comes to writing the introduction to the guest, I sort of trust in my subconscious to have done that for me”

46.00 Richard often works at least half a day each weekend to make sure he’s ready for the coming week of interviews, because he “can’t bear the thought of doing it half-arsed”

46.30 Ira Glass, host of This American Life, was astonished by how much of what Richard records makes it to air, because he and his producers discard the majority of what they record

47.30 Richard has sometimes decided to pull an interview before broadcast out of concern for a source: “All of us on the program want to observe a kind of broadcasting Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm”

49.30 Richard on the role of silence: “It’s so beautiful, where if a guest has said something really extraordinary, it’s sometimes good just to let it hang there for a little while, so we can all think about it for a moment”

50.30 In June, Richard interviewed Brisbane author Cory Taylor at her home; she was near the end of her life, having been slowly dying of cancer for ten years

51.30 “She was so lovely and welcoming. It wasn’t a grim interview […] She was still full of curiosity and life. She died very, very well. That’s a really classy way to leave this world, the way she left it”

52.00 Richard compares the experience of interviewing Cory to London Underground bombing survivor Gill Hicks, who was able to articulate her near-death experience with extraordinary detail and clarity

53.00 In his interviews, Richard isn’t so much looking for deep emotion – “I really don’t want to see people upset” – but he’s trying to bring out the guest’s eloquent, thrilling “best self”

54.00 Richard recalls an interview he recorded with Barry Heard, author of the 2007 Vietnam war memoir Well Done, Those Men, who was able to talk about his horrific experiences “in this way that was like an angel, almost; it was a pleasure to hear”

54.30 How hosting Conversations has changed how Richard thinks about storytelling

55.30 “A really good story is something that has these wrong notes in it, that are just right”

56.00 “I find that really good storytelling is such a relief; it gets you out of your own selfish self, and out of your own mind, and takes you into someone else’s life for a little while”

57.00 Ghost Empire was such a personal book for Richard that he rarely mentioned he was writing it to anyone outside of his close friends and family

58.00 Richard’s wife Khym is a librarian, and he went to a few libraries to write Ghost Empire, but he laments that these spaces are so “bloody noisy” now

59.00 Richard says that The Weekend Australian Magazine journalist Trent Dalton is a “fantastic interviewer”: “I think he’s coming from a similar place that I’m coming from, interviewing subjects, and I absolutely love his work”

60.00 Richard’s next writing project will involve returning to Iceland and co-writing a book with his friend Kári Gíslason, called Saga Land, about that nation’s Viking stories and “broader historical nuggets about Iceland, and a bit about our journey”

61.00 “I’ve got another book project down the road in mind, as well, but I don’t want to jinx it yet, because I haven’t quite figured out in my head how it’ll work”

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