Episode 37: Richard Guilliatt

Richard Guilliatt is an author and staff writer at The Weekend Australian Magazine.

Penmanship podcast episode 37: Richard Guilliatt, interviewed by Andrew McMillen. Published in May 2017.When it comes to the art of writing magazine feature stories, Richard is among Australia’s masters of the form. He has been writing magazine-length articles for more than two decades, and has won a couple of Walkley Awards along the way. His subject matter and profiles are diverse, which he admits is part of the job description when writing for a general interest publication like The Weekend Australian Magazine, where he has been a staff writer since 2006. He has also written two books about vastly different topics, which we explore in some detail in this episode.

I have a close relationship with Richard. Soon after we met for the first time at an investigative journalism conference in 2011, I asked if he would be my mentor. During those six years, his advice has been enormously helpful as I learned how to pitch, structure and write magazine features under his guidance. For the first few years, I would send him drafts of my work before filing to my editors, and his feedback always improved my writing. Richard has been one of the most significant influences in my career as a freelance journalist, and I feel incredibly lucky to have had such a generous and wise ally in my corner. We don’t discuss his mentorship during this episode, but I think it’s important to note here at the beginning.

In March, I visited Richard at his home in Sydney, and our conversation touches on how he comes up with ideas for magazine stories while juggling his own interests and his editor’s suggestions; how an editor at The Age pushed Richard out of his comfort zone as a young journalist, in order to improve his reporting and writing; how he worked as a freelance writer based in New York City for seven years; how he co-wrote a book about a German warship whose mission was to create panic among the Australian public during World War I; and how he became interested in writing about controversial subjects such as repressed memory, and more recently, the deception of public figures such as cancer hoaxer Belle Gibson.

Richard Guilliatt started his journalistic career in 1978 as a cadet reporter on The Truth newspaper, where he excelled at stories about disgraced pop stars and misbehaving headmasters. From 1980-86 he worked at The Australian and The Age newspapers, initially as a news reporter and then as a feature writer and section-editor. In 1986, he moved to New York and freelanced for seven years, writing features for newspapers and magazines including The Sunday Times Magazine, The Independent, New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. In 1993, he returned to Australia and joined The Sydney Morning Herald as a feature writer, primarily at Good Weekend magazine. Since 2006, he has been a staff writer at The Weekend Australian Magazine. In 2000, he won the Walkley Award for Best Magazine Feature, for a story in Good Weekend about the Stolen Generations debate. In 2004, his profile of David Gulpilil was included in The Best Australian Profiles (Black Inc). In 2012, his feature on concussion in sports won the Walkley Award for Sports Journalism, and he was shortlisted for Scoop Of The Year in the 2015 Walkley Awards for a series of stories in The Australian which exposed the cancer hoaxer Belle Gibson. Richard is the author of Talk Of The Devil (Text, 1996), a book about the ‘repressed memory’ phenomenon. He is co-author (with Peter Hohnen) of The Wolf (Heinemann, 2009), a work of historical non-fiction which won the Mountbatten Maritime Award in Britain and was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Richard Guilliatt on Twitter: @RMGuilliatt

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3.30 When we meet in March, Richard is working on “quite a complicated investigative piece about a criminal case”, which he is hoping to finish with a couple of weeks [NOTE: this story, titled ‘The Unbelievers‘, was published in July 2017]

4.30 Richard first read about this case in September 2016, then discussed it with his editor Christine Middap, and has been working on it on-and-off since then; about six months in total

5.30 “It’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to do unless you’re on you’re actually on staff somewhere, at a place like The Australian

6.00 Richard wrote a feature in 2016 about a mining company in Queensland who used a technology where the underground coal seams are ignited, and the gas is tapped (‘Burning Questions‘, June 2016)

7.00 In that story, Richard wrote about Linc Energy’s process called underground coal gasification (UCG), which had previously only been used in the Soviet Union; “It’s now been described by the Queensland Government as one of the worst environment disasters in the state’s history”

8.30 How Richard comes across ideas for magazine stories, while writing across a wide breadth of subject matters: “I’m pretty open, and I think if you work for a general interest magazine […] It’s part of the job description, that you must be prepared to do a pretty wide variety of stories”

9.30 Richard particularly dislikes interviewing actors, or as he describes it, “people who pretend to be someone interesting”

10.30 Richard loved reading old-school New York journalists like Jimmy Breslin, who wrote columns where they interviewed “some ordinary schmo on the street, and capture their story”

12.00 Richard’s wife would say that he doesn’t have any coping strategies for fallow periods, where he struggles to find ideas for stories

13.00 One of Richard’s colleagues reckons that working for a magazine is “like an inverse version of having your period; there’s three or four pleasant days, and the rest are just hell”

14.00 About half of Richard’s work is based on stories he has pitched, while the other half are suggested by his editor

14.30 Richard was born in England but his family moved to Melbourne when he was eight years old; English was his best subject at school, and he was a voracious reader of novels, though not newspapers

16.00 Richard was a student of the British music magazines such as NME during the 1970s, a period he regards as the golden age of music journalism

17.00 Richard began writing for Rock Australia Magazine (RAM) as a teenager, under editor Anthony O’Grady, reviewing albums and interviewing bands

18.00 Richard then got a job on tabloid newspaper The Truth as an ‘office boy’ in 1979; he then became a cadet reporter on The Australian‘s Melbourne bureau, and later, a “D-grade reporter” before talking his way into a job at The Age

20.30 Richard went straight from high school to news reporting, and during his cadetship, Richard was trained in the likes of the shorthand writing method

22.00 He continued freelance music writing during this time, including features, but he remembers feeling “completely at sea” when he first tried to write a non-music feature for The Age

23.00 One of the most influential editors in Richard’s career was Russell Skelton, then features editor at The Age, who pushed Richard out his comfort zone and “assigned me to do stuff that I really felt I was incapable of doing; it scared the shit out of me”

24.00 “He was really encouraging. He said to me, ‘Listen, you can do this. You can pull this off.’ He gave me good, constructive feedback on writing, and he seemed to know how to push me outside of my comfort zone, just far enough that I would come out of it feeling like I’d really pulled something off”

25.30 Richard had ambitions, because after a few years as a feature writer on The Age, he and his partner decided to go overseas in 1986 to see how he could handle working in a bigger market

27.00 Richard’s partner Susan was a chef, so she had a stable income while he worked as a freelance writer

28.00 Richard was a student of the ‘New Journalism’ movement in American journalism in the 1970s, which blew apart the rigid, conventional structure of a story; “They used novelistic techniques and narratives that you just had to go with [as a reader], to find out what was going on”

30.30 On arriving in New York, Richard had a retainer to write about Wall Street for The Times On Sunday – “A subject I knew nothing about” – for $100 per week, as well some freelance work for Australian newspapers

31.30 Richard got a break with the Australian owner of Time Out London, who offered him the chance to be a regular correspondent for that publication from New York City, writing about music, film and popular authors

34.00 “There’s endless stories in America; it’s an embarrassment of riches, really […] But to get into magazines in America, that was a real hustle. There were great journalists everywhere”

35.00 Richard did some work for American magazines and papers, like The Washington Post, The New York Times and The L.A. Times, “but I never really cracked that New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic – that lofty, upper sphere of the whole thing”

36.30 Richard’s partner got a job working in a popular bistro; “We had a great time in New York, and we had a comfortable life there, which was surprising – until the end, when the recession hit, and a lot of mags closed”

38.00 “I remember that period as being exciting, although the celebrity stuff did start to become a grind. You’d go to these junkets in Hollywood where you’re one of ten journalists sitting around a table, listening to Winona Ryder crap on about her latest psychodrama”

39.00 Richard has a tragic story about a book idea that never came to fruition, after he and his partner returned to Australia in 1993, which came out of the last story he did for The Sunday Times Magazine before leaving New York

40.30 Richard’s profile of Leonard Cohen ran in the magazine after they returned to Sydney. “I’d been home about a week, and Bloomsbury called from London, wanting me to commission me to do a book about Leonard Cohen – which is something I would have killed to have done, quite frankly!”

41.30 Richard had taken a job working for The Age again, and in the end had to say he couldn’t do it – “which just killed me, actually. I hadn’t written a book, and I knew that a biography of Leonard Cohen would be a great first book, published around the world”

43.00 Richard then moved to The Sydney Morning Herald, where he became a news reporter and then a feature writer, which is how he started reporting about repressed memory and became the subject matter of his first book, Talk Of The Devil, published by Text in 1996

45.00 “I poured all of that into Talk Of The Devil, which sold by the dozens […] The subject matter is very dark, and nearly every woman I’ve known who’s tried to read that book has found it really difficult to get through”

46.00 “I’m pretty proud of it. It was also an investigative work, because I was looking at how these ideas spread. It was really about a kind of contagious hysteria, really […] Because all these people who work in sexual assault counselling really believed that there were these satanic cults everywhere”

48.30 For Richard, this was one of those topics where objectivity became difficult, “because I became convinced that it was a really big problem – you just couldn’t have people being prosecuted in court, and potentially sentenced to years in prison, on the basis of a psychiatric memory recovery technique that was really dubious”

49.00 After writing on this subject, Richard became a “widely disliked figure” in the field of sexual assault counselling; “I was seen as a guy who was sympathising with pedophiles, and I was in fact accused of being a pedophile myself”

50.00 While working at The Sydney Morning Herald, Richard wanted to pursue that story to the exclusion of everything else, because he was fascinated by how objective medical and legal professionals had gotten caught up in what he considered to be hysteria

51.00 In about 1998, Richard then got a job writing for Good Weekend, under editor Fenella Souter, which had him doing longer magazine stories about a wide range of subjects

52.00 One of the things that Richard finds most difficult about his current job at The Weekend Australian Magazine is trying to fit a complex story into a maximum of 4,000 words

53.00 “There’s this necessity with what I do: you’ve got to somehow hit the reader at the beginning with ‘This is what the story’s about’, so you do get into a bit of a formula, which I’m very aware of”

54.00 Fenella Souter was “really someone who knew writing”, and would go through her writer’s pieces line-by-line, which is rare in newspaper publishing

54.30 Richard believes that a good magazine story editor needs to be able to recognise and suggest good ideas; they also need patience, because some of these stories can take a long time

57.30 “Most [news reporters] would love some extra time; they’re just churning stuff out every day. I sit next to a guy, Will Glasgow, who writes a business gossip column every day. I’d be dead by the end of the week!”

59.00 Richard was at Good Weekend for about seven years, and his most memorable story was profiling indigenous Australian actor David Gulpilil in 2002. The actor lived on a remote community in Arnhem Land, northern Australia, and took Richard on a night-time crocodile hunting trip

65.00 “It was the most incredible assignment I’ve ever been on, quite frankly […] I came back from that job and wrote that story in about two days flat. I sat down and it just poured out of me” (‘The Double Life of David Gulpilil‘, December 2002; also republished in the 2004 Black Inc collection The Best Australian Profiles, edited by Matthew Ricketson)

65.30 Richard doesn’t have a digital copy of this story. He recently contacted Fairfax Media, who told him that they got rid of all the electronic copies of old issues of Good Weekend

67.00 Richard’s agent put him onto the story of The Wolf, which was a German warship in World War I whose mission was to come to Australia and create havoc and panic among the citizenry

68.00 “[The Wolf] was at sea for sixteen months, and it never pulled into a port to refuel. It was a coal-fired ship; it simply attacked other ships and stole their coal”

69.30 Much of the research for the book The Wolf was done by a lawyer named Peter Hohnen, Richard’s co-author, whose great-uncle was a prisoner on the warship

71.00 The book was published in 2009, and it sold about 26,000 copies in Australia, which Richard says surprised the publisher; the book has yet to be published in Germany

72.00 “I’ve been scratching around for another historical topic ever since then, but I haven’t been able to find one. The problem with non-fiction writing in Australia is that the advances are very low, and if your subject matter isn’t sellable overseas, then […] spending three years on a book is not possible unless you’ve got some other source of income”

73.00 The Wolf took Richard three years to write; the proposal was 95 pages long, and consisted of a condensed version of the book which took Richard about a year to put together, off and on

75.00 Richard discovered Trove, the National Library’s digitised newspaper archive, while researching The Wolf, which was enormously helpful

76.00 Richard was part-time at The Weekend Australian Magazine for the first four or five years as a staff writer, which was helpful when he was working on the book

77.00 In 2009, Richard profiled Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for The Weekend Australian Magazine, which was the first significant profile of the man (‘Searching For Assange‘, May 2009)

81.30 “I wrote this profile, and I was really pleased with myself. It had been quite difficult to penetrate this veil that he put around himself. I handed the story in, and my editor [at the time] said, ‘No-one’s ever heard of this guy – I don’t think we’ll put him on the cover'”

84.00 In 2015, Richard became interested in writing about a young woman named Belle Gibson, after previously writing about people with cancer who are drawn to dubious alternative treatments (‘Holding Out For A Miracle‘, September 2012)

86.30 “I went in to my editor and said, ‘There’s something way wrong about this story.’ […] If it’s not true, how is that she’s managed to con all these people in the media? It was one of those weird stories”

88.00 Like many journalists, Richard has learned to love the Wayback Machine on archive.org, which was invaluable while researching the Belle Gibson story (‘A Healthy Dose of Scepticism About Belle Gibson‘, March 2015)

89.00 Meeting Belle Gibson in Melbourne was one of the strangest interviews Richard has ever done: “She was telling me all these things about these various cancers […] And she started to become querulous and teary, and halting said to me that she might not have these other cancers after all, and that she’d been misdiagnosed by a doctor”

92.00 The Weekend Australian Magazine published Richard’s story in April 2015, where he wrote that Belle Gibson admitted that her claims were dubious, and that she had a history of “making apparently improbable medical claims”, as well as lying about her age

92.30 “We broke the story that she was a fake, and she completely went to ground. It was one of those stories where I wasn’t one hundred per cent certain that she wasn’t ill in some way, so there was a certain amount of nervousness about the story”

93.30 “I did certainly the see the link with the repressed stuff I’d done 20 years earlier, and I realised over time that the whole thing of people’s self-deception is a topic that I find really fascinating”

94.30 Richard is fascinated by writing about the idea of memory: how people create stories about themselves while fooling others, and perhaps fooling themselves


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