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  • Rolling Stone story: ‘Building A Better Brain: Wired on Nootropics’, November 2012

    A 4,000 word feature story published in the November 2012 edition of Rolling Stone Australia; my first non-music feature for the magazine. Click the below image to view a PDF version, or scroll down to read the article text.

    Building A Better Brain: Wired on Nootropics
    By Andrew McMillen / Illustration by Amanda Upton

    A new generation of “smart drugs” that promise to enhance cognitive ability are now available, but are they the key to the human race’s next evolutionary leap or merely 21st century snake oil? Rolling Stone finds out…

    Before he swallowed the designer drug NZT, Bradley Cooper was having a shitty day. Scratch that; he was having a shitty life. Cooper was an unproductive, depressed writer with few prospects and fewer friends. His long-suffering girlfriend had recently left him. His unkempt appearance implied that his deep apathy extended to his body image. Here was a man broken by the accrued stress and malaise of living a seemingly pointless, joyless existence in modern day New York City.

    Moments after taking the transparent, odourless NZT pill, though, Cooper’s world changed dramatically. His visual and auditory perceptions sharpened significantly. His brain could instantly summon previously forgotten snatches of glanced-at facts and figures. His empathy and charm were suddenly amplified to the point where he was able to bed a woman who previously loathed him. A burst of inspiration saw him cleaning his apartment for the first time in years while forgoing both food and his usual addiction to nicotine. Within a few hours, Cooper produced a hundred pages of brilliant writing, which pleased his editor like never before.

    As his interior monologue put it, “I was blind; now I see. I wasn’t high, wasn’t wired; just clear. I knew what I needed to do, and how to do it.”

    This isn’t a scene from Bradley Cooper’s actual life, of course. It’s the life of a fictional character named Eddie Morra, which Cooper portrayed in the 2011 thriller Limitless. Right now, I’m psyching myself up for a Bradley Cooper moment of my own. My version of the make-believe NZT is a little, white, very real pill named Modalert. Produced by Indian manufacturer Sun Pharmaceuticals, the drug’s generic name is modafinil and it costs around $2 per 200mg dose. In Australia, it’s only prescribed to narcoleptics and shift workers who have difficulty staying awake. I’ve acquired some through an online retailer and at 5pm on a Monday, I take the drug for the first time.

    By 10pm I’m wide awake, and aware that my resting heart-rate is higher than normal. By midnight my mind is racing around like an agitated puppy: “Hey! Here I am! Play with me!” I occupy myself with the normally tedious task of transcribing interviews; when I next look at the clock, it’s 3.30am and I’m finished. I’m washing dishes to take a break from work, when I realise that my randomly chosen soundtrack has taken on an eerie parallel to real life. In the classic Nas track ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, he raps: “I never sleep / ‘Cuz sleep is the cousin of death.”

    For as long as I can remember, my answer to that age-old ‘just one wish’ hypothetical has been ‘to never fatigue’. To never need to sleep. To be able to learn, create and achieve more than any regular human being because I’m no longer confined by the boring necessity of a good night’s sleep.

    Thanks to modafinil, I’m closer to this long-held dream than ever before. And I feel incredible. Not high, not wired; just clear. The computer in my skull is crunching ones and zeroes while the rest of the world sleeps. I yawn occasionally, but my mind feels focused, at capacity, even as 5am approaches.

    It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance I’ve never experienced before; I know I should be feeling fatigued by now, but everything’s still working well. At 8.30am – roughly fifteen hours after taking the drug, which corresponds with its stated half-life – its effects wear off, and fatigue sets in. I take a three-hour nap, then pop another modafinil upon waking. I’m back on the merry-go-round of sleeplessness, and loving it.

    Giddy at the near-endless productivity possibilities that I’ve suddenly unlocked, I confess my off-label use of Modalert to a Sun Pharma spokesperson via email in a moment of clarity (or, perhaps, over-earnest honesty). The reply arrives in my inbox a short time later, and I’m briefly quietened by its ominous tone.

    “You’ve seen Limitless?” the Indian drug rep replies. “The cost is too much. Please evaluate what you are doing, even for test purposes. Neuronal circuitry is not to be messed with.”


    Modafinil is the brightest star in a galaxy of drugs and supplements called ‘nootropics’. The word was coined by a Romanian doctor in 1972; in Greek, its definition refers to ‘turning the mind’. More commonly known as ‘smart drugs’ or ‘cognitive enhancers’, nootropics work in one of three ways: by altering the availability of the brain’s supply of neurochemicals; by improving the brain’s oxygen supply; or by stimulating nerve growth.

    Smart drugs are not a new concept. Last century, both cocaine and amphetamine were considered to have enhancement potential. As researchers at the University of Queensland wrote in a 2012 paper, “…their use for this purpose was regarded in a wholly positive light. [Cocaine and amphetamine] were seen as safe and effective ‘wonder drugs’ that increased alertness and mental capabilities, thereby allowing users to cope better with the increasing demands of modern life.” These views became unpopular once both substances were found to be addictive: cocaine became a prohibited substance, though amphetamine is still widely prescribed as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) under the brand name Adderall.

    The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Australian drug regulation authority, does not yet recognise nootropics as a class of drug, as “the information available on nootropic products provides a very broad definition.” A TGA spokesperson tells Rolling Stone that they are unable to comment on the matter, as “the issue here is that the definition of nootropics goes from nutritional supplements all the way through to prescription medicines, so depending on what the product is and its claims, it might be considered as listable, a registered complementary medicine, or a registered prescription medicine.”

    So regulation is a murky topic, then. But nootropics aren’t illegal, either. Admittedly, taking modafinil off-label is not a smart thing to do. I am not a narcoleptic. I sleep just fine, if begrudgingly. I am a healthy 24 year-old male who exercises regularly and eats well. My recreational drug use is occasional. I’ve never been addicted to anything, and I intend to keep that clean sheet. I would like to be able to concentrate for long periods during the work week, though. I’d like to be able to instantly summon previously forgotten snatches of glanced-at facts. In short, I’d like to be smarter. Who wouldn’t?

    In the fictional account of Limitless and its inspiration, a 2001 techno-thriller by Irish author Alan Glynn named The Dark Fields, the universally appealing idea of self-improvement through minimal effort is explored by a guy taking a designer drug to boost his brainpower to superhuman levels. In reality, nootropic enthusiasts claim significant cognitive benefits with few, if any, side effects from taking these supposedly non-addictive, non-toxic substances.

    Sounds too good to be true? You bet. With my bullshit detector cranked up to eleven, I’m wading into this contentious field with the goal of separating science from fiction. Are smart drugs the snake oil of the 21st century? Or am I about to become a better man just by taking a bunch of coloured pills?


    After Eddie Morra tires of writing while under the influence of NZT, he turns his attention to the far more lucrative stock market. When I tire of writing on modafinil, I waste away the night-time hours by shooting terrorists in Counter-Strike: Source online, trawling internet forums, and reading about nootropics.

    With a newfound surplus of time arises an interesting dilemma: how to spend it? I chose to alternately work, read, and play games. What if every night was like that, though? What if I had all that time? How soon would I become accustomed to operating on little, or zero, sleep? What would be the side-effects of this for my health, my relationships, my career? Would I become a kinder person? Would parts of my personality become amplified, or atrophy? Obvious productivity gains – or productivity opportunity gains – aside, would less sleep make me a better person?

    All Tuesday night, I’m keyed into a writing task with laser-like focus. By sunrise, I’ve produced an article which, at the time, feels like some of my best work yet. (When it’s published online, weeks later, I read it with fresh eyes and I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I still feel the same way.) On Wednesday, I choose to take a break from the drug, but I’m still up until 4am. My sleep cycle has been totally disrupted.

    Thursday just feels like a regular day. I’m yawning more than usual, probably due to the sleep debt I’ve incurred this week. But it does feel a little… boring to be operating at this level, rather than on modafinil, where I feel like I’m connecting all of the dots all of the time. I suddenly find myself weighing up the costs and benefits of taking a pill right now. I have nothing in particular that needs to be completed for the remainder of the week, but there’s an internal argument happening: “Being awake is so much more enjoyable than sleeping. Who needs sleep, honestly?”

    I dose another 200mg, and within the hour, I again find myself making connections in music that I’d never previously noticed. The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club song ‘Stop’ aligns with my current mindset: “We don’t know where to stop / I try and I try but I can’t get enough…

    I feel like an outlaw; as though I’m in on a secret to which everyone else is oblivious. I know how to subvert sleep; that knowledge is in the shape of a small white disc containing 200mg of modafinil. I feel as though taking this drug might be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I want everyone around me to take it, too, so that we can share our experiences and revel in the euphoria of the unclouded mind.

    That night, I drive to and from a rock show. I meet friends and strangers at the venue; as I talk, I feel as though I’m not making sense, and that those around me are acutely aware of this. I feel in control, but my mind is racing faster than my mouth can keep up. I buy one beer and feel a little drunk, but I don’t come close to crashing my car on the drive home. Around 2am, I note that I’ve got an impending feeling of doom going on. Like I’m riding this too far, and it’s about to start doing some serious damage. I turn in at 3.30am on Friday.

    My first nootropic odyssey whimpers to a close, after beginning with a giddy bang at 10am on Monday morning. I’ve taken three 200mg doses of modafinil during that time – 5pm Monday, 1pm Tuesday, 2.30pm Thursday – and napped for around 11 hours total. In all, I’ve been awake for 79 out of the last 90 hours.

    I arise at midday, refreshed, having effectively reset my debt with one normal sleep. I reflect on how my views toward modafinil have veered between utter devotion to, now, in the cold light of day, a realisation that it’s probably not a good idea to be taking that shit on consecutive days. I was feeling so fucking average the night before. I couldn’t bear the thought of continuing to stay awake. The body and the mind aren’t made for it.


    Next, I purchase some homemade nootropics from a vendor named Tryptamine on Silk Road (SR), an anonymous online market where illicit drugs are purchased with virtual currency and sent through the international postal system. Tryptamine’s vendor profile states, “I am a biologist who develops nutritional supplements to improve your health, sleep, and cognition. I use only natural or orthomolecular ingredients, and no adverse effects have been reported from my products.”

    Tryptamine makes and sells three nootropics. I order two 24-pill bottles of MindFood (“designed to optimize brain function, protect against stress- and drug-induced neurotoxicity, prevent/alleviate hangovers, and reverse brain aging,” among other alleged effects), and ChillPill (“designed to promote relaxation, attenuate stress, calm excess brain activity, enhance mood, and promote dreaming”). The seller kindly includes a bonus five-pill sampler of ThinkDeep (“designed to stimulate brain metabolism and glucose uptake, improve memory formation/recall, expand attention span, prevent mental fatigue and enhance blood flow”), too.

    The total cost is around AUD$100. As I pay this seemingly exorbitant amount, I’m reminded of that old aphorism about fools and their money. The package lands in my mailbox via the state of New York around two weeks later. The pills are brightly coloured and strong-smelling. I try all three nootropics in isolation, one or two at a time, on different days.

    After swallowing a ThinkDeep for the first time, I realise that I just took an anonymous black and red pill created by an anonymous internet seller who claims to be a biologist. They’ve got a 100% feedback record from over 400 transactions on SR, which counts as a sort of social proof, but still: bad things could happen to me after taking this pill, and the person responsible would never be caught out. (Tryptamine denied Rolling Stone’s request to verify his/her identity, or scientific credentials. “Whatever image you have in your mind’s eye from reading this, that’s how I look,” the seller wrote.)

    “Silk Road allows me to sell my products anonymously, and provides me with hundreds of thousands of potential customers who already take pills that aren’t made by pharmaceutical companies,” Tryptamine tells me. “On the other hand, it is a bit off-putting to see my products listed beside bags of heroin.”

    As it turns out, ThinkDeep doesn’t do much for me, even on another day when I double-dose. In fact, the only significant effect I notice from these three products is when one dose of MindFood eradicates a hangover much faster than my regular methods of paracetamol and/or ibuprofen. Perhaps ThinkDeep and ChillPill are so subtle that I don’t notice their effects; perhaps they don’t work at all. Potential hangover cure aside, it’s difficult to recommend these products for cognitive enhancement purposes.

    At the other end of the nootropic spectrum, far from secretive biologists and solo recipe-tweaking, is an Austin, Texas-based company named Onnit. Their flagship product is named Alpha Brain, which is slickly marketed as a “complete balanced nootropic”. Their biggest public advocate is the comedian, podcaster and former host of Fear Factor, Joe Rogan; they also have a few World Series of Poker players hyping the product on their website. I ordered a 30-pill bottle of Alpha Brain for around $40.

    Each green pill includes small amounts of eleven impressive-sounding substances, from vitamin B6 and vinpocetine, to L-theanine and oat straw. The serving size on the label suggests two pills at a time; as I discover, taking one does nothing. With two Alpha Brain pills circulating in my system, though, I feel an overall mood elevation and a heightened ability to concentrate on tasks at hand: reading, writing, researching. These effects last for between four to six hours.

    Alpha Brain worked for me, but it also feels like a triumph of marketing, too. As there are no clear estimates about the financial side of the nootropics industry, I ask Onnit CEO Aubrey Marcus whether it’s a lucrative field. “Absolutely,” he replies, though he won’t comment on Onnit’s annual turnover. “It’s something that everybody can benefit from. Whenever you tap into something [like that], there’s ample opportunity to make good money.” Marcus says that Alpha Brain has been purchased by around 45,000 customers across the world since launching last year. The company currently employs 13 full-time staff.

    He acknowledges that nutritional supplement manufacturers are met with their fair share of critics. “The pharmaceutical industry has done a good job of telling people that synthetic drugs are the only things that have an effect on the body. There are plenty who’ve never tried our products who’ll swear that they’re snake oil,” Marcus laughs. “We encounter that, and we just do our best to show as much research behind all the ingredients that we have.” He mentions that Onnit are intending to commission a double-blind clinical study on the effects of Alpha Brain, which he believes “will go a long way to silence the critics.”


    Perhaps nootropics aren’t a mainstream concept yet because the people most enthusiastic about their potential benefits are all scientists, marketers out to make a buck, ‘body hackers’, and other weirdoes. There are few ‘normals’ taking these drugs and supplements on a daily basis, so it all looks too strange and confronting for outsiders to try. As a society, we’re taught by our peers and the media that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    There’s also the possibility that nootropics will never become mainstream because their effectiveness is difficult to qualitatively measure, or alternatively, they don’t work at all. In this regard, Australian researchers are world-class sceptics of cognitive enhancement. When I visit the University Of Queensland’s Centre for Clinical Research (UQCCR) in Brisbane, I’m greeted by Professor Wayne Hall, who was first published on this topic in 2004. His essay, which appeared in a European biology journal, was entitled “Feeling ‘better than well’: Can our experiences with psychoactive drugs help us to meet the challenges of neuroenhancement methods?”

    Hall has studied addiction and drug use for over 20 years. “There’s been a fair amount of enthusiasm for cognitive enhancement [in scientific circles], but it hasn’t looked critically at the evidence on how common this behaviour is,” he says. The professor and his peers argue for “taking a step back, and not getting too excited or encourage unwittingly lots of people to experiment with stimulant drugs for the wrong sorts of reasons”.

    “If you look at the lab studies that have been done on whether these drugs [work], the effects – insofar as there are some – are fairly modest and short-lived,” Hall says. “To be jumping from that, to saying it’s good idea for people to be using these drugs regularly to enhance their cognitive performance, is a bit of a long bow.”

    Dr Bradley Partridge is another UQCCR academic who specialises in investigating “the use of pharmaceuticals by healthy people to enhance their cognition”. I bring along my bottles of Alpha Brain and Tryptamine’s homemade nootropics for him to cast a critical eye over. “I have never used any of these things,” Partridge says. He peers at the labels with bemusement. “And I’ve never heard of most of these ingredients.”

    He places the bottles back on the table. “The thing is, a lot of these supplements are touted as being ‘all natural’, and for some people, that implies that they’re perhaps safe. But it’s very hard to evaluate exactly what’s in it. Aside from safety, where’s the evidence that they actually work for their stated purpose?”

    “There’s no scientific literature on some of this stuff; for others, the results are very mixed. Also, there might be a really strong placebo effect.” He holds up the Alpha Brain bottle, which mentions ‘enhancing mental performance’ in its marketing copy. “You take this and you do an exam; maybe simply taking something makes you feel like you ought to be doing better, and maybe you convince yourself that you’re getting some effect.”

    Hall and Partridge co-authored a study which analysed media reports on “smart drugs”. They found that 95 per cent of media reports mentioned some benefit of taking a drug like Adderall, Ritalin or modafinil, while only 58 per cent mentioned side effects. “I tend to be very cautious about this stuff,” Partridge says. “I don’t like to see this getting portrayed as a widespread phenomenon, as a fantastic thing, that it works, that there are no side effects. That runs the risk of encouraging people who hadn’t thought about it to take it up, which could cause problems for people.”

    I offer to leave some of my nootropics with Dr Partridge for him to conduct his own research; he laughs, and politely declines.


    Underscoring this entire discussion is the threat of one-upmanship. If I’m taking these drugs and they markedly improve my performance, am I nothing but a filthy nootropic cheater? To address this question, I spoke with Dave Asprey, who has used modafinil constantly for eight years and describes himself on Twitter as a “New York Times-published Silicon Valley entrepreneur/executive/angel who hacked his own biology to gain an unfair advantage in business and life.”

    Asprey has a prescription for the drug, after a brain scan showed a lack of blood flow at the front of his brain – a common symptom of attention deficit disorder (ADD), he says. “Modafinil is actually used commonly as a treatment for ADD,” he tells me. “It’s an off-label use, but it’s accepted; it’s even reimbursable by some insurance companies.”

    Asprey takes modafinil most workdays, upon waking. “It’s not like it’s a great secret out there, it’s just that people don’t talk about it because there’s some feel as though it’s ‘cheating’,” he says. “My perspective is different: if you eat healthy food, then you’re also ‘cheating’, because that impacts brain function. Surprisingly, the only people who’ve ever given me shit about taking modafinil are like, ‘but how do you know it’s not hurting you?’ I’m a bio-hacker; I’ve done all sorts of strange things to my body and mind in the interests of anti-aging, health and performance. I look at my body as part of my support system.’”

    Asprey says that he considers modafinil to be on the healthier spectrum of drugs. He’s also a fan of aniracetam, a fat soluble version of piracetam, which itself was the first-ever nootropic discovered in 1964. “It’s longer lasting [than piracetam],” Asprey says. “I recommend it as a basic biohack. I’ve been using it for a very long time.”

    Though Asprey has never met anyone who bluntly considers nootropics to be bullshit, he hears another argument reasonably often – and he has a clever rebuttal ready. “People say, ‘[nootropics] are evil, because if you take them, then everyone else will have to take them!’ I don’t think that’s a very fair argument, because from that perspective, fire is evil. Back when there were two cavemen, and one had a fire, the other said, ‘you can’t use fire, that’s unfair!’ Well, we know who evolved.”


    Whether or not I’m qualitatively smarter after experimenting with nootropics for this story is difficult to measure. I feel slightly wiser, and more aware of the limitations of both mind and body after that week of bingeing on modafinil. I certainly appreciate the restorative value of sleep better than ever before, after staying awake for the best part of a full work-week. I found that Alpha Brain is useful for focusing for a few hours, but considering that a two-week supply costs $40, it seems a touch on the expensive side.

    I did order a few dozen additional pills of modafinil, but I intend to use these only when emergency deadlines necessitate long hours. (I’ve read it’s good for combating the effects of jet lag, though, so perhaps I’ll try it on my next international flight.) Ultimately, the nootropic I found most useful – and intend to continue using regularly – is aniracetam, which Dave Asprey told me about. Its mind-sharpening effects are subtler than Alpha Brain, but it’s much cheaper – around $40 for a month’s supply if purchased online – and its effects taper off much more pleasantly than Alpha Brain’s comparatively sudden drop-off in concentration and energy levels.

    Late one night while researching this story, modafinil coursing through my body, I watched Limitless for the second time. It’s not a brilliant film, but it’s entertaining and thought-provoking enough to make the viewer consider seeking out smart pills of their own. It’s easy to see why the nootropic industry’s shadier sellers have attempted to draw parallels between their products and the fictional substance of NZT. After viewing the film, I contacted Alan Glynn, the author behind the 2001 techno-thriller The Dark Fields, which Limitless was based on, via email.

    “The original idea of NZT – called MDT-48 in my book – came from the idea of human perfectibility, of ‘the three wishes’, of the chance to re-invent yourself, of the shortcut to health and happiness,” Glynn tells me. “This is why the diet and self-help industries are so huge. Hold out a promise like that and people will respond. The fact that most of these products and therapies don’t work, or are bogus, doesn’t seem to matter. The real magic here, the real dark art, is marketing. I think that if nootropics ever go mainstream, they’ll be fodder for the marketing industry.”

    I send Glynn a link to the Alpha Brain website and mention that I’ve been taking it while researching this story. “Look, I’m just as much of a sucker as anyone else and when I look at that website, I’m going like, ‘Woah, gimme some of THAT!’” he replies. “And I’m actually seriously considering ordering some. So, from a marketing point of view, I’d say it’s a total success. It’s shiny, professional-looking and stuffed full of ‘the science bit’.”

    “But it’s the massaging of the science bit that is the marketer’s real dark art. The truth is, I couldn’t argue with someone who can talk about ‘GPC choline’ and ‘neurotransmitter precursors’. My instinct is that it’s all bullshit… On the other hand. I don’t know. Have you taken Alpha Brain? Does it work?”

    I reply in the affirmative, and describe my findings in some detail. Alan Glynn, author of the book that inspired the movie that inspired me to write this story in the first place, writes me back immediately: “That’s interesting indeed. I’ve ordered some Alpha Brain, and I’ve just got an email to say it’s been dispatched. I’ll report back to you – in the interests of science, of course.”

    Note: At no point should any of the products mentioned in this article be ingested without first consulting a health professional. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ritalin as an amphetamine; it belongs to the methylphenidate class of stimulants.

    To read more on nootropics, I recommend that you continue your research at Smarter Nootropics. Good luck!

  • Kotaku story: ‘What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?’, October 2012

    A 6,000 word feature story published on Kotaku in October; excerpt below. This is the result of 15 months’ investigative work.

    What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?
    by Andrew McMillen

    Bad video games are released all the time. A raft of factors conspire to influence the quality of the outcome. Maybe tight deadlines are to blame. Or maybe the problems include inexperienced developers, incompetent project management, impossible publisher requests, funding concerns. It’s a seemingly unavoidable fact that not every game can be great, or good, or even average.

    So how does a game, one made by a celebrated studio and backed by one of the richest game publishers in the world, turn out to be a bad video game? This is a story about exactly that. It’s about Silicon Knights the studio behind the great Eternal Darkness, the miserable X-Men: Destiny. It’s about a proud leader, frustrated ex-employees, many internal clashes and a secret sequel everyone hoped would be great.

    To an extent, it’s the role of the gaming media to warn potential buyers away from these inferior gaming experiences, and encourage them to spend time with well-designed games developed by skilled teams, led by sound project management, and unhurried by unrealistic demands. The conventional wisdom is that life’s too short to play every game — or read every book, or listen to every album, or see every film — and as a result, we tend to only want to invest our time and money into the very best.

    X-Men: Destiny — developed by Canadian studio Silicon Knights for Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii — could have gone either way. Sure, previous X-Men titles didn’t exactly set the world on fire: 2006?s X-Men: The Official Game, averaged a score of 52 out of 100 on Metacritic across seven platforms, while 2009?s character-focused X-Men Origins: Wolverine averaged a 65 across six platforms.

    But X-Men: Destiny (XMD), released September 27, 2011, underperformed them both with a dramatically low Metacritic score of just 41 across four platforms. (The DS version, developed by Canadian studio Other Ocean Interactive, registered a 33 on the site, making it the single worst-reviewed X-Men title in Metacritic’s records.)

    There are plenty of possible explanations for the poor result. Maybe the game’s publisher, Activision, rushed the release in an attempt to hit a quarterly revenue goal. Maybe it was just dragged down by the weight of a crappy, overdone superhero licence, as so many games before it. Maybe the title just didn’t come together in the end, or simply failed to resonate with reviewers.

    These are all possible, but discussions with former employees of XMD developer Silicon Knights suggest that the game’s fate was sealed long before Activision gave the project a green light back in 2009. The following story excerpts extensive interviews with former Silicon Knights employees who describe their experiences at what they say was a disorganized, unfocused company that squandered ample time and resources before being forced to release a game it was far from proud of.

    Management at Silicon Knights refused to be interviewed on the record for this story, despite repeated requests over many months. A spokesperson for the game’s publisher, Activision, also declined requests for comment. Accordingly, keep in mind that what follows is but one side of a very complex story. When first confronted with wide-ranging allegations of XMD‘s tumultuous development in mid-January 2012, company president Denis Dyack gave the following statement:

    “Silicon Knights is obligated to its partners (in the case of X-Men: Destiny — Activision and Marvel) to not disclose the development process of any project they work on. These obligations also apply to all the people who worked on X-Men: Destiny. Silicon Knights appreciated the opportunity to work on the game and we hope to get an opportunity to work together with Activision and Marvel again.”

    This statement remains the only comment that Kotaku can attribute to the man behind the biggest failure in the studio’s 20-year history.

    Enter: “SK Whistleblower”

    It’s not as if Silicon Knights was some untested, fly-by-night developer brought on to quickly crank out just another licensed title. Founded in 1992 by current company president Denis Dyack, the St. Catharines, Ontario-based company is best known for their 2002 GameCube hit Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, which scored a “universal acclaim” score of 92 on Metacritic, based on 41 reviews. The company’s 2004 Metal Gear Solid remake, The Twin Snakes, scored 85 across 54 reviews. And while Silicon Knights’ 2008 Xbox 360 release Too Human averaged a sub-par score of 65, the company’s history still suggested it could produce good games.

    But X-Men: Destiny stands alone as the worst game that Silicon Knights has released since it was founded. How did a company that was once known for compelling, original, quality video games come to release a title best described as “mediocre,” “mindless,” “generic” and “an absolute mess”?

    (1UP gave the X360 version a D+, concluding that the game is “is an absolute mess that isn’t worth your time.” IGN gave the PS3 version 5.5 points out of 10 — “mediocre” — and remarked that “even for an action brawler, this one is as mindless as they come.”GameSpot reviewed the same version and awarded the game 4 out of 10, noting that XMD “does the incredible: it makes being a genetic marvel a generic bore.”)

    “I am writing to you in regards to Silicon Knights’ upcoming title X-Men: Destiny,” read the July 21, 2011 email from a mysterious, throwaway Hotmail account with the handle SK Whistleblower. “Silicon Knights’ executive team has just recently implemented a new policy to discredit all employees who have recently resigned. This includes employees who have worked on it for between six months and three years. Between 35 to 45 former employees will fail to have their credits appear in the game.”

    I knew firsthand how to deal with such serious allegations. At the time, IGN had recently published my 4,500 word feature story based on interviews with 11 anonymous former employees of the Australian studio Team Bondi, in which those developers detailed seven troubled years of work on L.A. Noire; years that culminated with many of those employees failing to receive the credit they believed they deserved for their work. Now, someone was suggesting that Silicon Knights was having similar problems with its latest title.

    “Much of what was written about Team Bondi’s situation can be said about Silicon Knights as well,” SK Whistleblower continued. “I am certain that if you contacted former and current Silicon Knights employees and offered them anonymity, you would receive evidence of an appalling antipathy from management towards the employees, publishers, and the quality of their games.”

    Anonymous allegations are easy to make; verifying them is much tougher. I spent the next couple of months reaching out to dozens of former Silicon Knights employees, including a list of 32 allegedly omitted names supplied by SK Whistleblower. Many of those who responded confirmed that they, too, had heard the rumours of their names being removed from the credits of XMD. Some refused to speculate (“I can’t confirm who made it into the credits or not until the game is released, so I’m unable to comment”); some expressed concern for their former colleagues (“I feel that any information I give you will only hurt the current employees at SK”); others feared the ramifications of their involvement in this investigation (“any other information possibly leaking would not look good towards my professionalism and possible future opportunities”).

    Ultimately, I secured interviews with eight former SK employees who worked on XMD, including the initial whistleblower. Between them, these former staffers represented over 45 years of service to the Canadian game development studio. All of them spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, for obvious reasons. Interviewees suggest that the company has been plagued by a complex set of internal problems for years. It soon became clear that this story was about much more than a minor grievance with SK’s crediting standards.

    To read the full story, visit Kotaku.

  • Freelance journalism presentation at Walkley MediaPass student industry day, August 2012

    I was invited by the Walkley Foundation to speak at the Brisbane leg of their annual MediaPass student industry days, which are held at capital cities across Australia. The brief was thus:

    Surviving and Thriving as a Freelancer

    Find out how to pitch a story, network and negotiate contracts. Featuring:
    [from left to right, below]

    Before an audience of around 40 final-year journalism students at the Brisbane Powerhouse, we each gave a five minute presentation and then fielded questions from the audience for the remaining half-hour. I spoke on the topic of ‘twelve points for all beginner freelancers to keep in mind’.

    My presentation is embedded below. Click here to watch on YouTube. (Apologies for the footage being off-centre.) I’ve also included the text of my talk underneath.

    Twelve points for all beginner freelancers to keep in mind

    1. Freelancing, at its heart, is really just hustling. It’s learning how to support yourself through persistence, energy and ingenuity. That’s all. Learn how to hustle and you’re set. The only problem is that it takes years to learn how to hustle consistently.

    2.When you start freelancing, the learning curve is steep. You’re fighting against the world; fighting to be heard, fighting to get your name recognised, fighting to get paid. You probably won’t make enough money to pay your rent in the first year, which is why you should do other work on the side until you’re ready to freelance full-time.

    3. But eventually – perhaps years later – it becomes less of a fight. You learn to glide through the world rather than struggling against it. You see things differently, with wiser eyes. You can dip in and out of conversations, projects, and work relationships with much less friction, because there’s much less to lose. You have less to prove, because you’ve already proven yourself to some extent.

    4. There’s a lot to be said for starting slow, though, and at the bottom. For example, I wrote for street press, essentially without being paid, for nearly two years before I decided that writing and journalism was what I really wanted to do. From there, it was a slow process of me working out how to get paid for what I really wanted to do.

    5. Find your gap in the market, but be patient. After doing freelance journalism for a few years, I eventually realised that my gap is to read between the lines and write about what others aren’t. That’s when I’m happiest. That’s not to say that all of my writing consists of that kind of work. I’d say less than half of my income comes from writing those kinds of investigative feature stories. It’s worth pointing out that I only had this realisation in the last 12 months, too.

    6. I definitely didn’t know my gap in the market when I started freelancing. In fact I had very little idea of what I was doing when I started freelancing. I just did it. I followed my interests, and my instincts, and kept knocking on doors. Some opened, some remained closed. When I started freelancing, music journalism was the only kind I did. Gradually, other interests took hold, and now music is one of many topics that I write about. I’d likely never have found these other interests, or that I could write about them, unless I’d started with music, though. So don’t be afraid to specialise early. You never know where your career will lead if you just keep at it.

    7. Hunger can’t be learned, only encouraged. You, and you alone, must be hungry enough to want to succeed. This is an inbuilt character trait, I believe – you can’t be taught to be hungry. You’ve got to be serious, and dedicate yourself to your work, if you want to succeed at freelancing.

    8. Your professional reputation is everything. Guard it with your life. Act with integrity at all times. Don’t do things in private that you wouldn’t be comfortable with, if it became public.

    9. Make a list of the best practitioners in your field; your favourites. Consume their work over and over. Work out why you like them and what they do that appeals to you. Then think about how you can put an original spin on their approach, or their approaches. It’ll take you a while to find your style and voice in any creative medium – writing, photography, comedy, illustrations. Don’t rush it. I’m not even sure if you can rush it, anyway. It’s a process that can’t be short-cut.

    10. Surround yourself with allies. Not necessarily other freelancers. Not necessarily people working in the same field as you. But you should start building up a support network, and regularly keep in touch with as many of those people as you can, because some of your best work will arise from one-off meetings or incidental friendships. Allies are important because freelancing is generally a solitary activity. Everyone needs to communicate with others at some stage. Best to start early.

    11. Be wary of anyone who glamourises the so-called “freelance lifestyle”. Most of freelancing is incredibly mundane. Seriously. Most of my days are spent alone at the computer. Some weeks I don’t even leave the house during my workdays. But there are definitely occasional glimmers of awesomeness that remind you why you’re doing this, and why you love it. Don’t get me wrong, freelancing is great, but to a certain extent it’s a job just like any other. There will be days when you won’t want to do any work. However, if you can push yourself to work even on those shitty days, you’ll eventually be a great freelancer.

    12. Don’t talk so much online. Just do good work, make meaningful connections, and be pleasant to everyone you meet behind the scenes. Try not to buy too much into meaningless talk-fests on Twitter and Facebook. Ultimately, you are the only person standing between success and failure. While you’re tweeting away your workdays, your freelance competition is quietly beating you. Don’t give them the chance.

    Elsewhere: I participated in the freelance panel at the Walkley Foundation’s last MediaPass student day in September 2011, too. Footage and text here.

  • The Global Mail story: ‘Do You C What I C?’, March 2012

    My first story for The Global Mail: a feature about the use of the word ‘cunt’ in modern Australia.

    Excerpt below; click the image to view the story on The Global Mail website (link will open in a new window).

    Do You C What I C?
    by Andrew McMillen

    Long absent from polite society, it is widely considered one of the most obscene words in the English language — and yet this very vulgarity is suddenly very vogue in some circles. But even the twentysomethings who fling it around willingly wouldn’t use That Word in front of their parents. What’s changed with the C word?

    “WHAT A CUNT OF A WEEK,” writes a female friend on Facebook one Friday afternoon, after an apparently stressful week of work at a Brisbane radio station. A live music promoter friend updates his Facebook status in the early hours of a Sunday morning: “Extremely tired. Just found out the fucking dog has pissed on my bed. I’m done with that cunt.”

    When I’m playing a first-person shooter video game online and my character is killed by an opponent’s bullets, I’m likely to type those four letters among a ridiculous string of expletives, mostly to amuse myself while I wait for the next round to begin.

    As a 24-year-old Australian male, I’m drowning in the word. It seems to be the go-to expletive for people around my age — mostly males, but females aren’t exactly a rare exception. The word cunt is in common usage — most often as a term of frustration or ironic endearment rather than an insult directed at any particular person.

    We say it because we think it’s a funny word to say, to type, to express to other human beings. It’s something of a naughty vice that we knowingly indulge in, smiling inwardly at our own wickedness. Among my friends, its use is entirely context-specific. It is not a word that would ever be uttered during dinner table conversation with my parents. But in the lounge room with my housemates, all in their 20s, it falls from our mouths at a frequency that would undoubtedly shock my grandparents. I recall that during my early high school years, the word was perceived as risqué by my friends and me. When our schoolmates said it, we flinched. How dare they say that?

    But by senior year, something had changed – trends, taboos, our maturity or lack thereof – and we’d regularly make each other laugh by quoting lyrics from a song titled ‘I’m a Cunt‘ by West Australian rappers Hunter and Dazastah. Sample: “I’ve done a lot of cunty things / And out of cunts you know / You know I be the king.”

    CUT TO March 2012. I walk the streets of Brisbane with a blue A4 folder in my hand. Underneath the cover, wedged inside the plastic sleeves, I’ve printed six words in mega-sized fonts. Dark blue cardboard separates the six pages, so the next word can’t be seen until the page is turned.

    I meet 43-year-old local author Krissy Kneen at a New Farm café as she flips through the words: bloody, arsehole, shit, fuck and motherfucker. Before she flips to the final word, I ask Kneen what she thinks will be next.

    A brief pause. “Cunt?”

    And there it is, in 255-point Times New Roman.

    To read the full 4,400 word story, visit The Global Mail.

  • Brisbane Times story: ‘From dreadlocks to shaved for World’s Greatest Shave’, March 2012

    A story for Brisbane Times which was also filmed and edited into a two-minute video. Click the below image to view the video, and read the article text underneath.

    From dreadlocks to shaved

    Andrew McMillen has his dreadlocks shaved off for the Leukaemia Foundation's World's Greatest Shave
    Click to play video

    According to Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, “a primary-coloured beard is a perfect arsehole-detector”. I’ve long felt the same way about my dreadlocks, which I’ve had in place since September 2004.

    Connolly referred to the tendency of dreary folk – or “beige people”, as he would call them – to reveal themselves in the presence of someone whose unusual appearance upsets them. So too with my hairstyle, which elicits a range of responses – verbal or otherwise – when I meet people for the first time.

    At music festivals, I’m frequently assumed to be holding pot or other treats by both punters and police. When shopping, staff tend to drop their manner a few notches and engage with me in terms of “dude” and “man” far more often than “sir”. At election time, LNP and ALP hawkers don’t bother pressing fliers into my hands – it’s assumed that the Greens are the political party for me. In the street, charity peddlers smile and see me as an easy mark; someone naturally sympathetic to whichever planet-saving scheme they’re pushing.

    It’s endlessly fascinating to me how much people can read into a hairstyle. I’ve gotten far more enjoyment from observing how people react to me than from the dreadlocks themselves, which I chose purely for vanity: I liked how they looked on some of my favourite musicians, most notably the singer from Gold Coast hard rock act Sunk Loto, so I decided to try it on for myself.

    I’ve never regretted the decision, though seven and a half years of growth – coupled with the gradual thinning and breaking of the locks on top of my head – meant that it was always going to be a finite style.

    For years, my plan had been to support the Leukaemia Foundation and their World’s Greatest Shave initiative by turning a fairly drastic measure into a public spectacle. Handily, one that would encourage those around me to donate money and support a worthy cause.

    Since 1998, the annual shave has been undertaken by over one million Australians, who’ve raised over $120 million for the Foundation. Donations support families when they need it most, by providing leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma patients – there are over 11,500 new cases across the country each year – with a free home-away-from-home near hospital during their treatment.

    The Foundation also funnels millions into blood cancer research. Although survival rates are improving, blood cancers remain the second biggest cause of cancer death in Australia.

    In light of these life-and-death scenarios that occur with troubling frequency – today, 31 Australians will be given the devastating news that they have one of the above three blood disorders – shaving my head to raise awareness and money for the cause always seemed a very pedestrian decision.

    I’m cancer-free and perfectly healthy – touch wood, I’ll remain that way forevermore – yet the concept of losing my ridiculous hair suddenly became an asset for leukaemia sufferers and their families to benefit from. Most of the people in my life at the moment have only ever known me with dreadlocks: I moved to Brisbane to study in 2006, after graduating from Bundaberg State High School the year before.

    I knew that going from full-head-of-hair to bare would spur the people around me to donate. I set my fundraising goal at $1,000. This seemed a reasonable amount. Thanks to the generosity of my friends and family, I reached this goal three weeks after starting the campaign. At the time of writing, the total climbs toward $1,500, which is astonishing to me.

    The shave itself took place earlier this week at a Price Attack salon in Indooroopilly. Leukaemia Foundation’s Beverley Mirolo was there to make the first cut, followed by a few of my friends. My girlfriend was particularly happy to shave off my sideburns, which had grown unruly after months of neglect. I watched in the mirror as a new me emerged. Suddenly, I looked vastly younger than my 24 years. Vastly different, too, though not as alien-like as I’d expected.

    I love how hair can become a social object; a topic of conversation, a reason to interact with another human. Those with dreadlocks know this better than most. It’d surprise you just how many people are curious enough to stop us in the street and ask to touch our hair. (Just as common: “is that your real hair?”)

    This is what I’ll miss most about my dreadlocks: looking slightly different from other folks, and watching them adjust their interactions to suit their idea of what my hairstyle represents. But for now, I’m embracing the baldness: tomorrow, I’m taking it a few millimetres further and getting my first ever ‘open blade’ shave, which will reduce my head hair down to nothingness. Wish me luck.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @NiteShok. You can donate to his World’s Greatest Shave fundraising here.

    Above photos taken by Scott Beveridge. More photos from the shave can be found by viewing the story on Brisbane Times here.

    My friend Mark Lobo took some before-and-after photos, too.

  • “In Search Of Ukrainian Summer Romance: Inside Anastasia’s Odessa Odyssey”, January 2012

    In July 2011, my girlfriend and I travelled to Ukraine as guests of a dating website named Anastasia to report on one of their so-called romance tours. It was one of the strangest and coolest experiences of our lives.

    What appears below is a longer version of a story that was published in the December 2011 issue of Maxim Australia. That story, entitled “European Union: Riding shotgun on a Ukrainian summer romance tour“, can be read here.

    All words below were written by myself, Andrew McMillen. All photos below were taken by Rachael Hall; you can click any of them to view a larger version, which will open in a new window.

    If you would like to republish this story or these photos, please contact me via email or Twitter.


    In Search of Ukrainian Summer Romance: Inside Anastasia’s Odessa Odyssey
    by Andrew McMillen

    “This is a situation that very few men in the world have ever been in, to walk into a place where there’s no pretence about what everybody is there for.”

    We’re in a seaside city called Odessa, in south Ukraine. More accurately, we’re in a stuffy basement conference room at the Continental Hotel in the city’s centre. We’re being addressed by Larry Cervantes, public relations manager of a website named Anastasia, which claims to be “the world’s leading international dating and romance tour company”. My girlfriend Rachael and I are here as guests of Anastasia to report on their Ukrainian ‘summer romance tour’.

    “Beautiful women grow in certain parts of the world more than others,” Larry continues, “and you’re in one of them. Maybe six or seven thousand guys in the world have experienced what you’re going to experience: being put into a situation where you have so much choice that it’ll be mind-boggling. So be prepared, gas up, and I guarantee you’re going to have a wonderful time.”

    One seasoned summer romance tourist adds, “Plan to do this a lot in the future!”, and two dozen men join him in laughter.

    Larry is impressively tanned, speaks in a deep, low Californian drawl, and offered us a forceful handshake at Odessa Airport yesterday afternoon. Odessa is a strange, beautiful city; in the midst of summer, the air crackles with a dry, insistent heat that’s a pleasant change from the humidity of Brisbane. It’s home to one of the largest ports in the Black Sea basin, yet as our taxi driver threads his way through traffic sans seatbelt while yelling into his mobile phone we get the distinct impression that most buildings outside of the tourist-friendly city centre are slowly falling apart from decades of neglect.

    Larry tells us that 45 men have signed on for this tour; a statement which seems strange, as over the next seven days we follow the tour, we never see more than 30 at any one time. One can only assume that their reasons for attending lie somewhere on the spectrum between searching for casual sex and lifelong commitment. Whatever the case, they’re each prepared to spend US$5,000 – including return airfares from New York’s JFK airport and local accommodation – to be here. The median age of the mostly-American tour group sits between 40 and 45. There’s one Australian: Owen, a West Australian miner in his early 40s. Most of the men are educated professionals. Many of them have at least one divorce under their belt.

    The walls of the basement conference room feature tasteful oil paintings of the London Bridge and World Trade Centre. Four Anastasia reps are seated at the front of the room: Larry, William Tate – an affable American tour representative who served in the United States Marines – and two Ukrainian representatives named Olga and Anna. Before they address us, the mood is somewhat standoffish. Some of the 24 men chat quietly amongst themselves; most sit alone, eyes to the front, wondering silently what they’ve gotten themselves into. None of them give off the impression of being pick-up artists, or Neil Strauss acolytes. Just like in any high school classroom, the back row is full, but the first couple are sparse.

    Eight media types line the aisle, ourselves included. Two comically large TV cameras – one from Australian 60 Minutes, the other from Sky News – scan the room. Their footage will undoubtedly be edited down to include only the most forlorn facial expressions. Over the next hour, the four Anastasia reps give their charges a rough ‘n’ ready guide to the Wild West that is Ukrainian dating. Most of the men have some familiarity with local members of Anastasia, having thoroughly combed the ladies’ profiles in search of their ideal match. Some have already set up dates through the website while they’re in town.

    The company reps explore the concept of scamming – or, as euphemistically dubbed by William, “getting sushi’d” – at length. This is an apparently common situation during these kinds of tours, where a foreign man may unwittingly find himself footing the bill for an entire table’s drinks, entrees, steak, sushi; in the parlance of the overwhelmingly American entourage, ’the whole nine yards’. Local custom deigns that men invariably take care of most monetary concerns, and some of the women they’ll meet in the next week will try to exploit this to their advantage. ”You don’t want to appear cheap, or miserly,” explains Larry, “but you don’t want to appear to be foolish with money.”

    Based on the witty quips a couple of the men toss in throughout the hour, it’s apparent that they’re return visitors to this region. Their knowledge sets them apart as the group’s worldly alpha males, and they seem only too happy to inhabit this role. A pair sat toward the back snigger conspiratorially over a laptop. The younger, shaggy-haired surfer-type, Derek, shows his white-haired pal Roger a photograph of a European-looking lady lying on what appears to be a hotel bed, dressed only in lingerie.


    The next day, on the bus ride to the first social, I meet a portly, genial German in his early 30s named Edward. He’s a return visitor to Anastasia’s Ukraine tours, but claims to be here more out of boredom – he had a week off from his job in Frankfurt – than any real desire to meet local women. It sounds like he’s hedging his bets in anticipation of failure. He tells me that most of these guys won’t get laid on this trip, let alone find long-term partners. “If you’re looking for a fuck trip, you should go to Germany,” he advises me via a thick accent. He politely declines my offer of a more formal interview later in the week.

    We arrive at The Park Residence [pictured above], a luxury country club-style venue built featuring a central swimming pool and adjacent tennis courts. Anastasia’s photographer and videographer circle the group, madly recording away as the men stroll through a car park. It’s hot; many of the guys are dressed to impress in dark suits, which must be uncomfortable. They all head for the poolside bar, while a house music soundtrack – managed by a bored-looking dude in his 20s – washes over a crowd of women. The vast majority of them are young and stunning. So begins the group’s first six hours of socialising, Odessa-style.

    The men here aren’t only outnumbered by women – perhaps four-to-one at the party’s peak – but female interpreters, too: 45 of them have been commissioned for this event alone, which means that there’s always a few extras lounging around in the shade and picking at fruit platters. Some of the tourists appear to use the trip as an excuse to become new men; performers whose egos float far, far higher than their everyday persona. Others remain trapped by their insecurities and self-esteem issues. They may be in a different country, but it’s hard to forget everything they’ve learned in their life when it comes to women, and the attraction thereof.

    Though initially the mood at The Park is more high-school disco than adult social, owing to the awkwardness and segregation between the sexes, most of the guys are mingling within the hour. Larry’s initial prediction about the nature of this event rings true on two counts: the women are improbably attractive, though to be fair, they’re all members of local agencies whose clients consist entirely of beautiful women. And secondly: they all know that they’re here for the sole purpose of meeting men. Given the median age of the tour group, it’s likely that these guys won’t have been in this kind of environment – as artificial as it may be – since college keggers. Which is ironic, as many of these girls would appear to be college freshmen at best. There’s eye candy on display, sure, but when it comes to the likelihood of a middle-aged man finding both physical and intellectual stimulation in a barely-adult woman, it’s easy to slip into scepticism.

    In the late afternoon, tour host Olga MCs a poolside dance-off that’s narrated entirely in Ukrainian, for the benefit of the local women. Derek is paired with a lustrous blonde, who he later tells us is a stripper. Tour guide William Owen – the West Australian miner, who is being closely filmed by 60 Minutes – and an American attorney named James battle it out over a few rounds. James is incredible shape for a 53 year-old: he pops, locks and swings his partner around like a hula hoop. He’s also a spitting image of a younger Sean Connery. Derek’s shirt is soon removed and he engages in some crude arse-grabbing and breast-motorboating with his partner [pictured below]. As far as gentlemanly conduct is concerned, he and James are oceans apart, yet together they’re the tour’s most extroverted characters. So ends the first of three socials, yet several of the men keep the party going elsewhere by arranging impromptu dates immediately afterwards. Others collect phone numbers with a view to set up dates in a few days’ time.


    Saturday’s event – in neighbouring city Kherson – is a four-hour bus ride away. The roads in south Ukraine seem to be populated with vehicles driven by sociopaths. The asphalt is falling apart; indicators are rarely used; seatbelts are never used; and no-one is willing to show the slightest compassion for their fellow drivers. It’s vehicular madness, and it’s utterly fascinating. Tour rep William notices our interest and tells us that, for Ukrainian drivers, road signs and speed limits are considered “suggestive”, not prescriptive. He’s lived here on-and-off for six years, and believes that if you have “$100 and a face”, you’ll be given a driver’s license. He replaces the brakes and tyres on his BMW yearly due to the wear and tear caused by the poor road surface. “You’ve never experienced tailgating until you’ve driven here,” he tells us. “If you can fit a credit card between your car and theirs, that’s plenty of room.”

    Luckily we brought three buses on the trip to Kherson, as one breaks down halfway there; its passengers join ours. At the back of the bus, Derek reveals to the group that he met his “smoking hot” Russian ex-wife of five years on a flight from Vienna to New York immediately after an Anastasia tour, not on the tour itself. She recently left him, soon after he’d put her through medical school. Curious. Group morale is high as we pass through the city of Kherson and arrive at a club named Amigo [pictured below]. Its location is anything but central; housing commission-style flats and a couple of convenience stores are Amigo’s only neighbours.

    Walking off a bus at 1pm and upstairs into a dark, hot, smoky club feels as dirty as it sounds. We’re late – the bus driver took a few wrong turns – so most of the club’s seats are already occupied by women, who sip drinks and judge every man in eyeshot. If The Park’s circumstance felt questionably artificial, this feels outright plastic. To make matters worse for the guys, the ratio today is more like 2:1. Which still betters most real-world nightclub situations, but it’s a disappointment after the quantity of women in attendance yesterday. To be fair, Kherson is home to only a third of Odessa’s million-strong population.

    Spending six hours breathing in Amigo’s poisonous atmosphere is a tall ask for non-smokers like us – though, incidentally, the tour’s smokers are thrilled to discover that 12-packs here cost the equivalent of AUD$1. The strangest thing about this club is that it’s attached to a bowling alley. Apparently Ukrainians are crazy about tenpin bowling, and not in an ironic manner. To break up the monotony of watching men dance awkwardly with women half their age, Rachael and I hire a lane for an hour and throw down.

    Halfway through our second round, Olga announces another dance-off. Predictably, Derek and James reappear; the former loses his shirt again, while today James is paired with a chesty 20 year-old in a green dress who appears to be having the time of her life. Alarmingly, one of the tour’s oldest – and heaviest – men is relieved of his shirt and tie by a cunning local. A topless, sweating fat man is not something I thought I’d ever witness on a Saturday afternoon in south Ukraine. 7pm rolls around, mercifully, and then it’s adios, Amigo.

    There’s a striking contrast between the tour’s mood upon arrival and departure. Under the blazing sun it was all laughs and optimism; as night descends on the ride home, it’s more funereal, with a dash of crushed expectations. No-one really knows what to say. Many of the tourists opt to stare out the window, lost in thought. To complicate matters and unintentionally rub salt in the group’s wounds, one Canadian guy has picked up a woman and is bringing her back to Odessa. Other than Rachael, she’s the only female on board. James is practically beside himself with incredulity. “How did this happen?” he asks the smug dude and his date, who both appear to be in their mid-30s. “You only met today, and you’re bringing her home?”

    Moments before we left the venue, Derek gave a silver dress to a woman he’d met here years ago, yet within minutes of the gift-giving she left him drunk, shirtless and dejected. As our bus begins the long trek back to Odessa, Roger won’t stop giving him shit about it. “What happened with your gal? She didn’t like the dress?” Derek says she fed him a story about having to leave due to a sick mother – which makes sense, he says, as last time they met, she bailed on him to take care of her sick father. Roger laughs like a hyena. Derek, nonplussed, passes out flat on his back, blocking the aisle with his feet. His accomplice, too, has been drinking, and he deems now an appropriate time to share his perspective on these tours.

    Roger – a personal trainer from St Louis, Missouri in his early 40s – has toured Odessa with Anastasia four times. He’s the relatively introverted yin to Derek’s relentlessly provocative yang. “I come for the party; for the kick of it,” he says. This’ll probably be his last trip. “The only reason I did it this time was because whine-bag back there” – he points his thumb at his recently-divorced friend Derek – “begged me to.” In his mind, he can either spend “$5,000 to go to Florida and lay on a beach for 10 days”, or the same amount of money to do the same thing here. He’s sceptical about the long-term prospects of any relationships formed here. ”I’m not saying that guys don’t find girls, because I’ve brought two back to the States.” Neither worked out for him; one was an interpreter who was simultaneously courting both him and another guy in Texas, unbeknownst to either of them. She used Roger for the airfare to St Louis, then fled south. It was a crushing disappointment at the time, but an experience he can laugh about now.

    He believes that every man on this trip will return home alone. “You ain’t gonna meet somebody and fall in love in five days.” Roger says hasn’t used the website in 11 years, but still gets weekly email notifications from the site that Ukrainian women are allegedly “trying to connect with him” – which he deletes, unread. His take on Anastasia is that it’s simply “bringing a bunch of old men a little bit of happiness. It’s money for [Anastasia], but it’s also happiness for the old guy on the computer thinking he’s writing a cute girl.” Which is not always the case: often, the girls’ interpreters answer their mail on their behalf, he says. These tours are rarely a try-before-you-buy scenario for guys seeking potential brides; Roger says he “guarantees that 95 or 96% of the guys never sleep with the girls.” He laughs and tells me that “all men are lonely old fools. You’ll get there one day.”

    We pull into a petrol station for a break, which rouses Derek from his slumber. He hasn’t eaten all day, yet he selects a Stella Artois for sustenance, returns to the bus, and starts drunk-dialling every woman in his phone. Which is amusing for a while, until I realise I’m speeding through the dark Ukrainian countryside, listening to a grown man acting like a desperate and dateless teenager. It’s a dark thought, and I try to shake it immediately, but it’s stuck. If the tour’s most experienced and extroverted guy is striking out, what chance do the rest of these dudes have? My mind is filled with despair for the plight of the summer romance tour. It’s nearly midnight when we return to Odessa. The Kherson trip has been a failure, and everyone knows it – except for the Canadian guy and his date, perhaps.

    The tour’s third and final social takes place on Sunday evening, and it’s going to have to be something special to recoup the team morale lost in Kherson. It’s also the guys’ last realistic opportunity to meet local women and set up dates for the remaining five days. After this, they’re essentially on their own, which is a tough place to be in an unfamiliar country. Stakes are high.


    On Sunday afternoon, we’re ushered into the same room used for orientation on Friday morning. Again the mood of the room tilts toward tension, as an overweight, greying Anastasia media rep named Walter Bodkin treats the 24 guys in attendance like naughty schoolchildren by, essentially, warning them to behave themselves tonight as there’ll be “loads of media there”. Upon our arrival in Ukraine, Larry spoke in awed tones of Walter’s presence on this trip: his 35 years of experience at US television network CBS lends heft to his professional capabilities. On Friday, Rachael and I spent nearly an hour listening to his tales and theories regarding international dating. Walter has been married twice; his most recent divorce cost him over $1 million – which he didn’t tell us, but I later discovered online.

    Ostensibly, a lot is riding on this final social for Anastasia in PR terms, and they don’t want the guys to mess it up. Tonight’s centrepiece is the Miss Bikini 2011 contest, which, frankly, the Anastasia staff seem more excited about than the tourists. Walter takes an ominous tone when advising the group that “once the local guys hear that there’s a bikini show on, they’re gonna want to get inside”, and that security will be tight. Yet, walking down Odessa’s main shopping strip a few days ago, we came across several large billboards advertising all three Anastasia socials in Ukrainian. To publicly advertise what’s being portrayed – by Walter, to the tourists – as a secret event seems deceptive. Olga presents each man with an Anastasia-branded gift bag containing a white sailor cap, which the guys are asked to wear before disembarking from the bus and strolling down the main strip of the popular Arcadia Beach. It’s corny as hell, but most of them comply.

    The footpath to the social venue – a beachside club named Itaka – is congested with human traffic heading in the opposite direction to our group. Someone comments on this, and Walter laughs as he tells us that “they” – Anastasia, presumably – have cleared the beach ahead of our arrival. Which sounds like it’d take considerable cash and muscle to pull off, as there are hundreds of shirtless, suntanned locals streaming past us and throwing dirty looks. It’s impressive, to some extent, that they’d do that just for a couple of dozen guys, but also questionable considering that all these people were, until a few moments ago, doing their best to snatch some sunny Sunday joy amid a challenging day-to-day life. As in any other tourism-reliant city around the world, cash is king.

    The group pauses for a brief photo opportunity outside the club [above], and then we venture into the belly of the beast. We’re led down three flights of stairs and through a busy bar to the bottom level, where 22 bikini-clad models are fanning themselves and posing for photos. Like Friday’s social, it’s centred around a swimming pool; like on Friday, security are actively discouraging patrons from diving in. Opposite the impromptu stage is the ocean, which shimmers as the sun starts to dip. The cordoned-off section of water at the foot of Itaka’s real estate is eerily sparse for such an idyllic location, until I remember the fleeing crowds. Now, dozens of empty plastic sun lounges face the Black Sea [pictured below]. A stray cat paws at the sand in search of salty snacks. House music – a fixture in this part of the world, it seems – thumps soullessly from the speakers as final preparations are made for Miss Bikini 2011.

    The tour group has been led into this surreal scene and left to fend for themselves. There’s a lot of standing around and gawking at the bikini girls. The wiser members of the tour fan out and begin introducing themselves to women seated poolside, interpreters in tow. The smartest guys ignore the bikini contest altogether and relocate to a second, smaller pool area to court women away from the glare and noise. The West Australian miner Owen – who, incidentally, is attending this tour for free as a guest of Anastasia – is judging the contest; so too is Walter, a British journalist from Loaded magazine, and a woman named Dasha Astafieva, who was Playboy’s 55th anniversary Playmate in January 2009.

    Larry MCs the event in English; a female offsider does the same in Ukrainian. He introduces Dasha with an air of reverence, as if she discovered penicillin. Interestingly, scores of local women queue for photos with the porn star between breaks in her judging duties. Here, she has far more female fans than males, but that could also be because there are far more women in attendance. I’m watching the fawning group from behind [pictured below], when an overzealous admirer suddenly clutches her too hard and Dasha’s left breast momentarily slips out of her strapless dress. The crowd of surrounding women gasp in amazement as she quickly fixes herself, embarrassed. I’m convinced that I’m the only male in attendance who saw this happen.

    We meet another Australian named Chris. He is dressed in a blue singlet, jeans, work boots, trucker cap and sunglasses, and sports ponytailed grey hair and a foot-long grey beard. He wields an explosive laugh and speaks in the broadest Australian accent imaginable. Within our first five minutes of conversation, he reveals himself to be a xenophobe and a climate change sceptic. It’s fascinating to meet an archetypal bogan in a place like this. Naturally, 60 Minutes sink their claws into him immediately, and he’s plainly thrilled by the idea of appearing on national television while holidaying in Ukraine. This is his first trip outside of Australia. He’s only paid to attend this one social; the rest of his trip was self-arranged, including his apartment on the outskirts of Odessa. I’m impressed, because organising something of this scale seems far beyond his abilities. [Pictured below, left to right: 60 Minutes reporter Michael Usher, Chris, and myself.]

    The bikini contest is won by a petite blonde from neighbouring city Nikolaev named Natalia, who earns a Yamaha jetski for her trouble. Dasha then leads a performance by her pop group, Nikita [pictured below], which features another female vocalist, backup dancers, and a shirtless male DJ who does little more than press ‘play’ and show off choreographed dance moves. There’s around 50 girls in the audience. I can only see five guys from the tour in the throng. After their eight-song set – performed alternately in English and Ukrainian – the stage is broken down and a dance floor opens up in front of the bar.

    By this point, Itaka could be any club anywhere in the world. Some guys pick up; some don’t. Chris hits the beer pretty hard; he’s tanked before midnight, and asks an Anastasia rep to arrange a taxi home, alone. Looking across the crowds dancing poolside or conversing with the opposite sex, it does seem quite a stretch that this is all worth it, romantically speaking. In terms of meeting new people and having new experiences – sure. Just by signing up to this thing, it’s impossible for the guys not to tick both boxes. But finding a long-term partner – let alone a casual sex partner – in Odessa seems no more likely for these men than in their hometowns, were they actively pursuing either outcome.


    With the three socials over, the rest of the week is left fairly open. Daily sightseeing tours run to nearby venues like a winery and the Odessa catacombs. They’re sparsely-attended, but interesting and worthwhile for Rachael and I; less so for the single tourists, it seems, though a couple of guys bring dates and interpreters. From an Irish bar on the main strip on Tuesday night, we spy three of the tour guys walking alongside a tall, leggy blonde. ”So many hoops to jump through to probably not get laid,” remarks the American journalist we’re drinking with.

    We get to talking with a couple of the other guys about their impressions of this trip. Lee [pictured in foreground, above], 43, owns a small trucking company in western Pennsylvania. “I’ve been married three times before,” he says. “No regrets. I never wanted to be divorced once; never thought it would happen three times.” He’s been a member of Anastasia since January 2011. This is his first trip outside of the US. He’s been on several dates and is particularly keen on two women: one in Odessa, who we’ve seen him with on several occasions and seems lovely, and another in Nikolaev who has been having problems finding a babysitter for her young child in order to meet Lee again. He doesn’t think dating here is any easier than back home. “If everything was easy, why would I need to come to Odessa? If it was easy I could walk down to the local pub, and – there she is.” He advises those intending to join a tour like this to “not set your expectations so high that they’re unattainable, because then you’re going to be disappointed”, and “just be yourself. I’ve been myself since the day I landed.” It seems to be working well for him.

    Like Lee, James – the 53 year-old attorney, stunning dancer, and Sean Connery lookalike – wears his heart on his sleeve. They’re both totally sincere, and make no bones about their intentions here: to find their respective soulmates. “Most of these men are here for that reason,” James believes. “We’re not looking for a good time for a week. We’ve had that back home. We’re looking for somebody we can share our life with, but we have to be attracted to them as well, on every level. Do you really think we’d come all this way if we could find it at home? We can’t!” He first visited Odessa in May 2011, and says he did everything he was told not to do – “except wander off by myself. I didn’t do that. But – did I take them shopping? Yes. Did I fail to attend the socials in full? Yes. Women took me elsewhere; they took me out of the competition. I bought girls a pair of shoes, a purse, a cell phone, a laptop… it was about a $2,000 lesson, in total. Painful, but necessary.” He wasn’t self-aware last time, but believes he is now. He’s been on several dates, and he’d been corresponding with almost all of them through Anastasia beforehand. “I genuinely want to find the person who can love me the way I want to love them,” he says. “That’s what my parents had for 59 years. I’ve seen it. It exists.”

    Word spreads among the group that Roger got sushi’d big-time earlier that night; his date and interpreter took him to the tune of US$900. We also hear that the oldest guy on the tour, Richie, yesterday proposed to a local girl. We catch up with him on our final night in Odessa, and he lays it all out on the table during a two-hour conversation. Like many elderly people, he goes to great pains to describe the smallest, most insignificant details of his stories, as if to justify his continuing existence. He tells us of his three failed marriages; his six children; his careers in construction, firefighting and police investigation, and everything in between. He tells us of meeting his new fiancée, Tanya, through Anastasia in March, after dreaming of a woman who looked exactly like her and combing the website for nearly a year.

    “I flew 7,000 miles – a third of the way around the world – to meet the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever met in my life,” Richie says. “She’s beautiful inside and out. Every word she said on the computer, she’s proven beyond any reasonable doubt that she is the person that she claimed to be. I love her dearly. We’re hoping that we can get her visa and passport through as quickly as possible. We’re both very excited. We both want it to happen,” he says of his intention to take her back to his home in the United States. “I’m ecstatic. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love her. Our biggest argument is who loves whom more. If our whole life goes that way, it’ll be the best argument the world has ever seen!”

    At 29, Tanya is 39 years Richie’s junior. She doesn’t speak English; he doesn’t speak Ukrainian. I suspect deep down he knows the odds are against him. But what is love if not an insane leap at happiness? As we shake hands and say goodbye, I wish Richie all the best, and mean it more than I have in my whole life.

    Andrew McMillen (@Andrew_McMillen) is an Australian freelance journalist.

  • Vale Andrew McMillan, Darwin-based journalist and author: 1957-2012

    Darwin-based journalist and author Andrew McMillan [pictured below] died yesterday, January 28 2012, aged 54. I received word via a text message from Andrew Stafford just after I went to bed, around midnight. I wrote back, “Holy shit. Thanks.” Then I lay awake for the next hour, cursing myself. I was to meet him in Darwin, six days later.

    I first became aware of the eerie reality that I was following in the footsteps of my near-namesake soon after my work was nationally published. Looking at my email history, the first mention of his name is in a note from Australian writer Clinton Walker on August 12, 2009.

    this is so funny because only lately been in touch w my old friend from bris old rock writer andrew mcmillan, you must be aware of your precedence, and a fine one it is too […] i had a look ata bit of your stuff and really enjoyed it and wanted to say goodonya and keepitup. clinton walker

    In February 2010, I was emailed by the international label manager/A&R at Shock Records, David Laing.

    hey Andrew,
    I assume you’re the same AM who used to write for RAM? If yes, first of all, thanks for all the great writing that was hugely influential on me in my teenage years fromthe 100th issue of RAM (my first) onwards… also, I’m responsible for a few releases that you may have an interest in if you care at all for the styles of music you used to write about – including a couple of compilations called Do The Pop! that trace the incluence of the Saints and primarily Radio Birdman into the local real rock’n’roll scene in ’80s, and also some reissued from the Hitmen – and I’d love to send you copies if you’re interested in seeing them…
    Thanks and regards

    Then in May 2010, in an email conversation with Brisbane writer Andrew Stafford:

    By the way, are you aware of yet another rock-writing Andrew, your namesake in fact, Andrew McMillan? Slightly different spelling – but Andrew, along with Clint Walker, was one of the original rock journos in this town, and arguably the most original. Started Suicide Alley (later Pulp) fanzine with Clint – the first rock fanzine in the country – and later wrote Strict Rules, his fantastic account of Midnight Oil’s tour through Aboriginal communities in 1986, leading to the Diesel and Dust album. A fascinating man and a great writer, well worth your checking out. – AS

    Then in November 2010, in an email conversation with Australian singer Carol Lloyd of the band Railroad Gin:

    It may freak you out to know that in the 70’s, Railroad Gin were often reported on by a guy who wrote for Rolling Stone, Juke etc. who was called Andrew McMillan….! He’s now a novelist based in Darwin..saw him when I did a panel thing with Noel Mengel at last year’s Brisbane Writers Festival.

    I wrote back, “By the way, I am aware of Andrew McMillan! We’ve not met yet, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually.”

    The sad reality is that this will never happen, now.

    In recent months – having reached a point in my writing career where I felt up to the challenge – I became more interested in exploring the concept of meeting this man, this well-known writer with whom I share more than a few parallels. I knew that he was ill, first with bowel cancer, and now with liver cancer. On November 25, 2011, I emailed him for the first time:

    Hi Andrew,

    I don’t believe we’ve ever emailed, but I’ve certainly been aware of you for a few years now as we have almost exactly the same name. I’ve been mistaken for you many times! More on me at the web address in my signature..

    How are you? Last I heard was that you were in a poor state following the removal of a bowel tumor – I think this is the last thing I read about you, just over a year ago. Judging by your Facebook page, seems you’re doing much better now. I caught your recent interview on the MusicNT website, too. Good stuff.

    I wanted to ask a favour. I’d like to visit you at your home in the new year, and interview you extensively. I think it’d be an interesting idea for a young journalist like myself to talk about writing and life with an older bloke who almost shares the same name with me.

    Is this a possibility? Is this something you’d be interested in? Or should I bugger off?

    Happy to chat anytime mate. My number below.

    He replied the next day:

    Hi Andrew,

    Tickled to hear from you. The first I heard of you was via a flurry of emails from fans who read a piece in the The Australian and wondered what the fuck had happened to my style. I was bewildered. Then in 2009 when I was due to appear at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival I found myself on the bill of a Queensland music festival with old mate Christie Eliezer etc talking about music journalism. A strange call, given I’d rarely concentrated on music writing since about 1985. I accepted the invitation but got no response. Obviously they had the ‘en’ in mind.

    I get emails occasionally congratulating me on reviews of records I’ve never heard. And calls from people seeking contact details for band managers I’m supposed to be best mates with. I plead ignorance; they, no doubt, hold my ignorance against you.

    That said, I’m intrigued by the concept of a music journo called Andrew McMillen coming out of Brisbane. I was first published in 1975 and got out of there in 1977. Never looked back.

    I’m now dealing with liver cancer and all kinds of shit, so my time appears to be short, hence forming a band The Rattling Mudguards and having much fun on the way out.

    I trust your transcriptions are accurate so I’d be happy to entertain you in Darwin in January.


    Andrew McMillan.

    * Patron, Life Member: Northern Territory Writers’ Centre
    * Acting Chief Of Staff (1991-2011): DARWIN’S 4TH ESTATE
    * President For Life: Darwin Foreign Correspondents’ Association
    * Founder: John Jenkins Society (est. Hotel Darwin, 1989)

    The Christmas period passed. I finished reading Andrew Stafford’s copy of Strict Rules: The Blackfella-Whitefella Tour, Andrew’s account of the 1986 tour of remote Aboriginal communities shared by the Australian rock groups Midnight Oil and Warumpi Band.

    (To further confuse matters, a handwritten note on the book’s first page reads, “To Andrew – welcome to Strict Rules. Best wishes, Andrew McMillan.” It’s for Stafford, not me, but plenty of people thought otherwise when I showed them.)

    It’s an excellent read; profound, beautiful, and heartbreaking, by turns. You can read an excerpt on Midnight Oil’s website. Drummer Rob Hirst wrote the foreword for a re-released version of the book in 2008; it was first published in 1988, the year I was born.

    McMillan captures the feel of the Australian desert better than any writer I’ve read. For the first half of the book, he refers to himself in the third person, as “the hitch-hiker”. (The book is dedicated to Andrew’s mother, father, and “the people who pick up hitch-hikers.”) It’s a cracking read, and the pace never wavers as he explores the logistics behind the tour, the nightly performances to mostly-bewildered locals, the history of the land, and the people who live there. After I finished, all I could think was: I wish I read this sooner.

    On January 2, I emailed Andrew to arrange my Darwin visit.

    Hi Andrew – happy new year. How are you?

    I want to check with you re timing for my planned excursion to Darwin. Are there any particular days or weeks that we should avoid? My January is filling up pretty fast so it might be best to look at early-mid Feb. What do you think?

    He replied the same day:

    At this stage my diary is free for 2012, apart from putting the finishing touches to an anthology (selected works 1976-2011) and the live album my new band The Rattling Mudguards recorded in October with Don Walker on piano and the Loose Screws on backing vocals.

    Apart from that, everything else is dictated by my health. I’m fairly confident, despite the prognosis, that I’ll still be around in February and look forward to meeting you then.

    I asked him whether I could stay at his home, and about the exact nature of his prognosis. On January 3, he told me:

    You’re welcome to camp here unless I’m in need of a full-time carer by then. Hopefully that won’t be the case.

    The prognosis? They got it wrong last year when they said I wouldn’t make through the footy season. The latest, a month ago, gave me three months max. I aim to beat that. I’ve got a few things to finish off yet.

    On January 16, after getting caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of freelance journalism for a couple of weeks, I emailed Andrew after working out my ideal travel dates.

    Hey Andrew,

    How are you? A quick note to let you know that I’m intending to fly to Darwin on Thursday February 2. Not sure how long I intend to stay yet; up to a week is my best estimate at the moment. I just wanted to check that this date is OK before booking flights.

    The next day, Andrew said:

    Feb 2 sounds good. If we run into problems, friends within the neighbourhood and without have offered to put you up for a few nights.

    I’ve attached an old RAM story from 1981 I’ve dug up for my anthology. I transcribed it a few nights ago. Would you mind proof-reading it for words that are obviously out of place? I figure it’ll be a neat exercise for you, giving you a clean sense of how I was writing 30 years ago and how we move on.

    I was honoured to proof-read his old work, about an Australian band named Matt Finish. The same day, January 17, I replied:

    Flights are booked for Friday Feb 3, returning Wed Feb 8. Arriving around midday on the Friday. I’m seeing (and reviewing) Roger Waters do The Wall on Feb 1 and didn’t fancy the early flight on the 2nd. So 3rd it is.

    A good read on Matt Finish. Had never heard of them. I’ve attached a doc with a couple of comments down the right side, but no changes to the main text. Just a few small things that I noticed.

    I was chatting to Jim White of Dirty Three today for a story I’m writing. He asked whether I was you. He remembers your writing from RAM.

    Do keep sending through some stuff to read ahead of my visit. I finished Strict Rules a couple weeks back (borrowed Andrew Stafford’s copy) and loved it.

    That was the last I heard from Andrew. On January 24, I followed up my last email and asked, “Is everything OK – or as OK can be, given your situation?” Four days later, he died.

    I feel foolish for having not ventured north earlier, for not having appreciated the urgency of his situation. Upon receiving that text message last night, I felt immediately that this mistake will be one of my biggest regrets.

    I have no idea how our meeting would have unfolded. I was looking for inspiration, for insight; I wanted to learn about writing from a man who has written his whole life. It saddens me that we only ever exchanged a few casual emails. I was looking forward to days of conversation, of introspection, of self-analysis, of advice, of inspiration.

    Vale Andrew McMillan. I hardly knew you. I wish I did.

    Written by Brisbane-based journalist Andrew McMillen, January 29 2012.

    Above photo credits, respectively: Bob Gosford, Glenn Campbell, Bob Gosford.

    Update, January 30: ABC News NT have uploaded a fine video tribute to Andrew on their YouTube channel. It runs for two and a half minutes and can be viewed below.

  • A Conversation With Trent Dalton, 2011 News Award-winning Features Journalist Of The Year, November 2011

    A year ago, I wrote the words, “Trent Dalton is the best feature journalist in Australia.”

    Absolutely nothing has changed.

    Last Friday, 4 November 2011, Dalton [pictured right] was awarded Features Journalist of the Year at the 2011 News Awards for the second year in a row. (He won the same award in 2008, and was a finalist in 2009 and 2007, too.)

    Two months earlier, he was awarded Queensland Journalist of the Year at the Clarion Awards. These accolades are a result of his feature writing for The Courier-Mail‘s Qweekend magazine, where Dalton is a staff writer. He’s also an assistant editor of the newspaper.

    Earlier this week, Dalton and I met to discuss a recent pair of Qweekend cover stories over sushi and green tea. Simply named “Story of a Teenage Boy” and “Story of a Teenage Girl“, these features delve deep into the lives of two children who live in Queensland: Casey Tunks, 15, and Chloee Gwynne, 16.

    In a way, they’re companion pieces to the last pair of stories I interviewed Dalton about in 2010: “Story of a Man” and “Story of a Woman“.

    I highly recommend clicking the below images to read both stories, before moving onto our extensive interview, which was 90 minutes long and runs to 13,000 words. (Clicking the images will open the stories as PDFs in a new window.)


    Andrew: When we last spoke a year ago, it was just after you were awarded the 2010 News Features Journalist of the Year. This is not really part of why I wanted to interview you today, but – which stories did you put forward this year? I believe “Home is Where the Hurt Is” is one of them.

    Trent: Yeah, and also a story called “The Longest Night,” where I spent 24 hours alongside [Queensland premier] Anna Bligh, when Cyclone Yasi was coming in. And then “The Long Goodbye”; lots of ‘longs’ this year! “The Long Goodbye” was about a guy, Scott Sullivan, who is dying of motor neurone disease.

    Then five Queensland flood stories, which was where I tracked the up and downs of one particular street n Rosalie [suburb of Brisbane], throughout the whole Brisbane floods; in the days preceding the flood, during the flood, and also afterwards.

    And then a story all about kindness, a story where I went around and asked people to share random stories about kind acts they’ve done, or people have done to them.

    You were just putting together that kindness story when I interviewed you last time.

    That’s right! I had just interviewed a girl who dresses objects in wool. So yeah mate, they’re the ones, those five. They responded mostly to the “Home Is Where the Hurt Is,” the domestic violence one. And Anna Bligh. Oh, they said kind things about all of them but probably mainly that one that really broke through this year, which is great. It’s such an important topic and really close to my heart. It’s a great thing.

    Anyway – yeah. I feel like such a dick…

    I don’t want to talk about any of those stories. I want to talk about “Story of a Teenage Boy” and “Story of a Teenage Girl”. I want to talk about the mechanics of how you write things, as well as how the stories came to be. We’ll start with – how did you find Casey?

    Here’s the brilliance of always hanging out with work-experience people, because they make you seem like you’re a bit nicer than you probably are. It was really a handy thing, that we had this wonderful work-experience girl with us, Rose, who’s just out of high school or university, or something. She was with me on the day and we were just walking around talking to potential people who could be the teenager. We were walking through Queen Street Mall.

    It was very difficult to find in the sense that I had to find someone who… maybe a lot of kids might be up for it, but then you had to convince their parents. Basically I said, “I want to do this story where I spend time with you, and you share with me every last thing that’s on your mind, your hopes and fears, your dreams and your worries, and what drives you, and where you want to be, and what’s it like to be a teenager.”

    Eventually, after asking several people, this amazing guy Casey said, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” and I said, “I’ve got to ask your mum,” because he was 15. Then he said, “No worries. Here’s my number.” I called his mum and thankfully she had read “Story of A Man” and “Story of a Woman” and she knew I wasn’t a complete crackpot, and that I was trying to do something worthwhile and something that would hopefully give some insight to people, and be done in the sort of way that won’t be exploitative or going to be a horrible experience for the family.

    She said “yes”, and so from there we spent all this time together. The mum welcomed me into her home, basically, and said, “Yeah, you can come around at 6am and watch as our family has breakfast, and be there just documenting in the corner what people do.” [laughs]

    Is that weird?

    Well yes, it is, but I’ll tell you about my next big… I’m very excited… no, I won’t let it out of the bag. What I just said leads into that idea of the anthropological study really driving where I want to… hopefully, the story I want to do next, which is going to be really exciting.

    We’ll talk about Casey to start with. You start the story by saying “he’s afraid of two things”, and then you list a bunch of his traits and characteristics. Was that the first intro you came up with, or did you try a few things?

    No, these sorts of stories in particular have always been riffing on a whole bunch of intros. I don’t normally spend that much time but these ones I really spent a lot of time on. I don’t think that was my first. I knew I wanted to get in there something about his fears, so hopefully the reader would be mums and dads; looking at the readership going, “Well, the readership is going to be these certain types of people.” You want to get them in, hopefully, by saying something like, “here is an insight into what fear a teenage kid in Queensland might be feeling”.

    But I think I was going to go with more of a “here we are”-type thing; something that detailed, gave context, some contextual sort of introduction. Something about the smell of his room; everyone can connect with the smell of a teenager’s room, and that sort of thing, and the fact that it was 6am so we’re basically waking up with this kid. Then I thought, “no, let’s get to the heart of it really quickly.”

    And that whole line was just all about the livewire brains of a teenager. “Man, I’m really scared of spiders, but I’m also really scared about my future,” this big thing. “I’m only scared of spiders and my future” – yeah, right. Fucking massive, ‘the future’, that’s what it was all about. It was also trying to be empathetic as well, sort of saying, “I’m with you man, because the future scares me as well, it scares everybody.” It probably scares a teenager even more.

    That’s why I chose that. Then that leads into all those traits, a throwback to the style of “Story of a Man,” “Story of a Woman” which was all just… these ones were much more “this happened, and then this happened”. But the “Story of a Man” and “Story of a Woman” were really just all about their character. I was really trying to tap into, or get a bit of the guy’s character.

    That’s classic screenwriting sort of stuff. The first 15 minutes of the film will offer you a little insight into your character so you know either you’re really rooting for this character, or you’ve already worked out their… you don’t like the character or you do, but either way you’ve invested some sort of emotion in him pretty early. That was the idea about writing all those traits.

    I sound like a wanker. I feel like a dick talking about my stupid magazine story.

    You’re not allowed to say that anymore, because this whole thing is about you. Relax!


    I’m not sure if it happened this way, but the way this story appears, you’re spending a Saturday with Casey. Why a Saturday, as opposed to a school day?

    As you know, getting access to schools is really difficult. It could have been done, but I just knew I wasn’t going to get the access to him that I needed for the piece if I had done it on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday because it was just going to be… “okay, he gets up, goes to school.” It would have been great if I could have sat in the classes right with him and been right next door to him every time, but I think that would have made him a bit uncomfortable, as well as I couldn’t imagine the Queensland Government giving me the okay. I would have had to have written probably 300 emails that would have gone back and forth to allow that to happen.

    In the end, it was a matter of speaking to his mum and saying, “Look, can I just hang out on a Saturday?” when a kid actually does do stuff. Like you know the school day goes from… school’s very interesting. That’s another whole world I’d love to explore one day, but that Saturday; all I said was, “is there a time in the near future when you’re doing something with your friends?” He just went “Yeah, two Saturdays from now we’re all going to the mall.” I went “Okay great, that’ll be perfect,” and then we’ll just track that from start to finish.

    Then also one or two catch-ups around that, so you get to know him as well, but then focusing on that day, if that makes sense, using a couple of different days, and sort of knowing the guy. We had a good discussion when we first caught up, but then I realised this was going to be the day; ‘showtime day’. As it turned out, he had a fairly interesting day, for him, coming from Wamuran [a town near Caboolture].

    He doesn’t always go into the city, certainly not as much as the girl did. It was a pretty big thing him and his mates going to the city… well, not a big thing, but maybe a once-in-a-month thing. That’s how it came to be on a Saturday. And just the given thing that his parents would be home as well. His dad usually worked, but it just worked out pretty well on a Saturday. People are a bit freer and fun. Weekend work is always really good because everyone is appreciative of the fact that everyone’s out on their weekend, and just a bit more relaxed.

    You’ve got a few good lines about his mum in there. “She lets him know she loves him by telling him she loves him.” That’s a fucking great line. There’s also a line about, “she loves him so much that whenever she thinks of seeing his face for the first time, she bursts into tears”. That’s really nice.

    Yeah, and I guess that all just comes from, again, the beauty of arriving somewhere at 6am, and you’re there. Can you imagine a kitchen in those early hours? A mum in a kitchen; it’s just a really safe space. It’s a beautiful spot to have a chat to any mum. So you’re there and she’s just in her own kitchen. She’s thinking about her boy. It’s a really wonderful place, and then she gets teary when she mentions him.

    A question I’ll often ask people, “Do you remember the first time you saw his face?” That’s always an emotional space to go to. It’s a beautiful thing to talk about. I remember the first time I saw my kids’ faces. I’m sure it was going to be the same for her, and then that was a beautiful moment.

    Then you’re just getting the insight into the deep, deep love that she has for this boy. Then he comes out [of his room], and he’s just this 15, 16-year old boy who’s just a knockabout sort of guy. She’s in this space of “he’s an angel,” so it’s a really great thing to see. That wonderful thing that a teenager has no idea how much their parents are just totally in love with them, and just worship them. They have no concept of that. I mean, they have a concept of it but it was just perfect. In this kitchen she had tears in her eyes, and he’s just going “Oh, they’re all right.” It was just great juxtaposition.

    His father Warren gave you and Casey a lift to the train station. You glossed over that a bit in the story. Was there a reason behind that?

    There just wasn’t much happening, for one thing. It was probably a lot more talk about practicalities, like, “Have you got my number in your phone?” and all that sort of stuff. I guess it’s also timeframes. [pause] A lot happened in that conversation that maybe came out later on in the piece. You go with trying to take the most important things.

    It was partly on that trip that Casey started talking about this time he came home drunk, and I think it was sort of a sensitive area. I was consciously trying not to make his parents look like they’d ever done anything wrong. I can’t even remember what was exactly said in that conversation, but it was more riffing on their sort of fear, their terror, at seeing their son come home pissed, and then he passed out.

    It was glossed over, and you could write about a 4,000 word story on any father and son, taking a trip somewhere. I think I probably should have, but it was more I wanted to get to those friends pretty quickly, and really keep it about Casey, not so much be a father-and-son relationship. I don’t know, but Warren was cool.

    He didn’t really know what I was about, just going, “What? Why the hell are you following my son around?” I’m sitting in the backseat of his car taking notes. [laughs] He’s this earthmover, sort of ‘tough dad’ type guy. He’s driving his son, this really great loving father, just trying to get the best for his son. He was constantly befuddled at why this journo would want to do it.

    The mum really understood and was like, “Yeah, I can see,” because she had read those pieces she was like, “I know exactly where you’re coming from.” As has been the case with these, there’s great trepidation there, but they always say, “I think what you’re trying to do is probably worthy, or worth it if it adds national insight into our teenagers”. I think that’s where the mum and dad were coming from, and God bless them. They were so wonderful. He was cool, the dad.

    In the end, after a while he sort of ignored me, forgot I was there, which was really cool. That was the whole idea, that he’d just be going “All right, back by 2pm,” and he’d go “Yeah, yeah,” and pops out of the car. He maybe gave him a “yes Dad,” and that was it. It was a funny dynamic to see that. There’s probably another great story in there between fathers and sons that I probably should have dwelled on a bit more. Anyway. [laughs]

    There’s a lot of Casey’s language in this story. Is that important to you?

    Totally. That was the big thing I love about teenagers now, and I’ve always loved about teenagers – they’re creating their own words, and creating their own dialogue, and having their own little language. I think that’s such a special part of being youthful. I think it’s so brilliant and something that we all… I feel like I’m so far removed from, even though I’m 32, but I feel so far removed from all the things that he was saying. I had my own language with my friends at that age, but I thought that was brilliant.

    From my anthropological journalism style stuff, this is magic. I kept going, “what does that mean? What’s that?” And also – I couldn’t keep up. My notepad couldn’t keep up. I was just going, “Man, gotta get all this stuff.” It was gold firing out of their lips and I only got probably half of the great stuff. You speak to any teenager, and they’re just invigorated.

    Casey and all his friends were just amazing. There were some classic moments I had to leave out because I didn’t want to bring myself into it. But for example, when I turned up at the train station… one of the girls looks me up and down and goes, “Ugh, you soooo need some Vans.” [laughs] It was just stuff like that. Then one of the boys told me that he was going to meet these two girls, Danielle and Beth, so when he introduced me I said, “You must be Beth.” It wasn’t Beth, it was Danielle. She goes, “Are you kidding me? I would never, in my life be called Beth.” I said, “Oh, that’s funny, because that’s my daughter’s name.” [laughs] She was mortified, but it was a great little ice breaker.

    No one quite knew what I was doing hanging around this guy. But Casey knew where I was at, and he thought it was kind of cool that he had this guy following around documenting and asking him about every aspect of his life as well. Then in the end the girls found it cool as well, so they were going, “Casey does this,” and, “you’ve got to know this about Casey,” and all that sort of stuff.

    On that train trip, you’ve got the old ladies, Bev and Shirley, who are “staring at the group like they might regard a Reeperbahn burlesque show”. Did you consider speaking to them, or were you happy to let them sit in their own world?

    Maybe in a different story… like, I’ve been following around Campbell Newman a lot lately for a story I’m doing down the track. Everywhere you go, you have periphery people that you’re constantly asking, “What do you make of Campbell Newman? What do you think about this policy?” With Casey, this was telling his story. Casey doesn’t care what Bev and Shirley think. They’re not even on his radar, and that was partly the point of me not going there. These people, you see them on the train, and they don’t even know, or care.

    That’s what I love about it. In the girl’s story in particular… I love her so much in the fact that she does not give a shit. All four kids on that train didn’t give a shit either. They’re just talking loud and they have no concept of, “Gee, I better not talk too loud because Bev and Shirley might …” They were just curious. I kept on looking at them. It was priceless. They had the name tags “Bev,” “Shirley.” Even their names were clichéd. It was brilliant.

    They had these amazing outfits like they were going to the races. [laughs] Casey and his friends represented the complete opposite to where they were heading on that train, but yet Casey was in this exciting place, heading into the future. The world’s going past outside, and it was such a great little moment. I just loved that.

    [quoting the story] “A look of bewilderment on Bev’s face, as this alien world rushes by in blurs of green and gun-metal grey.”

    Cool, man. [laughs] Thanks man! That’s great. Just that whole concept of: Casey’s going one way and not really realising that he’s heading somewhere, he doesn’t know where it’s going. That was the thing about the whole piece, too. A teenager is going somewhere really, really fast, but not really knowing where. That’s really exciting.

    Bev and Shirley know exactly where they’re at. That’s beautiful, too, but it was this great thing to have them side by side, these two generations. And Casey and his friends were being so oblivious, to the point where they’d be dancing and singing songs, and throwing out F-bombs, not even realising there were two women over there going, “God, who are these creatures?” That classic generational difference, it was right there.

    Where were you? If they were sitting in the four train seats, the four teenagers, where were you sitting?

    Where you hop onto a train, turn right, and the first place you sit down; you know, the two-seaters? That one there. Bev and Shirley were diagonally across from them. Casey probably could’ve seen them. Casey had his back turned, but his mate Jade could’ve seen them. He was aware of them, but I guess the two friends, Casey and one of the girls, they were just… it was them probably most of all who were completely oblivious.

    That’s what I was doing. I was just there and I was taking notes. They were having the most amazing conversation over an hour’s journey from Caboolture to the city. It was a really great get-to-know-you period, really cover a lot of territory, and get a lot of chatting out of the way, and get to know why they were going into town and who Casey was, and stuff about their teachers, and all that.

    The whole point was just being fly-on-the-wall as well, and not probing them too much because, in the end, they are 15-year olds. You don’t want to be going too weird, too in-depth, or giving them a hard time. It was more presenting the reader with this moment, taking it and going, “This is what I saw.” It’s classic, “this is it; this is all I saw. I’m not even commenting. This is just what I saw.”

    At different points they do discuss drugs, divorce, and cyber-bullying. Casey said, “I’m not sure why any 15-year old would want to kill themselves”. Did they just come naturally, or were they prompted by you?

    No, those were prompted by me. Those sorts of topics aren’t even on their radar. I asked those questions because I knew somewhere along the line, in any sort of conversation with a teenager or in-depth piece on teenage life, you probably should ask those questions. Though I guess parents worry about it more. Honestly, they were almost like, “Man, why are you even asking that?” They’re that cool with themselves, they’re that together, that they were like, “yeah, whatever, drugs.” They were so savvy that it was like yesterday’s news. And the whole suicide thing too, which terrifies me, and cyber-bullying and all that stuff is wrapped up in that whole horrifying end of suicide.

    I remember getting all serious and tense, like “Let’s talk about some issues.” And they glossed over the heavier stuff in a matter of 30 seconds. It was like, the stuff that mattered to them was actual grief. Then Casey brought up his mate who died. I guess the whole heaviness of a topic like that led to another interesting place; here’s a young man dealing with the total weirdness of losing a friend. I found that fascinating, how he was dealing with that.

    That went to a whole different place as well. It was cool, that whole side of it. All those things were prompted by me. Particularly drugs and suicide; they weren’t even going there. They’re just interesting. They had this complete need for entertainment, in many forms. “Look, there’s a guy there picking his nose with a straw! Great!” And then that filled them up for a bit. [laughs] Then they were bored, then… “Oh man, look at this freakin’ King Kong outfit!” That fills them up for a bit. It was this constant need, like those computer game energy bars of excitement. It would go down, something would happen, and it’d be back up. It was really great to see that.

    There’s this line where Casey says, “I just wish mum and dad knew that I was going to be okay.” Was that prompted by you?

    No. I thought that was such a great line. That was when we were talking with his mate. It’s so great to have a mate of his around to make him feel comfortable about talking, so he’s not just… it was almost said towards his mate, almost like “Don’t you just wish they knew we were all okay?” I thought that was so great and such a meaningful thing for any parent. You know how we worry. You put so much pressure on them, and so much stuff. You bring so much of your own stuff to [parenting]. I think that’s what he was sort of talking about.

    He’s got this super-loving mum who’s constantly telling him, “I love you,” and constantly asking all about his life. But he was just saying, “I just wish she knew I’d be okay, and that everything’s going to be all right.” Basically he was saying, “I’m not going to do anything stupid.” He was almost saying, “I’m not planning on doing anything crazy.” I thought that was a great little moment I wanted to definitely get in there somewhere.

    It came up in a conversation about… I remember asking a few times this question, like, “what do you wish your parents knew?”, and maybe that’s where it came out. That sounds like it was prompted. But I think it was in an overall discussion, like, “Sometimes they don’t get you, but what do you wish they knew?” Maybe it’s easier, sometimes, telling a guy with a recorder than it is to tell mum. I don’t know. It was cool, that one.

    It’s at this point, where you’re at the photo booth with them, that I first realised that you’re invisible in the piece. You’re not there at all. Now that I think about it, I think that’s the case for “Story of a Man” and “Story of a Woman”, as well – you were invisible.


    So that was a conscious choice?

    Definitely. I’m the first person to put myself in the piece; I’m the biggest egomaniac frickin’ idiot journo. I don’t know, I hate it about myself that sometimes I go, “I’m going to put myself in here.” But I only do that when I feel like it’s necessary and that it adds something to the piece. This was totally all about them and it was all about being, as you say, invisible, and just seeing these magic moments, going “I’m not here,” and hopefully getting to the point where they feel like I’m not here.

    At that photo booth, maybe four hours had passed by that time, and then they really felt like I wasn’t there. I’d gotten boring. “We’re over that, there’s other things, let’s go to photo booth and get some pictures.”

    Then this incredible moment happens where they’re talking about, “should we put ‘best friends’ on the caption?” You’re documenting these interactions, and this wonderful moment in any teenager’s life where you’re weighing up your friends. Beth had asked, “should we put ‘best friends?’” I remember that feeling. “Am I your best friend?” I remember that whole concept, that beautiful thing between relationships between teenagers. You never quite know where you stand.

    Then Casey, that beautiful kid, I just love that kid so much, he made her feel so good and goes, “hells yeah!” or whatever he said. It was just an amazing response, like “yeah, of course.” Just a brilliant… the wisdom of him knowing what she was trying to ask. But to be so cool about it. It was such a great moment and such a rare thing to see those little moments.

    If you just passed by that moment, you’d have no idea what was going on, but the journalist has that… this is the great thing about feature writing. You spend time with these people and understand what’s going on. One little moment becomes huge and can be significant. I thought it was so beautiful. Probably my favourite part of the whole piece, that there.

    So you spent that Saturday with him, and there was about a month gap between that time and the school holidays, I think.

    Yeah, and that was purely because I felt I wanted to get even just a little bit more insight, just a bit more. I didn’t want to end it in the mall again because I knew the girl one was going to be very mall-centred. I called his mum up again…[laughs] And asked them to go through it all again and we did it. We went back and I went over in the early hours of the morning and spent more time with him.

    That’s always the best thing you could ever do – go back. I strongly recommend that. Leisa Scott, who writes for Qweekend, told me that years ago: “always keep going back”. You learn more and more, and then by the time you come back next time they know you even more. Then you see even more insights.

    It was great; the best thing I ever did. One of his other best friends had been there, so I was getting even more insights. Even in the meantime, all these things had happened to him. He’d got a girlfriend and he’d had a party. All these things had happened, and it was getting closer towards the end of the year so he’s sort of… I remember in high school, any end-of-year time… he wasn’t even in his senior year, but you’re thinking about where you’re going, or even in grade 11 you might have to start making those decisions about what you’re going to do, and all that sort of stuff.

    When I came back, he was a different sort of guy, almost. He was a little bit more weighed down by a few more worries, bizarrely, even in that short timeframe. I really got that feeling. He was answering really honestly. It was so cool to do that, he was going, “I’m worried about…” And then he started… that’s probably my favourite bit in the piece, when he starts talking about, “I think I’m really good at English, you know? I think I could do something in English.” I just thought that was so cool, this kid trying to figure out in his head space, “where am I going,” but also trying to work out that inside him, there’s a whole world of possibility, and trying to grapple with that.

    What did you advise him when he said he wanted to go into creative writing? You wrote, “Like any writer worth the title, he’s curious about life and the people around him.”

    Yeah, well I had said, “Man, you’ll be brilliant. You’d be amazing. You’ve got enthusiasm, you’ve got drive, and you love words. You’ve got a great nature.” I said, “If you’re thinking about it, you should completely do it.” I totally said, “Whenever you decide to, give me a call at The Courier-Mail,” because he was such a great guy. I basically said, “Yeah, come into the office and I’ll show you around,” or something like that. I was really trying to go, “If you’re thinking about that, go for it and chase your dreams.”

    I don’t want to sound like too much of a tosser, but he really mirrored my life in many ways. I grew up in Bracken Ridge, which was not far from Caboolture, where he grew up. It was that idea of, in that sort of world you’re knocking around with mates and stuff. No one’s really ever talking about writing, and things like those sorts of ‘cultural pursuits’. A guy like him, he was still thinking, “I think I could do it,” so I wanted to say, “you could do it, and you could do it really well.”

    That really inspired me, from a writer’s perspective. I was so pumped that he was into writing. I was going, “Yeah, you’re really good!” That stuff I said in the piece later on about, “It’s the reason why you’re so good with your friends and you’re so good with those girls; they love you so much because you’re a great listener and you care.” I was just watching this kid. He had all this stuff that makes a great writer and he had time for people. I was like “You should do it.”

    I really made a point of even writing that, but also that whole… there’s something great about that and I’ve always loved this in teenage movies and stuff, where someone’s battling with their family history. Maybe there’s a long line of Tunkses who used their hands and worked in trades and stuff like that, and done very well, but he’s sort of going, “Maybe I could step out.” I love that.

    It was a hard one to put in where he said, “I hope I don’t just become another Tunks,” because I was worried about writing that and saying would that be an insult to his wonderful family. But I still put it in because it was more of an insight into him saying, “I just want to do something different. I want to become my own man.” I thought that was wonderful to hear a 15-year old kid say that sort of stuff, to be there for those sorts of insights. Cool kid. I’ve really got so much time for him. He’s really a wonderful guy.

    Did you ever get to see them de-stressing, with the life jackets and the exercise ball [which they referred to in the story]?

    Oh no, I didn’t! That was him and his mate. They’re going, “Man, we do this thing. Now we’re about to do it.” I think it rained. They went out on the go-kart and it started raining or something, and they decided not to do it. They were going to go do it. They were going to go stand there with those life jackets and then the exercise ball comes down and hits them. It would’ve been hilarious. I decided as far as activities go, the go-kart was a much more symbolic sort of thing, about movement and taking chances. I went with that.

    He offered to introduce you to his Nanna. Do you think that was a sign of trust for him at that point?

    Yeah, definitely. That was when I came through on the second visit. After spending a couple of hours with him that morning, and then him going, “come meet Nanna,” it was totally natural, like when you’re around a mate’s house – especially when you’re in high school – you end up doing all sorts of crazy stuff. You go around someone’s house, you go meet Uncle Joe and then you find yourself in the back of a ute, or whatever.

    It just reminded me of a high school visit to a friend’s house. “Oh, let’s go get a go-kart.” “I’ll just go say g’day to Nanna. I guess that you’re with me, so yeah, you come along too.” That was brilliant too, because you get to peel back more and more layers of this guy’s personality, this guy’s life. Seeing this other wonderful side of him that loves his Nanna dearly and she loves him. It was great, really good moment.

    And just texture-wise, you constantly want to have all these different people, whether they’re speaking to or not, but just places to go. That’s great in a feature article, different places.

    You’ve got this line about going to Warren’s shed where there’s “a calendar showing 12 months of buxom women in togs.” Why did you use the word ‘togs’? That cracked me up when I read that. You hardly ever see ‘togs’, it’s such a Queensland term.

    [laughs] I think it was because that’s how I remembered it. I think it hadn’t been taken down since 1987, back when women were wearing a full one-piece tog. Not even so much like a bikini. I don’t know, I think that’s maybe why I said togs, as opposed to… what would you call it?


    Swimsuit, yeah! Togs… I dunno. It’s such a hokey term isn’t it? [laughs]

    Based on what you’ve told me – with the momentum of the piece, and Casey going somewhere, but he doesn’t know where – it feels like you had to end it on the go-kart jump. A freeze-frame picture.

    Totally. And what eventually did happen was, he landed heavily. His mate hops in the thing and then we went and rode some horses or something. He got a horse out. But you’ve got to think, “where’s the best, most lyrical, amazing place that says everything?” I really thought hard about that. I thought, “I can, being the writer, end this anywhere I like.” I thought, “well, let’s just take it right up to there.” I thought “Wow, that’s so Casey.” Everything’s up in the air and everything… I thought, symbolically, that was just magic.

    I admired him for even doing it. It was insane, what he was doing. I was going, “I shouldn’t even be around for this.” I was just going, “Nah, this is really bad. If something happens here…” There were no adults around at that time, and I remember just thinking, “Nah, this is probably wrong that I should be party to this, that these guys are doing these crazy jumps on this go-kart.” That’s magic, too, and that’s the balls of a teenage kid that I really wanted to get in there as well. It was all about – “man, don’t lose that.”

    I was constantly thinking, all the way through, how I’ve probably lost that. I used to do crazy stuff all the time but sadly, you get married, you have kids, and you go, “No, I better not do that crazy thing.”

    The end scene is like the great endings of a million different movies. I just loved that; he’s there, mid-air, and the outcome’s his. The rest of the story is only his, like, “we’ve been looking into it, and now we’ve stopped now. I’ve stopped now. The rest is his journey.” That’s what I’m trying to say.

    Did he ask you much about the mechanics of your job, or your approach to the story during the whole process?

    No. He totally couldn’t care less. It was so funny and so amazing… the girl was even moreso. Particularly with Chloee, it was like “Of course you want to come!” It was that great Gen-Y or Gen… I don’t know, are they still Gen-Y? I don’t know, they’re probably something earlier… but Gen-Y, that great, “Yeah, fuckin’ oath man, cover my life story, great! It’s fascinating, my world’s awesome!” It was like, “I don’t care how you tell it, or what you need from me.” It was just, “Come along for the ride, man, and strap in.” It was really funny.

    Even after the story, it took a long time between the story, me actually doing it and then it actually running. It took a long time. Casey didn’t care. I’d call up every now and then and go, “Mate, that story, it’s going to run, the dates got shifted and all this stuff – but it’s going to run.” He was like, “Yeah, whatever, no worries.” He’s just living his life! It’s this heavy thing on my mind, but he couldn’t give a shit. It was brilliant. It was so them, for both of them, they’re like, “yeah, whatever, no worries.” It was funny.

    Were you happy with him as a subject? Did he give you enough; could you have asked more?

    No I couldn’t have, in terms of… this is the big thing, and I’ll probably tap into this more about the girl, which got a hammering. It got smashed. It copped a pasting. The intention was, whoever said yes [out of the teenagers], just cover it, and that would be it. That is the idea, similar to the way “Story of a Man” and “Story of a Woman” were just about random people. The big thing was, I never wanted it to be like, “Here’s Qweekend, coming along and telling you, the reader, what it is to be a teenager these days.” But what we’re doing is, “here’s this teenager, this one guy, and this is his story. Take from that what you will.” In that sense, he was brilliant, in terms of showing me his life, his story, and giving me access into his life. He was amazing.

    He still gave me everything I’d hoped for and more, he was an amazing kid, but as far as what it is to be a teenager, he didn’t really dwell on because he’s almost too cool for that. He was just like “I’m moving so fast, I don’t even have the time to think about what being a teenager means to me.” So the whole process of him was a snapshot, and it was movement and capturing that.

    In answer to the question, he totally gave me that and more. He was amazing, but maybe not what other people wanted, like if you’d come to read the story you might go, “Oh, I wanted to know more about what teenagers think about politics,” or all that sort of stuff. With the girl story, a colleague of mine said, “I love that piece you did on the girl, but I wish you did more insight. I wish you sort of showed more of your own analysis,” she said. I was just going, “Yeah, but that wasn’t my intention.” It wasn’t me bringing my thoughts on teenagers, or commenting or judging, or anything like that.

    So – the story ran eventually. What kind of feedback did you get from Casey and his family?

    Um… [pause]

    Have you spoken to them?

    Nah, I haven’t. I’ve sent them massive letters, and magazines, and that’s it. They either were…


    Or… it happens all the time. You send them the mags, and go, “Thank you so much, and the family moves on.” You just go – that’s it. It’s an interesting sort of discussion. You go, “Do I keep probing them, and asking ‘how’re you going?’” and all that sort of stuff, and take it to the level, or… yeah. So my thing was, “mate, thank you so much.” I wrote this big letter saying, “Give me a call at The Courier-Mail when you graduate,” and all that sort of stuff. We sent him magazines, and did up a disc of images; every photo that we took. We were like, “Okay, we’ll get out of your lives now.” I tend to leave my card, and say, “If you want to call me, please don’t hesitate to call.” But I don’t want to keep hassling them, you know? It’s always a strange sort of thing.

    But I should probably… I’d love to catch up with him again. I basically said to him, if he wants to catch up, come in anytime. I’ve left it up to him. It’s an interesting one.

    I called Chloee, because I was a bit more worried about her as she revealed a bit more stuff. I called her, and she was really cool, and tough as nails, which is great. But the whole thing, the whole stories never sit easy with me. You’re putting these people’s lives out into a magazine. With Chloee in particular… Casey’s life was pretty straightforward, but Chloee’s was really an eye-opening insight into her life, so that was a whole different story. And also, you call them up to let them know the feedback. I did that with Casey, too. I sent him a whole bunch of feedback from people, saying, “You’re the most amazing, inspiring kid, and you’re parents should be so proud.” That kind of stuff. We make sure we keep all those letters in there.

    With Chloee, it was more like – “We’ve had great letters, and we’ve had really bad letters.” My whole thing with her was more to call her up and say, “You are an amazing teenager, and don’t let anyone ever change or stop your drive, or individuality. Keep being interested, and curious.” It was that sort of conversation. It’s that area of reaction that you always worry about, because when they come to that moment of seeing themselves in a magazine – it’s not easy.

    With Chloee, was it the same process of finding her?

    Yep, same process. Much quicker, in the sense that, like I said before, she was more like – “Cool, that’ll be awesome!” Sort of sensing something ‘rock and roll’ to it all. She was right into everything that it was about: a raw account of a teenager’s life. She was going, “Yep, this’ll be brilliant.” She gave me her dad’s number. I called him, and explained what it’d be, and asked, “How do you feel about that?” He thought about it, and said, “You know what? I would like her story to be told.” Because, he was saying, he wanted people to get an insight into what it is to be a single dad in charge of a teenager, and what it’s like to be a parent.

    That’s brave on his part.

    Very brave. I mean, it’s very brave of anyone to put their faith in a journalist, it really is. Jeff is an amazing guy; I take my hat off to that man. He’s an amazing father, and I tried to get that in there. Chloee sort of realises it. There were elements in there of the sacrifices he was making as a dad, and I really tried to get that in there, as well. How much of that came across, I don’t know. It might get overshadowed by the other stuff. It’s tough. It was a really tough one, Chloee’s story, in terms of – what do you write in? What do you keep out? And there was a lot of stuff that I kept out. It was a funny process, that one.

    You basically walked into a relationship deteriorating; Angela was in the process of leaving Jeff. Was that awkward for you?

    Yeah. She was so good about it. But it was an amazing time to start the morning. It was also a great insight into Chloee. Angela just went, “Actually, I’m leaving.” You go, “Can I interview you?” She said ‘yeah’, so you sit there interviewing this woman. It was amazing to capture this relationship in a state of flux, and get an insight into the dynamics between Chloee and Angela, but also the dynamics between her home life and her city life, which were completely different things. It was fascinating. Journalistically, it was an interesting moment to turn up at her house.

    You open this one with Chloee’s language; “A boring home on a boring street, in a boring suburb”.

    Yeah – “douche”, and all that.

    “Douche newsreader reading douche morning news.”

    Yeah. That was more just language stuff. I love their language. I hope, though, it didn’t seem too cynical, like I was the cynical journo yet again paying out on a nihilistic teenager. That wasn’t the intention. It was more just going – ‘this is the world you’re about to get into’. It was stepping briefly into her mind, going, “This is Mt Gravatt to me.” And it’s true; Mt Gravatt is so anything but where Chloee’s at in her mind, and I loved that. When we were walking down the street, she lights a fag as we walk out of the house. This street is just total Leave It To Beaver. She’s blowing smoke, and I said something like, “What do you make of this place?”. She just goes, [exhales] “It’s fucked.” And then she’s looking around, and there’s nothing about that street that had any connection for her at all. She wasn’t even acknowledging anything around her. She was totally in her mind, or in her phone.

    Were you working on the two pieces in tandem?

    They were in tandem, because I had to get them done at the same time. They were always going to be back-to-back, so you have to get the ball rolling on one. That helped in terms of where I took the two pieces, too. You go, “I can set this one here, and go over here to keep [Casey] away from the Queen Street Mall.” But they were written in separate chunks. As it turned out, I had to overlap Casey after I’d written Chloee, because I had to go back to Casey and get more. After Chloee, I knew that there was definitely more than enough, to the point where there was so much that I had to leave out. I knew that it’d definitely sustain a full piece, from start to finish, about her day.

    They’re wildly different kids; Casey’s clean-cut, and Chloee’s pretty rough. Did you notice any similarities between the two?

    Yeah, definitely. They sort of mirrored each other in the key sense of not knowing where they’re going. They’re not conscious of… ah, no, that’s not fair on Casey. Probably just that key factor of not knowing where they’re going, and trying to find their way, and sort out where they fit in 21st century life in Queensland. That was a common thread. And the sheer influence of friends on them, or how much friends play a massive part in their lives. Their whole worlds revolve around their friends. Everyone remembers that. So those were the two big things – the bonds they had with their friends, which were tighter than brotherhood and sisterhood.

    You left a fair bit of space for Angela’s views toward Jeff, in particular, but you didn’t really have a rebuttal from him in there. Did you hesitate before doing that?

    Oh, that’s only because she was there at the time. These whole pieces were – “this happens, this happens, this happens”. I could’ve had Jeff, but there was nowhere to put him back in, because I had to talk to each person… I was thinking about having Jeff at the end, because at the end of the day, I called Jeff and said, “Listen mate, she’s still in the city, she’s OK,” and I was going to have that conversation, and there it would’ve been OK. But then it’s never… I don’t know. I just don’t like dropping quotes in somewhere, you know what I mean? Taking it out of context, and bringing in some quote that I’ve gotten down the track. I really enjoy just talking about whatever happens there. And that leaves me out of it, again.

    I could go, “Jeff, what do you think about that? Angela said this about you…” But I’m just telling what I see. I have a moral issue with the whole process of feature writing anyway, so it makes it a bit easier on my conscious if I go, “This is what happened,” and I leave any judgments or anything from me completely out of it. It is what it is. If people take things from it, they can. If they take a bad thing from it, that’s fine. That’s the only real thing about it; it’s genuine reportage, going, “Here’s this moment – this is what I saw.”

    The bit where Chloee is getting ready, and says, “I’m going to cake my face to the shithouse” – did you learn a bit about make-up and piercings?

    Oh, totally. I don’t know whether she was intentionally trying to. It was so cool, because I knew that that sort of stuff would come into it. I really want to do that, and god bless that girl, because she was like, “Yeah, of course, come in!” to her bathroom, and watch a teenager getting ready. I totally learned terms that I never knew. I’m so out of date; I’m out of touch. Different piercings, make-up, hairstyles, hair dyes, bandannas… a million different things. Such an insight, you know? That was the stuff that I was most fascinated with, and it probably came through in the piece. Constant references to – “this guy’s got this,” and “this guy’s using his headphones as a belt”, and this other guy who had a shirt saying, “drop dead”. I don’t know whether it was a band, or… it was like, “Are you just telling people to drop dead? Brilliant!”

    I loved that whole teenage life. It was that whole emo scene life, but it was also fascinating from a fashion sense, too. The most interesting thing to me, for the whole thing, was that it wasn’t about the foul mouths, and some of the perhaps-horrible things that they do to people, but it was all just the lingo, and the atmosphere, and the way that they interact with each other. That’s beautiful stuff, from a feature-writing perspective.

    There’s a bit of you in this one. You ask questions, like: “I ask…”

    That’s true. I’m always puzzled by this: how do you get to somewhere deep in a story, to bring it somewhere, without bringing yourself in there? So that goes against what I said earlier. I tried very hard not to, but there were some places where it had to be in there, where she was talking about her father, or where I had to ask her about her terms. Like ‘FOBS’ – “fresh off the boat” – which I’ve since learned is a fairly common term. But I guess it’s a way, in that sense, to talk about an intimate discussion. I really wanted it to get to that point where I asked, “What was the saddest moment of your life?” I wanted to get to that point where she said, “When my mum left Brisbane,” because that says something about her and I wanted to bring it up. It was hard to get there without going to some discussion… if you want to get there quickly, that’s all that is, actually. A really quick way is to just go, “I ask.” It sucks a bit, and maybe it’s a bit lame, but I don’t mind if it’s a little bit personal.

    Or if you can picture the subject and the journalist in the back of a bus, having a little quiet – well, not so quiet, because her radio was blasting out – but having a little discussion between ourselves. It’s personal. Saying, “I ask” is almost like ‘the reader asks’. I don’t know; that’s probably why.

    Tell me about that scene, where Chloee is playing the iPod out loud. Was that extremely awkward for you?

    Yeah, it was. It really was. There were some really awkward moments on both of these stories, because people are looking over at me, going “Why…” [interrupts himself] Oh, this came into it constantly in this piece, though; the girl, in particular. Later on, awkward wasn’t the word. I’d be hanging out with these kids who were just letting people have it on the street, yelling out, and I’d be standing there next to them… It was just so funny. People would look at me and think, “Why are you standing there, being party to this sort of behaviour?”

    On the bus, I could see this woman in a business suit come in and sit down. Chloee was completely oblivious. They just don’t care. It’s not that they’re trying to be smartarses or attention-seekers; they’re just completely oblivious to the fact that their behaviour is being slightly rude, or would be considered inappropriate. I just couldn’t believe it. She had the iPod, and just didn’t worry about it. Don’t worry about earphones. I don’t know whether she didn’t have any, or… maybe she was doing it for me, so I could jive to the song as well? All these classic emo songs ripping out from the back of the bus, and this woman constantly turning around, but Chloee’s just oblivious because she’s texting or on Facebook.

    Me, as a traveller, I’d pick up on that woman looking around in a second. Chloee – nup, no way. That woman was going to have to stop, turn around, and say, “Excuse me.” You can’t give subtle hints to our teenagers these days.

    After the bus, you get off in the city and she says, “I’m home.” The first quote from the next section is like, “Fuck you cunt, what kind of friend are you!”, when the guy is talking to his drug dealer on the phone.

    Yeah – “Fuck your arse then, cunt!

    You had to include that, obviously, because it’s what he said. Although I note the contrast between Casey’s piece, where there is no swearing, and Chloee’s, which is quite vulgar in that way.

    Yeah, it probably was. There was a great lesson in that. That really disgusted people, that teenage girl piece. It was a good lesson for me. You can go so far in the name of… “OK, this is the truth, this what was said,” but – are people ready to read that in print over their Saturday morning cornflakes? In the end, probably not, but I still totally believe, and I’m so grateful we did keep them in there. I know Matt [Condon], my editor, would’ve had to probably fight to keep them. I think there were discussions about how many F-bombs we’d keep in there. Funnily enough, originally I had no ‘dot dot dots’ [censorship] in F-words. I thought, “Nah, let’s just put it all out there!”

    That was never gonna fly!

    Nah, exactly. [laughs] But the whole point was – hey, this is reality. They have incredibly foul mouths. But not in a way that they’re trying to be foulmouthed or anything; that is just the way it is. When they talk, they throw in a bunch of swear words. And that guy’s disappointment; that’s how he showed his disappointment about not being able to get on: “Fuck your arse then, cunt!” I thought that was very strong, interesting language.

    But, in hindsight, when I’m dealing with a teenager next… readers simply don’t like that stuff. Maybe I put too much in there. Maybe it was overkill, and people just went, “Nah, I’m just getting a bit more repulsed by this than I am…” Not inspired, because I didn’t want them to be inspired, but enlightened.

    So that’s a terrible thing. That’s not working. That’s a real mistake… I don’t know if it’s a mistake. But then again, some people who read it wrote, “That was the most insightful one you’ve done yet,” so you just go… you’ve got to try and weigh that up. I was just trying to keep true to… like I said before, if I just say what happened, then that’s all I hopefully have to do. But there’s probably places where it’s up to me to leave stuff out, too, for the benefit of the reader not getting repulsed.

    You had bits like the ‘fresh off boats’ thing, and “every group needs a token black guy”; the kinds of things that would probably offend the 50 year-old mother reading the magazine.

    Totally, yeah. And particularly the way they pay out on adults, the business world; successful people, basically. I found that interesting, but I think people took offence at that, more than anything. I found it interesting from a sense of, “This is how we’re viewed, or you’re viewed, by this particular person.” It gets back to that whole thing. I think people were repulsed and appalled by the piece in a sense…anyone who was appalled by it was disappointed that she was chosen out of all the many teenagers. But that was purely by chance. It was a random selection. But to do honesty to the piece, I had to put in all that stuff. “This is what she said.”

    You write about how, “The Scene is a cultural and emotional space and state of mind in the Queen Street Mall.” What was your knowledge or experience of The Scene before you were in there, talking to them?

    I’d had an indepth interview with an emo guy once. He was a brilliant, wonderful young man, so I’d known a little bit about it, but I didn’t know how it operated, and I didn’t realise anything about this whole concept of The Scene. I didn’t even know it was called The Scene. I found that fascinating, for one thing; so naïve. But also just how… previously I’d only known them as pretty cool kids. Well, I don’t even know if they’re considered cool, but I knew they were into music, and probably into some bands that I used to like back in the day. I still like The Cure; they’re like my favourite band. But they don’t even like The Cure. I was sort of going, “Disintegration, man, that’s my favourite album!” And they were like – “what?!” [laughs] So it’s a whole different world. And that really made me stay.

    I’m telling you, that was the longest fucking day. They just sit in that fucking space…

    [from the story] “Two hours sitting in the sun, watching people pass by.”

    I’m telling you, man! And that was just when nothing was… I could’ve kept writing generic shit they were saying to people that were passing, paying out on them… But I could not keep doing that. I was just going, “When are they going to do something different?” But they just sit there. They just sit. I’d been with Chloee since 6am, and I remember just going, “This is exhausting. You guys sitting around doing nothing is the most exhausting thing I’ve done in a long time.” I’d be sitting in the middle with them…

    Dressed like this, I assume? [gestures to Trent’s clothing; he’s wearing a blue, collared long-sleeve shirt, dark slacks and casual shoes]

    Well, I dressed down a little. This is my mid-range dressing down [gestures to clothes], because I had a job this morning where I had go do one of my Saturday [column] things; out at a homeless place, actually. On this day [with The Scene], I wore my Docs… I don’t know. I was going, “Is that what the Goths still wear?” They don’t. But there was some cool comments from them, like, “Oh man, I like your shoes.” I was trying to be ‘cool Trent’. But I wasn’t cool at all. [laughs]

    With Casey, I was trying to be ‘cool Trent’, and that’s when the girl said, “[sighs] You are sooo in need of some Vans.” It made me feel so out of touch with that whole thing. It doesn’t take long between timeframes.. but anyway, I’m rambling. So I had dressed down, and it was fun hanging out with them and being a part of it, but it was so weird. That whole lengthy time that they spent there. I did feel like I became part of them after a while; like I was one of the gang. We really came together when the cops stopped us.

    What were you doing at that point?

    Well, I was standing there in the line. I wasn’t even going to say anything. I thought it’d be interesting, from a journalistic point of view, to see how the cops treat these kids. But I still looked like a dickhead; like some loser who couldn’t find any friends, and had to go and hang out with 16 year olds, and spend his days… This was a weekday, too. This cop is taking the kid’s name, and I’m next. I hand my license to him…

    [uncontrollable laughter]

    Seriously! It was so funny. But it was only because the guy next to me said, “He’s a journalist!” He was sort of going, “Don’t give us any shit because he’s a journalist, man!” Something like that. So funny. I haven’t been… what do they call that, carded by a cop since I was in grade 12 or something. It was cool. I felt a real camaraderie with the group at that stage. I thought, “Yeah, I’ll just give them my ID…” Because they just come around and do routine name-checks.

    In the end, when the kid said something, I told the cop “Yeah I’m doing a story on a day in the life of this girl over here, Chloee.” And he goes, “Just so you know, we do this because…” And that gave another insight into how the parents are terrified for these kids, and the cops have to get their names and details so when the parents call up and say, “Where’s my kid?” They can actually give them some idea. I thought, “yeah, I can understand where the cop’s coming from.” A great moment in my career, though.

    You’ve got this great line where you write, “The only time you’re truly free is when you’re 16 and penniless.”

    Yeah, and I totally believe that, too. That’s me putting that in there, but I know they totally believe that. And they don’t even realise that. They don’t realise how good their lives are. You’re not free when you’re… like in my situation: I’ve got a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. That’s not very free. All that line was saying was, “This guy was completely penniless, and maybe even directionless, but she’s happier than any millionaire out there.” Everything comes at some sort of cost, but you haven’t made any sacrifices at that age. Nothing costs anything at that age, in terms of your own personal life costs. That’s wonderful freedom, so that you can just run around, and dance inside shops. There’s a wonderful freedom to it, because there’s no cost. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Even if the cops stop you, and lock you up, you probably won’t even get charged. It’s a glorious time. I was trying to get at that. And hence that whole thing I was saying about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; this whole world of, “Let them eat cake.” The reckless abandon that comes with being a queen of Queen Street Mall. I like that whole concept.

    ‘The Logical Song’ makes an appearance; tell me about that. Was that a pure coincidence?

    It was totally bizarre. It started because they were going, “What is this song???” This Triple M sort of song, which has probably been played on Triple M every day for the past… And they’re just like, “What is this?” I thought that was cool, but then it was so poignant in a sense of what it was saying. And it’s such a wonderful song, and what that guy was trying to say. You’re going, “Man, that’s great.” Funnily enough, it came back in the Casey story, too. I don’t know why; it must be on the soundtrack they play in those shops, or something. But at the time, it was so good.

    It reminded me of “Story Of A Man”, where you had the Talking Heads song ‘Once In A Lifetime’ flowing through the piece, as well.

    Oh, yeah! That’s true. Man, I’m a massive music fan, and I love when music comes into any situation and sort of comments. You might be here doing something, but there happens to be some music playing, and if that music has some sort of connection to something else, I’ll always put that in, because I think it’s great. It’s another contextual thing; the sound of what was going on, and all that sort of stuff.

    Going into the Commonwealth Bank with Chloee – was that another awkward moment? I’m guessing you might’ve been mistaken for her dad, or something?

    Totally! Oh man, seriously. These moments… I’ll never forget this whole story. It was so wonderful. These are just magic moments as a journalist, when you walk in there and you realise how much journalism is all about having humility, and losing your own ego, and getting amongst it; being part of it. Because this Commonwealth Bank lady is looking at me going, “What the fuck are you doing hanging around these girls?” And they just stagger into the bank. I’m telling you, there were rows of accountants, and Chloee – rough as guts – comes in with her friends, and goes, “Can I get a new card, please?” They go – “do you have some ID?” She goes – “nup. Nothing.” It was just fucking classic. I remember thinking, “that is just amazing.” This ‘16 and penniless’ freedom.

    But she knew somehow she would get something. Something would happen, you know? But the only reason she was having to go through this was because she had this $10 note, and had such lack of respect for the money that it just fell out of her pocket or something. Just this piece-of-shit $10 note that, somehow, had fallen apart. She tried to feed it into this machine at Coles. It was just hilarious! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing with my eyes. This girl putting this crappy $10 note into this thing, and it was just spitting back out. And then she’s walking up Queen Street Mall, and she just throws it in her pocket, and it hangs out loosely, and I just knew later on…

    I should’ve told her, “Chloee, you should tuck that into your pocket a little bit better,” or something. Then she goes, [pats her pockets], “Oh, that $10 fell out”. So then she has to go through this massive, massive rigmarole to get more money. She calls her Dad, and he says no, but it’s like… wow, this is all part of your journey. She wasn’t even phased. When her Dad says, “Piss off!”, she goes, “Lovely,” and chats to someone and gets distracted for another hour. And then – “are we going to get that money?” Oh man, it was just so funny  An amazing time.

    They had this guy, Justice, as the paternal guardian of the group. You painted that really well.

    [laughs] Yeah, that was funny. He was a funny guy. But the funny part about that was their Justice-worship. This guy, I’m telling you… he was just a classic, because every kid on The Scene worshipped the guy. It would be like if Jeff Buckley turned up at a party, and people would be like [whispering behind their hands], “Oh my god, it’s really him!”

    It was just unbelievable. He had a black trenchcoat on. He could’ve been a model. He’s a very handsome guy. He’s got this piercing stare. He holds his hand out and is like, [in a deep voice] “Hello, I’m Justice. That’s it; no last name. Just Justice.” And his comments on Chloee were… he’s a wonderful guy, but he has that trait where he feels as though he has some great insights into the world, and his friends. It was wonderful to see the intensity of friendship that he had for Chloee. But it was a funny thing, finally meeting Justice.

    I’d heard about him from about 6.30am, and I didn’t get to meet him until about 5pm. It’s like in that movie The Usual Suspects, where they talk about this guy, Keyser Soze. He’s spoken about, but never seen, so you have a whole movie to build up in your mind the majesty of this person that you might one day be fortunate enough to meet… and then he turned up. And he was everything that Chloee said, in terms of his charisma, and everyone was fawning over him. But – that was their world. If anyone else saw Justice, they’d just be like, “Who’s this guy?” But in their world, he was almost like a god. A god-figure. A real leader, guiding them. To be honest, I thought – right now, in Chloee’s life, he’s the best thing to ever happen to her. He really cares about her, and he’s switched on, and thoughtful and wise, and really trying to give of himself and protect her. I really thought his comments about how “she’s a gem”, I thought – that’s great. I really wanted to put that in. People might not understand this girl; someone reading the story is not going to like her much, but she’s very well-liked among this group. She has her own place within this group.

    That piece probably should’ve been about The Scene, maybe, in terms of its packaging. It was an interesting one. A fascinating little piece of that series, because she’s probably unlike most teenagers, I’d imagine. I’m sure she shares many similar traits, but still unlike most of them. But yeah – Justice, legend. I’m sure he’s still down there, doing his stuff. There was this great thing with Chloee; she had this other guy, Destry, who was another cool guy. He was the ‘cool happy guy’. I really liked Destry. I was like, “man, he’s a cool kid. If I was that age, I’d be friends with that guy.” I was thinking [from Chloee’s perspective], “This guy’s the guy. You should be asking this guy out, and bringing him home to meet mum and dad. Stick with that guy.” But I think Justice is cool too. Justice was the dark and mysterious, and that always seems to be the one that they go for. But Destry was the wild, open, crazy, interesting, honest and brilliant kid.

    You ended it on, “And she won’t be home this afternoon.” Had you tried a few different endings?

    Yeah, actually I tried a lot of different endings. The night was about to turn into further debauchery. I was like, “I can’t keep going with this. What’s the point?” And that probably suffered in the piece, too. There was no… I found it incredibly insightful, and enlightening, and alarming, perhaps. But it probably lacked a little bit of insight. That was probably a last-ditch attempt to bring back some insight, just to encapsulate it all. The whole point of Chloee’s story, and the whole point I suggested to the people designing the piece, was: “this is just one girl. She is made up of a million, vastly-moving thoughts. And very quick-moving moments.” That whole piece was like that, and the final paragraph was a shot at trying to show people – “This is who she is. She loves animals, loves her friends, loves Facebook. She’s not good at this. She’s brilliant at this. She’s this, this, this – and she won’t be home this afternoon.” It was sort of tying it back, because right at the start, Angela had said, “Be back this afternoon,” and there was no way that was going to happen. It was riffing back on the end of the Casey piece, which ended sort of ‘up in the air’. It was like – “okay, we’re leaving now. She’s going to go off and do who-knows-what.”

    Finally; the criticism of the story that you received. Not a lot of happy readers with this one.

    No. I had more bad feedback on that than I’ve ever, ever had on any piece. I can see why. And it’s good. It’s good to ruffle feathers, definitely. I’m so proud that Matt, our editor, went with that piece. It was really courageous of him. The disappointing thing is that some people took the story for what it was intended, and others took it as me saying, “this is what teenagers are today.” If you took it that way, you’d be rightly and justifiably horrified, because not every teenager is by any means like that. I’ve done a million stories on wonderful teenagers, who are… well, I think Chloee is wonderful, inspiring people I’ve met in a long time. I’m sorry that people didn’t see that, or that I didn’t write it in a way that people really saw that. So it was more probably… I think they just found it appalling. Just some horrible insight into one person’s life. But I was really trying to make it insightful and enlightening. But I think it came across as… frightening. And that’s not a good mix.

    Some of it was warranted. Some people had brought their own really weird places to it. I think they had to edit some of wording that people were using in the letters. They were using some really bad words on a girl who’s 16 years old. I think that says much more about the person writing that letter than it does about Chloee, or the piece itself. But others were very measured, and insightful, in their disappointments. But again, it’s all a product of telling it like it was. In the spirit of every one of those things that had come before, it had to be the same. It had to be – “OK, this is what it was.” This is life, and that is the reality.

    Which is why it was important to check on how Chloee felt about it. When she said to me, “You’ve captured me,” that was all my intention was, and that made me happy. That helped balance out the very strong-worded letters that I received. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s my job. You’ve just gotta be fuckin’ telling it, and if it’s tough, then I’ve got to be willing to take that, but also to realise that was the point, anyway.

    I knew it was going to be a tough read, but my own disappointment was that some people read it in a different way. Some people said, “Thank you so much. That was the most insightful read. I’ve read that story with my teenagers.” That’s great. But you’ve got to take on board anyone who did a problem with it. You learn from where they’re coming from, and keep trying to write the best piece [possible].

    Did Chloee like it?

    I don’t think she… no-one tends to really enjoy the process, because it’s strange. She had so many people come up to her – all her friends – and say, “you were wonderful. You came across really well.” That just comforted me so much, because if she was copping heat from people… but no-one her age came up to her and said anything but, “man, that is awesome, I can’t believe you’re…”

    So that’s great. Good for her. I really just thank her so much for being a part of it, and for being so brave. But it’s tough. You finish them, and you go… [pause] It was there because that was reported. That’s what it was. I was just reporting that world, and that’s definitely worth doing.


    For more of Trent Dalton, follow him on Twitter: @TrentDalton.

    To keep track of Trent’s feature writing, pick up The Courier-Mail each Saturday for the Qweekend magazine, or keep an eye on the Qweekend website, which is updated each Monday with feature stories from the latest issue. You can also follow Qweekend on Twitter.

  • Interviewed by Bianca Valentino about freelance journalism, October 2011

    Brisbane-based music journalist and zine maker Bianca Valentino has posted a long interview with me on her blog, Conversations With Bianca.  Here we speak about freelance journalism, interviewing, and goal-setting. Excerpt below.

    Interview: Andrew McMillen on Freelance Journalism In Australia, Writing & Interviewing

    To me Australian journalist Andrew McMillen is without a doubt a success. His work has been published in/for Rolling Stone Australia, The Weekend Australian, QWeekend, Mess + Noise, The Vine, Triple J Mag, The Courier-Mail, Australian Penthouse, Gamespot, and Junior. Andrew has managed to make freelance journalism in Australia pay the bills, not an easy task! Here Andrew and I discuss interviewing, challenges facing freelance journalists in Australia, his career goals and aspirations as well an insight into how he’s made writing a full-time gig. I give you a chat with two writers that deeply care about their craft…

    I get a little nervous before my interviews, just a little. Good nerves though I think.
    ANDREW MCMILLEN: Ha, you know Neil Strauss told me the same thing which I think is fascinating because he’s pretty much at the top of his game yet he still feels that way. He told me it is because of the expectations that he puts on himself to do the best interview that that person has ever done. Obviously if you are talking to some of the most famous people in the world then that is a pretty tough ask most of the time.

    Do you get that way yourself?
    AM: Yeah, in the moments leading up to an interview. On the phone it’s usually worse because of that anticipation – you’re walking around in the morning or whenever it is and you know it’s coming up ’cause it’s in your schedule and you know you’ll be fine once you start doing it but it’s just the planning and waiting that increases my anticipation for it. Once you’re actually in the moment I find that you’re fine.

    There have been moments in my interviewing career where I have had almost a constant anxiety attack throughout the whole interview and then because I wasn’t in the moment when I got off the phone I was like, damn! I wish I hadn’t been so worked up I didn’t see the opportunity to ask an awesome question.
    AM: Do you think that came down to a lack of preparation on your part?

    No – I was suffering from panic attacks and anxiety at the time – I do more research than anyone else that I know for my interviews and with a lot of people I interview I have long-standing relationships and friendships I’ve built up with them over our careers, sometimes a decade or more. At times when I’ve done interviews I get an almost out of body experience or it’s almost a trance like state. I can’t quite explain it. I’ve had some amazing experiences and connections interviewing. I really, really care about what I do.
    AM: Yeah, wow! For me a big part of it for me is being present in the moment. You’ve got your list of questions in front of you that you want to get through but you should be willing to go with what they want to say and change in direction if need be. I’ve done interviews where I have lots of stuff prepared but then I only get to ask three or four questions and the rest of it is made up on the spot because they go off on some tangent which interests me and then I push them on that and go down an entirely different path. Some of those interviews have been some of the most enjoyable interviews I think, the ones which don’t go how you planned at all. I think that comes down to being versatile and being able to change it up on the spot.

    I’ve had some interviews where I’ve had a list of 50 questions and pretty much not even asked one of them. I also have notes on hand as well as questions. I did an interview with Dr Know from the Bad Brains – I’d loved that band for so long – once and when I started talking to him I felt it kind of fell apart. It was a really interesting interview for me where I learnt a lot from.
    AM: It turned out good in the end though didn’t it?

    Yeah in the end it did but at the time when I got off the phone to him I burst into tears – it’s the first and only interview that’s ever happened with. I thought I’d really failed. It meant so much to me because they were one of the first overtly spiritual hardcore punk bands and those two things mean the world to me. Reading the interview back though I realised it was awesome!
    AM: I love that reflection of how you might not realise it in the moment but then you type it up afterwards and awesome stuff comes out, it speaks a lot about the person, it speaks a lot about your talent to get that kind of thing out of them. I like when people say ‘I’ve never told anyone else before but…’ and then they tell you.

    That makes your heart stop a little and you’re like ‘hell yeah!’
    AM: [laughs].

    I wanted to clarify, is writing your sole work that you do?
    AM: Yeah I’ve done it full-time since June 2009. Up until October 2010 I was doing a bunch of copywriting and web project management, client management stuff for a small business called Native Digital. I was doing that as well as journalism so I wasn’t fully concentrating on journalism. Since October last year my full energy has gone into pitching, researching, interviewing and writing – it was a real shift in my mindset because it wasn’t just me plugging away trying to get my name out someone else [Nick Crocker] was investing time, energy and to a certain extent their reputation in introducing me to other people. We’d have weekly updates and they’d really just push me with each passing day to make sure that I was getting better—more connecting, pitching harder and pushing harder. That was the real shift for me in 2009.

    Since the start of last year Nick and I started this pitching spreadsheet where every time I pitched any kind of article to anyone – it could be an album review or a feature story – I’d track it in a Google Docs spread sheet so we could both see what was going on and what the response was and what stories were worth to me in a money sense. That was a business management strategy that Nick employed to get me to be more accountable for my actions so that I could see on a daily basis what I have on, what I’ve earned and I can see how it’s changed between now and six months ago. If I look back from now to Feb 2010 the changes are just ridiculous. I was totally green back then in terms of the stories I was pitching and the relationship I had with editors. Now it’s at a much more advanced level because I have those systems in place and I’m accountable and keep pushing harder. That relationship with Nick has been a massive part of why I am where I am.

    I’ve had a few conversations with Nick where he has encouraged me. I remember our first chat he asked me why I hadn’t started a blog yet. I told him I was waiting for this or for that and he told me there will never be a perfect time and to just start doing it.
    AM: He is incredible in that way. He’s started several businesses, he has that entrepreneurial spirit in him obviously but he even applies all that stuff to non-business things. He had this blog called Way Cool Jnr for a couple of years that he used to push his ideas about the music industry just for the hell of it. He wasn’t getting paid for it, it was for free. It became one of the most popular music blogs in Australia for some time. I took over editing it last year and I did it for a while but I stopped that recently because I can’t give it the time it needs which is a shame. That brand, that blog called Way Cool Jnr had a good name for itself and it just shows you can start a blog and it can have an impact even if it’s not for a business purpose. I have my own blog which I’ve had for a couple of years and it was cool to have that inbuilt audience from Way Cool Jnr.

    For the full interview, visit Bianca’s blog. You can find her on Twitter at @BiancaValentino, too. Thanks for the interview, Bianca.

  • Freelance journalism presentation at Walkley MediaPass student industry day, September 2011

    I was invited by the Walkley Foundation to speak at the Brisbane leg of their annual MediaPass student industry days, which are held at capital cities across Australia. The brief was thus:

    Freelance Panel: what does it take to make it as freelancer? Come along and find out from a range of thriving freelance journalists, featuring:

    Before around 50 journalism students, we each gave a 10 minute presentation and then fielded questions from the audience for the remaining half-hour. I chose to spend my allocated time by giving a brief overview of my path so far, and then speaking about things I’ve learned in the past two years as a freelancer.

    My presentation is embedded below. Click here to watch on YouTube. It was filmed by Matt Shea and edited by Henry Stone. I’ve also included it in text form underneath.

    Andrew McMillen: Things I’ve learned about freelance journalism, September 2011

    The best way to be a freelance journalist is to wake up every day and be a freelance journalist. This means you’ll spend your day researching story ideas, pitching stories to editors, requesting interviews with people you wish to speak to, transcribing interviews, shaping stories until they’re as good as they can be, and then filing them to your editor. I’ve just summed up the entire job in a sentence. That’s what freelance journalism involves. You’ll think of an interesting thing to write about, pitch this interesting thing to an editor, get permission from the editor to write about this interesting thing in exchange for money, and then go out and do just that. Over and over.

    In a way, it’s not glamorous at all, but it depends how you look at it. I choose to look at freelance journalism as: getting paid to learn things, and sharing that knowledge with readers. In many cases I know very little about a particular topic when I pitch a story, but through curiosity and initiative in approaching an editor to write about it, I get paid to familiarise myself with an industry, or a culture, or an issue that affects a lot of people. I’m not saying that I become an expert on something after researching it for only a week or two, but I’ll generally know more about it than the average person. And then when the average person reads my story, they too become informed. It’s a beautiful cycle, and it’s a wonderful way to make a living, as long as you have an interest in learning things. If not, freelance journalism probably isn’t for you. But you should still try it anyway, because you never know.

    Ideas. You need to have absolute faith and conviction in your ideas, because ideas are your lifeblood as a freelance journalist. Without them, you fail. Without them, you’re nothing to nobody. But to have an idea is not enough: you need to conceptualise an idea in a full enough manner that an editor will read your idea and be willing to part with a few hundred or thousand dollars from their budget in order for you to bring that idea to fruition. When I started freelance journalism, my ideas were terrible. I look back on them now and I’m embarrassed by how lame and elementary they seem in comparison to what I’m pitching now. Like anything though, freelance journalism is a learning experience, and you get better over time. But at the heart of this game is the quality of your ideas, which you need to hone and sharpen and polish on a daily basis if you have any hope of getting anywhere.

    Curiosity. Curiosity is currency. As I mentioned earlier, I see this job as being paid to learn, and to teach. Curiosity is key, though, because 95% of my ideas come from reading or watching something and wondering, “why is that?” Or, “how does that work?” Or “why did that person or company make that decision?”. Generally, the question is “why”. The “why” should be a question that you ask yourself constantly. Not out loud, because you’ll probably sound like a lunatic, but as you move through the world, be curious. Story ideas should come easily if you keep listening to the “Why” in the back of your head.

    Mentors. This might be the most important thing I’m going to say today. You need to find a mentor. You need to find someone knowledgeable, who believes in you, who you can report to on a weekly basis and whose input you greatly value. I’m not saying it’s impossible to succeed without one, but I’d guess that it would be much harder. I’ve had a mentor for two years and I wouldn’t have achieved anywhere near as much as I have without their help. I don’t quite know how to explain it, or even how it works, but being accountable to someone other than yourself is a massive productivity boost. You need someone who’ll give you a kick up the arse if you have a slack week, or gently pick you up if you’re feeling deflated for whatever reason. This person doesn’t necessarily have to be a writer or a journalist. As long as they understand the freelance lifestyle and have a background in anything creative, they should be a good fit. But you won’t know if they’re a good fit until you try a mentor relationship. So start thinking about mentors, if you’re serious about pursuing freelance journalism.

    Always look up. Always keep moving forward. Try to have a couple of projects on the go at any one time. Even if you’ve got a few commissions in hand, always be researching new ideas and thinking of new angles that could work for particular publications. The image I like to think of is Tarzan, swinging from tree to tree, only you’re swinging from idea to idea, and from publication to publication. While you’re a freelancer, you shouldn’t settle, even if you find one or two consistent, well-paying gigs. Always be looking up, for your next opportunity, your next big break. Try not to stand still for too long.

    Set goals, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Not every day will bring you closer to your goals. You’ll have days where the thought of pitching and writing stories makes you want to crack your skull open against the wall. This is fine, as long as most days aren’t like that. Try to maintain a generally productive mindset, but pay attention to your mental state. Don’t force yourself to work if your mind is screaming out against the concept. If you do take a break, whether for an hour or a day, try not to feel guilty about it.

    Self-motivation. It goes without saying that you have to be self-motivated to have any kind of success in this game. Most of the time, you’ll probably be working alone. If you’ve never worked this way before, it can be a shock to the system. It was for me. It took me over a year to find a rhythm where I could sit at my desk all day and work alone without craving some kind of distraction or human interaction. But I found it, eventually, and it’s a nice place to be. Even if I do mess it up occasionally.

    Self-talk. In a similar vein to the last point, self-talk is hugely important in this line of work. You are directly responsible for your income. You can’t just show up at your desk and get paid. You have to research, think, send emails, and maintain relationships with people who might know you only as words on a screen. It is a pretty ludicrous situation to be in, if you really sit down and think about it. So try not to think about it. But you need to believe that you can do this, if you want to have anything resembling a career in freelance journalism. You need to believe in yourself, most days of the week. There isn’t a whole lot of room for self-doubt in this game. I think the best way to avoid self-doubt is to always be busy, so that you don’t have time to doubt yourself.

    A to-do list to keep track of your daily tasks is a must. Being a freelancer means you’ll be doing lots of follow-ups with people; chasing invoices, chasing interviews, chasing stories you’ve pitched and never heard back from the editor on. These things are tiny and easy to forget, which is why you need to keep track of them. I use a to-do list called, spelt the French way. It’s very simple but clean, and lets you see five days ahead at a time. It also has an iPhone app which allows me to refer to it and cross things off when I’m out of office. There are probably many other sites and apps with the same functions but this one works very well for me.

    Set up a blog. This is simple and non-negotiable. Set up a blog to act as your portfolio of published work. It doesn’t have to be flashy, it just has to show your work and be regularly updated. If you can, register and set up the blog there. Doing this was one of the best decisions I’ve made as a freelance journalist.

    Set boundaries. Since you’re not constricted by a traditional workplace or business hours, it’s quite easy to find yourself working from the moment you wake up, until the moment you go to sleep. I’ve been there. It’s not healthy; it’s how you become burnt-out. It’s important to set boundaries around your workplace as a freelancer, and in this case, your workplace is wherever your PC is. For around nine months I’ve kept Saturday as a ‘PC free day’, where I don’t turn the computer on or do any work-related tasks. I also keep Sunday as a day for catching up on RSS feeds, updating my blog, replying to emails; pretty non-intensive tasks. And Monday to Friday is for work. Structuring your workweek is important. You need to respect boundaries, both for yourself and for those closest to you.

    Finally: enjoy yourself. Freelance journalism can be a huge amount of fun if you approach it with the right attitude. It’s a great alternative to the traditional path of cadetships and applying for reporter jobs, and you can start doing it today. With persistence, self-belief and talent, there’s no reason why you can’t make a living from freelance journalism. I highly recommend it.

    Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia.

    Note: this presentation also appeared as a guest post on the excellent blog The Renegade Writer, which is edited by Linda Formichelli. If you’re a freelance writer, I highly recommend subscribing to Linda’s blog.