All posts tagged writer

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Risky Business: How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs’, September 2017

    A feature story for Good Weekend, published in the September 30 issue. Excerpt below.

    Risky Business

    How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs

    'Risky Business: How a bad LSD trip taught one Sydney teenager to think twice about experimenting with drugs' story by Andrew McMillen in Good Weekend, September 2017

    Tom* closes his eyes, settles back on his bed, breathes in the aromatherapy oil he’s burning and listens to psychedelic trance while waiting for the onset of the trip from the LSD he’s just swallowed. It’s 8pm on a Friday night this year, he’s home alone in the sanctuary of his bedroom and he tells himself that this is his reward for finishing his exams (except for business studies, which he doesn’t care about). Within moments, the 17-year-old’s heart rate goes up, butterflies flutter in his stomach and waves of colour dance across his field of vision, regardless of whether he closes or opens his eyes. This is the fifth time he’s taken the hallucinogen, the first four with no unpleasant side effects, so he’s trying a double dose to see whether the sensations become more intense.

    Tom takes precautions: he uses a drug-testing kit he bought from a “hippie store” near his house to make sure the drug is LSD rather than a more risky synthetic alternative. He cuts a tiny sliver from one of the tabs and drops it into a glass tube containing a small amount of liquid. He watches as the sample reacts to the chemicals, turning dark purple, indicating its purity. Satisfied, Tom eats four tiny pieces of LSD-soaked blotting paper known as “tabs”.

    The trip starts well, reaching an idyllic plateau, but the come-up keeps climbing – and with it, his anxiety. He doesn’t hear his dad Karl* unexpectedly arrive home and climb the stairs. Sitting at his desk, Tom is so shocked when his dad opens his bedroom door that he can barely speak and doesn’t make eye contact. So odd is his behaviour that his father imagines he’s walked in on his son masturbating. Embarrassed, he bids his son good night – he’s off to meet Tom’s mum Jasmine* at a fund-raising dinner across town – and closes the door.

    Tom is alone again, and the drug’s effects continue to intensify. Trying to counteract the restlessness he’s feeling, he walks onto the second-floor balcony off his bedroom and paces up and down. By now losing his sense of reality, Tom tries talking to himself in a bid to sort out the strange thoughts invading his mind. “Who’s doing this to you?” he asks, raising his voice. “Who’s doing this?”

    Neighbours hear this bizarre phrase ringing out from the balcony. At first, they don’t associate the deep voice with Tom: it sounds almost Satanic. In the darkness, they can faintly see a figure pacing back and forth. They call out, asking if he’s all right. Well-known as an early morning runner, and well-liked as a trusted babysitter to several families in this quiet, affluent neighbourhood in Sydney’s north where he’s spent most of his life, Tom is clearly not himself. The family cats are howling, too, apparently as disturbed by his behaviour as the onlookers.

    From the balcony, Tom scampers up onto the tiled roof, but loses his footing. A round, wooden table in the front yard breaks his fall not far from the edge of the swimming pool. The force of his weight smashes the furniture to pieces but he miraculously avoids serious injury. A concerned neighbour rings 000. Tom may be bleeding, but he’s still got the speed of a cross-country athlete and seemingly superhuman strength, despite his reed-thin frame. He rushes back inside his house, tracking blood through different rooms, before smashing a back fence then running onto the street again, tearing off his clothes.

    What happens over the next hour or so – Tom breaking a window of a neighbour’s house, neighbours chasing him, making him even more paranoid and fearful – is a blur. He winds up several streets from home, lying naked in the middle of the road, surrounded by people looking down at him, including two female police officers and paramedics. It takes a few of them to handcuff him.

    Hovering not far away is a television news crew, which has received a tip-off about the disturbance. Tom is at risk of having the worst moment of his life spread over the news, but the police are able to keep the media at bay because he’s a minor. All the while, Tom continues to ramble incoherently: “The universe is against us! The universe is against us!”

    At the fund-raising dinner which his parents are attending, Karl is perplexed when his phone begins to vibrate during a speech. Jasmine also grabs her phone, which is lighting up with messages from five different neighbours asking her to call them immediately. The couple hurriedly excuse themselves before Jasmine calls a trusted friend. “Tom’s all right,” she’s told. “But you need to go straight to the hospital.” On arrival around midnight, they’re greeted by a sight that haunts all parents: their teenage son unconscious in a hospital bed, covered in dried blood, with plastic tubes snaking out of his mouth and nose.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend. Above illustration credit: Clemens Habicht.

  • GQ Australia columns, December 2015: Fear, climate, guns, suicide and cannabis

    In July 2015, I was invited to write occasional online columns for GQ Australia. I’ve collected these five columns as excerpts below, with the publication date noted in brackets beside the title.

    Are We Living In An Australia Led By Fear? (July)

    An increase in national surveillance powers has an equal and opposite reaction of a decline in civil liberties – writes Andrew McMillen

    'Are We Living In An Australia Led By Fear?' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    One particular sentence on nationalsecurity.gov.au catches the eye: “Protecting all Australians from terrorism and violent extremism is the Australian Government’s top priority,” it reads.

    This sentence appears on a website which is home to the National Terrorism Public Alert System, among other cracking reads such as a list of ‘foiled Australian attacks’ (four incidents) and ‘overseas terrorist attacks’ (six).

    The National Terrorism Public Alert System informs us that the nation is currently at a ‘high’ level of alert, indicating that a terrorist attack “is likely”. This is just one step down from ‘extreme’ – where a terrorist attack “is imminent or has occurred” – but a step above the previous ranking of ‘medium’, which warned that a terrorist attack “could occur”.

    It was in mid-September 2014 that the alert rating changed from ‘medium’ to ‘high’. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine captured the change, between September 12 and September 18.

    The switch-over itself was pretty simple stuff, really: the web copy is practically identical, and a blue map of Australia with an ugly black font in the centre was replaced by a white diagram ringed by blue.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Australia Is Headed For An Avoidable Climate Calamity (August)

    Climate change is the iceberg of our times and Australia is steering straight into it – writes Andrew McMillen.

    'Why Australia Is Headed For An Avoidable Climate Calamity' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    One of mankind’s greatest achievements is the discovery that the energy from coal – ancient sunlight buried in the ground – could be used to drive our technological progress.

    In 2015, we continue to reap the rewards of that discovery, yet most of us acknowledge that coal, like oil and gas, is a finite resource: there’s only so much of it beneath our feet, and sooner or later, the supply will be exhausted.

    There is a simple logic behind this problem. When one generation selfishly chooses to use as much coal, oil and gas as humanly possible, the next generation will suffer the supply shocks, as well as the environmental effects: burning these fossil fuels adds a toxic combination of pollutants to the atmosphere, increasing the speed at which the planet warms.

    Intelligent governance acknowledges this as a fact, and a problem to be solved swiftly, lest future generations suffer for our inaction. For a time, Australia led the developed world in this regard, when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced in 2007 that climate change was “the great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our age”.

    These were sage words from a leader who ultimately failed to install an effective mechanism to solve that challenge. Politics got in the way of true progress, cruelling an admirable long-term vision.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Encouraging More Guns Into Australia Is A Terrible Idea (August)

    In the wake of the Martin Place siege, Australia’s relationship with its long-standing gun laws might be about to change and that’s a very scary thought – writes Andrew McMillen.

    'Why Encouraging More Guns Into Australia Is A Terrible Idea' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    A gunman named Martin Bryant forever changed Australia on 28 April 1996, when he used a semi-automatic rifle to kill 35 people at a cafe in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur.

    Within twelve weeks, John Howard’s government had devised, drafted, debated and implemented legislation which saw the banning of semi-automatic weapons and shotguns, and triggered a compulsory gun buyback scheme. As a result, the ownership and storage of other firearms were tightly restricted, too.

    The Australian approach to gun control was shown in stark contrast to the United States in September 2013, when John Oliver’s brilliant threepart series on The Daily Show neatly skewered gun-mad Americans who mindlessly oppose any change to gun laws.

    “Obviously, gun control doesn’t work. It can’t work. It will never work. So how was your scheme a failure?” Oliver asked a bemused John Howard, who replied, “Well, my scheme was not a failure. We had a massacre at a place called Port Arthur 17 years ago, and there have been none since.” Australia’s rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people was 1.03, compared with 10.69 in the U.S., according to 2012 figures from gunpolicy.org.

    In the 18 years prior to the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 13 mass shooting incidents , where five or more people were killed by a firearm. The gunman’s destructive actions so shocked and appalled the electorate that Howard’s sweeping changes to gun ownership laws were widely supported in the community.

    To read the full column, click here.

    Why Australian Men Need To Talk More About Suicide (September)

    Too many Australians die of suicide – around 2,500 per year, or 48 per week – and too few talk about it, or its surrounding issues – writes Andrew McMillen

    'Why Australian Men Need To Talk More About Suicide' by Andrew McMillen for GQ, 2015

    The numbers are shockingly high: suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian men and woman aged between 15 and 44.

    I’m a member of this demographic, but stating sad facts such as these in plain black-and-white can have a numbing effect. Though mentally healthy myself, I have seen the devastating effects of severe depression up close with someone I love, which is one of the reasons why I’ve made a few attempts as a journalist to uncover stories about Australians who have faced mental illness with courage and openness.

    The first was an article for Australian Penthouse in 2012, The Low Down, about an online campaign named Soften The Fuck Up, which seeks to challenge the low levels of mental health literacy recognised by its founder, Ehon Chan, after he moved to Australia from Malaysia.

    “What’s the most common thing that Australian men get when they talk about any kind of weaknesses?” he asked me during our interview. “The response is generally, ‘Harden the fuck up.’ There’s no equivalent phrase for that in Malaysian!” he said with a laugh. Soften The Fuck Up aims to encourage offline conversations, by equipping young people – in particular, men – with ideas of how to recognise signs and symptoms of mental health issues among their peers.

    My most recent story on this topic, Over Troubled Water, was published in The Weekend Australian Magazine in early September 2015, ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. This article explored the topic of suicide prevention at an iconic location in inner-city Brisbane: the Story Bridge, which is the site of at least four suicides per year, on average. Counterintuitive though it might seem, installing anti-jump barriers on high bridges has been shown to greatly reduce the incidence of suicide, and the problem is not simply shifted to another location.

    To read the full column, click here.

    How We Could All Benefit From Cannabis Regulation (October)

    The potential benefit of legalising cannabis means drug reform in Australia should be taken seriously – argues Andrew McMillen.

    'How We Could All Benefit From Cannabis Regulation' by Andrew McMillen for GQ Australia, 2015

    A few years from today, once other Australian states have followed the lead set by Victoriain early October 2015 to move toward the legalisation of cultivating cannabis for medicinal purposes, the nation might finally be ready to have a conversation that needs to be had. Namely: why don’t we regulate and tax the recreational use of cannabis, our most popular illicit drug?

    At least 1.9 million Australians use cannabis each year, according to the most recent data from the United Nations 2014 World Drug Report. This is a huge proportion of Australians, and it’s significant for a couple of reasons. First, that’s a lot of adults of voting age, who’d probably be keen to support political parties that provide reasonable alternatives to the tired, ineffective tough-on-drugs approach we’ve seen in this country for generations.

    And second, this number represents an enormous amount of disposable income that’s leaking from the national economy into an unregulated market, far beyond the reach of the Australian Taxation Office.

    Given that recreational cannabis use is illegal, the only way to obtain the drug in 2015 is to associate with people who are, by definition, criminals. Once that transaction has been made, and you hand over your cash in exchange for the product, you’ve become a criminal, too. If caught by police, you will face charges of possession which may result in fines or, at the extreme end of the spectrum, imprisonment.

    This reality is known, understood and accepted by most Australians who choose to interface with illicit drug use. Perhaps a small minority of particularly inflammatory cannabis users get a kick out of breaking the law in this way, but most would probably much rather avoid the hassle of potentially being exposed to the criminal justice system purely because of their desire to use a drug that’s increasingly being legalised by state and federal governments throughout the world.

    To read the full column, click here.

  • 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!

  • 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.

    andrew,
    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
    dave

    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.

    Cheers,

    Andrew McMillan.

    * Patron, Life Member: Northern Territory Writers’ Centre
    * Acting Chief Of Staff (1991-2011): DARWIN’S 4TH ESTATE
    www.myspace.com/darwins4thestate
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ryZ36Ts0Gg&feature=email
    * President For Life: Darwin Foreign Correspondents’ Association
    * Founder: John Jenkins Society (est. Hotel Darwin, 1989)
    www.andrewmcmillan.com.au

    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.

  • 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, BrisbaneTimes.com.au 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.

  • A conversation with Ryan Holiday: blogger, former marketing director of American Apparel, soon-to-be author; October 2011

    Ryan Holiday is one of the most influential people in my life.

    His blog, RyanHoliday.net, is one of the most valuable online resources I know of. This is a statement that I know will make him blush, because Ryan is a modest guy. I know this because when I first approached him for an interview in January 2010, he deflected my questions – which were extremely detailed, potentially to the point of exhibiting stalker-like behaviour. He wrote that when he felt he deserved an interview, he’d give it to me; he also said that mine was “the most in depth, investigative email I’ve ever gotten”.

    At 24, Ryan [pictured right] is a year older than me. I’ve viewed his blog as a kind of counsel since I first became aware of his work. His thinking and writing has, in turn, shaped my thinking and writing. It is fair to say that I wouldn’t be on the path I am now if I hadn’t been closely studying another young male on the other side of the world, fearlessly kicking down doors in search and pursuit of his goals. For a couple of years, Ryan’s ambition, persistence and confidence all directly influenced my day-to-day thoughts and actions. Which is another statement that will make Ryan blush, because it’s a pretty fucking weird thing to type, let alone think.

    Ryan first attracted my attention by attracting the attention of someone who I was closely studying at the time: Tucker Max, the American blogger-turned-author who is best known for his 2006 book I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell and the 2009 film adaptation of the same name.

    Ryan wrote a review of Tucker’s website – which, at the time, was a collection of stories about Max’s drinking and sexual exploits – for his college newspaper, and sent the link to the author. Soon after, Max posted the review on his message board, which was a fairly popular corner of the web; it was deleted a couple of years ago. I immediately became interested in figuring out who Holiday was.

    That review led Tucker to hire Ryan as an intern at his company, Rudius Media (now defunct). It led Ryan to work with the acclaimed author Robert Greene as a research assistant on the strategy book The 50th Law, co-written with rapper 50 Cent and released in 2009. And it led Ryan to be hired by the clothing manufacturer American Apparel, where he worked as Director of Marketing for a couple of years. He still works as an advisor to American Apparel, but moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans in mid 2011 to work on a book project of his own.

    Since January 2007, Ryan has consistently used his blog as a platform for discussions about writing, running, online PR, media, philosophy, and stoicism, among other topics. I’ve consumed every word that he has written since his first post, ‘The Business Of Running‘. I often re-read his posts multiple times, which is something I rarely do online. That first post remains a valid starting point for understanding Ryan’s way of thinking and writing. I’ll quote the opening paragraph below.

    “I run 5 miles every night. It’s where I go to digest my day, hash out the multitude of information that’s been poured into me in the last wild six months or so, and to try and condense it down to some sort of cohesive strategy to live my life by.” – Ryan Holiday, January 31 2007

    When I visited the United States for the first time with my girlfriend Rachael in September 2010, I asked to meet up with Ryan in Los Angeles. We met at a burger joint on Melrose Avenue and talked for an hour or so. It was a huge thrill for me to meet a guy who’s been something of an internet hero to me for nearly five years. Rachael didn’t really understand why it was so important to me at the time.

    Neither did I, really, now that I think about it. All I knew then, and know now, is that Ryan Holiday is one of the most influential people in my life. It’s an honour for me to publish the below email interview.

    Andrew: When you wrote that review of Tucker’s website, what was the intended outcome?

    Ryan: I’m not sure if I ever told anyone this, but I’d noticed that Tucker tended to link to or write about any press he got (at least back then) and so I thought, “I’m a writer for a college newspaper, why don’t I try it”? It didn’t really go much further than thinking about it at that time. Then a couple weeks later I had the opening line of that piece floating around in my head: “If Hunter S Thompson had read this site, he probably wouldn’t have killed himself.” I figured I had something and eventually sat down and wrote it.

    So the intended outcome was that I’d send it to him and he’d link to it (I reposted the article on my blog) and that would be it. But the reaction totally blew my mind. Within about 20 minutes he’d responded and… I went back to my Gmail and found it:

    From: Tucker Max

    [November 28th, 2005]

    “Jesus Christ. Dude, that is fantastic. Seriously, I am awed by your grasp of me and my material. I am going to post this as THE example of a great review of me and my work.”

    It’s funny to me now because that reaction has become a pretty routine occurrence for me since then. I obviously thought I wrote a pretty good article but I was still reluctant to send it off. Is he going to like it? Did I go overboard? What are the chances of it getting a response? Turns out I had nailed the target and didn’t quite understand the extent. That seems to happen a lot to me. You’d think I’d anticipate it by now, but still other peoples’ reaction (positively, anyway) tends to catch me by surprise.

    What did that response change for you? Was that one of those ‘Fight Club moments‘ I remember you writing about years ago?

    I think it was the opposite of one of those moments. I think of a Fight Club Moment as something that breaks you down and demolishes the pretense and bullshit entitlement you have in your life. This wasn’t that. It instilled a lot of confidence in me. It was like, “ok, I am better than I knew. That’s awesome, maybe I can build on this.”

    What happened next between you and Tucker?

    I think after he had the publisher send me a copy of his book to review, which I did, and after it was published I asked for his thoughts on the writing. He went over it on the phone with me about ways I could improve my voice and tone.

    I stayed in touch—I think in my post about advice a couple weeks ago I called this ‘staying on the radar’, and that’s basically what I did. I would pop in and ask questions, for advice, send links etc. Any excuse I could think of to keep that connection alive. Only an idiot would waste that chance.

    A year or so later I was in New York, where he was living and I told him I wasn’t looking for a job, or a salary or a handout but I had some thoughts on ways I could contribute to his company, Rudius Media. After the meeting, he offered me an internship, which 6-8 months later become a job. But it was all a very fluid thing, like I was saying.

    [Andrew’s note: that post he mentionedAdvice to a Young Man Hoping to Go Somewhere (Or Get Something From Someone Successful)is an absolute must-read.]

    To me, the act of writing the review and showing Tucker is a pretty solid example of figuring out what you want, and pursuing it accordingly. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t that lead to him offering you a job, you quitting college and moving to LA, and then working for American Apparel?

    Haha, I mean you pretty much figured out exactly what I was doing or trying to do with the last question, probably with a better sense of clarity than I really had at the time. But yeah, it was the door that ultimately led to the opening of all the other doors. I have him to thank for all of it. When I see a path to an opportunity–like a lane in basketball–I sort of put my head down and the next thing I know I’m through it and it took me somewhere I didn’t totally anticipate.

    With the Tucker thing, I knew I wanted to one day be a writer like the kind of writers he was working with at the time – I’d known this since I first saw his sites in high school – so I did that article, and then I was working for him, and then I was working for the people he was working with, and then the people they were working with, and so on. I don’t think any of them every solicited me for a job either so much; it was just that I was around all the time, doing stuff and offering to do stuff, and then it eventually became official.

    How did you come across Robert Greene’s work? Was it Tucker who first showed you?

    Yeah, I’d heard of the books obviously but I think Tucker recommended The 48 Laws of Power so I read it. I marked up my copy so much and had a million questions to ask Tucker.* Then the first time I met him, Tucker walked me to a bookstore and bought me The 33 Strategies of War and said, “if you’re going to work for me, you’ll need to have read this.” I think that’s how I found out I got the job. All I took from that exchange was: “I better read this book on the plane ride home and know it backwards and forwards.”

    * Ryan’s sidenote: that copy of The 48 Laws is priceless to me. Someone stole it out of my office at American Apparel. I was fucking distraught. It makes no sense because Dov [Charney, AA chairman and CEO] has a million copies laying around. Why would they want my marked-up personal copy?

    How did the opportunity to work for Greene arise?

    The three of us – Tucker, Robert, and I – had lunch in L.A. a few years ago and it kind of arose from that meeting. Although it almost didn’t, because I was so nervous I accidentally messed up when I gave Robert my phone number.

    I have a suspicion that working on The 50th Law might have inspired a sense of validation, given your regular documentation on your life via the blog, and your personal reading and research via your Delicious account. Am I right, or way off?

    I mean, it was very cool to have the privilege to be allowed to peek inside of project like that. But I don’t think validating is the right work. What it was was educational, from top to bottom. Researching for someone–particularly someone like Robert–is crazy because you get pointed in all these directions that you’d never have gone by yourself, given a very firm objective to gather from that direction, and a tight deadline with which to do so. When you read or research for yourself, it is kind of this wandering, directionless thing. For the book, it was like getting a crash course in a million different subjects. I was interested in all of them so I would mark down the stuff I would want to go back and look at later.

    So it’s funny, when I see the book, it reminds me of loose ends I still need to tie up for myself and am interested in looking into.

    Your stoicism guest blog for Tim Ferriss in April 2009 attracted a lot of attention. What did you get out of it? What did you learn from the experience?

    More than anything, it helped me clarify my thoughts. Tim is awesome and he’s got a very impressive commitment to expanding the scope of blog all the time. He starting writing about productivity and got all these people hooked and the next thing you know he’s totally revolutionized how they think about health and science. I was lucky that he gave me the microphone for one of those digressions.

    I got quite a few new readers out of it and he also was gracious enough to give me two more chances to write about similar topics. [The Experimental Life: An Introduction to Michel de Montaigne‘, October 2010; ‘Looking to the Dietary Gods: Eating Well According to the Ancients‘, July 2011]

    What you learn in a setting like that is how to tailor your message to different mediums. When I write for my site, I can be as self-indulgent as I want. When you write for someone else or on a bigger platform, you have to be much clearer and you have to catch them right from the beginning. They’re not YOUR readers, so you have to meet them where they are if you’d like to bother listening to your message. At the same time, it taught me that I don’t want to have to perform like that all the time which kind of freed me up to not have to chase acquiring that audience for myself. If didn’t learn that, I’d be spend all my time working to build something that at the end of the day, would make me miserable to have.

    Could you tell me about your working space?

    When I was in LA, I had a big office with 5-10 employees at any given time at the American Apparel factory. I had an office at my house at well.

    Now, in New Orleans, I sort of went in the completely opposite direction. I’m in a studio apartment so I don’t work much there. I like working and reading and writing out of the library at Tulane or, I belong to an old school athletic club in the French Quarter that has like a library/parlor work space that I use.

    On Mondays, I try to do all my administrative stuff—conference calls with employees, meetings, paperwork and then during the rest of the week I respond to AA emails in the morning and again at night. The middle of the day is mine. I try to write, go to the gym (run, box or swim), and read—in that order.

    I still have the same quote, the one from Marcus [Aurelius], above my desk:

    “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.”

    The other quote above my desk is from Seneca:

    “Some lack the fickleness to live as they wish and just live as they have begun.”

    In November 2007 , you wrote that “you have to be happy with you”. I understand it’s a work in progress, but are you happy with you in October 2011, nearly four years later?

    Happier for sure. It’s not so much that it’s a work in progress as it is a process. I forget who said it, but someone smarter than me said that “happiness ensues, it cannot be pursued”. And I think it was Aristotle who said that happiness was the result of excellence.

    Either way, I take that to mean that you’re happy when you are doing whatever it is that you’re doing, well. So: are you doing well at your career? Is your relationship the best it can be? Are you handling adversity or a difficult experience with excellence? Are you behaving honorably? Etc etc.

    These are all opportunities to excel in the moment and cumulatively these moments create a sense of happiness. I’m fucking 24, there’s no way I’m doing well all the time at everything but I do feel I am getting better and more consistent.

    I want to close on a cliched question, which I hope you’ll humour me on. What advice would you give to yourself five years ago, when all you really knew about yourself was that you ‘wanted to one day be a writer like the kind of writers Tucker was working with at the time’?

    Fucking breathe. It’s not as precarious as you think it is. There’s no need to be anxious. See, it’s really easy when you’re that young and you don’t have a safety net to think you have to cling to everything for dear life, everything is a crisis, everything is mission critical, nothing else can be the priority.

    When you’re in that space, it’s really hard to have the patience and compassion or even empathy for the other people in your life because you’re fucking fight or flight all the time. In reality, it’s not as dramatic as all that. Taking a more relaxed and accepting approach might mean losing a couple opportunities here and there but down the road, you end up turning down plenty of those anyway, so what does it matter if a couple never arrive?

    If I told myself this and really listened, I feel like I’d have been happier along the way and be able to be prouder of how I behaved and the decisions I made.

    ++

    For more on Ryan Holiday, visit his blog. Hopefully he’ll soon post some news about the publication and release of his first book.

    [Edited on November 18: the first news of Ryan Holiday’s book has been announced.]

  • NYWM 2011: A conversation about freelance journalism with John Birmingham and Benjamin Law, May 2011

    Embedded below is footage of my first live Q+A event as Queensland ambassador for National Young Writers’ Month 2011: a conversation about freelance journalism with John Birmingham and Benjamin Law.

    The 90 minute conversation took place on May 17, 2011 before around 100 young writers at the Metro Arts studio in Brisbane City. I’ve included some background information about the event below. Scroll down to watch the conversation via the embedded Vimeo clip, or read the transcript underneath. All photos taken by Christopher Wright. Visit Facebook to see the full set of photos.

    From left to right: Andrew McMillen, Benjamin Law, and John Birmingham.

    May 17: Talking freelance journalism with John Birmingham and Benjamin Law

    Under 25 and interested in a career in freelance journalism? Ahead of National Young Writers’ Month (NYWM) 2011 – which runs from June 1-30 – two of Brisbane’s best-known (and best-regarded) freelance journalists will discuss how they’ve built their lives and careers around writing and publishing words. Given the focus of NYWM, this free 90 minute session will be targeted toward aspiring (and current) writers and journalists under the age of 25.

    John Birmingham (@JohnBirmingham) is the author of the cult classic He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and, more recently, thrillers such as Without WarningAfter America, and the Axis Of Time trilogy. He also wrote the award-winning history of Sydney, Leviathan. He began his writing career as a freelancer for national magazines like Rolling Stone and Australian Penthouse. He currently freelances for The Monthly and The Weekend Australian, among others. He also maintains several weekly columns for Fairfax Media and his own blog, Cheeseburger Gothic, where he has a built-in audience of Birmingham-fanatics affectionately nicknamed ‘Burgers’.

    Benjamin Law (@MrBenjaminLaw) is a Brisbane-based freelance writer. He is a senior contributor to frankie magazine and has also written for The Monthly, The Courier Mail, Qweekend, Sunday Life, Cleo, Crikey, The Big Issue, New Matilda, Kill Your Darlings, ABC Unleashed and the Australian Associated Press. His debut book, The Family Law, was released in 2010 via Black Inc. Books. He’s currently working on his second book, a collection of non-fiction looking at queer people and communities throughout Asia. It has the working title of Gaysia. For more on Benjamin, visit his website.

    Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) – the Queensland ambassador for NYWM 2011 – will facilitate the session. He’s a freelance journalist whose work has been published in Rolling Stone, The Weekend Australian, The Courier-Mail, triple j mag, Mess+Noise, TheVine.com.au and IGN Australia. He has been a fan of both Birmingham and Law for quite a long time, and was thrilled to interview them both in 2010 for The Big Issue and The Courier-Mail, respectively. For more on Andrew – who will do his best to contain his excitement at being seated on the same stage as these towering literary giants of Brisbane – visit his website.

    Embedded footage below. Please note that the vision does drop out a few times throughout the video due to battery changes and camera file size restrictions. Besides one small section (1-2 minutes long), the audio from the sound desk remains consistent throughout, however.

    Q+A transcript as follows. Andrew + audience questions and comments are bolded; John and Ben’s comments as labelled.

    Thank you for coming. My name’s Andrew. This, as you know, is the first Queensland National Young Writer’s Month event. And the purpose is to get young people writing throughout the month of June. These events are to get people thinking about writing, maybe to think about start setting goals, and registering in the National Young Writer’s website. And then throughout June, start writing and talking about writing with the people who have joined that community.

     

    Tonight, we’ve got two guests. To my left is Ben and to my far left is John. The median age for this room tonight is about 20 years; 20.38 I think is the actual figure. I wanted to begin by asking these two gentlemen: what were you doing when you were 20?

    Ben: It’s a good question. My math is pretty munted, or at least my capacity to do math is pretty messed up. So I actually did the math and I figured out that I was between 20 and 21 from the years 2003 to 2004. I hope most of you were born back then. At that stage I was freelancing. Frankie Magazine didn’t exist at that stage. I was doing an honours project, the funding for the honours project actually fell through so it was a good year. The honours project was supposed to develop the magazine in conjunction with QUT, and that didn’t happen. So I had to come up with another honours project very quickly.

    I was balancing Centrelink, tutoring work at QUT. I was doing some freelance articles for The Courier-Mail, and I was doing graphic design work for the street press Scene Magazine, and I just started working at a bookstore as well. So I was doing a few odd things.

    John, what were you doing at 20?

    John: At 20 I had made the decision to write for a living, so I started doing that. I wasn’t making a lot. My first year as a freelancer I raked in… I think it was $134. Second year, $235, but I had decided I was going to do it and I would stick with it. I gave myself five years to make enough to feed myself, and keep a roof over my head.

    And 20-21 was about the first year that I just blew everything else off and said ‘I’m going to sit down and write my way to a meal’. So my very first year of doing that, I worked out at UQ at Semper [student magazine]. I don’t know whether, with VSU, Semper is still out there, or whether it still pays.

    Can a UQ student confirm if it’s still out?

    [Audience] It’s still there, but no one reads it.

    John: It’s a pity. It used to be really cool. And they paid $15, $20 a story; and occasionally drugs. So it was great. It was a really good way to start because it taught me how to make a deadline, usually with drugs.

    Do you remember the first time you saw your name in print?

    John: Yeah, it was really cool. It was supposed to be the first issue of that year’s Semper. I had tried to be a cartoonist and hit the brick wall of not knowing how to draw stuff but I did know how to do jokes. So I went into the mag and told the editors in early January or something, when they’d just taken over; ‘I’ll write you funny stories’. And the first story I pitched to them was about late night greasy-eating joints in Brisbane. This is in the days before the internet. That’s how long ago it was. There were three late night greasy spoons in Brissy at that point; late night being after 9pm. And these were the only places that were open.

    There was Kadoo’s Belly Button up on George Street, which tasted as though everything had been lightly broiled within Kadoo’s belly button. Lady Di’s, which was a taxi joint, and which, like Lady Di, is sadly no longer with us. And the Windmill [Café], which I think still is. I went to the Windmill to try their wares, and got a big hot squirt of grease in my mouth from a veal and cheese. But I wrote that up, and I put it in.

    In fact, it was… I didn’t write up the exact story that they wanted, because the night I was supposed to go out and do it, we had a party and one of my flatmates ended up spending six grand on hookers and blow. So I wrote that up instead. I got paid $15 for it, so I came out ahead. I thought, “Geez mate, that’s money for jam. I’m doing this the rest of my life”.

    Do you remember the first time you saw your name in print, Ben?

    Ben: There’s probably two stories to tell. The first story I was 16 years old and I had a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine and I thought it was just the best publication out there. It was either that or Juice, which doesn’t exist anymore. And there was an article about the upcoming referendum for Australian Republic and being a very, very earnest 16 year old, I wrote this impassioned letter to the editors of Rolling Stone about how unfair it was that I wasn’t able to vote about this issue that was very dear to my heart. And they took this letter and maybe out of charity, they made it letter of the month. So I saw my name in print and it was the very first time I’d written to a magazine. And I won a stereo. So it was my first byline, and it was a paid one as well. And it’s still the stereo I’ve got now. It actually works quite well.

    The second story, when I actually wanted my byline out there, was for street press. It was for Rave Magazine, a music review. And I still remember that. That was so long ago now but I can still remember that jubilation of walking down the street and seeing my name.

    John: It’s a big deal. The first time you see your byline, you might have been paid $10 for it, but it stays with you forever.

    Ben: Totally, yeah.

    Mine was in Rave, too. To backtrack a bit; when I was 20, which was three years ago, the only places I was writing for were Rave Magazine, and FasterLouder, the national music website. The first time I was published was in Rave. It was an indie [CD] review, probably for a local band who probably don’t exist anymore. I can’t remember their name.

    My next question; how do people react when you say you’re a freelance writer, Ben?

    Ben: It’s funny. I actually had this experience recently at my 10 year reunion. So I went to my 10 year high school reunion and the reactions were quite interesting, because you had to walk around with your name and your job underneath your name. I had ‘Benjamin – freelancer’. The opinion was basically split. Half the people asked me what I actually did, and were excited. “A freelance writer; you get to make your own hours, you get to chase stories that you want!” And the other half just looked at me with abject pity. They were like, “that’s not a job!” They didn’t say it, but their eyes totally did. And to be honest, I oscillate between those reactions myself.

    John: Just let me say, Benjamin Freelancer is an awesome name.

    Ben: Thanks, John! [laughs]

    John: I’ve had the same thing. My writing, particularly the freelance work divides up into two eras: before Falafel, and afterwards. And afterwards my name, my byline became a commodity, and that was what people ended up buying rather than the copy. Before then, I was just a freelancer like anybody else.

    And it actually shits me that that is the case, but it was just a commercial reality and I used to find exactly the same thing as you. Because I moved pretty quickly from the fringe of the street press towards the mainstream… you probably had this too. [I] ran up hard into the brick wall of this real belief within mainstream media that freelancers are the bottom of the food chain. They’re all fucking dilettantes. They can’t hold down a proper job. They can’t file. They’re really not good for much other than providing spack filler copy to fill up the holes in whatever publication the hardworking mainstream journalist is there for.

    I used to resent that, and I still resent it. Even though now the situation is reversed. I’m still a freelancer but rather than be contemptuous, the mainstream writers that I know tend to be envious because they’ve now been there for 30 years. Their spirits are completely broken, and you know, they’ve got mortgages and kids and would rather actually have the freedom of freelancing, but with the ability to pay for those mortgages and children.

    You both have the distinction of being published authors as well as freelance journalists. Do you identify with one more than the other?

    Ben: I think they’re all part of the same thing for me. I see writing books… I wrote a memoir [The Family Law] and I’m currently working on a book of journalism at the moment. I see all of that as my job and certainly when I look at my schedule from day-to-day which is all colour coded so I know what I’m doing at any given moment. I’ve got ‘book’ in one colour. I’ve got ‘magazine work’ in another. I’ve got ‘planning for this upcoming chapter in my book’ in another colour. It all bleeds into each other for me. It’s all work.

    John: Socially, the worlds are very different. When I mix with journalists – which I don’t do very often because they’ve got cooties – it’s a very different experience from mixing with people in publishing, which you tend to do at literary festivals and after contract signings and so on. That’s a very old-world way of doing business. It tends to involve long lunches and cocktail parties and late drinks, whereas journalists not so much. They are two very different worlds and yet in the course of a day, you might move between either one of them.

    One of the things I mentioned is true of both these guys [gestures at Ben and Andrew], is that as a freelancer you need to be an absolutely ruthless time management freak. You need to divide your days up into little ice cube trays of time into which you pop one project or another. You might pop five cubes onto a book and four onto a feature article and two on a blog; save one for tweeting away, or something like that.

    Within the course of the day it’s easy to move between those. There’s no real gear changes psychologically between writing a novel, writing a magazine piece or writing a column, because often the techniques are very similar. But once you actually engage with those guys on the coalface of the industry, they are quite different. Publishing is very social. It’s more like a cottage industry than anything else, even though it’s huge.

    I should point out that if, at any point, you have a question, just put your hand in the air and I’ll try to notice. We have a mic hanging from the ceiling, but this is a very small room so that will also help your voice get projected.

    Can I get a show of hands how many people here are studying journalism? [the majority of the audience raises their hands] Did either of you study journalism?

    John: I stalked a girl into a journalism class once for a couple of lectures, and then they called security. But no, I didn’t. I did just the plain old classical arts degree. And I wouldn’t write off a journalism degree, because in my early years as a freelancer – particularly working for Rolling Stone, about whom I will tell you some stories downstairs when the microphones are off – I made some terrible mistakes because I hadn’t been trained properly. One of which ended up with us being sued successfully by neo-Nazis for defamation. How do you defame a neo-Nazi? Let me tell you all about it downstairs.

    So I sort of wish I had had some instruction in a degree. But on the other hand; as a writer, a classical arts degree – a bit of ancient history, a bit of literature, bit a politics in my case – it was a great degree.

    Ben, you did creative writing, I believe?

    Ben: I did creative writing, or as a lot of my peers call it, creative shiting. And it’s funny; when I started doing creative writing over at QUT I think I was the third generation through. It was still a very new course. Creative writing courses in general were very new then. And I had the choice then in my mind between creative writing and a pure journalism degree. I just didn’t think I had the discipline to be a daily news journalist, so I backed off from that path.

    The great thing about the course at the time for creative writing – which isn’t in place nowadays – is that because it was a course that was still embryonic and they needed to fill some gaps in terms of what it actually was, it borrowed a lot of units from journalism. So we had this really great balance between reading a lot of novels, learning about poetry, reading books, looking at narratives — long form, non-fiction – and also having to do incredibly rough news writing subjects that a lot of my fellow creative writing students hated.

    “Here, write a novel; here, write a collection of poems”. Learning skills like newsworthiness, learning grammar… one of the best ways of learning spelling, grammar and syntax is through a journalism degree because they will not tolerate anything; just not tolerate sloppiness or bullshit, which is really great. And that really put us through the ringer and I’ve always appreciated those subjects that they don’t study anymore.

    John: That’s a pity. I’ve done a few graduation nights at QUT and a lot of old-school writers are quite dismissive of those courses. “How do you teach this stuff in a classroom, it comes from the soul.” That’s bullshit. I was really impressed by the quality of the graduates coming out of those things, a little scary actually to an old dinosaur like me.

    Ben: Even journalism degrees themselves; you talk to people [who grew up] in the mid-fifties onwards, and that was the time when journalism degrees didn’t even exist. So even a lot of them are sceptical of those degrees, but of course a lot of them end up becoming those journalism academics teaching anyway. So they buy into it too.

    I studied Communication at UQ. I graduated in 2009. While it didn’t specifically help me with what I do now [freelance journalism] I guess it was more about writing on a regular basis. Writing assignments – and, like John said earlier, deadlines – are the lifeblood of what we do. Deadlines are really helpful.

    Of those people who put their hands in the air before, could I get a show of how many are happy with what they’re learning so far in their course? [about half of those students raise their hands] About half, is that right?

    Ben: You’re all going to the same university? Is there one university that isn’t represented by those hands? We’ll know later.

    Were you setting goals when you were 20? John, you mentioned that you gave yourself five years with writing.

    John: That was my main goal. It was a very long-term one and as a freelancer you need long-term to concentrate on because in the short-term, you’re very hungry and uncomfortable. I just thought if I gave myself five years to be able to pay my rent and my groceries from writing, that would be a reasonable timeframe. In the end it took only three years, which is still a fair amount of time to go hungry, but one of the things that you will find is that there’s a huge attrition rate.

    I think there’s 120 of you here tonight. Three years from now, maybe 30 of you will actually be freelancing and five years after that, it’ll be less, because it’s a tough gig in the first couple of years. It doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to do. People who tell you it’s impossible and don’t do it should be ignored, if it’s really what you want to do.

    But you need to go into it knowing that it’s going to be tough and you are going to have to survive the attrition. At times, that is going to mean going hungry or skipping out on rent, or sitting up until three in the morning to file copy that you really don’t feel like filing.

    [Audience] Not doing a course in journalism or anything like that, how did you find your way? Particularly as a freelancer, not having an employer to guide you, not having a professor to guide you, or any guidance whatsoever?

    John: I read a lot, which you all should do. There are fantastic long-form journalism sites now. I think givemesomethingtoread.com and there’s another one I came across today, Longreads. They’re actually worth checking those sites out and obsessively reading them because by reading and studying the stuff that’s published on that site, Longreads, and givemesomethingtoread.com, you can see how it’s done.

    I spent a lot of time studying — when I started out there weren’t that many texts. There was Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism. He’s got like an 80-90 page essay at the start about how feature journalism should be done, and about how it evolved. I read that again and again, and in fact years later on when I started working for Inside Sport, when you signed on with them the first thing they did was give you a copy of that essay and said, ‘read it. Make sure you know what’s happening’.

    [Audience] Sorry, who was that?

    John: Tom Wolfe, it’s an essay collection called The New Journalism.

    Ben: Which I think is out of print now, last time I checked.

    John: That’s a pity, but you’ll get it out of a library. The essay at the front is the thing you should be reading. It basically tells you how to do it. When you are a freelancer, you are working for these people, you are filing for them; you can ring them up and ask some questions. They’re busy but they will… if they have taken you on, if they trusted you enough to put your copy inside the mag, they will give you a hand. There was a mag called the Independent Monthly which is very similar, or was similar to The Monthly, which was run by a very crusty old guy called Max Suich. The old school journalists there were fantastic. They would take you aside and give you any kind of instruction that they thought you needed, or you thought that you needed. So you shouldn’t be afraid to ask people for help or for guidance. Most journos are pretty friendly and pretty approachable, particularly after a few drinks.

    How did you go about making those first connections – in reference to that question – when you didn’t know anybody? How did you start writing for people?

    John: You’ve actually just got to front them. Not actually having done a degree, I’m not going to come up through a cadetship. I was kind of naïve, which helped in a way, because as an example… again, another collapsed magazine. You’ll notice this theme recurring again and again; a great mag in the 80s and early 90s called HQ, which really put a lot of effort into its features.

    A friend of mine who was also a freelancer – who’s now not – said, ‘look at these guys. They’re great’. And a friend, Pete McAllister and I said, ‘we’re going to write for these guys’. That meant road trips. [Pete’s now an anthropologist, and writes occasional op-ed pieces.]

    We were living in Brisbane at that point. We borrowed Pete’s mum’s car. We drove to the coast and turned right, and we just kept the ocean on that side of the car [gestures to his left]. Eventually we hit Sydney, found ACP [Magazines], which was where HQ was being published at that point. Somehow we got past the security guards. We went up and saw Shayna Martin, who was the editor. We said, “we’re Pete and JB. We’d like to write for you.” And she was pretty cool. She didn’t have us thrown out or beaten, and she said, “okay, send us your stories”, as she edged towards the door…

    And I actually wouldn’t send whole stories. As a tidbit; if you want to do something for a mag, don’t bother writing the whole story first, because maybe it’s not going to work out for them. Just send the ideas. Send a 100 word pitch to the editor, or if they have a deputy editor, even better, because the deputies tend to be people who do the grunt work of commissioning and seeing all copy. But you should not be afraid to approach people with your ideas.

    The thing that you need to understand – about mags in particular, but most publications – is that most of the stuff is turned out by outsiders. It’s either bought in from other services, or it’s bought off freelancers. Most magazines, I’m sorry to say, have a staff of about three or four people. They don’t employ a lot of fulltime writers. Even places like the weekend glossies, Good Weekend or the thing that comes out with The Australian [The Weekend Australian Magazine]; they’ve been cutting back on their fulltime staff and taking more and more freelancers. Why wouldn’t you? A fulltime staffer will cost you $160,000 a year. Maybe they turn out four stories. You’re going to be a lot better off as a business paying someone like Ben or I to turn in those four bits of copy.

    Ben: And they’re hungry as well, because [those magazines] come out every week, and have got a blank slate of pages. You talk to those editors. They want quality writers.

    John: And they want the ideas too. It’s really hard coming up with ideas as an editor week after week after week.

    Ben: Especially if you’re surrounded by the same staff writers. You generate very similar ideas over and over, so they do look for freelancers to generate a lot of that content. They’re looking for it.

    You mentioned earlier, Ben, that one of the first places you were published was The Courier Mail. How did that come about?

    Ben: How did that come about? It’s funny. It takes me a while to figure out how stuff like that came about. I started writing for Rosemary Sorensen, who I think was the Books editor at the time. And she moved to The Australian, and she was sort of feared in a lot of quarters as well.

    John: I have a long-running, very famous feud with Rosemary.

    Ben: A tempestuous relationship?

    John: It’s good fun, but it gets violent at times.

    Ben: [laughs] You learn about these peoples’ reputations. If you don’t know them personally, you hear about them from afar, and they scare you. I did know Stuart Glover – one of the people I was very close to in university, one of my mentors and lecturers – he knew Rosemary and then she came in for a guest lecture. I’m like, “I’d really like to write for that Books column”.

    Then what I realised was that she actually moved across the road from me, so we had this sort of relationship where we’d wave to each other, having seen each other at the lecture. It’s like, “I know who you are!” Then Stuart had some words and gave me her contact details with her consent, and I just passed some ideas by her. That’s how I started writing for the Courier Mail. It’s a little nice ‘in’ to my opposite-road neighbour.

    I think that every single place that I’ve started writing for the last couple of years has been because I’ve asked someone who I know knows an editor, to email-intro me to that person so that I’m not just some random guy pitching a story. It’s kind of that social proof, where someone else says, “this guy’s okay, listen to him”.

    John: It is true. You can find someone – not necessarily me – who will contact an editor for you and say, “this Ben prick, he’s not bad. Have a look at his stuff”. It means that they will go straight through to the top of the pile.

    Every new editor… you’re essentially applying for a new job every time. They don’t know you from a bucket of shit. You could be anyone off the street and to be honest you are literally anyone off the street. Any sort of help you can get into convincing them that you’re okay; that’s almost enough just to convince them that you’re not nuts. Because they deal enough with those people. They do.

    Were you setting goals when you were 20 or 21, Ben?

    Ben: I don’t think it was goals as such. I knew what I wanted the next step to be. I didn’t have sort of a long-term plan. I didn’t think I wanted to write for ‘this particular magazine’ or have a book published by a certain date but I just knew that I wanted to get better, as a writer. To get better as a writer, I think a lot of proof of that is what publications you’re writing for, or what skills you’re extending.

    Once I’d written for one publication for a while, I’d say, “okay I’ve got the hang of this. What haven’t I got the hang of?” And try to do the next thing that sort of scared me a little. That was going maybe from street press to writing for a metro; going from a metro newspaper to writing for the glossy magazine that commissioned 4,000 word pieces. Just doing the next logical thing, that’s sort of how I worked.

    John: That is the beauty of freelancing: you shouldn’t get bored. You should have a constant buffet of interesting gear to hop into in front of you, whereas people who are on staff, they’re dead in the eyes.

    Ben: That’s the thing. It’s good if you are the type of person who gets bored easily as well. If you come from a certain generation like mine that is slightly ADHD and you’re like, “oh well, this idea’s great! Okay, I’m really bored of it now. What’s the next idea I need?” You hold up this ideas reservoir and you can’t wait to go through them, and it keeps replenishing itself. If you’re that type of person… I know there’s this backlog of stories that I’ll probably never write, but they’re ideas that I’m really intrigued by, often fuelled by drunken conversations. Like those sort of Seinfeld moments; ‘why is that?’ or ‘what’s up with that?’ You’re like, ‘that’s actually a story idea’, and you file it away.

    I’m going to ask a question that’s on most peoples’ minds in this room; how did you start writing for Frankie, Ben?

    Ben: I do know this story, because it’s been asked before. Frankie was a magazine that didn’t exist. I was doing stuff with the Courier and Scene, and still studying at university. I ran into an old friend at a Belle and Sebastian concert; very Frankie when you think about it, a lot of pigeon toes and spectacles and cardigans there. Over the din… there isn’t much din at a Belle and Sebastian concert, but I was like, “what are you up to nowadays?” She was working for a publishing house called Morrison Media, that specialised in youth titles out of the Gold Coast, like surfing and skating magazines, and a new competitor to Dolly called Chick, which doesn’t exist anymore. She’s like, “Oh, you know, and they publish Chick,” and I’m like, “Oh I love chick! I could write for Chick! I’ve basically got the mind of a teenage girl!” She was like, “Actually we’re starting up a new magazine,” and then when she started raising some names involved in the magazine. I said, “I know that person” or “I know of that person”; she said “well, you should come into the Gold Coast and have a meeting with the editor”.

    They’d already wrapped up issue one, and I didn’t have my license then so I caught various trains and buses to this obscure location in the Gold Coast, and had a meeting. I realised the editor – Louse Bannister, the founding editor – she wasn’t too much older than me. She was maybe five years older than me. She had a lot of ideas about magazines that we liked or had liked that had expired. HQ was actually one of the titles that came up as well. I was really excited by the idea. I took it home and pitched between 10 to 20 ideas for the next issue. We just took it from there, so I’ve been with them since issue two and it all started with a concert.

    You started in issue two; how soon did it become apparent that… I’m sure that soon, the editors were getting letters saying “I love Benjamin Law, he’s the best!”. How soon did you become a ‘brand name’, as a senior contributor?

    Ben: It’s funny, if you look at Frankie now, there are no ‘senior contributors’ because we decided to do away with the myth that any of us actually work in an office. Like John was saying before, Frankie is a magazine that runs on skeleton staff. In terms of the editorial department, there are two people. The publishing house provides some sub-editors and stuff but it’s really quite small.

    Your question was also “when did people start saying ‘I like you Benjamin Law’, ‘I like you Daniel Evans’, or ‘Marieke Hardy, you’re like my dreamboat’” – which we all think. It’s funny, our editor, what she explicitly encouraged all of us to do was write from our personalities and to write with a very distinct voice. She brought out an American men’s magazine called Details magazine, which is a great magazine. It’s got writers like Michael Chabon and Augusten Burroughs writing for Details. It’s a really well-crafted men’s mag. And she said “Augusten Burroughs in this piece has a very strong voice”, and “Michael Chabon in this piece has a very strong voice. I don’t feel like that comes up much in magazines targeted towards certain age-readership. I want you to start writing about yourself and your experiences”.

    And you’ll find throughout Frankie… I was asked the other day “who do you write for?” and Frankie came up. They’re like, “Oh, are you Daniel Evans?” “No I’m not Daniel Evans…” but everyone has the different writer that they attach themselves to, because all the voices are so distinct. I think that’s something that Frankie’s really fostered that’s quite unique out there. You don’t find that much with other mags.

    It’s really worked for them, because they’re rare in publishing. Their readership is growing, whereas most are falling apart.

    Ben: That’s right; they were on The 7:30 Report about that very phenomenon.

    It’s interesting because they’re publishing against the flow. How much of it do you think comes down to nurturing each writer’s individual voice, as opposed to – like John said earlier – how most freelancers could be anyone off the street; anyone who can just ‘fill in the gaps’?

    Ben: I think I agree with a lot of what my current editor talked about in that 7:30 Report segment, which is Frankie’s an unusual magazine in that it’s not intimidating. I used to read The Face magazine when I was younger. This magazine that came out of the U.K., very edgy. I thought that was so awesome but I could never ever be a contributor to Face magazine because they sort of scare the shit out of you.

    John: I always wanted to do a cover, with just plain type, “Are You Cool Enough to Buy Our Magazine?” “Step Away from the Stand!”

    Ben: Totally. I find a lot of magazines I like, I am a little bit afraid of. Like Vice magazine is really cool but I’m not really sure I could cut it with the cool people of Vice. I think with Frankie, it does have models, it does have fashion, but at the same time they’re short-sighted or they’re implied to be myopic. They’re wearing glasses, and they’re wearing cardies, and we’ve got knitting patterns. We’ve got knitting patterns! It’s not that intimidating. There’s this sense of community that’s banded around the magazine that’s made it strong because people feel like they know me, or they feel like they know Rowena Grant-Frost or Marieke or Justin Heazlewood. And I think it’s that intimacy that’s built up the strength of the magazine.

    [Audience] I know you talked about self branding. How important do you think social media is in self branding? I know that it shits you how your byline is a commodity, but how important do you think it is?

    John: It doesn’t shit me knowing my byline is a commodity. What shits me is before Falafel came out, I was getting probably 25-30 cents a word, which was the Rolling Stone standard. I hope it’s not anymore; it could well be, though. After Falafel came out I was writing exactly the same stories but I was getting $1.00 a word, or $1.50 a word. The only thing that had changed is that I’d sold a lot of copies of Falafel, so they wanted to see if they could access that readership.

    I don’t object to it because it pays my Playboy Bunnies and gold-plated hovercraft, but it sort of shits me on your behalf because there’s nothing fair about it. As to go to your question, how important is it, It’s actually more complex than you’d imagine. There’s a lot of journalists in particular who do social media really poorly, who see it as either a broadcast medium, particularly those who work in broadcast media, or just a sort of celebrity channel they can sort of dip into and read Warney’s tweets and see that he and Liz are back on. They see it as a one-way thing, or just something they can dip into and pull out of, not something to be contributed to, which is really the heart of social media. You have to contribute, and you’ve got to do it properly.

    With all those caveats however, if you do it properly and if you have built up an audience it’s a fantastic way of staying in contact with them. I do a couple of blogs and columns each week ,and Facebook and Twitter are a great way of telling people that they’re up, and keeping interest going through the day, but also it sets up more conversations outside of the structure of Fairfax where these things get published. The conversations outside are often more interesting than the ones inside. Fairfax doesn’t get that traffic, so they can’t then sell ads on the page impressions. But over time, it does draw more traffic to their site, I think, because people who were interested in having those conversations again do get drawn back the next time I write something they’re interested in.

    But there are a lot of traps. I quite like a drink and a tweet, as people who follow me will know. [laughs] I haven’t yet disgraced myself and I don’t think I will because I think I’m across it, but a lot of people would have got themselves into deep trouble drunk tweeting. It can feel so intimate. You can forget that you’re not just talking to the people who are your followers. You’re talking to the entire world.

    The Australian at the moment is running an absolutely disgraceful campaign against an Aboriginal activist based on some tweet she put out about [the TV Show] Deadwood. And her account is locked but you have to actually be one of her followers to have seen that bloody tweet in the first place. Actually, not just hers, but the person she was following. In the whole world, there’s probably 200 people who saw the tweet. Is it Marcia Langton that they’re kicking at the moment?

    Ben: Larissa Behrendt.

    John: Larissa Behrendt, yeah. You’d have to be following both Larissa and the person that sent the message to, to have seen the tweet in question. It is just an abysmal thing that they’re doing. They have just been pounding her about it for some political agenda for weeks now.

    Ben: The Australian has a terrible relationship with Twitter in general. I mean, Chris Mitchell, the editor, he’s currently suing a journalism academic —

    John: Julie Posetti, yeah.

    Ben: Exactly, about a tweet that she put out there. And I think they’ve got a very… not the writers. I think a lot of their writers have been exceptionally great understanding how the medium works and use it really well, but I think there is this guard of certain journalists who resent it deeply, and are outraged that people can broadcast such reprehensible things so quickly.

    John: And also I think… Actually, you touched on it there. One of the things they really hate in the old school media is this sort of idea that an actual new media has arisen which is drawing power away from them. It worries them deeply.

    To address your question in practical terms though: it can be great. An example: I got a very late stage commission from The Monthly 18 months ago; maybe two years ago.  They lost one editor, which was bad luck. They lost another editor which was bad management… And they needed a cover story so they wanted to do something about the recession which at that stage the GFC was looming like the 1930s. And they needed it really quickly.

    The quickest way to deal with that was for me to just go onto Twitter and say, “if someone has been arse-fucked by this recession and feels like talking about it, could you get in contact with me?”. I got about a half dozen people who said, “I wouldn’t mind telling you my story”. They were following me, but I didn’t know them from the next person. Some of these stories were heartbreaking, but in narrative terms they were fantastic. [Note: you can read John’s piece ‘The Coming Storm’ here]

    [Twitter] can be very, very useful for that [kind of crowdsourcing], and I would encourage you to think of it more in those terms of being able to reach out with people, rather than to bombard them with links to your latest blog.

    [Audience] Talking about The Australian, have you ever dealt with any sort of media bias? Journalists are meant to be impartial…

    John: I’ve never been directed to write anything, although I was doing very regular book reviews for The Australian up until I wrote a review recently about some global warming books and somewhere in the middle of it, I managed to sneak the line past their subs, “global warming is real”. Never again have I been commissioned.

    Ben: Someone is live-tweeting you right now. You’re going to get sued!

    John: The facts stack up that, up until that point, I was getting commissioned. After that – nothin’. But I’ve never actually been told, “please write in this fashion”.

    Ben: I’m more of a ‘colour’ writer, which is a nice way of saying that I write stories about weird things. I don’t really have that problem.

    That’s not true. You did a political piece on Pauline Hanson recently.

    Ben: Yeah, I said weird things…

    John: Having said that, though… and because there is a bit of live tweeting – and I can see we’re being recorded here – I’m obviously not going to give any identifying details, but I do know of instances… not so much in politics but in cultural coverage where review sections get framed in particular ways and reviews are commissioned in such a fashion that someone’s going to get their arses kicked in print because for whatever reason the commissioning editor decides that they would prefer to see that arse kicked rather than kissed, which I think is disgraceful. It does happen.

    The alternative is, for example in music journalism, when a band isn’t reviewed as well as the record label had hoped. The label’s response is to pull ads.

    Ben: Or you can just get someone involved in the label to write the review, as recently happened.

    Yeah. Have you come across anything of that nature, John, where something you’ve written caused advertisers of a particular publication to get upset?

    John: No, the closest one would be years ago. And this is years ago… I wrote a story about the Institute of Sport in Canberra. It was a puff piece, a colour piece. But it did mention the problems they had with drugs in the 90s. We all had problems with drugs, those of us who were born in the eighties or before then; but the editor, Greg Hunter, who was a fantastic editor, he had the AIS on the phone absolutely monstering him about the fact that he published the thing and saying, “you’re never getting access to our people again”. Greg had been around for a while and he knew that was all bullshit, that eventually the people who had been pissed off would move on and other people would come in and he’d get access. You will find people will try and muscle you out of stories and stop you from writing them.

    Ben: The opposite happens as well, I find, when you think you’ve written something quite vicious and strange about someone and they call you up later congratulating you and thanking you for the lovely portrait that you wrote about them. I have that experience a lot.

    John: I do that to people actually, when they give me really shocking reviews of my books. I will call them and just say sweet nothings to them. It freaks them out.

    You mentioned earlier that the freedom is the part that you really enjoy, being a freelancer not tied down to having a staff role and being ‘dead behind the eyes’. What else do you like about freelancing, John? Why have you pursued it for so long?

    John: The hovercraft and the Playboy Bunnies are good. The freedom is actually worth… even before Falafel came out, I wasn’t making that much money, but I think the freedom of being in the role that I was in was worth about $40-50,000 a year, just in terms of mental health. You get up, you want to go for a surf that day; you just go do it. You might even get a surf story out of it.

    The constant change is one of the great things about freelancing. You can end up almost anywhere, doing almost anything as a freelancer, as long as you’re willing to push yourself into that. It’s nice actually, once you get a bunch of outlets in your stable, it’s actually just nice working two different people, because Frankie will have a different house style from sort of the Chechnyan brothel chaos of Rolling Stone, for instance. It’s never the same and you do not get bored.

    The downsides to it are chasing invoices. I hate it, but you’re constantly doing it. Some of the biggest publishers are some of the worst in terms of the way that they run their finance sections. There was a publisher in Sydney; very large, huge marquee mastheads, and they had a policy in house of not paying freelancers until they brought into their lawyers into it, which of course they couldn’t afford, being freelancers. Or the HAA has it was in those days – the Media Alliance as it is now – which is a pro tip to you, even though it seems to be a lot of money. You might want to think about joining the Media Alliance, because at some stage you will be seeing them after an unpaid invoice.

    Do you want to pick up on those questions, Ben? Best and worst bits about being a freelancer?

    Ben: Yeah, I agree with the freedom and I think it depends for all of you how you define freedom as well. I mean when you look at if I showed you my iCal, I think my sister screamed when I first started using iCal because it looked like a deformed ice cube tray from hell.

    If I average it out, I’m working seven days a week. At least I am in some way or another. Freedom for me is being able to roll out of bed and start work. That also means I start work at 7am every morning and I probably finish around 7pm every evening, but on top of that – like John talking about being able to go for a surf – I can do laps in the pool whenever I want, when there’s no people there. I really enjoy that. Having a pool to yourself is great.

    It’s hard. The chasing invoices stuff keeps coming up. At any given time, you’re probably owed thousands and thousands of dollars. I’m not even kidding.

    John: At this very moment in time I’m owed eleven thousand dollars by probably four or five different outlets.

    Ben: I’m [owed] close to seven thousand. But at the same time, it also means you have a very warped sense of time after a while with freelancing, but you have to adapt to it. You might be working super hard in one week and you’re churning out stories, and the weekend arrives and you’re actually quite poor. Then a week where you’re actually quite relaxed, not doing much work, you just get flushed with cash from all these invoices that you’re chasing. You don’t really have that sort of luxury of knowing when you’re going to get paid and hard work being rewarded immediately.

    Andrew: Just on that cash flow bit, for the first two years of my freelance career, I was regularly borrowing money from my parents and my brother. You have awesome weeks or months, and then hit rock bottom, where you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.


    [Audience] With the Fairfax changes with outsourcing subs at the moment, do you think there will be a time where really great freelancers will literally pack up and leave because they can’t survive on the wages they’re being paid to them? Or do you think that won’t happen, where freelancers are not being paid adequately because they’re saying they can’t afford to pay them?

    John: No. As I said, there are certain costs involved in having full-time staff on [a magazine or publication]. From the commercial point of view, it’s cheaper to take copy in from freelancers than it is to have a staff writer who might turn out half a dozen pieces a year. They’ll be great pieces, because you don’t get those jobs just by turning up. But in terms of the bean counters running the business, they look at this as: “we’re paying this person $20,000 a story, why are we doing that?”

    At the moment, a lot of the doom and fear surrounding the collapse of the mainstream media model actually doesn’t apply here. They’re still making profits and they’re still doing okay. Brisbane Times, who I file, for turned profitable three years ahead of schedule and still are, as far as I know. They will pay you eventually, but their systems are a bit ramshackle. The ones you have to watch out for are the smaller magazine companies.

    [Audience] Do you think freelancing is more keyed to feature and magazine-type writing as opposed to something like The Courier-Mail, where obviously they do use freelancers but having staff who turn ten stories a day…

    John: I’m not sure what their staffing level, is but they have a lot of journalists there turning out a lot of stuff which never ever gets published, never sees the light of day, and the same problem exists at Fairfax. They have hundreds of journalists filing copy, never published. The chance of a freelancer making it through that is pretty slim. The stuff that they’re going to commission from outside is going to tend to be specialist. I very rarely write for The Courier Mail. I don’t have a great relationship with them. The only occasions I’ve ever really written for them is… for some inexplicable reason, they come and ask me to do something and it has always been a specialist feature. Never any kind of generalist writing.

    [Audience] Do you think that if you could do it again, you’d still become a freelancer, or you would go into the paid profession?

    John: I wouldn’t go into paid profession. It would be nice to not have had those weeks where I had to go eat the two dollar Hare Krishna meal again and again, but even though the structure of the industry has changed so much and media itself has been wrenched apart by its business model being eaten by Google, I would still work as a freelancer, because that freedom… ‘Free’ is the most important part of that word. It’s fantastic. It becomes your life, rather than just your job.

    [Audience] Do you think that online bylines are becoming less credible, and do you think that there’s still a career opportunity for online freelancers?

    John: How do you mean, online bylines?

    There are so many ways to get your work published online now. Do you think —

    Ben: Personally speaking, I would see that as a part of the portfolio for what you should be writing for. I do a lot of online writing for stuff like Crikey, or ABC’s The Drum. But I don’t see myself as just being that online writer. It’s a part of all the whole suite of things that I write for at the moment. I don’t think it diminishes the other work I do, and I don’t necessarily think that people see it as less than. I think they read it and understand that it was probably written in a day because you’re writing about something that’s just happened, and they understand what the medium is, that it’s online. It’s supposed to be more snappy and immediate.

    John: It’s an interesting question. It comes down to there’s different types of online. Wall Street Journal publishes online. Your byline there is going to count more with editors than the byline at your personal blog.

    But then again, if your personal blog builds up a huge following, like Mama Mia for instance, or some of the food bloggers… about two years ago I got invited as a Fairfax writer to Sydney to the food festival down there, to do a few features. It was a significant year because it was the first time that the festival had ever invited food bloggers. These were people who do not write reviews for the mainstream press. They just have their personal blogs, but they built up their own audiences – and, more importantly, their credibility – to a point where they had to be brought inside the tent. In that sense, the fact that they were independently publishing blogs counted for nothing. What counted was the traffic rushing through.

    Ben: Can I say quickly if you are going to start a blog – and I’m not a great blogger myself at all – but you can’t start it in a vacuum. I know so many people have tried starting a blog and are like, “why is no one reading my work?”. The answer I provide for that it’s because you’re not reading other blogs. You have to connect with people to say “that was a great post” and for them to start reading your stuff, or to link back to work. Blogging is a community. It’s not the same model as: you write, and expect the readers to come.

    Certainly one of the biggest bloggers over the last few years – who’s stopped for the moment – but Marieke Hardy when she was doing her blog, ‘Reasons You’ll Hate Me’, one of the ways she got so many readers is because she was this voracious blog reader herself. It is a community. If you do start a blog tonight or next week – a cooking blog, because you might get invited to a food festival – make sure that you’re reading a lot of others as well.

    [Audience] Talking about building your audience, do you think it would be better to work at Rolling Stone or something, would it be better to come with a big portfolio or a big audience? If you rock up and say, “I’ve got this many people who follow my blog, but I’ve only ever written on one blog and never been published anywhere else…”

    Andrew: I would tend to say the idea is almost more important than your history. If you come at them with a story idea that no one’s ever pitched to them, and that you can deliver… that’s the hard part. They have to know that you can deliver it, but if the idea is good enough, theoretically at least, they’ll give you a reply and say ‘look into that for us’.

    John: The audience, not so much. The idea is almost all-important. When I started out in the Jurassic area of the media, the mission I gave myself was to do stuff other people wouldn’t do. An example of that was going and living in the streets for about a month to live with street kids, because back in the early 90s, street kids were flavour of the month. For about a week.

    I went and lived under bridges and on the footpath at King’s Cross and wrote it up for Rolling Stone. The reason I did that was because I knew no one else would do it, [something] that crazy. Some prick from The Courier Mail, I hope it wasn’t you [gestures to Ben]. He got like a baby Walkley once for spending the night in the [Brunswick Street] mall. How dangerous was that? The mall dude, all night! I couldn’t believe that because I’d done the month out there, but the fact… committing yourself to doing stuff that other people will not do means you’ve got that field clear to yourself.

    If you have an idea, then you hit them up with an idea. If you have previously published stuff that looks cool, take it in. A colour photocopy of it is always good. They’re not necessarily going to read it. What they want to see is the masthead that it came from because they go, “oh I know the guy that runs that magazine, that’s cool. If you got in there then you must be okay”.

    [Audience] Do you have any advice on the business side of things, like once you start earning money it gets a bit technical. When you first make it, you really don’t know what you should be doing. You really need to know in advance….

    Ben: Get an accountant, get an accountant, get an accountant. I thought I didn’t need an accountant because I’m in my 20s; who needs an accountant? You need an accountant. You really learn the hard way, and you need an arts accountant. One of the things about joining the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance, the union is that they do provide you with a very comprehensive list of arts accountants that you can access. The reason you need an arts accountant is because a lot of regular accountants who are not used to the bizarre ways in which you earn money, which is completely multi-stream and weird.

    John: One of the beautiful things about being a freelancer is your entire life is deductible. Everything you do can be written about, and should be written about, and therefore can be deducted. You need somebody who works in that field who understands that because it will freak most accountants out.

    Ben: A lot of accountants don’t know about tax ruling 2005/1, which is great.

    John: I love 2005/1!

    Ben: What it means is that you do not even have needed to have earned money in that financial year for those expenses to count towards being tax deductible items. Most accountants don’t know that, but arts accountants do and especially in the case where you’re a screenwriter, you might be working on a screenplay that takes three years, not earning any money off that screenplay in those three years, and in the third year it gets sold to Hollywood and you get douched with cash. That provides tax problems.

    John: Let me just talk a bit about tax problems. You will at some point need an ABN, so just go get it.

    Ben: You can get it now; tonight.

    John: You need it. Once you have your ABN, every time you invoice, you invoice as the entity that has that ABN. Once you’ve done that though, you also need to get yourself a bank account that has net banking. This is really hard, but you totally need to do it. You need to set up a regular transfer from that account to your tax account. The ATO will give you a number for being paid transfers. It doesn’t need to be that much when you kick off. It might only be $20 a week, or $50 a week. Figure out how much you think you’re going to earn in that first year and put a bit aside a month, because I’ve had tax bills that would turn your shit white. The only way to do it is the way that an average punter does it, which is bit by bit, week by week. Do not let these things build up. It’s the curse of our industry.

    Ben: You need to talk to your accountant about stuff like super, because you don’t get superannuation as a freelancer. You have to contribute to it yourself and it’s not something you want to think about in your 20s, but I’ve met a lot of older bastards who say “this is exactly the time you need to think about it,” and it’s true.

    [Audience] Is the Media Alliance a good place to go advice on those sorts of things?

    John: Yeah they’re great, but they do charge you a fee to join, which is fair enough because being great costs money. When I was a young freelancer I used to find it difficult to justify the $180 a year or something, because you might have a year that goes by where nothing happens and you don’t need them. But when you need them, you need them.

    [Audience] Just on more technical stuff, how do you pitch and query? No one uses the stamped, self-addressed envelope anymore. Do you still structure it in the traditional kind of way of laying out a query? Or do you just email them an idea?

    Ben: Well in my experience, I’ve worked alongside editors in different magazines and I’ve seen the way that they deal with pitches and all editors are different. I think the one thing they have in common is that they’re all time-strapped. They immediately know whether a pitch is for them or not. My advice to my students is: don’t pitch one thing at a time, pitch five to seven things at a time.

    In terms of how you structure it or how long they should be, I think one pitch is a ‘par’ [paragraph]; maybe 70-100 words. Within that par, they might suspect that they like that idea or story. The others they’ll discard pretty quickly. They know how to discard quickly, but the other ones, they’ll have suspicions it might be a good story. If they do then what you should be doing within that link is highlighting the text, turning it into a link with some background information so they can do their own sniffing around themselves. You can have a short bullet point list of links after that, see also this, this, and this for background.  Everyone’s got a different technique, but that’s what I do.

    John: When you think about magazines in particular, you open the masthead, open the mag; three or four pages in, the masthead’s there. Who are the actual full timers working in the office? Get the name of the editor, or the deputy editor. If they have a chief of staff, take that name down as well. You’ll find a phone number, which is a general number. It almost always sends you to a switchboard for the publishing company, not for the magazine. It doesn’t matter. You’ve got the name, and say “can I speak to so-and-so?”. You’ll probably go through to a secretary and say “I’ve got an idea I want to pitch; have you got a fax number or email I can send it to?”

    If nothing’s happening, if they’ve actually filed for that month and are sitting around pulling their puds for a day, they might even talk to you right then. Pitch it then and there, but if you can get the whole thing down to one or two lines for the initial hit on them, that’s what you want. Then if they’re interested, you can possibly parlay into an email or fax that will run for 100-150 words, but no more.

    I want to go back to something Ben said. He was referring to ‘one idea per par’ – that’s short for ‘paragraph’. And you mentioned your students. You should point out that you tutor.

    Ben: I sometimes tutor over at QUT as well, so I delivered some of these tips in an end-of-semester ‘bonus tute.’ It’s very exciting. And I talk about the tax thing as well.

    In terms of pitching, what I do is in direct conflict to what you said. I generally have one idea per email, and I tend to flesh it out into a few paragraphs to show that I actually know what the fuck I’m talking about. That’s worked for me pretty well.

    Ben: It depends on the magazine as well. If it’s a magazine that publishes a lot of shorter pieces, like Frankie does, then that sort of rapid fire idea, list of ideas, every issue I probably pitch about 25 ideas to my editor. Some of them will be saved for the next issue, some will go ahead, but she needs that much going on for each issue.

    John: It’s always tougher at the start because you don’t know the editor. Once you have a working relationship and you’ve got their phone number, then as the idea pops into your head you ring them up. What you all want to do is get yourself a stable of about eight or nine income streams that you’re drawing on. Half of them are going to collapse in two or three years. You’re going to have to replenish them with other sources.

    Once you have that eight or nine, it’s [a matter of] doing the rounds. Once a month, when I lived in Sydney, I would physically walk around from magazine to magazine, have a cup of coffee with the editor and say “this is what I want to do”. Once they know you and they trust you, it’s like easy money for them. “I don’t need to think about that issue anymore, I’ve got that feature”. The hard part is building that trust originally and getting them to look at your stuff.

    Ben: One more tip about trust as well, which is a big thing. You are a stranger coming off the street asking these people for work. You need to know the magazine as well, and one of the easiest ways of doing this – and this is a great cheating tip – is that most magazines will have sections, and they’ll have names for those sections. It’ll basically say “culture and style section” [for example] and what the editors have in their room is the layout of the magazine, and four pages for each issue will be that section.

    They want those pages filled, and if you can refer to those sections by name, and even sort of know the rough size of it, it demonstrates to them that you know their magazine really well and you know why it’s a Frankie piece and not a Yen piece. Or you know why it’s a Marie Claire piece and not a Cleo piece. Those sorts of things help gain trust, too.

    Just on pitching quickly; John, how do you pitch these days? Are you in a position where the editors come to you?

    John: They pitch to me. I don’t [pitch]. I’m in the happy position of being too busy. I try and work on two books a year. I may not publish two books in a year but I try to be working on them. I have three columns a week and then two a month for the ABC, and maybe one feature a month after that. I actually don’t have time to think about pitches and sell.

    But sometimes if an idea really appeals to me… for instance, [the video game] L.A. Noire is out this week. I love video games. So I rang Rockstar the other day and said “please send me a disc”… That’s the other great thing about freelancing – freebies. They sent me that disc, because I’ve written about games over the years and we’ve had some drinks. They know me. Knowing people is really important in this gig.

    At some stage, I’ve got to send a [book] manuscript off. I should be at home working at it right now. I hope you appreciate me being here! Once I send this fucker off on Friday, next week it’s all about the Xbox and I’m going to play my way through L.A. Noire. When I finish it, I’m going to write an essay. When I’ve finished writing the essay I’ll sell it, which means I’ll actually have to pitch it to someone. But I’ve already figured out how to do that.

    Ben: I think the great thing that John does – and I think all of you should think about as freelancers or budding potential freelancers – is identifying what you’re really interested in, because everything becomes a story. Every trip you make, or hunches you have, or things you want to explore can be things that are written about. If you’re already interested in it, you’re halfway towards becoming an expert anyway; if you’re already obsessed with a particular game on Xbox, you already have that bank of knowledge.

    You’re essentially getting paid to learn. That’s what I think of this job sometimes.

    Ben: We’re all in nerds!

    In a way, yeah. You figure out something you want to learn more about. You sell the idea and then you work it out. You learn all about it. It’s amazing.


    [Audience] Does it pay to be annoying when pitching? [in terms with contacting editors]

    Ben: I don’t think it ever pays to be annoying.

    John: Niceness is its own reward. I do know what you mean. To be persistent is what you’re asking. Yes, up to the point where you’re annoying, and then no.

    Ben: How do you know when you’re annoying, John?

    John: When they start avoiding your calls. One of the things you probably need to find out if you have a particular publication outlet you want to pitch to, their publishing schedule. At what point in the month do they just refuse to talk to anybody because they are on deadline and they’re not fucking around anymore. If they’re sitting at the desk for 18 hours today peeing into a Coke bottle or this thing is not going to hit the stand, you don’t call them that week. You don’t call them the day after. The day after that, however, is the sweet spot. That’s where they’re vulnerable. That’s when you get them, so find that out. You’re not going to need to be persistent or annoying on the vulnerability day. You just have to turn up.

    Ben: John’s right. Schedules are really invaluable. I’m about to start writing for a new magazine and one of the editors there, one of the section editors sent me these incredibly detailed submission guidelines. I’ve never seen a document so detailed for its contributors, but it’s really great because it shows me the lead time of the magazine so from when they file all the stories, they don’t release those stories until three months later. That’s a sort of rough lead time that Frankie has as well, so stuff we’re writing three months before will show up three months later.

    They also have times and dates of when to pitch as well, so again, a monthly magazine will have that one week in the month where they do not want to hear from anyone. Your pitch will be buried because they’re stressed. The week after it comes out, that’s when they’re open to ideas. You need to know that information so you’re not getting them at a weird time and if they do have submission guidelines, read them thoroughly.

    I have a horror story from a friend who used to be an editor of a youth writing magazine and they did make an effort to have a very comprehensive contributors’ guidelines. There was this one girl who rang up and was very upset because she had submitted a pitch for a story, or perhaps the story itself, and a week later she still had not heard from the editor and she’s like “I’m going to take you to Media Watch. I’m so upset.” On the contributors’ guidelines it was very clearly stated – and not a lot of magazines do this – but it was stated that “we will contact you within a month of you submitting your work and get in touch with you to tell you whether we accept it or reject it”. Most magazines don’t even pay you that courtesy of telling you that they have rejected an idea. If that’s available, get it; and if it’s not available, see if you can get it.

    Picking up on that question again, following up is hugely important. I mentioned my tactic earlier of being introduced to an editor. Even so, as we’ve discussed, editors are super busy and they’re not going to get back to you straight away. There’s nothing wrong with sending a polite follow up saying, “Hey, just following up on this. Can you get back to me? Let me know if you’ll accept freelance submissions, or pitches.” Once a week, every week.

    Ben: I’ll follow up and I realise one of my editor’s daughters ended up in hospital and she’s been away from the job the entire week. That’s why she hasn’t responded.

    John: That can happen when you file copy. You can write a 2,000 or 3,000 word story, stick it in, and then hear nothing. “What happened to that? It must be bad. I killed you with a story it was so bad!” It’s just they’re busy. Something else has happened.

    [Audience] Do you think it’s necessarily a danger to have a niche, or write specifically one thing and to that a lot, or do you think it’s better to cover a few different areas…?

    John: It depends on how good you are at your niche. A friend of mine, Simon Thomsen’s a food writer. It’s what Simon does, writes about food. But he’s great. People from all over the world want him to write about food. So for him the niche thing works. For me, I’m not that good at anything really, so I’ve got to spread myself a bit thinner. It’s really if you have something that you’re really good at and you actually have some expertise in it, then you could seriously think about making it your niche, as long as you think there’s enough of a market there to keep a turnover going.

    Ben: I agree. Just identify what your strengths are, what your interests are. Like John, I’m not too great at anything. I’m interested in politics, but I’m not like a political animal. I’m not Latika Bourke. But I am interested enough to write some things about it, but not in-depth analysis. I’m interested in music, but I’m not completely obsessed by it, so I’ll write some stuff that I am interested in. If you’re completely obsessed by horses… I had one student who knew so much about trucks. Write about trucks!

    John: I worked at the Independent Monthly, the magazine across the hall from us was Truck and Bus Monthly. I so wanted to file for them, but I don’t know shit about trucks.

    [Audience] Some staff reporter jobs allow you to freelance on the side.

    John: It’s pretty rare.

    Do you think it’s possible to even do it?

    Ben: I don’t know. I’m thinking of my friends who work full time for The Courier Mail. They come home buggered. They don’t have the energy for it, and the last thing they want to think about on the weekend is what else they can write about. They want to chill out.

    John: Even having another job that’s not connected at all with the media drains it out of you. One of the reasons that I, at the age of 20 or something, decided I was going to suck up the poverty and write, was because I previously tried to work and write in the evenings. It was just too hard. You get home and you just wanted to destroy yourself with a couple of cones and some shitty TV, not sit down and have a second bite of the cherry that day. You might well be a machine, and you can pull that act off, but most people can’t.

    Ben: It’s hard. I know some writers who were writing a play towards a competition deadline and one of them that I know is a mum of two kids. They’re at the age where the kids need a lot of attention and she looked at her schedule. She’s a working mum as well, and she looked at her schedule and she’s like “you know what? When I take the kids to school, that’s when I go to work. That’s when I do x, y, and z. Where do I find time to write?” What she did for half a year leading up to the competition deadline was simply sleep two hours less and get up two hours earlier and write.

    I know another friend who had a full-time job for a law firm, but she also had a book contract. She looked at her schedule and she didn’t see any time that she could write. She needed to retain a day off for her mental health; Sunday was off-limits. She did exactly the same. She woke up two hours earlier, and she wrote the book.

    [Audience] On that, how did you make the switch into freelancing?

    Ben: I was constantly studying, so I’ve been freelancing in some way, shape, or form since I was 17. I started off with some street press work or rags that were lying around, but I was studying at the same time. The thing is, especially when you’re an undergrad — oh God, I miss undergrad — I just felt like I had a lot of time. I was working but I also got whatever you call it now, youth allowance, and I identified a window I could devote to freelance work, or work experience.

    I finished my degree, did honours, and I was still getting youth allowance. I was picking up some more freelance work and then I picked up tutoring. Then I started doing a doctorate and that gives you a scholarship, so I could pay my rent. I was doing my doctorate with some more freelance work, and I got to a stage where I realised my scholarship was about to run out and “I think I can actually hop over to freelancing full-time”.

    I did something called the NEIS scheme. The NEIS scheme is for when small businesses start out. Because I was working [under] my own ABN, I’m technically a business. I’d never done freelance writing full-time, so when I was about to make that change, suddenly that actually technically qualified as a new small business. ‘Benjamin Law’ is my business, and writing is my small business. They give you the equivalent of the dole over a year, with which I’m intimately acquainted; they give you that exact amount and they give you business training as well. That’s good because at least your rent and food is covered. I gradually made the change. I don’t think I would have survived just doing it your way [gestures at John]. I don’t think I’ve got the chutzpah.

    John: I rorted the dole somethin’ fierce for a couple of years. I didn’t go onto the NEIS scheme. I’m very familiar with it, because the guys who did the Falafel play in Sydney for five years were doing it originally on NEIS. I don’t know that the dole would be an option now because the work tests they impose are really fierce and it was the tightening up of that system that forced me into… working harder.

    Ben: Yeah, wow! It worked.

    John: When I started out I did have some part-time jobs and what I tried to do was choose work that would either not clash intellectually, like office jobs for instance, you are using your head so the last thing you want to do is come back and think about work at the end of the day. I tended to take manual labour jobs, which I loved. One of my first ones was throwing boxes on the back of a truck in the basement of Rolling Stone. I loved that job. It was just great. Another one I had was at a press clipping agency, in the days before the internet. They used to pay people to sit around reading the newspapers, putting little x’s next to them, and maybe cut it out and put it into files. I was ‘the guy who read the paper’. That was complementary work to freelancing because it was constantly building up your knowledge. As far as possible – and it may not be very far possible – you want to find work that either doesn’t clash with what you want to write, or complements. It’s tough.

    I want to talk about the writing itself. When did it first become apparent that you had some talent at this; that what you were submitting was making editors happy, and they were asking you to write more? When was that point?

    John: You should actually know that before you start submitting. A couple of years ago, I did a tour with writers, rather than freelance journalists; actual writers, Nick Earl, Sue Gough, young Sam Watson, the poet. We did a tour through western Queensland. A lot of small country towns with audiences of half a dozen people turning up. We would tell our stories. Because we did this tour together, we told our stories to each other. One of the things that was really interesting was that every single one of the writers on this tour had had the experience at some point; somebody had told them, “that’s not going to work for you. That’s not going to happen.”

    The reaction to that, in every case, was “fuck you; I’m going to make it happen”. That’s not the reaction that naturally comes to people. Most people being told that they can’t write, they’re not going to make it; they actually fold up like a cheap Chinese umbrella, and give up.

    Kate Forsythe, who is a great fantasy writer now, went to a writing seminar with some crazy Canadian author…

    Ben: Margaret Attwood?

    John: Yep. Anyway they had to submit pieces to this and Atwood reads them, and in a very Atwood fashion, tears them up in front of the class and says “you’re all fucked!” Kate just bristles with fury and thinks, “fuckin’ crazy Canadian…slag!” Years later on, she’s a successful fantasy author. The girlfriend she went with: cheap Chinese umbrella. Collapsed. Put her manuscript in the bottom drawer and never took it out again, never wrote again.

    You need to have some confidence in yourself before you start, and you’re really going to fucking need it once you start, because you are going to get rejected. You are going to get knocked back and you’re constantly going to have people telling you that you can’t do it. You need to actually, before you put your fingers on the keyboard or your pen to paper, you need to think “I’m good enough to do this”. You will either have that knowledge now, or you won’t.

    Ben: And you will write some pretty shithouse things that you’re not proud of either, but I think the difference is you need to be able to identify that it was bad and to move on from it, as well.

    John: ‘Rent payers’, I call them.

    Ben: That’s right. You can’t completely collapse. You have to remind yourself that you are capable of good writing and if you do have some pieces that you’re very pleased with and people have told you it is good writing. Put that aside as a reminder that you can keep doing it. This is the literary equivalent of being an actor and constantly auditioning and constantly getting knock-backs as well. You do have to have some sort of internal fortitude about this.

    John: Do not listen to people who tell you it’s not going to work.

    Ben: They’re all fucked.

    John: They are. They’re dead behind the eyes.

    [Audience] Ben, if you don’t mind me asking, would you say your ethnicity, or your sexuality actually enriches your writing?

    Ben: Totally. It makes it so sellable as well. Everyone’s after an ethnic or gay perspective and I’m happy to give it to them. I mean, the thing about heterosexual white male perspective is that people —

    John: Let me tell you how tough that is… White, middle-class male…

    Ben: That is a very unique perspective, but so are all these other perspectives, and you do sort of package yourself in that way, to an extent. That lends you something that informs your work. I know that a lot of my stories are based around that stuff because no one else can write certain things and no one can… there are fewer gay people and there are fewer gay writers, and there are fewer gay perspectives, so I can provide that and I’m happy to. It’s one of many, many out there. The same goes for the Asian thing. ‘The Asian thing’; I should put that on my business car. That is a unique and valid perspective, just as all of you have a very particular background and focus in terms of what you can bring into your work as well.

    I feel almost lucky that I’ve got that ammo, or background, or a background that’s a little bit different, just as all of you have, by the way. All of you are a bit different [laughs] And I think you all know deep inside yourselves what that is. You can actually use that, especially if you write first-person stories.

    [Audience] What’s something that appeals to you in articles or stories that you read?

    Ben: I like things that surprise me; things that upend your expectations. It’s why I like Malcolm Gladwell, for instance. You read something like his book Outliers; it’s a book about the story of success. It looks actually like this hideous business book you wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, but it’s all about how people get successful. When you look at it from an American perspective, you think about ‘the myth of the self-made man’ and stuff like that. Bill Gates got successful because he’s super smart, and he’s very savvy. No; [the book] looks at Bill Gates and interviews Bill Gates and talks about the fact that he came into high school at a very particular time in history and this particular high school had access to this particular technology, and Bill Gates had this amount of time to access that technology. All these things conspired towards him becoming the Microsoft founder. Those sorts of things interest me. Stories about people that I’d never meet in my lifetime interest me, as well. I’m very people-interested; people-focused.

    John: I like people who do interesting things with language. I like to see the English language made new again. One of the first books that I picked up and read again and again was a bunch of magazine stories by a Vietnam war correspondent called Michael Herr, collected in a book called Dispatches and you read this book and it felt like your brain was being turned inside out like a sock because he did such weird stuff to the language that, viewed in isolation, would almost be incomprehensible but viewed in the flow of what Herr was saying it made perfect sense. I’ve always loved that.

    Occasionally, you don’t need to do complete gymnastics with the language. Sometimes you just see people present things in really interesting ways. A line from an Esquire piece about professional gamblers stood out to me once. They gave their staff writers $100,000 and said, “go find me some card counters and do good with them”. He said, “I stood there in the lobby of the magazine with a hundred thousand dollars in a briefcase. That’s a lot of money. It had heft. It had possibilities.” That was just a beautiful line, because everything just unfolded from that. So a well-turned line is a thing of beauty.

    Ben: One more thing, if you want some reading homework – which I’m sure you all do – one of my favourite pieces of narrative journalism from the last few years is a piece that was published in GQ magazine and is available online for free. It’s called “Will You Be My Black Friend?” What I love about that is what I love about a lot of other pieces as well, is it does have a great premise. It follows on from it. It was this piece that was written just before Barack Obama got in. It looked at why in America, which is supposedly this great melting pot of different ethnicities, why so many of us keep to our own. The writing is so punchy. When you were talking about language; the way [the writer] plays with language and jokes is quite astonishing. That’s good homework. The New Journalism by Tom Wolfe is really great homework. If you want more modern update on The New Journalism by Tom Wolfe there’s a great anthology called The New Kings of Non-Fiction. It’s edited by Ira Glass, who hosts a radio show called This American Life. It’s got people like Susan Orlean, and Chuck Klosterman in it, and it’s sublime writing. It’s really a great anthology.

    [Audience] What does it take to be a great freelancer?

    Andrew: What kinds of talents or traits are required?

    Ben: A lack of hygiene.

    John: Obviously the very first thing, you do have to be able to put words in a row, one after the other, in a way that makes people want to keep reading it. That’s number one. You’ve got to make your deadlines. You can’t blow deadlines. Once you’ve been around for a while you can blow one or two, like I have, because you’ve got the momentum of the previously published work to carry you through that embarrassment. It’s very embarrassing, but you must make your deadlines.

    You’ve got to be a bit tough about stuff. You might have to actually sit up until three or four o’clock in the morning watching this weird thing that happens at about 1am, as everybody in the Australian Twitter feed goes to bed. All of a sudden your American followers come online. The screen fills up with avatars you’ve never ever seen before. Who the fuck are these people? You’ve got to find out, because you’re going to sit up until that fucking story is finished. You’re not going to be. You’re not knocking off, but you’re sitting there arse to chair, fingers on the keyboard and you are not fucking moving until it’s done. That’s what it takes to be a freelancer.

    Ben: Total tenacity and endurance, and a lack of desire for conventional hours. You need to be a really great time manager. If you can’t manage your time you’re fucked. You really do need to segment your life in very disciplined chunks and in those chunks you need to know what you have needed to achieve by that time.

    Today I’m writing a story that’s going to be a large story; it’s about nudists, actually. I’ve done so many interviews, but I really needed to have those interviews and all those notes down on the page and ready for me to structure into a story by the end of today so that tomorrow I can actually block out the structure of the story and draft it over the next two days, and then file it. I need to know that story’s filed by then because if it’s not, all that carryover work will bleed into my next assignment and really screw me up. You have to be super disciplined.

    John: On that I will give you some take-away. Google up the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a time management technique. It breaks your day up into 25 minute blocks, divided by five minute segments where you can get up, do some exercise, take a break. It’s Italian for ‘tomato’, based on the tomato timers you see in peoples’ kitchen. It’s a time management technique I use, and it is brutally effective. [Andrew’s note: there’s also an iPhone app, which I use.]

    Long story short: you set your 25 minute timer, you’re working. You’re not answering phones, you’re not checking emails. An email comes in, “you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize!” – the fucker can wait for 25 minutes because you’re in your Pomodoro. You set how many of these things you’re going to assign to a project in the course of a day. You’ve got eight Pomodoro on that book, you knock them over one after the other.

    The other thing you might want to think about: I was forced, about two years ago, to use dictation software. I broke my arm when I was in the middle of a book and the only way I could get copy down was by a program called Dragon Dictate based on the Nuance engine, which you will see a lot of in IOS 5. It’s brilliant. It’s got an incredibly steep learning curve, but I have found combined with the Pomodoro Technique, a standing desk… I don’t sit down when I work anymore. I actually stand, Star Trek-style in front of my computer and I talk to it with my dictation software.

    Ben: That is bizarre.

    John: It sounds bizarre. Before I did this, I would average about 2,000 words a day, which sounds pretty Conan-like. My average now since I have taken these three things – standing up, dictation, Pomodoro, and combine then – I now do four and a half to 5,000 words a day. I invoice at a buck a word. So, think about it.

    Ben: That’s really good.

    If you have any final questions, these guys will be going downstairs where John will tell you some stories that he referred to earlier… maybe. There are a couple of things I wanted to mention. In this room next Tuesday night at the same time, I have staff from the Courier Mail’s Q Weekend magazine here to talk about feature journalism. That’s Matthew Condon, Trent Dalton, and Amanda Watt.

    Let’s not forget this is part of National Young Writers’ Month. If you want to pick up a postcard on the way out, my girlfriend will be handing them out from up the back. It would be great if you could join the website, start talking about writing, and start setting some goals for next month. Could you please thank my guests, John Birmingham and Benjamin Law.


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    For more on National Young Writers’ Month 2011, visit the website. For more on Andrew’s involvement as Queensland ambassador, click here. For the full set of photos taken on the night by Christopher Wright, click here.

    For more John Birmingham (@JohnBirmingham), visit his website, Cheeseburger Gothic. For the transcript of a conversation between John and Andrew in June 2010 about John’s most recent book, After America, click here.

    For more Benjamin Law (@MrBenjaminLaw), visit his website. For the transcript of a conversation between Benjamin and Andrew in April 2010 about Ben’s first novel, The Family Law, click here.

  • A Conversation With Neil Strauss, New York Times bestselling author, 2011

    Almost two years ago, I traveled from Brisbane to Sydney to meet Neil Strauss – my favourite writer [pictured right] – for a face-to-face interview. It was a life-changing experience, and that’s no exaggeration: being in his presence solidified my decision to seriously pursue journalism. (Up until that point, I’d only dabbled; the interview was ostensibly for FourThousand.com.au, a Brisbane-focused online publication). That meeting, and our resultant conversation, is documented in full here.

    This time around, when Neil’s new book Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead – a collection of enlightening and revealing moments taken from his 3000+ interviews with cultural figures for Rolling Stone and The New York Times – appeared on Text Publishing’s Australian release schedule, I was in the position to get paid to interview my favourite writer, rather than spending a few hundred dollars on travel for the same opportunity. Which is nice.

    I interviewed Neil over the phone from his home in California for The Courier-Mail in early March 2011, before the book was released. I published a 800 word article here, which summarised our 45 minute conversation.

    Our full interview transcript is included below.

    Beware: throughout our interview, there are many references to the content of …When You’re Dead, so if you haven’t read it yet, you might want to avoid reading this interview. Maybe not.

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    Firstly, I want to talk about the final chapter of the book, and the epilogue. I thought it was a very touching note to end on; it wrapped everything up nicely. It made me wonder; was that section about [American rock and folk music critic] Paul Nelson always going to close the book? [Note: Nelson died in 2006 due to apparent starvation. Strauss wrote a feature for Rolling Stone about his death, called “The Man Who Disappeared”; in When You’re Dead, he says it was the hardest article he’s ever had to write.]

    No. I don’t think any book is ever planned. It always sort of just happens. I guess I knew I wanted the last section to be about family and mortality, and I felt I put so much heart and time into the Paul Nelson piece, it seems like a fitting epilogue for the book. And it rolled so nicely into the actual epilogue. I knew that each section was going to have a theme, and the last section was really going to look at mortality around different angles, in a parallex way. That got more appropriate there. It just sort of landed there.

    When I’m writing, I never think in advance. I just keep hammering and hammering. They’re like puzzles. You’re putting everything together and you keep rearranging until you feel that it’s right.

    Something that Paul’s ex-wife said made me think of you, Neil. She said, “I found out more about him by reading what he wrote.” I wondered if you’d ever heard the same thing from those close to you.

    [laughs] You know what? That’s such a good comment. I’ve never heard that, but I know it’s 100% true. One hundred per cent true. There are things that I can’t tell people face-to-face, whether they’re just friends of mine, or people I love who are close to my life, yet for some reason I’m not afraid to write about them, even though I know they’ll see ‘em.

    Even the stuff in The Game, I’ve never told people because I was worried they would judge me. The stuff in Rules Of The Game, in that first story about that really, really old woman. My friends would have just ripped… it would have been publicly humiliating. But I guess I feel if I can write it I can really explain it fully, all the dimensions to it and I can make sure it’s said right, and comes out right.

    That way I can say it the best way I can possibly say it. It’s so true. It’s interesting. It might be something… I just interviewed Howard Stern for Rolling Stone, and I realised what we have in common. It’s hard sometimes to communicate the truth, as a guy like me, because it’s hard to deal with peoples’ emotions. If you say something that affects someone you have to deal with their emotional reaction to it. And maybe in a book, as horrible as this sounds, no-one is talking back to you, to that idea. No-one is saying that it’s wrong or that it hurts them, or is an unhealthy way to think, or it’s a judgmental thing to say, or whatever. It’s a semi-one-way conversation. I’m speaking to a bunch of people, but they’re sort of a faceless, invisible mob.

    I see what you mean. Most journalists I know admit to feeling guilty for drilling into peoples’ minds to make their stories public. I’d like to know your take on that.

    I never feel guilty, because I never try to hurt anybody with a story. I’ve never been a gossip reporter. I’ve never sat outside somebody’s house chasing them. Everything I’ve ever written, at least in journalism, is in the context of, you know, “I’m here to write a story, and anything you say or do can end up in that story”. So they’re making the choices. I’ve never tried to assassinate anyone. I’m always trying to show them as they are.

    Sometimes I feel guilty in the sense of after we did this interview; say I spent a long time with this musician, and I’m leaving with four hours of recordings of them spilling their soul to me, and all of a sudden it’s like, “thank you very much, good-bye”, and I’m just walking away with their soul on a tape, to some degree. They have nothing. That part always feels strange to me, like having sex with someone, then pulling out and running away.

    The fact that you’re working with ‘household names’ most of the time, does that increase the guilt, knowing that you’re exposing them even further?

    No. I would feel that with anyone. If I’d just interviewed a guy off the street for four hours, or for a day or a week, about their inner most thoughts and fears; their life, their insecurities, and their hopes and dreams and ambitions, and then I just walked away… I’d still feel horrible, because they have nothing. I’ve got this tape recorder that has everything. It’s a feeling of: I’ve taken something and I’ve walked away with it, and what do they have? Nothing.

    Even though that’s not how it works – obviously they have the promotion and the press and whatever the article is [about] – but it’s still a way where they’re bereft, and here I am with everything. You try and shape it as honestly as you can, but there’s also a trust element, where you could shape it any way you want.

    Speaking broadly, have you thought much about why people are so interested to read about the lives of famous people?

    I don’t believe that. I didn’t put the most famous people I interviewed in the book. A lot of the people I interviewed, whose heart and fame I adore, whether it’s Stevie Wonder, Iggy Pop… who I didn’t put in the book, because the interviews weren’t revelatory. I think if anything, what makes it look unique is: there are a lot of people who spend their lives interviewing famous people, but just as interesting as Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake and Bruce Springsteen are Von Lmo, and Patrick Miller, and Lucia Pamela, who probably 99.9% of readers never heard of. And yet they’re going to find those just as interesting as the big stars.

    I just think people are interesting if you get them at the right moment, you know? [laughs] I do think that on some level, celebrities are being used to sell the book, and that’s a lot of what I’ve written about, but to me the Ernie K-Doe experience – the 50s R&B star who tried to have me arrested, or again, Patrick Miller who’s smoking crack and doing heroin in his basement and fighting off hallucinations – they’re even more interesting than reading about… for example, Led Zeppelin just being assholes. [laughs]

    To talk about the book in broader terms; this book is not directly about you, it’s about revealing other people. It’s been a while since you’ve done a project like that.

    Right. But I think in a lot of ways the book is about me. I really made a conscious effort to keep myself out of it but I think between the lines, the book really is an element of my… I think each book is little elements of my autobiography. Whether it’s The Game, which covers a couple of years; Emergency covers a couple years. This, to me, is like the prequel in some ways, [laughs] because this is all I did for 20 years. This is my life for that time, and I think if you look at the pieces, you can see my own evolution as a person. Whether it’s Led Zeppelin making fun of me [for being inexperienced], to learning The Game and trying to seduce people into these interviews, to much later, meeting Lady Gaga and Chuck Berry and giving them life advice. I can see my own evolution in the book. It’s just not explicit.

    When you began putting this book together, at what point did you decide to do that concept of the threaded narratives, or ‘open loops’?

    I think what I did was, I broke down all those interviews to those little clips, and each clip was a standalone clip. Then I collected the most interesting [clips]. Some people were interesting for only one clip, for one little vignette. Other people maybe had three or four vignettes in which they were interesting. Then I sort of sequenced them together, so that everything matched together. The vignettes were really standalone stories about an idea, so I thought that it’d be nice where, “Hey, we get this idea, now here’s a couple ideas from someone else, now let’s return to a new idea for that person we just met”.

    I kind of saw each piece as almost a standalone piece. Even when they continue from scene one to scene two to scene three, sometimes the story continues. Sometimes they’re just completely separate ideas. Other times, which I kind of like, you see artists at different times in their career. Maybe a couple years later, they feel bad about what they said earlier.

    It’s interesting that a lot of the segues between the vignettes are artists mentioning other artists. That shows the breadth of the 20 years that you’ve spent doing this.

    Yeah, it’s really funny. I’d probably say, with one or two notable exceptions, almost every artist someone mentions is interviewed elsewhere in the book, so it’s like the book itself; it’s kind of a closed loop. It is funny, there really were points where Trent Reznor mentions Beck, Gwen Stefani, Marilyn Manson and Oasis and I’ve got all four of those people interviewed elsewhere in the book. It’s like: which one do I put next?

    I think there’s one section where all the artists are always talking about each other, Billy Corgan, Marilyn Manson, I think Courtney Love, Dave Navarro, And they’re all kind of referencing each other.

    You state in the intro that “you can tell a lot about a person in a minute, if you pick the right minute”. Was that always the premise of the book?

    No, the original idea was because Emergency – as you know from when we talkedEmergency was so much work. I basically had to learn how to rebuild the entirety of civilisation all by myself, you know? [laughs] It was so intense, so much work, I thought I’d give myself a break and do an anthology because anyone who’s been writing articles and features for 20 years feels like, “why not collect my favourite pieces and put them in a book?”

    I started collecting [my] pieces and reading them, but… I like telling stories. There were no through lines. I bought a bunch of anthologies from writers I liked. Half of them I didn’t finish, because I got bored. With the other half, after I was done, I was bored of the writer, and bored of the voice, because it’s not a book if it’s just articles bound together.

    Although it literally is my dream project, as for over 10 years I’d been collecting all my favourite articles in a file to put into an essay book. Then I realised it doesn’t work. Every book one does, or every film, or every record should be good enough that if anybody starts with any single one, they’ll then want to read the rest of what you’ve done. I felt if somebody read [a straight anthology] first, and it was the first book of mine [that they’d read], they might not be be intrigued enough to want to read the others.

    I wrestled with it for a while. I thought I’d write a story about being a down-and-out writer in New York, and merge some of the articles that happened during that time, and tried a couple of other formats. Gradually I realised that essentially, these articles were moments when you saw the real person behind the mask.

    I started collecting those. That two month quickie book became fuckin’ two years of intense work. Unlike Emergency, which was fun, I got to go live off in the wild and learn how to pick locks and go to junkyards and hotwire cars. The Game was fun because I got to run around the world and meet women. This time, I was stuck in a room with my own past, sorting through thousands of pages of transcriptions.

    The way I think of it, this book is the journalistic opposite of taking the easy way out. Like you said, rather than putting together your best, or favourite published work, you’ve really gone through and mined your past for the best material.

    Yeah, and it’s funny because I even had most of the interviews re-transcribed. I had somebody go back to the tapes. I said, “I want every time someone coughs, every time they paused, every time there’s an interruption, I want you to write it out like it’s a play and tell me everything going on”. Even though that’s time consuming and expensive and laborious, I was pretty adamant about getting everything from those tapes and looking for those little moments.

    I was going to ask: how much of this book existed on your hard drive already?

    I think only about 10% were on the hard drive as they were.  A lot were already transcribed, but just not well enough. Sometimes, for example, if it’s someone transcribing something, they might not take the part where the guy just asked me as an off-hand thing, “Hey, do you know now to make beans?” The truth is; the guy who’s talking about his album and why he wrote songs, it’s really more revealing to me that he asks the journalist “How do you make beans?,” because he’s trying to cook for his son. That tells me more about the person than some long story about his album. I tried to get most of them transcribed, and the only ones that didn’t were when I couldn’t find the original tapes. I literally called people who transcribed tapes 10 years ago, and had them find the tapes and bring them back to me.

    Was this the first time in your career that you’d really sat down and gone through all your old stuff?

    For sure. Absolutely.

    What were some of the personal highlights when you were going through that material?

    To me, the highlight for sure was finding all these all pitch letters I’d written to people, trying to write articles for different magazines, different newspapers; finding letters I’d written to my family about how excited I was that this article was out, because you forget how much you struggled sometimes. You forget how excited you are at those first-floor victories. That was kinda moving. It’s really easy to forget the past, because we get so caught up in the present. It was cool to see that. Everyone has a passion and a dream, and it was cool to see that I somehow was lucky enough to live that passionate dream, and even overshot, somewhat, my goal. My only goal was to write a weekly column for Village Voice. I did that by the time I was 22, so everything since then has been gravy.

    That’s awesome. Let’s talk about interviewing. What is an interview to you, now? Has it changed since you started doing interviews back then?

    No. I think I’m better at it. The interview’s still the same thing. An interview is still me trying to get as close to someone I can and write an article that somehow captures who they are, and that says something new about the person that hasn’t been written before. It’s always been the same thing, and I’ve always been really hard on myself about them. They’re never easy, and they need a lot of preparation.

    What makes a good interview?

    In the end, it’s about how you write it. I could say to me there are three kinds of good interviews. I’m just thinking of this out loud as we’re talking. One is where someone really examines themselves in a very honest way and is really emotionally vulnerable, and open, and honest with you. Another kind of good interview is where crazy shit happens, like the first time I’m going to interview Motley Crue, and the police are literally arresting Nikki and Tommy, and in the meantime Vince Neil is blow-drying his hair the whole time. That’s a great interview. They haven’t said a word, and it’s already the fucking best interview ever. The third kind is where the subject sucks, where they’ve got fucking nothing to say. They’re really closed off, not giving you anything, and then that’s an opportunity for me to be a creative writer. [laughs] One thing is the material. The other thing is what you make of it.

    I saw a recent press interview for this book, with Cleveland.com, where you told them that when you do an interview you’re petrified with fear and you’re stressed out. I’m surprised that you still feel this way, after doing it for over 20 years.

    For sure, man. My last interview was with Howard Stern… I’m definitely doing fewer and fewer [interviews] over time. I really only want to do one or two a year. But yeah, of course [I’m stressed], because you have to somehow go in, you have a limited amount of time with someone, and you have to walk away and leave with something they’ve never told to anyone else before, or at least any other writer before. That’s a lot of pressure. You’re not in control of it, they’re in control of it.

    My last interview with Howard Stern, who spills his whole life on the radio every day. How do you get that guy to say something new? There’s a burden. I think the better you get at something, the more intimidating it gets. For example, the better I got at pickup during The Game, the harder the approach was because my expectations and everyone else’s expectations were so high of me. To make the parallel, when I approached a girl in the past, if I didn’t get slapped or laughed at, it was a success. In other words, if some crazy wild adventure didn’t happen with this woman, then I failed.

    It’s the same with an interview. In the past, just to get the interview was enough. I succeeded by getting to be in the same room as this great artist who I looked up to. Now it’s not enough. I’ve got to get the best interview this person has ever given in their life. So the better you get at something, the harder and more intimidating it gets. I’m sure that’s true for you. When we had that interview before, I would say the success was fucking even getting it [in the first place].

    Definitely. I know what you mean. You said when we first met that your goal was to get the best possible material out of someone, and like you said; if it’s someone who speaks for a living it’s hard to find some new truth in that. But it’s still the goal. It’s my goal every time, regardless whether it’s a 15 minute phoner or a couple of days with someone, you still want to get the best. You want to be the best. It’s your standards you’ve got to live up to and you want to put them as high as you can.

    Yeah. And as an interviewer, you’re not in control of that. If you’re just writing an article you can make it the best if it’s all up to you, and how well you write, but in an interview you’re not in control of that. I agree.

    Is it a matter of the bigger the star you interview the more nervous you are beforehand, or is it similar across the board?

    I think it all depends on the situation. I’m more nervous if the star has only given us one hour in a room together. Unless I’m going to be going on tour with them for a week because I know I’ll get time to get what I need. I guess it’s not how famous they are, it’s how short of a time I have to get to connect with them.

    When we first met, I think the first thing you told me when you walked over and looked at my sheet of paper, was: “Ready for all 15 questions,” and then you said what you do to prepare for an interview is brainwash yourself with the person’s career and write down every single question that comes to mind. Now besides those two elements, researching and writing down questions, is there something more? Is there a routine to preparing for interviews beyond just research?

    I think it’s kind of what I said before, that brainwashing which is reading all the books, reading every article about them, reading any books if they’ve written any, listening to every album, watching every movie they’re in, and then as I’m doing these things writing down every question that I can possibly ever thing of. Then studying those questions and arranging those questions in a sequence I kind of want to ask them, and then studying those questions like I’m preparing for an exam, where I don’t know what the questions are going to be on the test. [laughs] There’s a lot of big interviews I turned down, because I really didn’t want to get that deep. I wasn’t that interested enough in the artist to get that deep in their life, and their work.

    When you’re meeting face-to-face with your subjects, do you pick clothes to make you appear a certain way?

    No, in fact I’ll usually dress more down than I would if I was going out myself because I want them to know they’re they star, I’m not trying to say… I think if someone walked into the interview saying “hey, we’re equals! Hey, look at me, I’m one of you too!” the star’s already like “no you’re not.” [laughs] So if anything, I try to play myself down. Even the Howard Stern interview I did today ended up on the air and it’s on TV and you see it, I’m dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans. I really try to be like, “you’re the star. I’m not going to be so embarrassing you can’t be seen with me, but I’m not going to be dressed like I think I’m a star too”. I think that’s the wrong attitude to go into an interview with. In fact, going into any situation whether it’s pickup, survival, or an interview trying to impress someone is the exact wrong attitude to have.

    The way you say that makes me think that you’ve made that mistake in the past and you learned not to act that way. Is that correct?

    No, I never did because when I started out, I really was super, super humbled by these amazing people I got to be in the same room with. And I really was kind of young and innocent. I did it before, but it wasn’t a mistake, when I did that Ludacris interview. There was an idea that we had the ‘Ho’lympics’, a contest where it was me against Ludacris doing all these crazy things, like the one-hand bra unhooking contest. I brought one of my peacocking outfits from The Game, like this snakeskin suit. It was funny. He loved it. He thought it was fucking hilarious. It hasn’t been a mistake when I’ve done it in the past and I think it’s less about dress and more about attitude. But I know my place, I know the role. They’re the star and I’m the person who’s translating that message to the world.

    Out of interest, Neil, do you have a musical background?

    No, I can play a little bit of music and I’ve even been in bands and stuff, but my goal was never to be a musician. If anything, if I was to end up anywhere in the musical side of things it would have been as a producer, because I think in a way it’s similar to being a critic. There’s a sense of saying “what can we do?”. It’s being a critic, but earlier on in the process, where you can actually have some effect on the music.

    True, I see that. The reason I asked is: that bit of musical knowledge that you have beyond being a critic – you actually know how to play some music – do you think that’s been advantageous for you to help relate to musicians?

    Not always. Sometimes it’s been fun, because I did piece on this band Sebadoh, and we went and recorded a punk rock single together. There were a lot of cool things that didn’t make it in the book, but I had to select what was most interesting. But [musical knowledge] has helped in a couple of cases. I also find that musical dialogue won’t be interesting to the general audience of Rolling Stone or The New York Times. If I wrote for Musician or Guitar World it would, but I think that would have hurt the interviews. Because maybe [the interview subject and I] would have bonded over it, but it’s not going to create any kind of dialogue that’s going to be appropriate for that kind of article.

    I think there might be an element, too, of if you cover musicians, then I think you need to come in as a journalist, and not as a fellow musician. To me, the best asset one has in an interview is curiosity. It’s better than an outfit; better than musical knowledge. And even having brushed up and having prepared, I think genuine, sincere curiosity is the best tool you have.

    I find that simply listening and responding to a person is just as important as background research. A good example of that in the book – of you just listening and going with the flow – is when you tell Britney Spears that you know exactly what she’s talking about, even though you have no idea.

    [laughs] Yeah, exactly. I think there are a lot of points in a lot of interviews where you’re saying ‘yes’. We’re agreeing just so you don’t stop the roll they’re on. I think there’s definitely some crazy things I’ve fucking agreed with in interviews. I think it’s important not to judge the person in an interview, and not to judge whether they’re right or wrong, or if it makes sense. The job is to let them speak. Often, some of them I don’t even know… it isn’t until I look at the transcripts that I know what someone was really saying, or trying to say, because I can slow it down.

    To talk about some more specific sections of the book, my favourite band of all time is Led Zeppelin, so I thoroughly enjoyed that section. [Neil interviewed Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for The New York Times. It was their first interview together since Zeppelin broke up 14 years earlier.]

    That’s awesome.

    I want to know what was going through your mind when you discovered that you hadn’t recorded those first 40 minutes of your interview.

    One, was that I was so fucking mad at myself. There are two interviews… I also love Ray Davies of The Kinks, and I missed that interview, too. I was just furious. After that, I started bringing two tape recorders to every interview and I’d have them recorded on two audio recorders just in case one failed, or goes wrong. I was thinking: “how do I re-ask these same questions and get those answers without them catching on?”

    The other funny thing about that interview was that I was so young, and they were these icons. I think I’d read [Zeppelin biography] Hammer of the Gods and was obsessed about their… I was a guy who’d maybe slept with one or two women my whole life, so I think I was more obsessed with their sex life than their music. [laughs] And I wanted to know the story. I think at one point Jimmy Page asked me, “Do you have any questions that don’t involve sex?” [laughs] To me, they were legends not just for their music, but the lifestyle around it.

    That bit about how you missed the first 40 minutes, it’s funny because it’s such a rookie error, and yet it was one of your first assignments for The New York Times.

    Yeah! And that happens. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. There are so many things that could go wrong, especially with cassette decks. You can plug the microphone in the headphone jack, the batteries can die in the middle of the interview and you don’t notice it. The pause button can be on, and you’re recording. I think every one of these errors has happened to me, and that’s my biggest paranoia. I’m almost OCD about checking to make sure that it’s recording. Especially now, I get really paranoid with digital recorders because after you stop it, it has to store the information after you stop it, and what if it doesn’t store… I get so paranoid, man, because you can’t recreate what just happened.

    That’s true. But you’ve got to have faith in technology, Neil.

    You can have faith in technology, but if it goes wrong… like, you don’t know what’s left on your computer if it shuts down, and you lose your work.

    I see where you’re coming from. I’ll remain blissfully naïve until that happens to me.

    You can have faith in technology, and technology has things that are operated on electricity. Batteries can die. You can be working there and the power can go; anything can happen, especially when one has more faith in technology than one has in one’s self. One can rely on one’s self, you can’t rely on technology.

    Some of my favourite parts in the book were when you revealed part of yourself, like right near the start when you’re talking with Madonna about drugs. You said that you didn’t like pills because “it’s a control thing”, and by making a statement and not asking a question, you encouraged her to go off on her little tangent about how she feels about that, which is an interesting tactic.

    I do find that… I put those parts in this book less, but I’ll tell you something interesting, which is that as I was compiling the book, I was going back through a lot of parts in the book. You have to give a little to get something, so the parts of Madonna in the book – I saved these. I’ve got about 100 pages of it, I kind of collected my own personal biography through these interviews with these artists because at some point I’m telling them about my life. I’m telling Bruce Springsteen about how I got a job at The New York Times. I’m telling Lady Gaga about how I came to write The Game. I’m telling Tom Cruise about, I think about The Game also. I’m talking to Christine Aguilera about my childhood. I collected those parts of the interviews because I thought it would be fun if I ever do a straight-up biography, to mix in those interviews.

    I was impressed by a few sections where you revealed your ability to form a bond with some of your subjects, like Shawn [Crahan] from Slipknot, and Chuck Berry.

    Going back to what you were saying before, I do think I was very conscious to leave myself out of this as much as possible because I felt like you can see the book is showing who these other people are, and the less I’m in it, the better. In all my books, even though I might be a central character in The Game and Emergency, I still tried to put myself in as little, only in there as much as necessary to understand the subject being written about. I’m not in The Game and Emergency, I’m not giving my whole biography. I think I did the same thing in here, I just tried to give myself as little as possible, as was necessary to get to know the subject. But you like when those special bonds happen, you were saying?

    Yeah, it’s cool, because the only time that most fans see these musicians is when they’re performing on stage, or in a music video, or they’re being interviewed on TV. But when you break outside of that… like how Shawn from Slipknot took the second cup from the top of a cup pyramid; this tiny little detail tells you a lot about a person.

    Yeah, and I loved that. That’s one of my favourite things about this [book] is when you come back and check in with someone later and see how they’ve grown, how they’ve changed, how maybe they take back what they said then, whether they’re sober or whether they’re on drugs. Whether they’re talking rehab speak – it’s a really cool barometer of watching someone grow in these little snapshots. They tell you about your own life too, because you can see how you’ve changed in those interviews as well.

    But my favourite time to talk to artists is when they’re in the creative process, versus when they’re in the promotional process. I love talking to them when they’re in the midst of creation because then they’re really wrestling, they’re really raw. When you get them in the promotion process, they’re closed.

    I think an example in the book was Trent Reznor; you made that comment about how he was unpacking a videogamesconsoles, which would be upsetting to his listeners, because he’s obviously procrastinating, and not creating music.

    Yeah. And I loved that interview, because it was so honest.

    The idea of revealing a bit of yourself to the reader, there was a bit more of that when you asked Brian Wilson whether he’s a nervous person. Then you went on to state that having a very domineering, critical father can make people nervous and hesitant later in life, which I believe is a reflection of your own life.

    It wasn’t that case, I think it was just from observation. I do have critical parents, probably more so on my mother’s side, but I think that was more like a general observation from a number of interviews, [as opposed to] saying that about myself. Though of course in interviews, I will often talk about myself. Again, I think if someone tries to suck all the information out, you’re kind of an asshole if you’re out to do that. There should be reciprocity. But I definitely wasn’t referring to myself in that case. Though now that you mention it, I definitely grew up in a household where nothing was ever good enough, and that definitely probably did contribute to the hesitancy and lack of confidence later in life, for sure.

    After The Game came out and you started to get noticed, were there many instances during interviews of your reputation preceding you? Were some of your subjects were already aware of your work, even beyond music journalism?

    Yeah, and it usually helped if they were aware of my work. I think it’s definitely true, versus some random name coming in to interview them, or a guy whose stories they’ve read in Rolling Stone. If they’ve sat there with a book, and read a book. It definitely helped.

    Are you concerned that journalists like myself are going to read the book and steal your best material?

    No, because that material is already out there. I mean, to me it’s like if somebody steals it… I’m scared until it’s out, like before I put the book out, I’m scared someone else is going to do an anthology like this, when it hasn’t been done before, and some other journalist is going to think about creating something like this. But once it’s out, I look forward to people… let’s not say stealing, but being inspired by it. [laughs] I think that’s the most awesome thing ever. If someone likes it enough to do something similar or use that material in their own way, that’s cool. Otherwise you’d never do anything, because otherwise you’d just be frozen.

    There were two questions you asked in the book that totally blew me away, because I would never even have considered asking them. Do you want to know what they are?

    Yeah, go ahead. Wait, I know your first one’s going to be: “could you made the best album ever, then bury it and never listen to it, but still be content?”

    Yeah, that’s one.

    And is the other one about “what’s more important, music or children”?

    No.

    I liked that one. “What’s the thing you felt you’ve given to the world most, music or children? What’s benefitted the world more?”

    The other one was what you asked [the rapper] The Game – “what was the first money you ever made?” It’s such a simple question, but his answer reveals so much about him.

    Oh yeah, “the first money I made wasn’t made, it was stolen”. [laughs] I don’t have stock questions I ask everybody. I really should have a list of questions I ask everybody, but I don’t.  I usually ask that if I’m curious about it for that particular person. There are a couple that have been themes in my life because I’m always curious about family, and curious about artistic stuff.

    So, my last question: have you sent this book out to any of the people who you interviewed?

    Umm… no. [laughs]

    Are you intending to?

    No, I’m not planning to. I’ll just think I’ll let them find it. I don’t know why. It seems to me something where… for some reason, it seems boastful to send it to them. I don’t know why. I probably should. I think that would be a good idea to do. Even, like, Russell Brand, who I’m friends with, he told me I was in his book, and I didn’t tell him he was in my book. So I should probably do that.

    Totally. Alright Neil, I’ll leave it there.

    I look forward to catching up with you at a more calm point, and seeing you when I’m in Australia.

    For sure man. Thanks for your time.

    Thanks man. It’s been fun watching your evolution. Bye Andrew.

    ++

    For more Neil Strauss, visit his website or follow him or Twitter.

  • A Conversation With Matthew Condon, Brisbane-based author and journalist

    Brisbane author Matthew CondonI met with Brisbane-based author and journalist Matthew Condon [pictured right] in late June 2010, to discuss his newest book, Brisbane, for a profile in The Weekend Australian Review. You can read that story here.

    Full transcript of our conversation is below. As mentioned elsewhere, this was a particularly enjoyable interview, as Matthew is one of my favourite feature writers – I hold his work for The Courier-Mail’s QWeekend magazine in high regard. Brisbane is a great read, too.

    Beware: for those who haven’t read Brisbane, there are spoilers.

    ++

    Andrew: I read your book yesterday.

    Matthew: Right.

    To give you a bit of my background, I grew up in Bundaberg, then came to Brisbane for university in 2006. Although my father’s from Brisbane, I’ve not paid a lot of attention to Brisbane’s history, so I did find it quite an educational experience. I liked the way that you blended it alongside your stories from growing up in this city.

    Obviously, I had to include the history, but I wanted the book to move back and forth in time to try and get that effect of – ‘is the past still in the present?’, and so I structured it in that way, no chapters, that it would just meander, and that the present and past would constantly chafe against each other. There were little thematic links; I tried to stitch it through and run a few parallel narratives so that at least rather than a dreary history of a city, that it would have at least a few narrative lines that would pull people through it.

    It definitely had a narrative arc, from your experiences as a child through to you telling your children about the history of Brisbane, and them asking questions.

    That was organic, really, as the book grew. It was interesting how that line of it sort of came to the surface. I didn’t have an intention to write a book about children; however, maybe writing about Brisbane and my childhood is looking for the child that I was, and then seeing it perhaps in my children.

    So, in a way, that too is the shimmering of the past and the present, which I think is unique. Ironically, even though we have very little historical buildings, my point of the narrative line of F.W.S. Cumbrae-Stewart and the monument was this; what does it say generationally about the people of the city that really aren’t that fussed with historical accuracy? What does it mean, and does it flow through?

    Even though we had very few historical monuments left in terms of buildings and treasuring our historical sites, it’s still weirdly a city where the past is always somehow present to me. This is just my view, but is that nostalgia? Maybe it is. I don’t know. It’s a city that I think most Brisbane people who go away and come back, it’s a city that puts its claws into your heart, funnily enough.

    The recurring metaphor you use, a ‘book without an index’, seems quite apt.

    Yeah, a lot of people will get upset with that but I think it’s very true. When I went to look for my relatives in Toowong Cemetery, I’ve since been in touch with them and they’ve said “you can always come to the office and we’ll guide you,” but the point is if you want to wander in and visit your antecedents, it’s a very difficult thing to do. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard.

    So to me, the cemetery in the end of the book became a microcosm of this entire city. Funnily enough, topographically, it’s sort of a miniature – it’s the leaders on the hills, the rest of us are down in the valleys, which is very much as Brisbane is now. The ridges are either populated by the church, or the wealthy, and that’s a paradigm that replicates itself in cities across the world. It’s not just Brisbane.

    So what was the brief you received for this book? How did Phillipa [McGuinness, New South books’ commissioning editor] bring it to you?

    The brief was probably the singular most simplistic, liberating brief that I’ve ever received. She just said “Look, you do Brisbane and approach it the way you wish,” which on one hand is brilliant. On the other, when you come down to practically writing, when you come down to trying to put your arms around an entire city, it was very difficult. It sounded great.

    The task was very difficult because I had deliberated for months and months, how does one write and capture a city? How do you go about it? Then I decided it’s impossible, it really is impossible to do it thoroughly. It would be endless. The city is organic. It’s constantly shifting and changing, so I had to not be afraid of giving myself limitations, that it would be my personal view, and after months and months of deliberating and thinking the usual; does one do it by the seasons, or to give yourself this sort of predictable structure?

    And then I tossed all of them through my mind and one day I just decided “Look, I’m going to go to where X marks the spot, where Oxley came ashore. That’s the Caucasian history of the city. I’ll start there, and I’ll see where it takes me.” I did that.

    One day I just put a notebook in a bag and a camera, and I went down to North Quay, to the dreary granite monument, and I’d never stood before it. I’d seen it a million times, all through my life, and as I wrote. So I stood there with the traffic roaring on both sides, and something about it… [laughs] I don’t know what it was, something about it struck me as wrong. The wording was sort of hesitant. It didn’t feel right. So I thought, “Okay, this is where I start. I’ll investigate the monument.” And that kicked the journey off, really.

    I liked how you brought your investigative journalism with Qweekend into the mix. That’s probably what influenced Phillipa in asking you to do it, in that you’d been writing in and around Brisbane since you returned.

    Book cover for 'Brisbane' by Matthew CondonThat’s a really good point, because I only realised halfway through the book how important it had been to be doing that journalism for five years, and how in fact I’d touched on many, many things across the city – both contemporary and historical – and I wasn’t as removed from it as I actually thought that I was.

    I looked at this book personally as a way of trying to write my way back into the city. When I came back, I felt I knew it was the city I’d been born in. In those first couple of years, I’d drive past my childhood house several times. It was me trying to reconnect with a city that I’d lost touch with for 18-odd years. And something deep inside of me told me to do this book, because perhaps it would embed me back into Brisbane. In many ways, it did that.

    It required me to concentrate on the geography, the landscape, where I was living, and to open my eyes, basically. So, it served a very important personal purpose for me. Doing the book made me feel more comfortable and relaxed here now, and at home, in a sense.

    And along the way you did touch upon some personal experiences, like finding that film canister in your great grandfather’s darkroom.

    Yeah; that’s a story from when I was about 12, and it just fitted into this book, in terms of me searching for evidence of myself and hopefully the wider populace of my generation in particular. You’re of a different generation, but as I’d mentioned in the book; when one leaves a city like Brisbane, the longer you’re away, the more the city that it was to you calcifies in your mind, and becomes fixed as ‘Brisbane the city’, your home city. But cities move on. People grow older, things happen, buildings get torn down, landscapes change, cultures change. Brisbane’s culture is phenomenally, vastly different from when I left.

    When you come back you’re shocked. It’s not what you thought it was, because you’ve sort of fairytale’d it in your head. I realised only after I’d written it and read through it that the book is a partial examination of memory and the function of memory.

    Indeed as you’ve noted, at the end of the book I test my memories against living contemporary people in my life. They say “No, that didn’t happen, that’s not here, no.” So it’s an examination of memory and how we fictionalise ourselves, so there’s that game playing in the book as well.

    When that part came up, it was a real shock because it was almost like breaking the fourth wall, I suppose, to say “So this is what I’ve written, but these parts might be false. These might not have happened.”

    Exactly, and it’s sort of a spring that unloads in the book, I think. And, when I wrote that little section, it’s not huge, I was trying to be as honest as I humanly could. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe all of that memory I have has altered, changed, mutated over 20 or 30 years. Maybe that’s what we do with memory, we fit it to suit ourselves, and we reinvent lines of family life and history. How do we do that? Why do we do that? Why does that happen?

    Maybe it’s like the monument in that we ultimately end up believing that’s really where Oxley came ashore, even though in the back of our mind we know it’s wrong. So maybe that’s a sort of human trait that is obvious to most people, but it’s just something that grew as part of the investigation, and the journey through the book.

    I wanted the book to represent a journey as well, because it was a journey for me. It was while I had young children and all of that was kicking in, and looking at my son; he stars in the book to some degree. There were moments when I’d look at him and go “That’s me. I’m time travelling here.” Some things that he would do, I did that, precisely.

    And so there’s a way we can travel through time in that sense and I wanted to try, whether it’s even humanly possible to replicate that in literature I don’t know, but I was trying to do that, as best as I could to enunciate the passage of time, which has always been funnily enough a preoccupation with my work. Now that I’m older and have written several things, I see now… you see a recurrent theme. Now, there’s a primary theme.

    I like how you dwelled upon the issue of time in Brisbane, centuries ago, when there was no one clock that told the time, and it was driving people crazy.

    [laughs] It’s always been a city that has an uncomfortable relationship with time I think. [laughs] I really do think that. To others, for decades, we were always seen as “behind the times” and you know; that’s a part of the fabric of this town, really.

    I like the way that you segued into the city hall and the clock tower discussion, how you and your son were sitting in your home and you heard the bell chime from city hall.

    Yeah, and that’s happened a few times since. I was just sitting there with my son. I remember my grandmother lives not far, around the corner from where I live now in Paddington, and I remember sitting on the back step of her tiny little old Queenslander and you could hear the clock. To hear it again, through the business of a modern metropolis, raised the hairs on my neck, basically. That might seem uninteresting and minor to some people but it was like reaching your arm back in time 40 years. It was creepy.

    And little things like that happened. When writers are doing a book they often go “Oh there was an incredible coincidence while I was writing the book, this happened.” I’ve had that for several books, that things – you go “That’s perfect for my book! I can’t believe that just happened.”

    But I think when you’re working on a project, your antennae are so sensitised to what you’re doing that things come in and you notice things specific to your project. You’re more attentive to everything, and sensitive to everything. And they’re not coincidences; it’s just that you have a heightened sense of appreciation when you’re embedded in a project like that. That’s sort of what happened with this book when my son and I were down at the park opposite Suncorp [Stadium, Milton], as I wrote in the book.

    I’d just been researching how that was the first major cemetery for the city, and that day after it had rained and he said “Daddy, it smells like skeletons,” and that’s a direct quote from him. I thought “Wow, I can use that!” [laughs]

    I hope your son appreciates how much of a star he is in the book when he reads it.

    At the moment he’s reading about dinosaurs and spiders, but he may. He narrated to me his first short story the other night. He’s almost five. It was called “The Mantis in the Plane by the Sea”. And so I transcribe it and read it out for him so that one day he might look at that and go “Wow, that’s interesting.” I guess I’m quite a sentimental person, human being as well. I’ll keep them; whether he addresses or not is not important, but I’ll keep them for him.

    Phillipa tells me that the series was pitched as “travel books when no one leaves home,” but you’re a bit of an anomaly to the book process because you did leave for the middle part of your life so far. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing because it allows you to step away and describe and outsider’s perspective of Brisbane and how you felt upon leaving and upon returning.

    Brisbane author and journalist Matthew CondonExactly. I think I was in a unique position, having been born here, and left for important years of my life to come back and see this demonstrable change. On one level, yes, enormous change, but as I’ve tried to portray in the book, a constancy running underneath as well. The Brisbane light, the feel, the weather, the lushness, the vegetation – that’s the same as when I was a kid. Other things change around it and I think to get that perspective was unique in the sense that I did have that time lapse, came back to it with fresh eyes, I guess, and it may have been a very different book if it had been written by a writer who had stayed here.

    I tried to give it justice and to give it fairness. If I’m a critic of the city, I’ve tried to balance it as I would my journalism, or whatever. But there may be some things in there that Brisbane people disagree with or are offended by. That’s great. That’s indicative of a grown up city. We should be debating, questioning ourselves, tilling the soil, and asking these things of each other because that’s what a civilised community is.

    I do point out in the book that my supposition is that there are some traits that are in Brisbane people, have been from the start because of the nature of our birth, white birth; it was a very aggressive city, violent. There was death, crime and punishment just over the river there not far from the executive building that the current Premier sits. That’s where the convicts were flogged on the A-frame, the short walk to the Premier’s office 200 years later. Things change enormously, but sometimes they don’t change that much, at the same time.

    So, our relationship with Sydney and the colony of New South Wales is always aggressive and we always felt we were poorly treated by them, and so a chip on our shoulder evolved from that. I think if you look and listen carefully enough, we still have some of that. The ghost of that is still around. While I think we’ve moved into the 21st century to a large degree, there are those beautiful generational traits that only your place can give you and I think we still have them. I tried to examine that, but that may ruffle some peoples’ feathers and it may not. I just tried to be honest.

    It wasn’t overwhelming, but there was I feel a recurring theme of romanticism that you brought to your experiences in Brisbane, how you said you “keep coming back to the light of Brisbane,” and you describe how that tends to bring people in. That’s “the first thing they notice when they get off the tram,” and so forth. Did you realise that before you started writing it?

    I think I did because when I moved away, Brisbane was always my home. It was always where I was born, the place on the planet where I was born. It does have distinct, peculiar characteristics that delineate it from other cities in the world, let alone Australia. And [David] Malouf has written about this, Rodney Hall and others have written about this. They write about it because it’s very true.

    The greatest, strongest memories of my childhood are the light, and the pitch blackness of the shadows, and that’s different when you live in other places in the world. It’s distinctively different. The smell, and in summer when a violent storm comes over the ranges, and the steam comes off the bitumen and the plants are breathing out, it’s unique to the city and it strikes you as something new every time. “Oh wow, that’s Brisbane.”

    And it’s something that you keep very deep inside of you, I think. I’m a lot older than you. The older you get, these things are like little drawers inside of your person, and nothing will change them.

    That may be romantic, that may be nostalgic, but as I said to you earlier; this is a city that from my own experience prompts sort of nostalgia and as a birth place, loss of heritage, mistreatment of the landscape and heritage; as a Brisbane person I feel that very keenly the way the Sydney people probably do about their own environment. This was where I came into the world. Nothing’s going to change that.

    This is not so much a question as a comment; when I interviewed John Birmingham the other day, I asked him to comment on the divide between popular fiction and literary fiction. He brought up that he thinks you are one of the finest literary fiction writers in Australia.

    God bless him. I’ll have him stuffed and mounted. [laughs]

    This was without even mentioning that I was interviewing you for this book. He just came upon that. I thought that was a nice little turnaround.

    I’ve known John for years and some of the old dudes are coming back home: artists, painters, writers, musicians, actors. It’s was a very different place when we left. It was very claustrophobic. I won’t say it was parochial… there was an element of parochialism, to be honest with you, but the politics was suffocating, all of that. The assumption, right or wrong, was that “if I’m going to make it I can’t make it here”.

    Twenty-five years later you can be in Brisbane and be making it [like you would] in London or New York or Berlin. Everything has changed, and the city has changed too as well, clearly, but the imperative to leave I don’t think any longer exists. We were sort of refugees for a reason that’s no longer here.

    Why do we come back? There’s a myriad of reasons for that. I just got tired of Sydney and it just became very hard to live daily. I was freelancing and doing all of that. Where do you go in that circumstance? You drift home and see what happens. Then my partner – now wife – fell pregnant, and now I’ve got two children, and it sort of becomes home again.

    I wonder whether this project was more gratifying for you than your fiction work.

    It’s very different. I found it exhilarating but very difficult in the respect that I’m not an historian. There are some brilliant historians in Brisbane that have combed the soil over, and over, and over; there virtually wasn’t a corner I could look into that hadn’t been effectively and interestingly covered by a gaggle of local historians. The city has been documented quite well, but I don’t know how they do it, historians.

    The freedom of fiction, to me, is so much more pleasurable. That element is part of my journalistic work too. Obviously, I deal with fact every day and I wanted a book that was not mired in dreary history and it wasn’t a history book. But I would hope that someone visiting the city would pick it up and go “I didn’t know that about this place,” get a feel for the city, rather than a raft of facts.

    I don’t know how you’ll feel about this, but upon finishing the book; I thought it’d be great and very apt to see that book start appearing on high school recommended reading lists.

    I’d be very happy for that to happen! [laughs].

    Because as you said, it’s not a dry, factual, historical piece. It mires in your personal life as well, which I feel is more important than ever for the next generation of Brisbane residents to come across.

    That’s a really nice idea.

    Just to elaborate on what I was saying then; I hope the book gives people a sense of what the city has been like, and what it’s like to live here. I would hope that it gives them that deep connection to their heart, rather than just their head. That’s a huge ambition for a little book. That was underplaying everything that I was trying to do with this piece of work. Whether I achieved it or not, it’s a big question, but that was my aim to do that. The other important element, too, is that I was really loath to actually write about my own life here, because in all honesty it was quite dreary; suburban, unremarkable.

    Yet you made it sound remarkable.

    I thought, “How am I going to do this?” I didn’t want to be self-indulgent or dull, and then I thought “I’ll employ a fictional technique, and just look at a boy in Brisbane.” That boy is largely based on me. The minute I stood back from that boy, all the details, fine details, the smells, the senses, everything came in. If I’d written just about myself, and I started to do it, it died on the page. When I stood back and looked at myself as a novelist and journalist, and looked back at this separate figure, everything unlocked. All these memories and things that I hadn’t thought about since I was five years old rushed in.

    Brisbane author Matthew Condon

    So that’s the liberation of using a fictional technique on fact. It was a really interesting process for me as a writer to do that. I’d played around with it. “Should I try it, should I not?” The minute I started doing it – bang. It just bloomed.

    Many elements of this book were a journey for me, in writing, in memory, in trying to get back to what the city meant to me, what it is now. In many ways, when I finished it, I wasn’t quite sure what I actually had. There were so many new paths I was taking in this little book, so in that sense it was a very gratifying project that gave me more than I had imagined when I first agreed to do the commission.

    I think [the City series] is a terrific idea, which has been done loosely in the northern hemisphere. I found it a really interesting and obvious idea. I was surprised no one has actually ever done it, but we would get writers to do the major cities of the country, so as a series project it was very attractive. But yeah, that was the trip.

    Phillipa tells me that when she read the book, she was struck by your love for Brisbane. It really shone through, and I agree with her summary, the way it flows from the character as a child through to standing in the cemetery; it’s quite beautiful.

    Thank you. It’s a recognition that one is mortal… [laughs] And that the next wave [of children] is out there. I’ll always love Brisbane. There are things I hate about it, there are things that annoy me, that frustrate me but that’s like any resident I guess in any city. But since coming back, it’s given me a lot as well, I think. It’s been wonderful to come home with my own kids and I may move from the city; I don’t know. Who knows? I’m not saying I’ll be here forever, but yeah it’s been a very pleasurable reacquaintance.

    As an extension of Philipa’s comment, do you think it’s fair to say that it’s a kind of love letter to Brisbane?

    Yeah, in the way that some love letters are raw and honest, can be confusing and upsetting, but if it’s a love letter, its heart is in the right place. I agree. It’s a nice phrase. At the end of the book, I pay homage to many writers. Several of them aren’t quoted in the book but I felt it was important to say thank you to all of those others that have written beautiful stuff about this place.

    Gerard Lee, when I was young, when I read his novels, what I understood from that was I could write about Brisbane and it’s okay. That was a vital breakthrough for me. When I was at university in my late teens I read him and thought, “We can do this.” When I read Thea Astley’s It’s Raining In Mango and all of those, I thought, “I can write here. This is going to work. I can do it.” And so they were vitally important to me. The great Peter Porter, [David] Maluof… So I hope this adds another page to that homage to a place, and others will do it again.

    My son might do it!

    That’d be nice.

    That’d be interesting. God save him! [laughs]

    ++

    I highly recommend ordering Matthew Condon’s Brisbane through the publisher, NewSouth.

  • The Big Issue story: John Birmingham – ‘After America’, August 2010

    A story for The Big Issue #360 (3-16 August 2010), wherein I profiled Brisbane-based author and journalist John Birmingham and his new book, After America.

    Click the image below for a closer look at the scanned article, or read the text underneath.

    'Afterwords', a profile of John Birmingham and his book 'After America' for The Big Issue by Andrew McMillen

    Afterwords

    The prolific, genre-hopping John Birmingham discusses some recent achievements, which include a new thriller, a martial-arts injury and way too much tweeting

    On March 14, 2003, the United States Of America went to hell – in John Birmingham’s mind, at least. His latest novel, After America, is the second part in a speculative fiction trilogy based in a USA subject to an enormous energy wave that decimated the majority of the country’s population.

    Two years ago, Birmingham wrote part one of the trilogy, Without Warning, as a potential stand-alone novel. “You could read it, close it, and if you wanted to, you could walk away from it,” he says. ”It’s got a dénouement at the end where you obviously set up another story, but it didn’t have to go on. And I found After America really fucking difficult to kick off because I was really happy with the first book as a novel; as a book.”

    “Having written what, to me, was the perfect book – although others would disagree vehemently – I just thought, “Fuck, how do I top that?” And I had about six months where I just sat around. I know what I have to do in this second book because I’d already plotted it out, but it was just really difficult firing up. And then when I finally did fire up, I broke my arm. I’d written the first draft and I was just about to sit down and edit that.” He shows me the plate inserted into his left arm, which was busted in a Jujuitsu training accident.

    “The funny thing is I reckon it was, in a sense, a left-handed gift. The enforced break allowed me to sit back and actually spend about two months in my lounge chair thinking about the characters, thinking about the stories. When I could literally lay fingers on a keyboard, I came back much more charged up.”

    This series of novels isn’t the author’s first dalliance in the thriller genre: his Axis Of Time series (released from 2004 to 2007) are alternate history adventures that begin in 2021, when a US-led task force off Indonesia is sent back to 1942.

    Axis Of Time seemed an abrupt about-face for someone best known for his grungy 1994 share-house memoir, He Died With A Felafel In His Hand and, more recently, as an essayist and non-fiction author.

    Before his breakthrough with Felafel, Birmingham was a freelance writer for Rolling Stone and Australian Penthouse magazines. Then, five years after his first book, came Leviathan, a comprehensive (if unauthorised) biography of Sydney – another stylistic right-turn. After that, Birmingham smoked his way through a hands-on exploration of Australia’s marijuana culture in Dopeland (2003). Now, judging by his book sales. readers are becoming comfortable with Birmingham’s incarnation as thriller writer.

    His latest book examines a nation in conflict through the eyes of several very different characters, including the President of the United States, a vengeance-seeking Mexican cowboy, a pair of heavily-armed smugglers and an adolescent fighting in the name of Allah. The book’s central locale is a crumbling New York City so beset upon by pirates, looters and conflict-hungry freedom fighters that the military is forced to reconsider whether it should remain standing.

    The result is a non-stop adrenaline rush threaded across multiple narratives. Birmingham – who became enamoured of thrillers after reading Matthew Reilly’s The Ice Station – doesn’t mince words when asked about the divide between popular fiction and literary fiction.

    “I do entertainment,” he says. “That’s it. Lower middle-brow entertainment with a lot of explosions. And they’re great fun. They’re read by people who are not going to read literature and they’re read by people who like literature. But [the books] aren’t literature themselves. There’s not much point in trying to compare and contrast, because it’s like trying to compare and contrast first person shooters with traditional theatre. They’re both mediums for telling stories but they do very different things in very different ways; both are enjoyable and they both have validity.”

    “One is not necessarily worth more than the other. The thing that energises this debate is literary critics getting themselves really worked up because they perceive, quite rightly, that literary authors are working really hard to not get the rewards they deserve. And they do deserve the rewards, because they do work every bit as hard as the rest of us. Their craft is honed to a much finer point than ours is.”

    Outside of his recent successes with fiction, Birmingham is a widely read online columnist for Fairfax and a prolific user of Twitter, where he has amassed more than 5,500 followers.

    “It works for me,” he says of the microblogging service, “But I’m a bit unusual because I worked in journalism for 10 years before I wrote Felafel. I like people. I love literary festivals. I love going on tour. I just love this. Sitting in these bizarre, shitty little cafes in back streets, talking to people I’ve never met. I love all that stuff. Twitter is almost the perfection of that way of dealing with people.”

    by Andrew McMillen

    After America is out now. Following John Birmingham on Twitter: twitter.com/johnbirmingham

    Naturally, it was a blast to speak with one of my favourite writers for the first time. (It also helped that I’d finished reading an advance copy of After America half an hour before we met, so the story was fresh in my mind.)