Liz Porter, journalist and author

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"Essentially all writing is the same. It’s the story and finding something in whatever you are researching that will reach out and grab the reader." Journalist and author Liz Porter talks to Carmen May about her varied career.    

Tell us about your early career working in Hong Kong.

I was travelling with my boyfriend and initially got a job for a year as a teacher teaching English at Hong Kong University. But I wanted to write. I rang up a few times to the Hong Kong Standard for a job as a sub-editor; I had a few friends working there. I didn’t realize until later that they didn’t actually employ women as sub-editors. I thought, what could I write about? At that time I had young tourist friends who were traveling through and they used to work at one of those ‘girly bars’. So I thought I’d write about this and worked there for three weeks. At the same time I was also working at the British Council teaching English. This was 1978. After work I would put on my evening gown and work at the bar till 4am. When I had enough material I wrote the article and it was published almost immediately. After that I quit my job at the British Council and wrote a few more articles for the HK Standard.

 How did you end up back in Melbourne?

There was job advertised in a magazine called Femina and I got a job there as the deputy editor. I would do a few articles in English. It was a fantastic experience for nine months. I felt that I had done enough to get a job in Australia and it was time to come home where I was fortunate to get a job at Cleo in Sydney for a year. And then, because I knew someone who was working at the Sydney Sunday Telegraph, he got me in touch with the editor and I did a couple of freelance stories for them before working for them. That’s how my newspaper career was launched. After three years working in London and Germany, where I worked as a “stringer” for The Age from Stuttgart, I came back to Melbourne and started working for The Age.

 You won the 2007 Ned Kelly Prize for the best crime book. How does writing forensic science compare to writing travel articles? And which one came first?

My career as a journalist was as a general feature writer. On The Sunday Age, the 20 years I was there, I wrote about everything. Travel, profiles, and food sometimes. For a while I wrote for the Good Food Guide. I started my forensic science by doing a story for The Sunday Age about forensic science issues. Essentially all writing is the same. It’s the story and finding something in whatever you are researching that will reach out and grab the reader.

Which would you choose as a full time job if given the choice between writing about forensic science and travel?

I think forensic science. Because, and this might sound pathetic, but I’ve watched the careers of travel writers with fascination and wonder if they are ever at home. And I like to be at home! If you are a serious travel writer, you are pretty much always travelling. Of course it is a personal reason. Forensic science, on the other hand, is intellectually challenging to write about. And that has landed me in the true crime world. But I am not all that interested in reading or writing books that only involve the reconstruction of crimes. I prefer the kind of crime fiction that has a foreign setting; it’s my kind of easy and lazy way of learning about other countries.

Ocean swimming. Tell us about that. How do you find time?

I actually swim in the bay. Open water swimming would probably be a better word for it. In the summer I do one of those big swims, Pier to Perignon, where you swim from Sorrento to Portsea. Other than that event, I usually do it first thing in the morning. I swam this morning actually. It was horribly cold! But I find it very relaxing. It’s that time where you are just in your body. I’d recommend it for people who think too much.

Lastly, any advice for budding journos/literature students?

These days you have to have as many skills as possible. In my day you just had to write and maybe edit. Keep your eyes open to any possible contact and be content to write wherever you can. Get published in a local newspaper or do some volunteering work at a radio station, it is always a great start. It is also worth blogging, it is amazing what gets picked up and read.

Liz Porter’s work appears on the US crime writing site crimemagazine.com