Earlier in your career you went for multiple internships at The Age and got rejected each time. How did you pick yourself up and keep pushing through those tough times?
I think I just sort of understood that it’s a hard job to get. They were good enough to point out to me as well that a lot people who do work at The Age have had that same experience. It’s not uncommon for people who work here to have applied five or six times before they finally break through.
Success in this industry, and probably in any industry, is really just about showing up time and time again, and not getting deflated over little losses, instead pumping yourself up over the little wins you have every week or every month.
What drew you to start working over in America?
Like any good story there’s a girl involved. I fell in love with her while she was studying abroad in Australia, and then I went over to be with her and live in her small town. Her small town is where I started in journalism really.
There was no PR or communications career path over there, but there were lots of local newspapers. So I just started stringing and freelancing for as many publications as I could, just knocking on doors and saying, ‘Hey, I write. I’ve worked in communications. I’d love to do any assignments that your reporters can’t get to’. I just did every scrappy little job they would give me, even if it was going out to a town board meeting to write about the new roundabout that was proposed, because that’s news in a small town!
And I did those sorts of assignments for months and months while working as a bus boy in a fancy restaurant, and working the overnight shift as a desk clerk at this hotel in this tourist town. I did that for a while then worked part-time at that paper, like five nights a week, four or five hour shifts sitting there listening to the police scanner, driving out to fires and car crashes. I think you have to do a lot of shit jobs before you can get the better jobs.
You often write from a very personal angle. How do you think that personal perspective is best used?
Probably it shouldn’t be deployed in every feature, but I just think sometimes it is good for the writer to put themselves in a story. I think it allows the reader to relate more to the moment.
I wrote a story about the Denny Ute Muster. It’s a country event with country and western music, but with utes. Twenty or thirty thousand utes descend on this place in rural News South Wales; Deniliquin. There’s rodeos, crazy carpentry challenges, and basically a lot of rum. There’s a lot of rum, and a lot of bogans with stock whips. It’s crazy.
I went there to write about it, and I could have just written it as an article, but putting myself into it, as a ‘city slicker guy in this muddy, horrible place’, I think just made it funnier for the readers, because you can personally reflect and share something universal.
I think it’s probably hard to be funny in the first person, but it’s easier to be heartfelt.
What do you focus on in an interview to make sure you capture the colourful details?
Everything. Write it all down. I’d write the colour of your eyes, the people that are around us, the time of day, the traffic that’s going by, the squeak of the chair. I don’t know if I’d describe that scene; is there anything particularly going on in that scene? Maybe not, but write it all down, and figure out what you want to recreate later.
I heard Tom French say, ‘Always get the brand of the beer, the name of the dog, and the title of the song that was playing as the car crashed off the road’. I live by that as a writer because the brand of the beer does tell you something about the person that’s drinking it. The name and breed of the dog tells you something distinct as well. A Pomeranian is a very different creature than a Pitbull. And the title of the song that was playing as the car crashed off the road, that’s an un-gettable detail, but it’s a reminder to strive to get those un-gettable details and set your sights high in terms of what you’re looking for.
How do you know a good feature when you read one?
Things are sprinkled all the way throughout. Little bits of phrasing that are unexpected, that aren’t clichéd, and you just think, ‘oh, I never thought of describing something in that way with that particular word use’. They seem jarring on the page sometimes, but they stand out.
The story itself takes you into a world that you might not have had access to, that’s behind closed doors, or is taking you somewhere unexpected or different.