MF: Mahmood Fazal
DX: Daniel Stewart
EJ: Erik Jensen
MF: Welcome to Mont Icons. Welcome to Mont Icons in this episode we speak to writer and journalist Erik Jensen. Erik is editor-in-chief of Schwartz, the publisher behind 7AM, The Monthly and The Saturday Paper, among others.
EJ: Why? Why would you make things up when the truth is so wonderful, and, you know, in writing the Cullen book many times, I was just really exhausted by the lying and by the violence and by the trauma of the whole situation. And the only thing that kept me going back, the main thing that kept me going back was this realisation that, you know, I could sit down and write a novel and no one would point a gun at me. But the novel wouldn't be half as fantastical as the person I was trying to understand.
MF: Erik’s book, Acute Misfortune is a portrait of controversial Australian grunge artist Adam Cullen. Cullen was a painter devoted to his own larrikin mythology, a construct Erik peels away.
DX: In this discussion, Erik talks about his writing process, the influence of David Marr on his early days as a reporter, and the paradox of being an editor who hates being edited. He also talks about the revival of narrative journalism, and the difference between being a writer and a journalist.
MF: Eric, welcome to Mont.
EJ: Thanks so much for having me.
MF: Tell me. Why did you want to be a writer? You're writing music criticism when you were young, was that your first foray? Or you're doing some general writing before that?
EJ: No, my first writing was as a music critic. I don't have like a, you know, sort of terrific story of the arc of becoming a writer that begins with a, you know, a childhood journal or some deep desire to be expressing myself in some way that I couldn't I think the reason I understand now, the reason I became a writer is because the world didn't make any sense to me.
And I constantly felt out of step with it. And I was trying to fill in all the gaps, and I couldn't do it with myself. So I started interviewing people and trying to understand other people so I could kind of understand the world. And I also had a very innocent idea of what the truth was. And I really believed that if I could, if I could get close to something that looked like the truth, then everything would make more sense. And, you know, if I could tell other people what I thought the truth was, then they would make more sense to me. The truth is something that I always thought would make me safe in the world. But that was with a child's understanding of what the truth was.
DX: What's, what's the adult Erik's understanding of what the truth is, so we can get straight into the deepest.
EJ: Hopefully, vastly more plastic than, than what it was when I was a kid. I still have a pretty white night understanding of the truth. Like, I still really believe that you can talk to people and get close to telling truth. And I believe truth is really, really important. Okay. In the book I wrote about Adam Cullen, I think is a book about what happens when you don't tell the truth, like, of the thing that ultimately killed Adam Cullen. It wasn't heroin or alcohol I don't think. It was lies. Like, I think the human creature is, is so fragile in its construction that if we start to distort it, we change it to a point where it can no longer survive. And I think like with Adam, he invented a role to play and play that role until he was so exhausted by playing it that he died, that he like, lying is, is ultimately what killed him. So I guess, as I say all this out loud. Clearly, I still have a very innocent understanding of the truth, I still believe truth is like the thing, the thing that we're here for, and I think, as writers like, the truth is, what we're here to look for. The change for me is that I'm a little bit less presumptuous about my capacity to find the truth. And for there to be one truth, I don't believe that anymore.
MF: Why are you drawn to musicians? Like why or why did you want to write about musicians? How did you fall into that? What were you listening at the time to?
EJ: The last part of that question is probably too embarrassing to answer but the first part of it is when you're 15 and you want to be a writer, there's not that many places you can walk into and say, give me a job. And music magazines were the one place that I happened to walk into. And I started writing for a street presence Sydney called Drum Media. And I went in there and spoke to the editor. And he gave me a job as soon as I went in and spoke to him in his office. And then from there, I just kept getting other, other writing jobs. And they, you know, they're initially in music writing. But, again, the kind of the folly of, the folly of youth is, is in believing that you can do anything. And that's the wonderful thing about being young because you need to have that belief to get anything done. And I, I believed I knew enough about music to write about it. And now when I think about what I was writing at the time, I'm kind of appalled at my confidence.
MF: Have you looked back on any of those early pieces and thought, actually, that was kind of cool.
EJ: The one good thing about writing for music press in what was the mid noughties is that it wasn't yet digitised. Okay. It is, it is a great, great mercy, that nothing I wrote before the age of maybe 17 is, is anywhere online.
MF: DX how do you feel about that? Publishing distort things since...?
DX: Well, one thing I wanted to talk to you about is I feel like you've overseen in your career that the end of print media in some respects, so I'm really interested in that. But one of the things that always attracted to me to writing print and creating my own publications was the fact that they would end up next to someone's toilet, eventually waterlogged and thrown away. Like I don't have to worry about so much that ghastly stuff that I've written ever coming out for the same reason.
EJ: I think it's, I think, this is real tendency to believe that print is dead. I think all journalists are kind of, you know, their own undertaker's everyone once, once the thing that they were doing five years ago to have been the last time it happened, and I really, I just don't believe that print is dead and…
DX: I think the, the myth of print is a…
EJ: Myth of print media is, is dead? Yeah, look, I think the other part of that is just people who are learning to write now becoming writers now, are followed around by their mistakes in ways that mercifully, you or I are not.
DX: This is true, um, who was the first musician that you spoke to that complicated your childhood view of truth, like when was the point that you were just like, confronted with the idea of roles because that's so important to a musician is to speak not from their own position, but from a kind of fabricated position. When was the first time that you got a sense of this and, and that kind of plasticity had to be introduced?
EJ: I don't think it happened in a meaningful way with a musician. I think that happened later. Covering news and you know, covering real life music was sufficiently removed from real life that the, you know, the shock of the true was, was not there for me. But maybe one part of I remember, at the time, there's a Melbourne band called The Casanovas and I remember going to interview them at what was I guess like Penrith Panthers, or some terrible club in a sports club outside Sydney.
MF: Shout out to Mount Druitt.
EJ: And my, my, my dad drove me out there and waited in the carpark for me and I went to interview these guys. And I guess the, the myth of a rock and roll band was completely dismantled by the presence of these very ordinary men in the arcade section of Penrith Panthers, waiting to go and put on a show where for an hour they would pretend that they were much bigger, scarier and more confident men than the guys that were playing. I don't know Street Fighter, whatever it was in the arcade just beforehand. I guess that's the first time I saw the dissonance between two things between the role a person has on stage and the reality of who they are. And also realise that that thing that I was running towards at that time, which was adulthood, and the thing I was escaping, which was childhood. Not everyone was trying to escape that. I think a lot of my journalism since then has been about what happens to the people left behind what happens to people trapped in childhood. What happens to the people who don't want to grow up and more than that—how much of our time do we need to understand the first 14 years of our lives? Like you know there's, there's lots of reasons that we live to 80. But I think, I think one of them is it takes that long.
MF: Tell us about the first 14 years of your life. You went to primary school in Fiji?
EJ: I did. Yeah, I went to the first part of primary school in Fiji. For no, like for no particular reason, there's, there's, there's no, there's not an explanation to that. Except that mum and dad just decided they wanted to make sure that we didn't spend our whole childhood living in Australia. And so I went to a Methodist school in Suva. And had, I guess, and had the experience of being different. I mean, unbeknownst to my parents, I think I had the experience of being different all the way through my childhood, but the experience of very clearly being the only white kid in a school and the smallest kid in high school. And you know, that like, at the end of every day, after getting beaten up at lunchtime and getting through the heat of the day, like my teacher would dust me with talcum powder to make me white again. And it was only like six months into this that mum finally went like, like, what are you doing? Like, why are you covered in talcum powder all the time? What, what kind of bizarre swim cap existence are you living? But it was just because I wasn't fitting in. Not that I knew that. Like, I didn't know anything about not fitting in, really until I finally started fitting in. You know, in my late teens. Like until then I just thought everything was, was normal—which this is not an advertisement for someone who, you know, pretends that they're engaged in the truth seeking aspect of journalism. But even as a kid, my nan started this like, school that she called Nan School. So I wouldn't notice in the holidays that I didn't have friends, I just kept going to school. And not only was it called Nan School, which should have been a giveaway, that wasn't a normal school, and that this wasn't how things normally happened. It was only much later than when like, oh that's like tragically lovely that nan did that. And also, tragically sad that I that, that she needed to, and that I didn't understand that it was in any way unusual. That's a really roundabout way of answering your question.
DX: That's the first 14 years of your life.
EJ: [Laughs] Sort of, I mean, yeah. So at the end, at the end of that, I, I started writing, and I guess, it was when I started writing that I started to kind of make sense of who I wanted to be or who I was—who I wanted to be. When I started writing, I realised with extreme urgency that I, that it was what I wanted to do. And that if I couldn't find a way to do it, I would’ve failed at that. And I became completely obsessed about succeeding as a writer. And so really, we're at that's the other thing about this, I guess it's like, you know the need to interview other people to understand things. I was, I was racing so hard to succeed, racing so hard to be an adult, that I didn't have my late teens. And I didn't have my early 20s. I went straight into working full time at a newspaper. All my friends were in their 30s or 60s. And, and then and then I spent the second half of my 20s trying to understand all the lessons I didn't learn on the way through.
MF: What came first for you, the writing or the reading? Because for me, it was the reading. I was, I was obsessively reading to like escape loneliness or not fitting in because I was just, you know, just wasn't getting along with the people in my school. Yeah.
EJ: Yeah, yeah, I wish I could tell you that I was a voracious and brilliant reader. But really, I've written much more than I've read in my life which is a horrible indictment on the kind of ego that drives me as a writer.
MF: That's fascinating.
DX: Can you share with us some examples of writers that challenged you though or that gave you some kind of…
MF: Or journalists?
DX: Well yeah, yeah including that...
MF: That energised you? You wanted to compete against even?
EJ: Yeah, like the, the first reporter who I really admired before I became a reporter in a substantial way, was David Marr and I really admired him as a stylist. I liked what he was doing. I liked the, the apparent decency and the drive of his work. And he, you know, luckily became a really key mentor for me very early on. I started, I became a news reporter at the Herald when I was 18 and was sat next to him from the beginning of that, that period of time. And so I became a huge force in shaping me as a writer and shaping what I do as a journalist.
MF: Were there any of these particular pieces. I really like his personal kind of op-eds.
EJ: It was his big Patrick White book.
MF: Wow, okay.
EJ: That is just so extraordinary. In its scale, and in the, in the detail with it seeks to understand another person that, that that same to me, like, the ultimate goal in writing life's. I didn't really know it then but I know now that I'm a life writer, that's what I do. I, I find individuals and I try to tell their stories. And he did the most comprehensive encyclopaedic version of that I think I've ever attempted in this country. And when I started writing the Adam Cullen book, I thought I was writing Patrick White's life. And I said, I remember, you know, Adam, and asked me to write the book, and I was due to let go and move up to his place for a month, you know, in a couple of days. And I went to lunch with David to sort of ask, like, well, how, am I going to write a biography, what am I meant to do? And his advice was just put a date on everything, and write absolutely everything down, which is, which is what I did for those four years is, I just took shorthand of every conversation we had. But I, as evidence of mine, evety, really thought I was sitting down to write this 500 page, you know, epic account of a life in great detail. And I've since discovered, I am a writer of 300 word windows. And that's all, I all I've ever written. Now, when I look back at it is never more or less than 300 words. It's like, that's the standard length of a story that people aren't quite interested in, in a newspaper. And it's been this, the unit block of all of my writing, nothing I do, is longer than that. It's just arranged in blocks after that. And it's why I'm such a fragmented writer, because I don't have the discipline to assemble things bigger than 300 words. And so that's why all my writing, just is, I like to think of it like some, it's just looking for places to put things writing, especially in nonfiction writing. You, you find out as much as you can about someone, and then it's um, you know, it's like sweeping up leaves or, or arranging bookshelves. Everything has a place you just the writing is involved in finding where that place is.
DX: Can you give us an example of something you've worked on recently? Where you, where you've, where you've kind of realised that this is your process? Or is this something that you've been aware of, for a long time?
EJ: I think I became aware of this, writing a small book about Kate Jennings and realising that I write down everything I know. And when I finish a book, that's all I know about a subject. I don't, I'm not an editor of myself. I, I tend to write a first draft and then believe that every word there shouldn't move. And I arrange, I do most of my writing and in my head so that Kate Jennings book I wrote every morning walking to work, I'd get about 150 or 300 words done, just in a cycle in my head. So I'd be talking it over and over in my head until, by the time I got to work, I'd have 300 words and I'd write it down straightaway. And I realised that's, that's not just a function of the distance of my, of my house to my office. It's, it's the, you know, to my mind the length of any useful piece of storytelling that's refined to some way like obviously, you know, storytelling can be looking, you know, you can be loquacious and securitas and tell stories that go for more than 300 words but I really do I think of it like an atom structure in some way. It's like that's, for me, at least that's what storytelling is. It's also why I like short books. You know, I like it. I sort of I do believe that bit of film should go for an hour and a half. And the book should take that long to read. And you know, I feel like storytelling comes out of an oral tradition, that's as long as it takes for the fire to go out. I don't know why we have these other forms, these novels that go on and on and on forever. You know, I was never a fantasy reader. And so in that in that respect, like talking about books that changed things for me—Jennifer Clement is a Mexican based poet. And she wrote a biography of Basquiat’s, like, late New York years based around his relationship with a woman called Susan Mallouk. And it's called Widow Basquiat. And I read that just after I finished, like literally weeks after I finished the Cullen book. And I'm so glad I didn't read it beforehand because I wouldn't have been able to write afterwards because it's just so wonderful. But that was that moment where I went like, oh, I don't need to worry about whether I want to write fiction or nonfiction or what I want to be as a writer, this is what I want to be this is you can tell true stories. And you can be lackadaisical in your approach to finding those stories. But if you allow yourself to genuinely believe that what you're doing is making art, then it doesn't matter. And the thing I've been working on for the last year is, is a poetry collection. It's coming out in a couple of months time, and that's it's nonfiction poetry. So it's just the same as my practice has always been. But it's, it's born out of that same thing—just believing that the fewest words that you can use to tell a story are the best.
MF: And for those that are listening, what is nonfiction poetry?
EJ: For me, it's, it's poetry that is like a diary note. It's a collection of poems that I wrote for my partner over the course of the first three years of our relationship. And they're all addressed to them and describe the days that we've had. And there's, I think there's probably about 70 poems in the collection drawn out of a couple of 100. And there, it's poetry that's free of invention, in the same way that my nonfiction is free of invention. But it's an attempt to make sense of the world through the most crystallising lens.
MF: So it's quite observational or?
EJ: Yeah and, and, and it's true, you know, to use, to use the word we can't trust. It's things that happened. And the check on that is that it's written for someone else who was there—who, you know, who I hope sees the truth in, in what's written down.
MF: Yeah, wrestling with the truth and talking about the truths is making me sweaty. When, when you set out to start The Saturday Paper, you've mentioned in a previous interview that you wanted to revive old, the old journalism—what, what does that mean? And what's the relationship to truth in that kind of long form narrative journalism tradition?
EJ: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, when I talk about old journalism, I'm talking about what used to be called New Journalism. And it's, it's this school of journalism that, I guess was popularised in 60s but has its roots in the 30s largely in the US, largely feature writing that takes the elements of fiction and applies them to reality, to the real world. It's about long form journalism, that's often very character driven, that's closely observed, that's often attempting to recount something that has happened in the direct presence of the journalist or through interview based reconstruction. And it's really about like, the thing that shocked me when I became a journalist, is realising that I was a writer and not a journalist, that…
MF: Explain that distinction.
EJ: Yeah, that, that I thought writing was the most important thing. And then I realised what most people value is the journalism, the finding out of information and, and quite often, I was working with really good journalists who are terrific at finding out information—who really didn't care how it turned out in the newspaper that they'd be happy for their pieces to be rewritten top to bottom by a sub editor. And meanwhile, I would be so upset if there was a change in my copy. As a writer, when I pick up the newspaper the next morning, if there's a change, you know, I'd either cry or scream or you know, I feel like some terrific violence had been done to me and my writing and that unfortunately has only got worse as time has gone on. I it's, it's maybe one of my biggest flaws as a writer is I, I feel personally hurt by editing, even though I spend most of my days as an editor now of other people. And so that, yeah, the difference there between what's largely valued in the industry of journalism which is reporting, it's the finding out of information, it's the breaking of news stories, it's telling us things we didn't know. Even though that's, for the writers that I was the people I was around that was done in text. Many of—and this is not a criticism necessarily—but many of the people I worked with, didn't really care what the sentences were like. And that's the bit I cared about the most. It's also as a, as a, you know, 15 year old kid, the only thing I had to offer was that I was good at writing. And that's, that's, that was my only skill and, and that's the skill I developed instead of all the other skills.
MF: Yeah, I was, I was mortified when I was learning about journalism, working advice, just googling it away and learning for the first time that the most important bit of information comes at the top. And then you'd say…
EJ: Yeah, I think that role is wrong.
MF: Yeah, I do, too. I was modified by…
EJ: That rule comes out of the belief that people are dumb. Like that, that rule is based around the fact that we assume that someone won't continue to the second paragraph if the first one doesn't tell him enough. Whereas, you know, in every other form we're told that if you tell too much in the first scene why would people stay for the second? But more than that, it's, you know, it's based on the, on the speed of our industry, it's, the inverted pyramid exists because it's easiest to cut from the bottom. And if you're cutting to fit, you know, if the writer’s already arranged a certain way, then you can just cut and cut and cut backwards through the story. Whereas, you know, I love a story that saves for the last paragraph the point of why you're reading it.
DX: Can you remember the first piece of this new-old journalism that you read that actually compelled you into this world?
EJ: Yeah, I think it was, it was two profiles written by Joseph Mitchell in the New Yorker, I think 20 or 30 years apart, both have the same man. And they're published together in a book that's called Joe Gould’s Secret. And it's about this man living like a sort of a human existence in New York City, first in the 30s and I think in the 60s is that I could be wrong. But I think that there's at a time split between when these two big, big profiles that have 15,000 word profiles, maybe even more were published. And he was writing an oral history of the world that was seven times as long as the Bible or something like that. But he hadn't actually written a word of it. And he, he was known as Professor Seagull. I'm forgetting the details of it but I remember it being like an incredibly vivid account of one man. And then 30 years later, what was published was the complimentary account that revealed the first account to be a complete fraud. And I just remember thinking, this is what it must be like to understand other people. Like, this is what it must be like to have a conversation that makes sense. And that's the thing that I had always wanted. That's, that's why I wanted to be a writer. And we know now, sometime after Joseph Mitchell's death, I should say, after Joseph Mitchell published that second profile, he went to work every day at the New Yorker for the next 20 years or something, but never wrote another word, just went to his desk every day and sat there. Partly because he had shown up the greatest error of his greatest piece, but also because he'd done his greatest piece of writing possible. We know now that Mitchell often fabricated or assembled characters out of multiple parts and a lot of what he did in his journalism wouldn't be acceptable isn't acceptable from a journalistic standpoint. And I find it you know, he desperately wanted to write a novel he never did in his life. Well, it turns out he did. It's just he kept calling it journalism. But that yeah, that those two pieces I remember reading in a little bit like with Basquait’s is thinking why? Why would you make things up when the truth is so wonderful, and, you know, in writing the Cullen book many times, I was just really exhausted by the lying and by the violence and by the trauma of the whole situation. And the only thing that kept me going back, the main thing that kept me going back was this realisation that, you know, I could sit down and write a novel and no one would point a gun at me. But the novel wouldn't be half as fantastical as the person I was trying to understand. And that's, that's not to, that's not because I'm not moved by fiction I get, you know, I think, I think there's a great and high calling in the writing of fiction, it's not my calling. But I, I find, you know, as in Mitchell, as in Jennifer Clement, the attempt to make art from real people in the everyday is, is a wonderful thing to be able to do in something as, you know, pedestrian and everyday as journalism.
MF: Well, that's the thing, I think, a lot of the Schwartz titles do incredibly well as they have a respect for style and like reviving style in journalism and I think...
DX: Rainbow serpent was the one for me that piece about the founder of Rainbow. So yeah,
EJ: That's a piece by Martin McKenzie Murray.
DX: Unbelievably, like I was just so compelled by that and laughing arse off and just completely shocked, etc. Having talked about the past and present, what do you feel is the future of this style of journalism?
EJ: I mean, there's the there'll be lots of people who talk about how, you know, the narrative podcast as a form is really reinvigorated this style of, you know, very careful plotted journalism that's character driven, and, you know, that has its own voice. And, and I think that's true. I still, I mean, I just have a very simple relationship with journalism, where I don't, for all of the ways in which the medium changes and how, how people received journalism changes. And, you know, I just don't think that what we do as journalists, has, has really changed fundamentally, or will change, like, we're still telling stories. And I think, you know, much as I love narrative podcasts, I think reading text is still this very particular and very special thing. And I still think that in a few decades time I'll be writing more or less the same as I'm writing now, irrespective of how people actually read that writing. And I think there's lots of writers for whom that will be true. And that's I don't know, I think because journalism for so long was one thing. And then the catastrophe of the internet suddenly changed it. It's like we lost all perspective about, about what journalism would be. And it's taken a while for people to just go, ‘oh no even if it's online, it's still the same thing—we still want well written stories that tell us things that we don't know and help us to understand the world’. And so yeah, I personally, think that will for a long time be what journalism looks like.
DX: I'll hit you with another one. On a similar note, having started with music criticism and definitely, um, we can kind of see that, that style far less prevalent now. What's your perspective on where that's going? Or where it is at? Like, what what what, what is happening with music criticism?
EJ: Music criticism? I think that's changing because there are fewer specialty titles. And as such, there are fewer places for people to be closely edited doing long form music journalism and being paid well enough for it. Although there are a number of magazines, music magazines that have started in the last couple of years, like Swamp Land or Gusher or titles like that, where long form music journalism is happening and really good writings happening. I don't, i don't think we'll return to an age of the salaried critic somewhere who's deciding what is good and what is not. As I don't think that's necessarily such a bad thing. I think, I think losing that is probably good. And I think if people want to practice really long form music journalism and that happens to turn up in books instead or happens to turn up in occasional magazine writing—I'm always, I'm always loath to say that a form has died or show or that it's changed irrevocably irreparably because I think that kind of storytelling will always happen—when the subject and writer find each other.
MF: I just want to go back to talking about writing the book on Adam Cullen and trying to kind of excavate the truth. How much of a struggle is that to then turn that into a screenplay? And how reliant were you on the, on the facts to essentially create drama on screen.
EJ: They're related in different questions, I think. The screenplay itself is probably 85% direct dialogue from my shorthand notebooks but compressed into scenes or rearranged in some way. And Tom Wright, who directed that film, who I wrote the screenplay with, was a very forceful collaborator. And we had a lot of disagreement, I think about how best to tell that story.
MF: I read somewhere that Tsolkias was asked to mediate.
EJ: Christos did come in and in the kind of mediation session towards the end. But I think, like the interesting thing about film and what I find fascinating about having told that story in two forms, is that as a, as a writer of nonfiction books, I can really choose to extricate myself from that book and did quite often I was trying not to be in that book. And I certainly in that book, never had to ask myself the fundamental question of why I was there. And I also never had to justify to myself any of the information that was in that book, because I took the view that if it happened, then it belonged. And if it was true, I should write it. I think when you start writing a screenplay, there is this expectation that you take the audience with you through that, that thing, whereas you know, in a book, you want to keep the audience with you. But you're also more trusting of them as an audience when you're writing a book—you're less, less anxious that they won't understand scene to scene. Whereas in the screenplay, I think you really are anxious for them to have a plot to follow or like a narrative arc or an emotional arc. And so very quickly, I had to start engaging with the question of why I was even there, which is a question I hadn't asked myself. It's part of the detachment of being a journalist that I hadn't asked that question. And I really should have asked that question to myself, many times through the process of working on that book. And I think the other part of that is realising that when you dramatise a person's life, even if 85% of it is taken directly from conversations you've had, not just from the theme of those conversations, but from the very words that were said, when you dramatise it, you justify it in some way—you create. You're seeking to create an emotional connection with the audience, you sort of, you know. The first draft of that screenplay had a scene very early on, that culminated in a shot of the swastika that in real life was painted on the ceiling of Adam Cullen's studio. And I thought nothing of it because it was true. And so it deserved to be there. Until my now-partner who was who I met as the composer on that film. They said to me, like, ‘You have a responsibility. Now making this as a work where we're going to be asked to connect to who Adam is as a person to wonder whether or not that image is an act of violence to some people in the audience. And it is there's no, there's no denying that. But that responsibility, to my mind exists a little bit less in nonfiction because you're not asking, you know, by writing down someone's life, I don't think you're justifying it. But by making them the hero of a film you are and that it's the first time I've ever felt that conflict in my work.
MF: What did you know about Adam Cullen before you were asked to write his, become his biographer?
EJ: I just, I knew that he was a painter. I liked some of his work and didn't like other, you know, others of his works. And I knew that he was a sort of a slightly mysterious, eminently quotable person who seemed to have just been in the press for a long time. And I was, I was fascinated by the mystique that he was building for himself that was so obviously constructed. But that still seemed strangely effective. But I, I didn't go into that project with, with a plan for what I was doing or why I was doing it, I, you know, I was at a point in my life where I said yes to everything that was asked of me. And so when he called up and asked me to write that book, I said yes because I had never considered that I would say no.
MF: Yeah. And I mean, he was just constantly at every turn of the page is self-mythologising. So how do you, how do you confront him with that? As a writer? I'm always terrified when I'm, I'm profiling people or writing, even interviewing people and they eventually reread
EJ: It's interesting. I mean, he didn't read anything in that book because he died before it was published. Yeah. And in some ways, I think it would have, I would have felt a lot better had he survived to read the book. Because I wouldn't have felt like I had done, you know, done something to a man who was dead. Not that I think I didn't anything, you know, anything that I couldn't stand by or wasn't justified, but what wasn't true or wasn't in my notebooks. But the, the way in which you confront someone about their mythology, I think is, for me, at least, just by being in their presence. So I'm not when I interview someone I don't necessarily ask them a great number of questions. I spent four years on that book and I probably asked Adam 10 questions. I, I spend a lot of time with someone when I'm working on a project. And I just in his case, the longer I was there, the more he unspooled because he knew the instability of the lie that he was telling. And he also knew that he was incredibly lonely, he really wanted me to be around him a lot. And when I became disinterested in the lies, he started to feel a compulsion towards telling the truth. And the truth was kind of a currency to keep me there, that it would refer to lies. And I would, I would sometimes present to him in consistencies. But he also presented them to himself, he knew that they were mounting up in my notebook. And that's the thing about being a shorthand writer, I think, is I feel in, I feel like a completely different person when I'm holding a notebook. I feel completely invincible because I don't feel like myself. And the first 10 years of my career was, was built around just walking into places I didn't belong. And feeling like I had every right to be there because I had a spirax with me. And, you know, be that on a desk knock or confronting someone over a murder that they're accused of but hadn't yet been arrested for or was spending that time with Adam. I really just felt invincible. But I also knew that because he could see my hand moving the whole time as I wrote down everything that he said—everytime I wrote down a lie, he was aware that it would catch up with him, there's a way in which things on paper are inescapable. And, and that's, that's about that's the instability of the lie that you can tell it once or twice or three times. But if, if in four years time you're still telling it retelling in a different way, it all starts to fall apart. And that's, that's what happened in the process of writing that book. It's also what happened in Adam’s life. And there were, there were huge events in that that made the lie more terrible for him. Because the truth became more confronting. And so ultimately going to court for weapons possession, for the first time in his life he was under oath but also for the first time in his life what seemed to him the brilliance of his life was made very small by a psychiatric report and a magistrate. And, you know, the chance that he might go to prison for 15 years.
MF: What do you think that taught you about why people lie or feel the need to mythologise themselves specifically, especially in, in the arts or in music, like, performance?
DX: If I could ask another question that's kind of similar—what, what's your perspective on why someone is, is doing that would approach someone else to tell their story?
EJ: I think it started as one thing and became another. It started as a desire for this life that he was building to be written down somewhere that seemed to him important. We did an interview where he finally talked about the closeted sexuality that had been a big part of the discomfort that he felt in the world. And a big part of the distance that he wanted to create between himself and the world. And two things stood out about that. One is, he told me many times that he couldn't bear the thought about leaving his father, the man that was most significant team in the world. He couldn't imagine being apart from. And he also told me, as, as the shorthand was unspooling on my page around his sexuality that he wanted his dad to read that book. I think it became, in some ways, a way to tell the truth even if he couldn't do it while he was alive. And knowing at that point, we did that interview when it was more or less certain he was going to die. He wanted to tell the truth, I think, I think we all have a compulsion to tell the truth. And some of us become confused along the way. And I think that's, that's to answer your question: Muhmood like, people lie because being ordinary is really difficult. And people lie because being in the world is really difficult. And sometimes, being in the world as it is and as you are is incredibly difficult. And so I, I don't, I'm not, I don't feel judgmental about lying. I'm not a I'm not a journalist because I want to catch people out with the truth. I'm a journalist because I want the chance to give it to people. And I think, if anything I have, I have enormous empathy for liars and fantasists. And I have many, many friends, I've lived around people whose grasp on reality has been sort of how can I put it as kindly as possible, like his grasp, grasp, on reality has been tenuous. But I, I have like a deep love for those people because I see so much of that as suffering. I think about, you know, Mary Oliver, describes seeing her partner develop a photograph and realising that this life that she had as a poet and a great observer—as someone who, who was celebrated for her powers of noticing, watch her partner developing this photograph and realise that like, attention without empathy is merely report. And I think, you know, I had a big part of my time as a writer, where people really celebrated what I did because I was great at noticing, as great at noticing because I am uncomfortable all the time in the world. And so noticing is the thing that makes me feel safe. But for a long time, I was noticing without empathy, and I realised like I wouldn't start becoming a writer in any meaningful way, until I could feel and notice at the same time, and I think that didn't really mean that maybe that happened with the Adam book. It happened a lot more with the Kate Jennings book and I think it's clearer in my writing now that unless you can empathise, unless you can feel what you're doing, then all you're doing is writing it down.
MF: That's really, really interesting because I definitely, I kind of got a lot of the, the piece on Helen Garner was so charged with, with these waves feeling as you're reading it.
EJ: Yeah. That was, that was the first piece I ever wrote sober—first piece I ever wrote, with a consciousness of feeling like with, with knowing that if I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to see if I could do it, and I wanted to see if, if I was just good at at doing something that looked like writing or if I was really a writer, and I'd had this fear all my life that I'm a terrific mimic of other people on the page. And maybe that's all that I was. And I remember like as a kid reading this, I think it's a Sebastian Fox book where he mimics multiple writer’s voices. I just felt like that's, yeah, that's so easy to do. And that's what I had always done. And that's what people you know, if I was writing like David Marr, or trying to or writing like, unfortunately, shamefully for time Bob Ellis, that, you know, I was good at doing that. And people would respond as if I was a good writer although I had no idea if it was me. And that Garner pace was the first time I really tried to see if, if I could write as myself.
MF: How important was that process being sober?
EJ: Enormously important. Because I hadn't, I had nowhere to hide any longer. And I also had to, you know, had to confront my anxiety and confront what it was like to feel things. And I, I was sober for about two years. I remember that whole period of time as being—it was like, watching the tide recede and just seeing the sand, you know, full of broken shopping carts and dead fish, and having to go and pick through them and try to make sense of myself in this awful shivering anxiety that lasted through that whole period of sobriety. I was always, I was, it was an incredibly anxious time. I was very, very anxious through, through being so because I just hadn't realised how much anxiety that I live with and how much I was drinking to, just to level the anxiety.
DX: What's your writing process instead been like? Are you able to…?
EJ: Now I write, I write sober all the time.
DX: All the time?
EJ: I think I would say exclusively, yeah. Not, not for any conscious reason. But just today, I like the clarity. And I'm less afraid of myself.
MF: I've never really written drunk or anything like that. I've never understood the, that approach to writing. Yeah, I don't know why I just, maybe it's cuz one time I got stoned and I wrote some stuff in my phone. And then the next morning, I looked at it and thought, some hope to god nobody ever sees this. And I am never getting stoned and writing ever again.
EJ: So you don't you don't feel afraid at all when you're writing?
MF: I’m more, I'm more afraid of what I've written when I'm drunk, I think. Because I just I'm a bit more gung ho or something. And I'll just, you know, I think, yeah, there's something about maybe I'm too vulnerable when I'm drunk or too...
EJ: Yeah, yeah.
DX: Yeah, I think I started writing when I was sober. So it never became a part of the process and always interfere but, um, I really enjoy reading.
MF: Are you telling your process really? Your process really? Seriously? I mean, when we first met, you said you'd like booking hotel rooms and getting slightly, slightly wasted? Yeah. And writing?
DX: Yeah, well, that was, um, I feel more valuable for the editing phase. It was like being able to put myself in another state to read it. That was really necessary. So I would gather notebooks and then kind of that'll...
MF: Take them to the Windsor hotel?
DX: And to kind of hide out from the world and, and do that there. But I feel like yeah, I kind of inverted the normal process in that I really enjoyed reading it from a different standpoint, I'd noticed different things. And I don't really read other people when I'm wasted, but it was like myself gave me that kind of because I, my biggest flaw is that I don't have an editor and I haven't had an editor. You know, I've always just done that. Yeah, edited, published myself, you know, I haven't had anyone come along unless...
MF: I love working with editors.
DX: I would love that. Yeah.
MF: And I love being edited [laughs].
DX: I was, the only time I really knew that something that I'd written had made a mark or was someone threatening me about something that I'd written and made a mark in that respect, like I made an enemy.
MF: Eric you still don’t get edited?
EJ: I get edited. I hate being edited.
MF: Oh, okay you get edited.
EJ: It’s very different. I'm very, very resistant to it and I should be better at it. But it's, um, sometimes it just feels like it's, it's so in congress with what I spend most of my day doing which is editing other people and helping them tell their stories and believing that I'm capable of doing that. And then if someone moves something in a sentence of mine, you know, it's like I wouldn't come into your house, go into your living room and shit on your floor. So like, why would you put a comma in my sentence is the level of intensity I feel around it.
MF: It makes more sense as an editor as someone who edits every day to be pissed off about other people? In some core of my mind that makes a bit more sense.
EJ: [Laughs] Yeah, you're being very generous now. I think it's, it just speaks to my fragility and my inability to compromise which produced in me ambition and success but also makes me blind to all sorts of things. And I think, you know, as I increasingly attempt to live consciously in the world, conscious of mine privilege, conscious of experiences to which I don't have access, experiences that have been marginalised and need to be heard, as soon as I start this process of trying to understand the world, not as if I'm the person who will understand it, but as if I might participate in a world that understands itself. And that will be from viewpoints that are not my own. As I do that, I really should be relaxing some of my intensity around things, but if anything, yeah, that the longer I'm a writer, the more, like, intolerant I am of editing.
DX: What's your editing? Basically, were you to take an editor on your under your wing and be like, this is the most important thing to look for. Can you just give us a kind of a first day on the job piece of advice?
EJ: I think it's, um, it's probably two or three things. It's like, read it once. For sense. Does it make sense. And in like, one way to check if it makes sense as if it's in order. Does it unfold in the correct order, or at least one that is legible to the ordinary reader? And if you've done that, then all you're looking for, I think, is his voice and rhythm. Like, I do everything aloud. I edit aloud, I write loud. I don't think you can hide from yourself when you're speaking. And so all of my writing, I've, I speak it out loud before I've written it, I write down what I've said. You know, I got upset that my partner hadn't read a quarterly essay I wrote last year—a year before—and they had to point out to me that they'd heard me like reading it aloud. That heard every word in there, they didn't need to read it. I go, that's actually that's a very fair point. I haven't been snubbed here. I've just been excessively, you know, self indulgent on the writing process. But I, I, you know, I do believe that good writing is musical that it comes from speaking. So I think books should be short. I really like I, we evolved speech. And it's...
MF: Books should be short but you love the Patrick White David Marr book, which is like 500 pages long?
EJ: But I love that for the achievement. Not necessarily. I love that. Because I love that when I was 18. And I thought that to be capable of doing that was to be the best at what you could do in the world. And I still believe that to be true. I can, I could spend the rest of my life writing books that are 200 pages long and make no impact on what it is people think to be greatness. Like this, this is the thing, this is the distorted thing. It's like until you write that very big book, you haven't written a book. And for me, books get shorter and shorter. Because I just believe there's less and less to be said.
MF: One final question for young journalists wanting to get some recognition by a masthead, or one of the Schwartz mastheads, what advice do you have for them?
EJ: Put your writing first. And by that I don't mean above other things in your life. I mean, be a writer. Care about the sentences that you're making. Care about how your story is told. Care about, you know, write in the hope that you don't get edits back. I'm always amazed when writers like thank you for these edits. I'm like, this is not an endorsement. That sounds really cruel. No, editing is necessary. But we should write what we mean to say and be invested in how it’s said and maybe not as invested as I feel because that's very, it's destructive. But make sure that even if you're not getting published that you get up every day and write. And you don't become a great writer just writing journalism you become a great writer just writing. And you become a great writer noticing. Set out to notice. Every time you leave your house for that to notice every time that you meet someone. Try and record everything that happens to you in a day and try to make it as, as vivid as, as a novel. And if you, if you fail to notice something, then make an exercise of noticing. I think, I think I noticed, my noticing comes out of like a neuroses. And it's always just, you know, I, I count up the buttons on people's shirts, and I noticed separately, I noticed everything about people, I think, because I'm just scanning around me all the time, very anxious about what's happening, and I'm really trying to make sense of it. But I do think, really, it's, it's cliche to reduce writing to that thing we say writing is because everyone has it, like, you know, writing is theft, or something tedious. But you know, like, writing is noticing. I really believe that. And so do that, make that, make that your craft. And then just pitch, just pitch and pitch. Because the more you know, the more you write, and the more you pitch, the better you are, even if what you're doing isn't yet good. Writing is, I think this when I read Helen Garner, or when I read Jennifer Clement—writing is the destruction of the ego as well. Like, I am trying to find a way to be vulnerable as a writer, I'm trying to find a way to destroy myself as a writer. And by destroying myself I mean, take apart the self, the you know, the kind of notion of the self not not to, not to do any damage to my physical self just to take the ego apart so that what is left on the page is as close to a feeling truth as you can find. I hate sentences, where I know that the person who's written them is satisfied about where they're ending. I read John McPhee’s book Draft Number Four recently. It's the first time in a long time I've read a book by a man just by coincidence, and I was furious with the book all the way through because I felt like you I've just never read such perfect satisfaction. And I don't want that from a writer. The fact that he knows what he's doing and knows it well enough to do it without hurting himself—seems like a terrible way to live.