Penmanship is a podcast about Australian writing culture. It features interviews with Australians who earn a living from working with words: writers, journalists, editors and publishers, among others. Each episode features an in-depth, one-on-one conversation about the guest’s career, craft and inner life. The goal of Penmanship is to provide unique insights into the creative process, mechanics and skills behind the best writing in the country. The podcast exists to explore the diversity and complexity of Australian storytelling by speaking directly with leading contributors to the field.
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Mar 15, 2017

Amelia Lester is the editor of Good Weekend.

For the first episode of 2017, I could think of few more qualified guests than Amelia Lester. Penmanship is all about exploring the gritty details of how to build a life around working with words, and Amelia has done just that at the very highest level of magazine publishing. After graduating from Harvard University, she worked at a literary agency for a year and then achieved her dream of working at The New Yorker, which has long been regarded as one of the leading homes for longform journalism in the English-speaking world. Amelia stayed there for ten years in various editorial roles before returning to her home country to take the reins at Good Weekend, a magazine she loved to read while growing up in Australia.

In early March, I met with Amelia at the Fairfax Media building in Sydney. I have written for Good Weekend since 2014, and for Amelia since October, so this episode marks the second time I've interviewed a current editor of mine on Penmanship, following last year's chat with Erik Jensen of The Saturday Paper. My conversation with Amelia touches on what makes a great magazine feature story; her philosophy about how editors should manage their schedules to spend less time at the desk, and more time out in the world; how she began working at The New Yorker as a fact-checker and then became Managing Editor by the time she was 26; why manners are important in journalism; how she learnt to manage her email inbox, and why she is leaving Good Weekend in April after a little over a year in the role.

Amelia Lester is the editor of Good Weekend, the Saturday magazine of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers. Amelia grew up in Sydney and graduated from Harvard with a BA in English and American Literature and Language. She spent ten years at The New Yorker, where she was first a fact-checker and was appointed managing editor at the age of 26. Later on she relaunched the Goings On About Town section of the magazine, served as executive editor of, and wrote the "Tables for Two" restaurants column. In between she was also a features editor at The Paris Review, a New York literary quarterly. Amelia has worked at Good Weekend, Australia's premier home of long form journalism, since February 2016, and relaunched the magazine in June of that year. She appears regularly on television and radio as a political commentator and is a board member of the Sydney Writers Festival. 

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode:

Amelia Lester on Twitter: @ThatAmelia

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Oct 19, 2016

Andrew Stafford is an author and freelance journalist.

In 2004, UQP published his landmark book, Pig City: From The Saints To Savage Garden, which covered three decades of Queensland's musical and political history. Three years later, the book was followed by an event of the same name, staged by Queensland Music Festival and featuring a headline performance by the original line-up of Brisbane punk rock band The Saints, who had not played together in almost 30 years. Sometimes authors live to see their book made into a film; it is much rarer that a book is made into a music festival with their heroes headlining, and Andrew Stafford can count himself among the lucky few in the latter category.

Reviewing the Pig City festival in 2007 was one of my first assignments as a fledgling music journalist for the website FasterLouder, and in the years since, Andrew and I have become colleagues and friends. Having spent 14 years driving a cab while writing about music, sport and the environment, Andrew is a full-time freelance journalist who now writes about these matters for a range of outlets including The GuardianThe Saturday Paper and The Sydney Morning Herald.

In late September, I visited his home in the Brisbane suburb of St Lucia to record a conversation which touches on the skillset required for his long-standing role as Queensland AFL correspondent for The Age newspaper; how an early interest in birdwatching introduced him to an enduring passion for punk rock; how he got started writing about music for Brisbane street press and Rolling Stone magazine; how his depression has affected his productivity throughout his career; how he first hatched the idea for Pig City and spent three years writing it while driving taxis, and how he looks back on a mental health crisis in early 2016 that led to national media coverage in the wake of his sudden disappearance.

Andrew Stafford is a freelance journalist and the author of Pig City, a musical, political and social history of Brisbane, now in its third edition. In July 2007 the book was transformed into a key event as part of the Queensland Music Festival, headlined by the first performance by the original line-up of The Saints in nearly 30 years. He has been the Queensland AFL correspondent for The Age for 11 years. His journalism also appears in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, The Monthly and many more. He maintains a blog, 'Notes From Pig City', and watches birds for fun. 

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode:

Andrew Stafford on Twitter: @staffo_sez

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Oct 5, 2016

Holly Throsby is a songwriter, musician and author.

As an accomplished singer and songwriter, Holly has been performing since 2004, and has released five albums. In 2010, she joined forces with her friends Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltmann to form the indie pop group Seeker Lover Keeper, which released one album the following year. In 2016, she became an author: her first novel was published in September by Allen & Unwin. It's named Goodwood, and it's about what happens to a small town in New South Wales when two prominent members of the community go missing within a week of each other.

The story is narrated by a 17 year-old named Jean Brown, and everything we see is filtered through the young narrator as she grapples with the dramatic turn of events. It's a combination of a mystery narrative and a portrait of a town experiencing a collective trauma. Goodwood offers a wonderfully lush and well-realised depiction of several aspects of contemporary Australian life, and it announces Holly as a major talent in fiction writing.

I first met Holly in April 2013, when she invited me into her home in Sydney to talk about drug use for my book Talking Smack. In late September 2016, Holly's book was launched in Brisbane by previous Penmanship guest Kathleen Noonan at Avid Reader bookstore. The morning after, we met at an inner-city hotel room for a conversation which touches on her extensive research into the creative process as she began the book's first draft while pregnant with her daughter; why she likes the distance and anonymity that comes with writing fiction; how elements of the story and its characters draw on her upbringing in Sydney's inner west; how she snuck some of her favourite Australian expressions into the book's dialogue; what inspired her to record an album for children, and what led her to write an op-ed for The Sydney Morning Herald about same-sex marriage.

Holly Throsby is a Sydney-based songwriter and musician. She has released four solo albums and a children’s album called See! She is known for summoning melodies that sound beautifully crumpled, worn and decades-old, and matching them with hushed, cutting lyrics that read like a Carver short story. Holly has been nominated for four ARIA Awards: two for Best Female Artist, one for Best Children’s Album, and one as part of Seeker Lover Keeper, her band with Sally Seltmann and Sarah Blasko. Goodwood is Holly's debut novel. 

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode:

Holly Throsby on Twitter: @HollyThrosby

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Sep 7, 2016

Liam Pieper is an author and freelance journalist. 

Since the publication of his first book in 2014, a memoir named The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, he has quickly followed it up with two more. Last year, he published a collection of short essays called Mistakes Were Made, which I reviewed for The Weekend Australian, where I described his writing as "electric: charged with meaning and energised by surprising comedic turns". With his third book, Liam has proved that he's supremely talented at writing fiction, too. Named The Toymaker, his debut novel is based on an ambitions, multi-layered narrative that travels between an Australian business set in the present day, and German concentration camps during World War II. The character that links these two worlds is a Russian man imprisoned during the war who escapes to Australia and starts a globally successful toy business.

When Liam visited Brisbane in early August, I met him for the first time at his hotel room. Our conversation touches on the unique way in which Liam received funding to research and write The Toymaker while living overseas; how he navigated the legal threats that arose after the publication of his first book, which detailed his career as an adolescent drug dealer; how he messed up an important magazine assignment by filing 22,000 words instead of the requested length of 5,000 words; and how he helps young writers with finding the voice that best suits their style while working as content director for an online community called Writers Bloc.

Liam Pieper is a Melbourne-based author and journalist. His first book was a memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, shortlisted for the National Biography Award and the Ned Kelly Best True Crime award. His second was the Penguin Special Mistakes Were Made, a volume of humorous essays. He was co-recipient of the 2014 M Literary Award, winner of the 2015 Geoff Dean Short Story Prize and the inaugural creative resident of the UNESCO City of Literature of Prague. He is also content director of Writers Bloc, a platform and resource for emerging writers. The Toymaker is his first novel. 

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode:

Liam Pieper on Twitter: @LiamPieper

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Aug 24, 2016

Richard Fidler is an author and host of Conversations.

Since 2005, he has hosted a national radio program that sees him interviewing a wide range of guests, for around an hour at a time. Named Conversations, Richard likes to think of it as a form of guided storytelling, and over the years he has spoken with everyone from prime ministers to average Australians who have a remarkable story to tell. The host records four of these conversations every week, and the results are never less than fascinating: to my ears, he is among the top interviewers in the country. In July 2016, he published a book named Ghost Empire, an ambitious, multi-year project which blends ancient history with a travel story of personal significance.

A few years ago, Richard travelled to Italy and Turkey with his 14 year-old son, Joe, to retrace the rise and fall of Constantinople, the magnificent eastern Roman city that endured for a thousand years, and saw every aspect of human nature unfold within and outside its imposing walls. “The story of how Constantinople flourished into greatness and expired in terrible violence is one of the strangest and most moving stories I know,” Richard writes in the book's introduction. When reviewing Ghost Empire for The Weekend Australian, I wrote, "We already know he is an interviewer of great empathy; now we know he mirrors that skill on the page, too. The beauty of this book is its accessibility. It has been written by a man who sits near the centre of Australian culture, and his name on the cover will draw many new readers to this old tale. It certainly attracted me."

In early August, I met with Richard at the ABC building in South Bank, Brisbane, and he kindly offered the use of his studio recording equipment for this interview. After fiddling with the audio levels for a few moments, like a master pianist tinkling the keys to warm up, he allowed me the rare chance to ask him all sorts of questions for around an hour. Once we had finished, I got another glimpse at his efficient workflow, when he quickly edited out a minor blemish where he had accidentally cleared his throat mid-sentence. Our conversation touches on how his approach to storytelling for the radio program helped him when researching and writing Ghost Empire; how he struck upon the structure of interspersing historical detail with present-day travel vignettes; what he got out of reading the book aloud to his son during the writing process; where his love for stories began; what he learned about making radio programs from This American Life host Ira Glass a few years ago, and how being behind the microphone at Conversations has changed how Richard thinks about storytelling.

Richard Fidler presents Conversations, an in-depth, up close and personal interview program broadcast across Australia on ABC Radio. He has interviewed prime ministers, astronauts, writers and scientists, but the program often features remarkable people who are unknown to the wider world. The program attracts a large listening audience around the nation, and is the most popular ABC podcast in Australia, with over 16 million downloaded programs in 2015. Richard has also presented several television series over the years, including the acclaimed Race Around The World, and he was the creator of Aftershock, a documentary series on disruptive new technologies. In another life Richard was a member of Australian comedy trio The Doug Anthony Allstars (DAAS), which played to audiences all over the world. Richard's first non-fiction book Ghost Empire was released in July 2016. It blends travel memoir with history, following his journey into Istanbul with his fourteen-year-old son Joe, to uncover the history of Constantinople, the lost capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode:

Richard Fidler on Twitter: @rfidler

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU



Aug 10, 2016

Kate Hennessy is a freelance writer and editor.

I first read Kate's work in about 2009, when we were both contributors to the Australian music website Mess+Noise, where she was a critic and feature writer whose work I admired greatly from afar, since she was based in Sydney. It wasn't until 2016 that we met for the first time, at the Rock & Roll Writers Festival in Brisbane, where we were both guest speakers. In the intervening years since I first saw her byline, Kate has worked as a music and arts critic for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian Australia and The Quietus, among others, as well as travel writing for a range of Australian and overseas publications. Outside of freelancing, she works in corporate writing and editing, and teaches courses on music journalism and professional business writing.

It was the latter skillset that brought Kate to Brisbane in mid-May, and we met at her hotel room so I could ask her a few questions over a bottle of white wine. Our conversation touches on how she learned to make boring things interesting while working for a corporate writing agency; why she decided to become a freelancer as she approached the age of 30, and how it turned out to be a perfect fit for her; why she received hate mail from a musician after writing about his band in The Sydney Morning Herald; why the supply-and-demand in the travel writing business is worse than in music journalism, and why she thinks live music is like sex.

Kate Hennessy's music and arts criticism appears in The Guardian, ABC Arts, Fairfax, Australian Book Review, Noisey, Limelight, Mess+Noise and UK magazines The Wire and The Quietus. Kate talks about arts on ABC TV and has spoken at Vivid Ideas, Darwin Writers' Festival, the Rock & Roll Writers' Festival, Bigsound and at live events for Sydney's FBi Radio. Kate is an Australian Music Prize judge, a founding member of feminist collective LISTEN and a teacher of five years at the Australian Writers’ Centre. She developed a masterclass for The Guardian called 'How To Be A Music Journalist', offered in Sydney and Melbourne, and as a festival workshop at Hobart's Dark Mofo festival. Kate's travel journalism has taken her to Africa, Papua New Guinea, Turkey, Solomon Islands, Germany, Peru, Taiwan and remote Indigenous communities in Australia. She has a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing major) from Wollongong University and won a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, where she completed a double major in Political Science and History. 

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode:

Kate Hennessy on Twitter: @smallestroom

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Jul 27, 2016

Erik Jensen is an author and founding editor of The Saturday Paper.

At the age of 15, he fronted up to the office of a Sydney street press and became a music critic and journalist, then received a job offer from The Sydney Morning Herald after finishing high school. Since then, he has written a biography of Australian artist Adam Cullen and became the founding editor of The Saturday Paper, a Schwartz Media publication which recently celebrated its second birthday. Now 27, Erik has seen the business of journalism change from up close, and the weekly newspaper he edits has become an integral part of the Australian media landscape.

When he visited Brisbane in mid-June to host a panel at the Inspire Festival, Erik and I met for the first time at the hotel where he was staying. I have written a couple of stories for The Saturday Paper, so this episode marks the first time I've interviewed a current editor of mine on Penmanship. Our conversation touches on how Erik's apprenticeship as a news journalist began with sitting nearby fearsome reporters such as David Marr and Kate McClymont; how launching The Saturday Paper drove him to the point of physical exhaustion in its first six months of existence; what happened when the producers of Australian Story attempted to film a television documentary about his life, and how learning to write in shorthand helped him immensely when he sat down to write his book Acute Misfortune following four years of reporting.

Erik Jensen is the founding editor of The Saturday Paper. Before that, he was a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald, where he won the Walkley Award for Young Print Journalist of the Year and the UNAA's Media Peace Award. His first book, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, won the Nib Prize and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards and the Walkley Book Award. He has written for various publications, and for the sitcom Please Like Me.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode:

Erik Jensen on Twitter: @ErikOJensen

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Jul 13, 2016

Tim Levinson is a songwriter and musician.

Within the Australian hip-hop scene, he's better known by his stage name, Urthboy, under which he performs as a solo artist and as a member of the eight-piece band The Herd. I've watched and listened to his music closely for more than a decade, and I've interviewed Tim several times, including for my book Talking Smack. When he visited Brisbane on a Saturday in early June while touring for his latest album, The Past Beats Inside Me Like A Second Heartbeat, I met at his hotel room during the afternoon, where his band and manager were relaxing soon after arriving from a show on the Sunshine Coast the previous night.

Our conversation touches on how his songwriting style has changed over the years to reflect a broader range of perspectives and emotions; the handful of times in his career where he has felt like he's truly nailed a song's execution; the members of the inner circle of people who he feels comfortable showing early drafts of his work to; why he decided to write a song about his mother for his newest album, and his father for his last album; and the creative breakthroughs that can emerge while writing lyrics alone at 3.00am.

Tim Levinson, otherwise known as Urthboy, is an award-winning Australian hip-hop artist based in Sydney. His second solo album The Signal was hailed as ‘a classic’ by Rolling Stone, received numerous award nominations and was shortlisted in the 2007 Australian Music Prize. He is one of the main songwriters in eight-piece band The Herd, and also manages Elefant Traks, an independent record label which includes artists such as Hermitude and Horrorshow. Celebrating the government’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, Urthboy worked with GetUp to re-imagine the song 'From Little Things Big Things Grow', at Paul Kelly’s personal request. The song helped raise over $100,000 for Indigenous run health and education programs. Urthboy has released five solo albums, the most recent of which is 2016's The Past Beats Inside Me Like A Second Heartbeat.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode:

Tim Levinson on Twitter: @Urthboy

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Jun 29, 2016

Cory Taylor is an author and screenwriter.

In May 2016, she published a book named Dying: A Memoir. As the title suggests, it will her last public writing, for Cory is dying of melanoma-related brain cancer. Structured around three essays, Cory writes of how her body has failed her since the initial diagnosis in 2005, just before her 50th birthday. While her once full life has since contracted to just two rooms – her bedroom and her living room, where she spends most of her days now – her mind remains sharp and active, and in the book she describes the arc of her narrative with vivid detail. She writes: "When you're dying, even your unhappiest memories can induce a sort of fondness, as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread". At once sad and proud, her writing in these pages is truly masterly. Readers of any age will find much to learn here, and it is difficult to imagine a finer note on which to close.

Cory and I live on the same street in inner-city Brisbane – Montague Road in West End – and I met her for the first time on a rainy Wednesday morning in mid June. She was propped up on the day bed in her living room, and in between occasional interruptions from friends and carers, Cory kindly allowed me to ask her a few questions about her life as a writer. There's a bit of ambient noise in the background of the recording, as traffic rushes past on the wet street outside. But the living room itself is a wonderful sanctuary of art and literature, and despite the fact that her body is wasting away, Cory's love for words and language burns brightly. Our conversation touches on how she decided to write about her impending death; the hardest parts of writing about dying; her early experiences working as a freelance screenwriter in the 1980s; how her PhD research into the internment of Japanese immigrants during the Second World War led to her second novel, and what she aimed to achieve by writing her final book.

Cory Taylor is an award-winning screenwriter who has also published short fiction and children’s books. Her first novel, Me and Mr Booker, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Pacific Region) and her second, My Beautiful Enemy, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Her most recent book is Dying: A Memoir.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode:

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Jun 15, 2016

Sarah Ferguson is a journalist and author.

Last year, ABC television screened her three-part documentary series The Killing Season, which examined the forces that shaped the Australian Labor Party during the recent years in which Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard led the party, and the nation. Based on Sarah's lengthy and insightful interviews with key political players, and filmed with the drama and style of the Netflix series House Of Cards, it was pitch-perfect television that resonated strongly across the country, attracting around a million viewers each episode. The series further established Sarah's reputation as one of Australia's finest television interviewers and presenters. Since 2008, she has worked as an award-winning investigative journalist on current affairs program Four Corners – which she currently hosts – as well as filling in for Leigh Sales as the host of 7.30 in 2014, and conducting several hard-hitting political interviews during that time.

In 2016, Sarah became an author with The Killing Season Uncut. Co-written with series researcher Patricia Drum and published in April by Melbourne University Publishing, Sarah's book goes behind the scenes to candidly reveal the stories behind the interviews with Rudd, Gillard and a host of other key players. I found that her asides into the craft of journalism were a highlight of the book, such as this quote: "The business of persuasion is a fraught one for journalists. Persuasiveness is one thing, bullshit is another. You have to understand your subject intimately and what their purpose is in speaking on camera. I prefer candour but it's not enough by itself. And you are not friends, although it can appear that way. The line you shouldn't cross is usually only visible when it's behind you."

When Sarah was on a day trip to Brisbane in early May, we met at her inner-city hotel room so that I could ask her a few questions before she had to dash off to a radio interview across town. It was a thrill to be sitting across from one of the country's most formidable journalistic brains; within a few minutes, she had called me out for incorrectly attributing a quote from the book to her, rather than Julia Gillard. Our conversation touches on how her writing style has developed across her career; her early writing influences, including her love of poetry; how she comes up with ideas for her Four Corners stories; why she posted a Julia Gillard quote above her desk; who she turns to when she's having trouble with a story; and how she decided to open a live budget night interview on 7.30 with a particularly devastating question for then treasurer Joe Hockey.

Sarah Ferguson is an author and ABC journalist. In the same year that she worked on The Killing Season, she also wrote and presented Hitting Home, the landmark series on domestic violence. She has presented the ABC's 7.30 and worked as a journalist on Four Corners, where she won four Walkleys – including the Gold Walkley in 2011 for 'A Bloody Business' – the Melbourne Press Club Gold Quill Award, four Logies for most outstanding public affairs report, as well as the George Munster Award for Independent Journalism and the Queensland Premier's Literary Award.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode:

Sarah Ferguson on Twitter: @FergusonNews

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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