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Penmanship

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 23, 2016

Kathleen Noonan is a journalist and weekly columnist at The Courier-Mail.

For 13 years, she has written a column in the Saturday Courier-Mail named 'Last Word'. It's a blank canvas where she is tasked with writing one thousand words about whatever has caught her eye or piqued her interest out in the world that week. It seems no topic is too big or too small for this canvas: I've been reading her every Saturday for about six years, and that column is among the most consistently fascinating, moving and insightful pages I'll read all week. Besides being an eminently experienced and capable journalist, I have long wondered how Kathleen manages to write such wonderfully original material based only on her careful observations and analysis of herself and other people. It's a brilliant trick, and her name has been near the top of my list since I first conceived of using Penmanship as a vehicle to meet and interview my favourite Australian writers.

I met Kathleen at her home in East Brisbane on a Monday morning in mid-March, where I was enthusiastically greeted by her white Jack Russell puppy, Basil, who was keen on playing with the stranger in his house while we chatted nearby Kathleen's writing desk. The sounds of suburbia were in chorus that morning, prompting her to shut the window and doors to avoid power tools and leaf blowers on a couple of occasions. Our conversation touches on how Kathleen manages to come up with fresh ideas for 'Last Word' each week; how she decided to write a column about the recent passing of her beloved greyhound, which prompted an unexpected flood of reader mail; what led her to seek out a job as a cadet reporter in North Queensland; how she handled the tricky task of performing 'death knocks', and the advice that she tends to give when aspiring journalists contact her.

Kathleen Noonan is a Brisbane-based journalist and columnist.  She has written a weekly opinion column named 'Last Word' in Saturday’s Courier-Mail for 13 years. Raised on a farm amid paddocks of sugarcane in north Queensland, Kathleen did her early news reporting in the Mackay district. After reporting in South Africa through the dying years of apartheid and release of Nelson Mandela, and a stint travelling and writing in the UK, Kathleen returned home, working as a freelance journalist for publications including The Australian. She returned to The Courier-Mail as a news reporter, sub-editor, section head and senior features writer. Her weekly column explores everything from love, death, books, running, music, poetry, teachers, refugees and chooks. She is also chair of the Second Chance committee, the only charity in Australia that raises money exclusively for homeless women. It helps fund crisis accommodation for elderly women, young teenagers with babies, and at-risk women and children in Queensland’s domestic violence shelters.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode: http://penmanshippodcast.com/episode-20-kathleen-noonan/

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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Mar 9, 2016

Baz McAlister is editor of Qweekend.

When we meet at the News Queensland offices in late February, he is only a couple of months into his new job in charge of The Courier-Mail's weekly colour magazine. I had not met the man prior to this interview, but I had observed his Irish charm and wit from a packed auditorium during the 2015 Clarions, the annual Queensland media awards that Baz co-hosted and wrote the script for. Thanks to his background as a stand-up comic and snappy newspaper headline writer, his clever, media-centric jokes were a clear hit with the crowd of journalists, and the scene was topped off by the handsome kilt he wore on the night.

Our conversation touches on Baz's upbringing in Northern Ireland and how his early interest in language was earned through reading fantasy and science fiction; how working at a Borders bookshop in the middle of Glasgow changed his reading habits; why he decided to leave the UK in search of a new life and career in Australia; how he began writing film reviews for the Brisbane street press, and later became a national arts editor; how his sub-editing and headline writing skills helped with his stand-up comedy debut, and how he learned to cope with bearing witness to terrible things such as watching footage of beheadings while working on the "backbench" of production staff at The Courier-Mail.

Baz McAlister is originally from the rugged County Antrim coast of Northern Ireland and has worked in print media in Australia for 12 years. Based in Brisbane, he is currently the editor of News Corp Australia's Qweekend magazine, The Courier-Mail's Saturday insert. Baz is a multi-award-winning senior journalist who has been a feature writer, columnist and night editor for News and spent six years as national arts editor for Time Off and The Music, covering the entertainment scene in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Baz is also a screenwriter who recently reached the quarterfinals of the Academy's Nicholl Fellowship for Screenwriting with a horror-drama feature. He has several television and film projects in various stages of development as writer. He also writes and performs stand-up comedy.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode: http://penmanshippodcast.com/episode-19-baz-mcalister/

Baz McAlister on Twitter: @BazMcAlister

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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Feb 24, 2016

Ed Kuepper is a songwriter and musician.

If you’re a regular listener of Penmanship, you’ll already be familiar with at least one of his many songs, as the podcast’s theme music is ‘Eternally Yours’ by his band Laughing Clowns, which he formed in Sydney in 1979. But if you’re a fan of Australian music, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a few others, too: perhaps the title track to the 1977 album (I’m) Stranded by Brisbane punk rock band The Saints, or a single named ‘The Way I Made You Feel’ from his 1991 solo album Honey Steel’s Gold. He has been writing, recording and performing music in Australia and around the world for more than 40 years, and to my ears he is one of this country’s most distinctive and memorable guitarists, too.

December 2015 marked the release of Ed Kuepper’s 50th album, Lost Cities, though depending on how you count his prolific solo catalogue, that number might be as high as 100. After exploding out of the gates with the incendiary, distorted guitar tone in The Saints, it’s been fascinating to watch him shift across several genres and playing styles to end up with the sparse arrangements heard here. When reviewing the album for The Australian, I wrote that “there’s nobody quite like him operating in Australian music today, and that he continues to invest in this work is a gift.” In a sense, the album was a gift to himself, too: its release coincided with Ed’s 60th birthday.

I first interviewed Ed at his home in the south-west Brisbane suburb of Sherwood for Mess+Noise in 2010, where we spoke about the song ‘Eternally Yours’ at some length. I return to the same house on a quiet Sherwood street in late February 2016 to interview Ed on his back deck, with his dog Oscar lying on the ground between us.

You’ll hear cicadas, planes and garbage trucks in the distance as we discuss why Ed thinks fuzz-box guitar distortion sounds “pissweak”; how he avoids retreading the same ground when writing songs; how his writing has progressed between The Saints, Laughing Clowns and his solo career; his experiences with touring as a member of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds a few years ago, and whether songwriting gets easier with age.

Ed Kuepper is an Australian musician. He is a highly regarded and prolific songwriter and a distinctive and unique guitarist and vocalist. He was the founding member of The Saints, Laughing Clowns and The Aints. He has led an active solo career since the mid 1980s and won numerous ARIA awards. He has toured extensively in Australia and internationally. He has worked on film soundtracks, toured as back-up guitarist for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, and recently released Lost Cities, his 50th album.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode: http://penmanshippodcast.com/episode-18-ed-kuepper/

Ed Kuepper on Twitter: @EdKuepper

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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Dec 16, 2015

Jenny Valentish is an author, freelance journalist and editor.

In 2014, she published her first novel, Cherry Bomb, a teenage psychodrama set in the music industry. She’s currently working on a book of immersive journalism about addiction to be published in 2017. Before writing books, though, she was better known as an accomplished magazine editor, having moved to Australia from England in the mid 2000s and worked on titles such as Time Out Melbourne and Triple J Magazine. The latter publication is where I first met her, in 2009, when I was a new freelancer and still very much learning about how this business works. As an editor, Jenny was patient, supportive and fun to write for, and we’ve kept in touch since.

With her long history of sitting in the editor’s chair and dealing with the daily deluge of story pitches, she has a finely tuned sense of what editors want from their freelance contributors. With her long history of sitting in the editor’s chair and dealing with the daily deluge of story pitches, she has a finely tuned sense of what editors want from their freelance contributors. We discuss this topic in a conversation that took place in Brisbane in early December, as well as how Jenny’s substance use overlapped with her creativity; how she was misrepresented as a “middle-class super groupie” by an NME journalist at age 18; what that experience taught her about having a duty of care toward the people she writes about; why British editorial staff tend to get preferential treatment in the Australian publishing industry; why she started a blog with the goal of doing something new every day for a year and writing about it, and how her early career writing for porn mags helped her to write graphic sex scenes for Cherry Bomb.

Jenny Valentish has been a music journalist since her teens, when her self-published fanzine got her splashed across the British papers for all the wrong reasons. Her career proper started in London as a music publicist, then took a sharp left into book editing for a crime fiction publisher. Staff positions followed at adult magazines and a guitar title, as well as a much-coveted column in NME. Upon defecting to Australia, she worked as chief sub for ACP's Ralph, then as editor of Triple J’s Jmag, and finally as editor of Time Out Melbourne (sister mag to London’s Time Out), which she launched. On her daily commute she wrote the novel Cherry Bomb for Allen and Unwin, tagged as ‘a teenage psychodrama set in the music industry’. Since retiring – as she calls ‘going freelance' – she writes artist bios for record labels and regularly contributes to The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Saturday Paper. She is working on a non-fiction book for Black Inc on women and addiction.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode: http://penmanshippodcast.com/episode-17-jenny-valentish/

Jenny Valentish on Twitter: @JennyValentish

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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Dec 9, 2015

David Astle is an author, freelance writer and cruciverbalist.

That last word might be unfamiliar to you, so allow me to explain: a cruciverbalist is a person skilled in the art of creating and solving crossword puzzles, which is something that David has been doing for most of his life. Since the mid-1980s, he has been crafting cryptic crosswords for readers of Fairfax newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, but for most of that time, he was known only by his initials. It wasn't until 2010 that 'DA' exposed himself as David Astle, with a book named Puzzled: Secrets And Clues From A Life Lost In Words.

All of my guests on Penmanship share a love of words and language, but David Astle might take the cake in this regard – if only because when we met at a hotel room in late November, he was wearing a shirt which read, "Triple Nerd Score". David is unique among my guests thus far to have co-created a new word: in 2012, he was part of a team which met at Sydney University to come up with a definition for the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention. Their creation? 'Phub': a phone snub.

For years, I have enjoyed David's column 'Wordplay', which appears in The Sydney Morning Herald's arts section, Spectrum, each Saturday. It was through this narrow window into his long and prosperous freelance career that we met while he was visiting Brisbane to promote his first book for kids, Wordburger: How To Be A Champion Word Puzzler In 20 Quick Bites. As I soon learned, however, David is a man who carries many arrows in his writerly quiver, and it was a delight to discuss how he has built a life around a love for language.

Our conversation touches on the challenge of writing for children instead of adults; how he chooses timely topics for his weekly column; how he became obsessed with puzzles as a teenager and began stalking a prominent Fairfax puzzle editor; the interview that led to him quitting his one-time dream job as a feature writer for Inside Sport, and how he became the host of a television game show on SBS named Letters and Numbers.

David Astle is the author of ten books, most of them digging a wordy vein. His latest is Wordburger – his first for kids – that sneakily unlocks the mystery of cryptic crosswords. Other verbal odysseys include Riddledom, Cluetopia and Puzzled.  Smitten with language, David writes his weekly Wordplay column for Spectrum in the Sydney Morning Herald, exploring anything from emojis to Dothraki. He’s also responsible for the weekly DA cryptic on Friday in that paper, and The Age, while his news anagram can be heard on Radio National’s Sunday Extra program. From 2010 until 2012, David fulfilled the role of dictionary umpire on SBS’s Letters and Numbers. He’s also been a feature writer for Sunday Life and Inside Sport, plus a tutor in both journalism and creative writing at RMIT.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode: http://penmanshippodcast.com/episode-16-david-astle/

David Astle on Twitter: @DontAttempt

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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Nov 25, 2015

Tim Rogers is a songwriter and musician.

As frontman of Australian rock band You Am I, his writing and performance has been a huge part of my musical education from a young age, when I first heard the band's 1996 album Hourly, Daily blasting through the wall of my older brother's bedroom. Over the years, I have seen You Am I play more often than just about any other band, and I've been consistently impressed, as their professionalism and enthusiasm for the task at hand is peerless. Away from the band he has fronted for more than 25 years, Tim is an accomplished solo writer, musician and collaborator, most recently with The Bamboos and their 2015 album The Rules Of Attraction. In recent years, he has written a few non-fiction pieces for the likes of The Monthly and The Age, which is something he's planning to do more often.

This conversation was recorded on a Saturday in late November, the morning after You Am I's performance at The Triffid in Brisbane. The band's tenth album, Porridge & Hotsauce, had been released a couple of weeks earlier. I love this album, and said as much in my review for The Australian, where I awarded it four-and-a-half stars out of five. Outside Tim's hotel room in inner-city Brisbane, it was approaching 35 degrees; he had closed the curtains, and it was so dark inside that I could barely see my notes on the table in front of me. After making me an instant coffee, Tim cracked open a Crown Lager, and we perched at a small table nearby a noisy fridge.

Our conversation touches on how he and the band construct setlists ahead of long national tours; the different attitudes that Australian and overseas audiences bring to his work; how his on-stage persona has changed over the years; how he approaches writing songs about personal matters, and what he has learned about keeping some private material out-of-bounds in his public work; the different emotions that he experiences when starting and finishing songs, and why he sometimes messes with some of his most popular songs when performing them live.

With a career now motoring along in its third unique decade, the remarkable résumé of Tim Rogers encompasses music, film, television, stage and the page. As the frontman of one of the essential Australian rock 'n’ roll bands, You Am I – alongside bandmates Russell Hopkinson on drums, Andy Kent on bass, and Davey Lane on guitar – have released ten studio albums to date.  Three of these releases have debuted at number one on the ARIA charts in consecutive order – 1995’s Hi Fi Way, 1996’s Hourly, Daily and 1998’s #4 Record – with the albums also receiving multiple platinum and gold status for commercial sales. Tim is a published writer in the likes of The Age and The Monthly, and has encapsulated the passion of every AFL football fan as the face of the AFL final series on TV screens across the country. He has stood in front of 50,000 screaming rock fans, but is just as at home playing an acoustic guitar and joking with the locals in a community-run country town venue. In 2015, he released an album with The Bamboos, The Rules Of Attraction, and was named Double J's Australian artist of the year.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode: http://penmanshippodcast.com/episode-15-tim-rogers/

Tim Rogers on Twitter: @TimRogersMusic

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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Nov 11, 2015

Fiona Stager is a bookseller and co-owner of two independent bookshops.

Positioned side-by-side on Boundary Street, in Brisbane's inner-city suburb of West End, her shops Avid Reader and Where The Wild Things Are cater to a wide range of readers. The latter store was launched in March 2015 and specialises in titles for children and young adults. Its neighbour, Avid Reader, opened in 1997, and has since established itself at the centre of the city's literary culture by hosting regular book club meetings and author events.

Avid is where I launched my first book, Talking Smack, in August 2014, in conversation with Brisbane author – and previous Penmanship guest – John Birmingham, who also used the cosy room above the store as a place to write his novel Without Warning (2008). It's my favourite bookshop in Brisbane, not only because it's my local, but because walking through its front door always feels like returning home. This is a wonderful feeling for a bookshop to give to its customers, and I suspect that I'm not the only one who has this experience at Avid Reader, since it is now approaching two decades in business.

My conversation with Fiona took place in early November, in the writers' room above Avid, where handwritten plot outlines and chapter structures are posted on the walls. Our conversation touches on her unusual path into bookselling; her philosophy and vision for what she wanted Avid Reader to represent; the advantages of hiring writers as her staff; how she manages a formidable reading schedule, and her recent involvement in a national news story which highlighted the store's decision not to stock the biography of the former Premier of Queensland.

Fiona Stager is the co-owner of Avid Reader Bookshop and Where the Wild Things Are Bookshop. Avid Reader has gained a national reputation for its extensive events program which regularly features international, national and local authors. The Queensland Writers Centre named her the winner of the 2009 Johnno Award for her contribution to the Queensland writing community. She is a regular judge of literary awards including the inaugural Stella Award and the Queensland Literary Awards 2015. After sitting on the board of the Australian Booksellers Association for twelve years, Fiona was awarded life membership in 2014 for her services to the Australian bookselling industry. National Bookshop Day was one of her initiatives. Fiona lives in West End with her family, three chickens and her native bee hive.

Show notes and links to what was discussed in this episode: http://penmanshippodcast.com/episode-14-fiona-stager/

Avid Reader on Twitter: @AvidReader4101

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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Oct 28, 2015

Hedley Thomas is an author and national chief correspondent at The Australian.

He has been a journalist for 30 years, most of the time while based in Queensland: first on the Gold Coast, and later in Brisbane, where he is based while reporting for The Australian. A multiple Walkley Award winner, Hedley has been involved in some of the biggest national stories of this century, including investigations into the wrongful arrest of a suspected terrorist, a natural disaster whose damaging floodwaters could have been avoided, and the behaviour of a negligent surgeon.

In 2007, he published a book named Sick To Death about the latter of these three stories. Most of the action in that tale took place in my hometown of Bundaberg, where the actions of a surgeon named Dr Jayant Patel brought the failings of the Queensland health system into sharp focus.

I first met Hedley at the Queensland Clarion Awards in August, and this interview took place at his home in Brisbane's western suburbs on a public holiday in early October. You'll hear birdsong in the background, including the occasional chicken. Our conversation touches on his first job in journalism as a copy boy at The Gold Coast Bulletin; his promotion to News Limited's London bureau in his early 20s and some of the momentous world events he covered as a foreign correspondent; the mechanics of filing stories in the pre-email era; how he discovered some of the biggest stories of his career, and how journalism came close to killing him on two occasions.

Hedley Thomas, 48, would like to be a professional racetrack punter but as that would bankrupt his family he instead works as a Brisbane-based journalist for The Australian. He is the winner of five Walkley awards including a Gold, and two Sir Keith Murdoch awards. He is the author of true crime book Sick To Death, father to two precocious teenagers, and husband of Ruth.

Show notes and links to Hedley's writing discussed in this episode: http://penmanshippodcast.com/episode-13-hedley-thomas/

Hedley Thomas's writing for The Australian: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/author/Hedley+Thomas

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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Oct 14, 2015

Chris Masters is an investigative journalist and author.

His name is practically synonymous with the craft of investigative journalism, as his face was regularly beamed into living rooms across Australia when he worked on the ABC television program Four Corners between 1983 and 2010. One of his programs had a huge effect on my home state of Queensland: in 1987, Chris’s report, The Moonlight State, led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption, which resulted in the deposition of the premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, as well as the jailing of three former ministers and the state’s police commissioner, Terry Lewis.

Chris has produced many remarkable stories across his career, but I make special mention of The Moonlight State as this interview was recorded in late September while he was visiting Brisbane to launch All Fall Down, the third book in a trilogy about Queensland police corruption by Matthew Condon, a previous Penmanship guest. Condon said at the launch that his three books would not exist without the work of Chris Masters, which goes to show just how deeply his investigative journalism has affected so many people.

I first met Chris at a Brisbane launch for his 2012 book, Uncommon Soldier: Brave, Compassionate and Tough, the Making of Australia's Modern Diggers. When I got a chance to speak to Chris afterwards, I told him that he’d been highly influential in my decision to pursue journalism, as when I graduated from the University of Queensland in 2009, Chris received a Doctor of Letters and gave a short speech which I found immensely inspiring. When I later contacted Chris after that first meeting in 2012, he kindly sent me the text of his speech, which was even more affecting for me to read after having invested a few years in the business myself.

Our conversation at Chris’s hotel room overlooking the Brisbane River touches on the work ethic of his journalist mother, Olga Masters, and how that influenced his own work; how an experience with death as a young man led to him becoming involved with a charity named Redkite; how he goes about winning the trust of sources who are initially unwilling to speak to him; the thirteen years of litigation which followed the broadcast of The Moonlight State; why he believes that domestic investigative journalism is tougher than warzone reporting, and what sustains him after over 40 years in this business.

Chris Masters worked at Australia’s longest running public affairs television program, Four Corners between 1983 and 2010. He made over 100 reports for the national broadcaster’s flagship program, many of them well remembered and some of them nation shaping. Chris has written four books, the most recent Uncommon Soldier (2012). The first was Inside Story (1991) followed by Not For Publication (2002) and Jonestown (2006), the latter winning three awards, including ‘Biography of the Year’. Chris is from a well-known media family, his mother Olga (1919-1986), a lifelong journalist and successful author. In 1999 Chris was awarded a Public Service Medal for his anti-corruption work. In 2005 he received an honorary doctorate in Communication from RMIT University. A further honorary doctorate was awarded in 2009 by The University of Queensland, where Chris is an Adjunct Professor.

Show notes and links to Chris's writing discussed in this episode: http://penmanshippodcast.com/episode-12-chris-masters/

Chris Masters's website: chrismasters.com.au

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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Sep 30, 2015

Susan Johnson is an author and staff writer at Qweekend.

Susan has recently published her eighth novel, The Landing, which takes its name from a fictional lakeside community north of the Queensland capital of Brisbane, where all of the 200 or so residents intimately know each others’ business. In addition to her prolific fiction work, Susan has published two non-fiction books, including a memoir, and also works as a staff writer at The Courier-Mail’s Saturday magazine, Qweekend. I’m more familiar with her fine work in the magazine, but when we met at the News Queensland offices in mid-September, we spoke largely about her fiction writing.

Our conversation also touches on her experiences with the shrinking sizes of author advances in recent years; her early career as a cadet journalist at The Courier-Mail, and how she later found her way back to the newspaper where she began; the hostility that creative people and artists tend to be met with whenever the topic of writers’ grants are discussed in public; and how she wrote herself into existence with her first novel, after first meticulously deconstructing her favourite authors to better understand how they wrote.

Over the course of ten books and thirty years, Susan Johnson has been long-listed and short-listed for many national and international awards. Her first shortlist was for the 1991 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (for Flying Lessons), followed by the 1994 National Book Council’s Banjo Award (A Big Life) and the National Biography Award 2000 (A Better Woman). The Broken Book was shortlisted for the 2005 Nita B Kibble Award; Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; the Westfield/Waverly Library Literary Award, and a slew of other awards, including a long-list for the Miles Franklin and the International Dublin IMPAC Award. Her last novel, My Hundred Lovers, was published in 2012 to critical acclaim. Susan is an Adjunct Professor in Creative Writing at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. She currently lives in Brisbane, from ten years in London, France and Greece. She is a feature writer at Qweekend magazine, The Courier-Mail.

Show notes and links to Susan's writing discussed in this episode: http://penmanshippodcast.com/episode-11-susan-johnson/

Susan Johnson on Twitter: @SJreaders

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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