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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Now displaying: 2015
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:

Jenny Valentish on Twitter: @JennyValentish

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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:

David Astle on Twitter: @DontAttempt

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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:

Tim Rogers on Twitter: @TimRogersMusic

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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:

Avid Reader on Twitter: @AvidReader4101

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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:

Hedley Thomas's writing for The Australian:

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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:

Chris Masters's website:

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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:

Susan Johnson on Twitter: @SJreaders

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Sep 16, 2015

Brent DeBoer is a songwriter and musician.

I first met him in unique circumstances in September 2010, when my partner and I won a competition to fly to the United States and interview The Dandy Warhols at their studio in Portland, Oregon. This was a promotional tie-in because the band were booked to play at Parklife Festival that year, so we were accompanied by a cameraman for Australian website Pedestrian.TV, who filmed the encounter and cut a short video about our experience. (The entire interview was later published on I’m a big fan of The Dandy Warhols; they’re one of the best live rock bands I’ve seen, and as a solid drummer and co-vocalist, Brent is a key part of their appeal.

Born in Portland and based there for most of his life, Brent has called Melbourne home since 2010, after he married an Australian and relocated. When he’s not touring or recording with The Dandy Warhols, he’s inevitably doing the same with his Australian band, Immigrant Union, who this year released their second album, entitled Anyway. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and one of my favourites of 2015. When reviewing Anyway for The Weekend Australian in June, I described it as “a timeless album for all moods and seasons” and gave it four-and-a-half stars.

Besides his excellent musicianship and songwriting in two of my favourite bands, though, I actually didn’t know much about Brent’s past or his path into music, so I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know him a little better during this interview, which took place upstairs at Lefty’s Music Hall in Brisbane, a few hours before Immigrant Union played three sets there on a Thursday evening in late August. Brent was jet-lagged, and spent most of the interview either staring out the window, watching the fading light, or with his eyes closed, while darkness gradually consumed the room where we sat.

Our conversation touches on how he learned to play the drums at age five; how he manifested his own destiny as a child, when he would imagine playing to a sea of people who were all there to watch him play drums; a favourite prank of his when playing to drunk fraternity crowds in his early career; how he was asked to join The Dandy Warhols in 1998 and how he struggled for a couple of years with the demands of the role; and the differences between being a drummer who sings in that band and being a singer-guitarist in Immigrant Union.

Brent DeBoer was born in Portland, Oregon, where his parents bought him a drum set for Christmas when he was five years old. By the age of 16 he had formed his first band, Spoon, with Rick Bain. Just out of college, in 1998, he joined The Dandy Warhols as their drummer. After moving to Melbourne, in 2010, he was at the iconic Cherry Bar in AC/DC Lane. It was here that he began to form a band called Immigrant Union with Bob Harrow and Peter Lubulwa, taking on the role of lead guitar and lead vocals. The Dandy Warhols will release their ninth studio album in 2016 and they continue to tour the world extensively. Immigrant Union recently released their critically acclaimed second studio album entitled Anyway.

Show notes and links to Brent's music discussed in this episode:

Brent DeBoer on Twitter: @FatheadDeBoer

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Aug 26, 2015

Steve Kilbey is a songwriter, musician and author.

Steve is best known as the songwriter and frontman of Australian rock band The Church, a role which he has inhabited for 35 years across the band’s extensive and respected career. In 2014, he became a published author with the release of his memoir, Something Quite Peculiar, which explored his history working as a professional musician, from his first job playing in a popular cover band in Canberra as a teenager, through to more recent years as he approaches 60.

I first met Steve in February 2013, when I interviewed him for my book Talking Smack, about his experiences with illicit drugs in general and his addiction to heroin in particular. The Kilbey chapter opened the book, not only because it was the most immediately engaging and transformative story, but because Steve is such an articulate and fascinating interviewee that I was tempted to just publish the transcript in its entirety, and leave it at that. (An edited version of the Kilbey chapter from Talking Smack was published in The Weekend Australian Review, which you can read here; there’s also a funny YouTube clip filmed at our first meeting here.)

This conversation took place on a Sunday afternoon in a downmarket hotel room in inner-city Brisbane in early July, when The Church were playing two shows at The Triffid. This was billed as a double-album tour, where the 1982 album The Blurred Crusade and the band’s most recent album, Further/Deeper, were intended to be played in full, but as we discuss here, the band soon realised that wasn’t such a good idea. While we spoke, Steve and I sat on the floor of the hotel room, with the microphone between us. There were a couple of other blokes in the room while we recorded: fellow journalist Michael Dwyer, and Mike Brook, who filmed our interview as part of the documentary about Kilbey he’s currently working on.

Our conversation touches on the experience of writing his memoir, and Steve’s response to my review published in The Weekend Australian; the differences between his on-stage and off-stage personalities; how he went about learning the bass guitar; how his artistic career is dictated by money, and how he enjoys being lean and hungry; the origins of his remarkable blog, which is named The Time Being; and how he prefers to write lyrics in a stream-of-consciousness style that’s rarely edited between the page and finalised albums.

Steve Kilbey began his professional music career when he was 17. He played in several bands before forming The Church in Sydney in 1980. After some initial success, Kilbey and The Church shot to international fame in 1988 when their album Starfish, featuring the song ‘Under the Milky Way’, rose to the top of the music charts in both Australia and the US. Kilbey has collaborated with a vast array of musicians on various projects and has produced a number of solo works as well. He is also a painter, poet and music producer. In 2010 The Church was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. Steve Kilbey currently lives in Bondi, Sydney and continues to evolve through his craft as a vocalist, songwriter, poet, artist, actor, writer and guitarist bringing all his talents together for unique and instinctive performances.

Show notes and links to Steve's writing and music discussed in this episode:

Steve Kilbey on Twitter: @SteveKilbey

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Aug 12, 2015

Kate Kyriacou is an author and chief crime reporter at The Courier-Mail.

By coincidence, I met with Kate at News Queensland’s offices in Bowen Hills on August 3, the day that her first book was published. It’s called The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe's Killer, and it’s a true-crime narrative about a case well-known to every Queenslander, and most Australians, I’d wager, given the high-profile nature of the disappearance of 13 year-old Daniel Morcombe in December 2003. Besides writing and publishing The Sting, Kate is chief crime reporter at Queensland newspaper The Courier-Mail, where she has worked since 2012, following earlier stints reporting in Mildura, Melbourne and Adelaide.

Crime reporting is a tough beat: day in, day out, these reporters are dealing with some of the nastiest aspects of human nature. Being immersed in this world can take an emotional toll, which is something that Kate and I discuss in this episode. We also explore the tension of writing a whole book about one of these nasty characters; her experiences as a junior reporter in a regional city and having daily briefing with the local police over tea and breakfast; Kate’s early interest in children’s literature and young adult novels, which remains an area she’d like to explore in her own writing; why she prefers colour reporting over straight news writing, and the traits required for crime reporters to succeed in this taxing business.

Kate Kyriacou has been a journalist since 2001. She has written for newspapers around the country, including the Sunday Herald Sun, the Adelaide Advertiser and Sunday Mail, and Brisbane’s Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail. She has been The Courier-Mail’s chief crime reporter since 2012 and has won awards, at both a state and national level, for her work as a crime writer. Her first book is The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe's Killer, published by Echo Publishing in August 2015.

Show notes and links to Kate's writing discussed in this episode:

Kate Kyriacou on Twitter: @KateKyriacou

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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