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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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

Jul 29, 2015

Jon Toogood is a songwriter and musician.

Jon is the lead singer and guitarist in a band named Shihad. Formed in Wellington, New Zealand, the band are well-known among Australians following the success of their breakthrough album, The General Electric, in 1999. Jon and his bandmates have been based in Melbourne since around that time, and have released a string of great albums. The most recent was FVEY, released in 2014, a hard rock record with a political agenda, which we discuss in some detail in this episode.

I first met Jon Toogood in 2011, when I interviewed him for a Mess+Noise ‘Storytellers’ feature about two of my favourite Shihad songs, ‘Home Again’ and ‘Deb’s Night Out’. I also interviewed him about drug use for my book Talking Smack in 2013, when Shihad were touring Australia while supporting Black Sabbath.

He’s an energetic conversationalist and mad music fan above all else, which should become apparent pretty quickly. Our conversation touches on the concept of justice, which featured prominently in Jon’s writing for FVEY; how his marriage to a Sudanese woman changed his perspective and led to him undertaking charity work; his early interest in reading horror novels, which led to writing his first song for Shihad; the fine line between confidence and arrogance in musicians, and how he has learned to deal with negative reviews of his music.

This interview took place in Brisbane in early June, when Shihad was performing three shows in south-east Queensland. I’d seen the band perform a couple of nights earlier, at the Hamilton Hotel, where they were in incredible form. They’re simply one of the best live rock bands I’ve ever seen, and I decided long ago to never pass up an opportunity to see them live. Jon and I spoke on a Sunday afternoon in an inner-city hotel room that he was sharing with guitarist Phil Knight; you’ll hear Phil arrive partway through the recording and try to quietly creep past with a box of freshly bought Fruit Loops.

Jon Toogood is a songwriter and musician who has been at the helm of Shihad since 1988. A New Zealand rock institution that has consistently delivered churning riffs and soaring melodies over nine studio albums and eight EPs, Shihad have a reputation as a ferocious live act that's been hard-earned after more than 1,500 shows. Their two decade-plus career was recognised at the 2010 New Zealand Music Awards, where they were ushered into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame; they were also recently awarded with 'Most Singles in the NZ Charts by a NZ Artist' (25) and 'Most #1 Albums by a NZ Artist' (5) by Recorded Music NZ. Jon also fronts The Adults, an extra-curricular project starring some of his favourite New Zealand artists, including Julia Deans (Fur Patrol), Shayne Carter (Dimmer, Straitjacket Fits) and Ladi 6. Jon took up guitar aged seven, but back then soccer and cricket were his still first love. A talented batsman, he captained the Wellington Representative cricket team, but at 15 he traded his bat and cricket whites for a guitar and black jeans and never looked back. Jon’s career highlights include playing in front of 60,000-strong crowds and Shihad's gold albums, but says nothing beats the rush of knowing when he’s written a song that works.

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

Jon Toogood  on Twitter: @JonToogood

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Jul 15, 2015

Everett True is a freelance music critic and author.

Born in England, True was involved with several key British music magazines throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including NME, Melody Maker and Plan B. He moved to Brisbane in 2008 and immediately made a name for himself by deriding popular bands such as Silverchair, The Vines and Savage Garden as “musical abominations” in a memorable article for The Guardian.

At the time, these comments caused significant waves among the Australian music writing fraternity. As an arrogant, opinionated young writer myself, it took some time for me to see past True’s brash, abrasive style of writing and view him as a real person with real feelings. Over the years, we became friends and colleagues, supporting each others’ work as freelancers and forming an unlikely bond.

Besides his work as a prominent music critic, True is an accomplished author, having written books on Nirvana, Ramones and The White Stripes. More recently, while living in Brisbane, he has been a PhD student at Queensland University of Technology, and when I met him at his home in the western suburb of The Gap in early June he had just submitted his PhD thesis. You’ll hear his children running around and playing nearby, as we talk about how he failed English in high school, the Blondie song that first endeared him to pop music, the origins of his pen names, his tumultuous relationship with alcohol, and the time when he pushed Kurt Cobain in a wheelchair in front of tens of thousands of people at Reading Festival in 1992.

Everett True is a former editor of Melody Maker, VOX, Careless Talk Costs Lives and Plan B in the U.K. He has written for more rock publications than most people can name. He is the author of several books on rock music featuring Nirvana, Ramones, The White Stripes and others, and was a key writer covering the rise of Nirvana and the Seattle scene in the early 1990s. Nick Cave described one of his live performances as "more entertaining than Nina Simone," while Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs called him "the coolest man in England." The Gossip's members say he's the most important music critic of their generation.

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


Everett True on Twitter: @EverettTrue

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Jul 1, 2015

Lizzie Loel is a restaurant critic at Qweekend and freelance writer.

As a regular reader of Qweekend, I’ve been intrigued by Lizzie’s reviews in the last couple of years she’s been in the role. Her writing is sharp and evocative, but what has interested me most is that her ratings are on a scale of 20, and she rarely awards a score higher than 15. This has created the perception in my mind, and in the minds of others, that she’s a tough marker – a critic who’s hard to please.

We talk about this perception at some length in our conversation, which also touches on Lizzie’s upbringing on a sheep and cattle station in western Queensland; her experience as an apprentice chef in Brisbane and Paris; and the difficulties associated with perfecting the art of making an Indian curry; how she developed her palate and food vocabulary; how she got into restaurant criticism, and her unique method of writing reviews without taking notes; and the type of reader she keeps in mind when reviewing restaurants for Qweekend.

This interview was recorded at Lizzie’s home in Paddington, Brisbane, on a Friday morning in June, at her dining room table. Her obsession with all things food was evident through the fresh ingredients on the table beside us, as well as the countless cookbooks and food magazines in her living room. You’ll even hear her cat making its presence known at a couple of points in our conversation.

Lizzie Loel lives to eat and eats to live.  As a chef-turned-restaurant critic she has seen all angles of the restaurant industry from the good, the bad and the utterly delectable. Widely travelled and with more than fifteen years' experience as a restaurant critic, Lizzie knows a thing or two about eating out.  Her life prior to this was all about food as well: she ran the popular A Moveable Feast for six years and then went on to establish The Grape Catering Company, both of which won multiple awards over several years. During the 'critic' years, Lizzie moonlighted as a caterer-of-sorts, producing mountains of food daily for her constantly hungry three young sons and their ever-expanding entourage.  She stopped reviewing when the boys left school, jumping back into the industry but early in 2013 she returned to The Courier-Mail's reviewing for the prestigious Qweekend magazine.

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

Lizzie Loel on Twitter: @LizzieLoel

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Jun 17, 2015

Matthew Condon is an author and staff writer at Qweekend.

Like John Birmingham, he's a man who can alternate between writing fiction and non-fiction with apparent ease. I first met Matthew in 2010 when I interviewed and profiled him for The Weekend Australian Review, around the release of his excellent book Brisbane, which offered a unique and literary insight into the city where he grew up and later returned to while raising his family. Matthew is an acclaimed fiction writer who was first published in 1988 with The Motorcycle Café, a novel inspired by his experiences working at a petrol station. I’m less familiar with his fiction writing, though I thoroughly recommend his 1998 novel The Pillow Fight, which is about an abusive relationship written from the perspective of the male victim.

In recent years his journalistic work has taken prominence: he is an associate editor at Queensland newspaper The Courier-Mail and a staff writer at Qweekend. Matthew was also editor of Qweekend for a year or so, and kindly published several stories of mine during his tenure. In 2013, the first in Matthew’s trilogy of diligently researched non-fiction books about the Queensland Police was published by University of Queensland Press. Three Crooked Kings was followed by Jacks and Jokers in 2014, and the final chapter is due later this year.

My interview with Matthew took place at the News Queensland offices in Bowen Hills, in late April. At my suggestion, we found a disused office in a quiet corner of the building. It might have been the very same room where I interviewed Trent Dalton in the first episode of Penmanship. As a longtime admirer of his work, it was a privilege to pick Matthew’s brain about the craft of writing, and what propelled him into a career of working with words.

Our conversation touches on an intimate and unforgettable story about visiting his grandmother in a psychiatric ward one Christmas as a young man, which he later wrote about in his short story collection The Lulu Magnet in 1996; his parents’ disappointment in his pursuit of a career as a writer, and how it’s only in the last few years with the success of Three Crooked Kings that they have started to realise his talent and impact; his job working at a petrol station, and what he learned about human nature by the way that customers tended to treat him in that role; what he learned from his stint editing Qweekend, and the personal difficulties he has faced while writing his recent books about the Queensland Police.

Matthew Condon is the author of several novels, works of non-fiction, and is the two-time winner of the Steele Rudd Award for short fiction. His novels include The Motorcycle Café, The Pillow Fight and The Trout Opera. His non-fiction titles include Brisbane and, as editor, Fear, Faith and Hope: Remembering the Long Wet Summer of 2010-2011. In 2013 he published Three Crooked Kings, the first instalment in a trilogy on the life and times of former Queensland police commissioner Terry Lewis, and crime and corruption in Queensland and NSW over a half-century. The book tells an epic story of corruption so deeply entrenched that it changed Queensland society. It was awarded the John Oxley Library Award 2013, and was shortlisted for several other awards.  The second volume, Jacks and Jokers, was published in April 2014 and was nominated for a Walkley Award. The final instalment in the trilogy will be published this year. Condon has worked as a journalist for thirty years both here and overseas. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the Creative Arts at the Queensland University of Technology.

Show notes and links to Matthew’s writing discussed in this episode:

Matthew Condon on Twitter: @MatthewCondon2

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

Jun 3, 2015

John Birmingham is an author, columnist and freelance journalist.

Since I began venturing into freelance journalism six years ago, John has loomed large in my life. At first, I admired him from afar by devouring his autobiographical books, including his cult classic He Died With A Felafel In His Hand and its sequel, The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco. I read his journalism in magazines like The Monthly, his online columns on Brisbane Times, his cannabis travelogue Dopeland and his collection of essays with the memorable title, Off One’s Tits.

All of that writing was rooted in reality. In 2010, I also read one of John’s fiction titles, After America, and I leveraged my interest in that release, and in John’s work in general, into a short feature article for The Big Issue that same year. That’s where I first met John Birmingham: as a young freelancer interviewing him for a national magazine. I was thrilled by this opportunity, because I was essentially being paid to interview one of my favourite Australian writers. 

In 2015, John remains a giant of the literary scene, a true chameleon who can jump between fiction and non-fiction, short-form and long-form, with enviable ease. He’s an outrageous talent and I’m honoured to consider him a freelance colleague and a friend. He’s someone who has seen and done it all, as far as Australian writing is concerned, yet he maintains a freakishly prolific output and a young man’s hunger for the craft. For me, he remains a source of inspiration as dependable as the tides. 

Our interview took place at John’s home, in the inner-east suburb of Balmoral on a Tuesday morning in April . He led me downstairs to his writing room, which features an enormous floor-to-ceiling book shelf stacked with titles and a couple of awards he’s earned over the years. John kicked his dog out of the room so she didn’t stink up the place, and we settled into comfortable chairs opposite one another for a conversation which touches on his upbringing in Ipswich, Queensland; his early interest in writing, which led him to manually copy some of his favourite writers line-by-line; his move from journalism into fiction writing, and his short-lived job as a producer for the national television program A Current Affair

John Birmingham has published lots of books. So many that he sort of loses track of them. He wrote features for magazines in a decade before publishing He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, working for Rolling Stone, Playboy and the Long Bay Prison News amongst others. He won the National Award For Non-Fiction with Leviathan: An Unauthorised Biography of Sydney. He started writing airport novels because they were more fun. His most recent series of books that improve with altitude are the Dave Hooper novels. He blogs at

Show notes and links to John’s writing discussed in this episode:

John Birmingham on Twitter: @JohnBirmingham

Penmanship on Twitter: @PenmanshipAU

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