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Jack Marx: Journalist, blogger and author

Jack Marx is a Walkley-Award winning journalist, blogger and author. His latest book is Australian Tragic: Gripping Tales From the Dark Side of Our History, a book of true stories from Australia’s ‘dark heart’.

As a journalist, Jack has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, Rolling Stone, The Times, The Age, Men’s Style, Ralph, Australian Traveller and many others. He is also a former editor of Australian Style magazine. He has written online blogs for Fairfax Digital and news.com.au. In 2006, Jack was awarded a Walkley Award for his online article ‘I was Russell Crowe’s Stooge’, which was also serialised in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

He has also written two other books: The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison with Warren Fellows, and Sorry – The Wretched Tale of Little Stevie Wright.

Click play to listen. Running time: 32.24


Australian Tragic

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thanks for joining us today, Jack.

Jack:
It’s a pleasure.

Valerie:
When did you discover your talent for writing and what made you decide that you could do it for a living?

Jack:
I suppose everyone thinks that they have a talent for writing when they are young or when they first realise that they can actually put pen to paper and something comes out that makes sense. So, always in the back of my mind, I was always good at it in school when it came to creative writing and stuff. But it went on the back burner later in life as I was convinced that I was going to become a rock star.

Kind of pursuant to that, I started working in the Street Press music press as a layout artist. Somewhere along the way in my mid-20s, I started just moonlighting, writing reviews, and Jon Casimir from The Sydney Morning Herald called me up and asked me to come and write for them. So that’s kind of when I realised that I might have some sort of talent there, I suppose.

Valerie:
So your training was really on-the-job?

Jack:
Yeah, I had no training at all prior to that. Really, all the training that I had was hanging out with journalists. Some of my friends in my early-20s were all journalists who worked for News Media or Fairfax. I spent an awful lot of time at nights sitting, waiting for them to finish their deadline in the pubs across the road from where they worked. Eventually, I got to know all the journalists and eventually, I guess you could say, that I became one because everyone thought I was journalist.

Having said that, I learned a lot listening to them bitching about journalists and journalism until the early hours of the morning. By the time that I actually got a job on the floor of a newspaper, I knew an awful lot about the pitfalls and the things that bugged journalists from one day to the next.

Valerie:
That’s great training in the pub. I like it.

Jack:
Yeah, it was enjoyable.

Valerie:
You’ve been a journalist. You’re also a high-profile blogger and you are an author as well. But they are all very, very different types of writing. Do you have to switch hats somehow or what do you do to get into the right mindset to write a blog post that is sort of an opinion compared to a very long book? How does that work for you?

Jack:
You know what you are driving. It’s not difficult to jump from one to the other. I suppose you can easily forget what people want. Like, as a blogger, what I feel people want or what I want from a blog is something that is fairly argumentative and some discussion with the author there, live, in the room for you to talk to and abuse and agree with. So I think I was a lot more deliberately childish as a blogger than I might be as a journalist writing a story. With Australian Tragic the stories in there I am telling, I am very absent in the telling of them – and that’s the big difference I think.

Valerie:
Your latest book as you mentioned is Australian Tragic: Gripping Tales from the Dark Side of Our History. What made you decide to write this book? Why did you want to showcase these stories?

Jack:
Firstly, I guess it was, for me, personally a bit of an antidote to what I had been doing for the last couple of years. I had been writing full-on my opinions on things and I’d become absolutely sick of not only my opinion but everyone else’s. So I thought, I want to apply myself just to the telling of stories that I think deserve to be told well. Along with that disenchantment with opinion journalism came a yearning for the sort of old journalism that you see in the old newspapers – very dramatic, old melodramatic sort of journalism. I sort of dived back into old newspapers to find old stories like that, that I thought needed to be told.

Plus Australian history; I was really bored by it at school and I still am. There is this knee-jerk feeling when someone mentions Australian history, that it is not interesting or that it is boring. It’s not as exciting as American history or European history. I think that is possibly, to a degree, true because we don’t go back thousands and thousands of years as far as Anglo-Saxon history is concerned. But I do think that there is a lot of great personal intricate history there that just needs to be dug up and told. Australian Tragic, really, I am just trying to get a ball rolling I suppose. I could have gone on forever but I had to stop somewhere.

Valerie:
So on that note, how did you determine what stories deserved to be told? What were the essential elements for them to then be included in the book?

Jack:
Obviously they had to be tragic in one sense or another, and in the literal sense kind of pathetic. There are plenty of those about. But really it was going back into the newspapers and any story that popped my cork really qualified. There were a couple of stories that had been floating around in my mind that I had sort of encountered in the years through journalism that I knew were going to get a guernsey in a book like this. But in the end, I had to find about another 20 or 25 and it was easy. It was almost impossible to dive back and pick a paper at random and not find a story in there that was worthy. There are so many of them about.

Valerie:
Was it hard to leave some stories out?

Jack:
Oh, yeah, there were a lot of stories that I left out. Partly because you can only find so much information about things that happened like 100 years ago or 90 years ago. As desperate as I was to sort of breathe life into these people who are today just a name on a gravestone somewhere overgrown, I didn’t want to make anything up. I wanted everything in there to be true and sometimes, there just wasn’t enough information to tell it.

Or one of the stories that missed out was, I spoke to Mick Kennedy, who is a direct descendent of Sergeant Michael Kennedy who was killed by Ned Kelly at Stringybark Creek. I thought there was an interesting tragedy there in that Ned Kelly is a superstar but Sergeant Michael Kennedy is pretty much unknown. He was just a cop who was out doing his job and was murdered in cold blood. His family have had to sit there and watch the murderer of their great-great grandfather go on to be an Australian icon.

That’s a tragedy in a lot of ways. But once again, there was so little information on Michael Kennedy himself that in the end I had to let it go. Of course, when you are writing on a book, you can go on forever researching. Come to think about it about 60 to 70 per cent of my time was spent doing research, researching things that didn’t wind up in the book in the end.

Or I would get sidetracked on something that was interesting that I knew very well was going to make it in. I spent a lot of time reading in the library things that were, for the purposes of the book, quite useless. But you just run away with little tributaries of stories like that. I’ll know better next time.

Valerie:
You will be more disciplined in your research approach.

Jack:
Yes, I think so.

Valerie:
So, is there going to be so many other tragic Australian stories that there is going to be Australian Tragic 2?

Jack:
There is certainly enough material. Whether there is a demand for it remains to be seen but it is certainly something that could be easily done.

Valerie:
Obviously, writing about dark, tragic stories is very compelling for a reader so you can see the attraction there. When you decided on this, did you make a conscious decision because these stories just actually appealed to you or that you saw the saleability of them?

Jack:
Oh, no, they definitely appealed to me. I think that the reason for that is that, I have to admit, my life is basically good. I’ve had a fairly middle-class upbringing. I’ve had my traumas but they have all been middle-class traumas; this pretty girl has left me for someone else or whatever. I find myself, like a lot of Australian men of my years, lamenting that I haven’t done a stretch in prison or haven’t come back from some grizzly front-line battle.

Naturally, when I want to escape the dreadful reality of mundane life, I will dive into something that is terribly tragic or ugly. I think that accounts for this great interest that we have, at the moment, for criminals. I find that a little bit unsettling, really, because a lot of these criminals feted at the moment are absolutely morons. If they were any good as criminals, we wouldn’t know their names.

I should stress that there is not a lot of criminality in Australian Tragic. I’m more drawn toward stories of terrible misfortune, just people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That definitely interests me because I think that we also are drawn to stories like that because you learn something and it’s a way to prepare ourselves for the worst.

Meeting Stevie Wright and the book that I wrote on music was a bit of an education for me; what life might have been like if I had not pulled my socks up. So there is also that educational, preparing yourself for how to behave when the very worst happens.

Valerie:
How long did it take for you to research the book until finally you finished the final draft? And did you do it full-time or combine it while you were doing other kinds of writing?

Jack:
I signed the contract for it about 18 months before it was released. In a perfect world, I would have paced myself and got in quite comfortably, but spent an enormous amount of time, as I said, allegedly researching. But really, it was just sort of reading and getting sidetracked and finding out a lot about people I’ll never write about or maybe I won’t.

But in the end, I wanted to write all of the stories with the same sort of voice, the same kind of dime novel star, a bit old-fashioned. So I wrote it all pretty much in one sitting after I had done all of the research, which took, I suppose, four or five months. I was working for some of that but in the end, in the last few months, I tossed my blog in and got stuck writing.

Valerie:
Did you have some kind of routine? Did you follow a similar pattern each day in order for you to maintain some order or discipline?

Jack:
Once you get excited about what you are doing, anyone who has ever written anything will know this, that you wake up just busting to get into it. But process was less important to me, and always has been less important to me, than enthusiasm. Your enthusiasm, your love for what you are doing, will create your own process. Normally, a 100 per cent process when nothing else matters. But that is pretty rare that you get to that point for me. Basically for me, I don’t enjoy the process of writing like other people do. I find it really – having your head turned into knots and being concerned about how a sentence reads is quite a ridiculous thing to indulge in. I hope sometime in the future someone invents a machine that takes the thought from your head and just completely compiles it. That’s what I dream of.

Valerie:
Which is the bit that you do enjoy?

Jack:
There are moments when you finish something and you know that it is good. Obviously, that is what I am always working towards is the finished product. That’s the only bit that I really love. But having said that, you get to peek your head into things. Like I’m speaking to Jenny Poidevin, who lost her entire family in the Luna Park fire. A lot of time in my career is spent speaking to celebrities and people who are supposedly impressive and are suppose to make those who meet them shake with awe. Then you meet a woman who, 30 years ago lost her two children and husband in fire in a Ghost Train right in front of her eyes. You realise, ‘No, these are the people who have lived life on the very edge’, not the others. Popping your head into their lives and when they open the door and allow you in, is a pretty special thing. So that, I enjoy. I enjoy that part of it, that sort of journalistic rooting around and finding and meeting people part of it. But the actual sitting down at the computer and writing, I don’t enjoy that at all.

Valerie:
Do you have an interest in other types of writing, for example fiction or could you belt out an airport novel or something like that?

Jack:
Yeah, yeah, definitely. As I’m getting older, I’m realising that a lot of the parameters that I set for myself about what I should and shouldn’t write are evaporating. You realise that the reason pop things are popular is because people want to read them. Who am I to decide that I’m going to deny them? I think that an airport thriller would be a great thing to embark upon. John Birmingham has done very well making that decision.

Also, I find Australian and, possibly the world of literature, is very limited with regards to what they will allow people to be. They speak of Stephen King as a horror or supernatural writer. But Stephen King really, probably should be allowed to pop up and write a romantic children’s book or something. In Australia even more so, people are, ‘This person is mass market’. I just don’t think that there is a need for that.

I’ve always sort of fantasised about having enough money and enough enthusiasm from a publisher to allow me to write 12 books in one year: a romantic novel, an essay, a deep artistic toss. All those different things. I’m definitely into fiction, although I’m finding that one of the things that was hard about Australian Tragic is I was stifled by my duty to the truth.

I took about as many liberties in that book as I will ever want to take in non-fiction. Presuming things that people thought or assuming that they saw something or felt something that ought to be precise, I have no way of knowing for sure what they saw or felt. With fiction, you can give that imagination its full freedom. I found myself, while writing, this chomping at the bit to do that. So I think that might be what comes up next.

Valerie:
Have you got something in the works?

Jack:
Yeah, although I’m of a mind to have a foot in both camps at the same time, to be writing something non-fiction at the same time as something fiction. Who knows, I might fall into the trap of releasing fiction under a pseudonym.

Valerie:
I think that you have got a great name for fiction for the airport novels.

Jack:
Probably, you are right.

Valerie:
In fact, it’s the ideal name for the protagonist in an airport novel isn’t it? When you have been trained as a journalist and spent so many years writing non-fiction, isn’t it hard to get into, suddenly, that you can write about anything when you have been so used to sticking to the truth.

Jack:
It is. I actually had to do it recently for a book of short stories and found that I spent several weeks writing the sort of thing that I thought that they wanted for this book. I really struggled with it and after a while, in the end, I thought, ‘I just can’t do this’. Just do what you do. Do what you know to do. So I trashed the story that I was working on and started up another one with a topic that was close to my heart; about a drunk in a difficult marriage. And 24 hours later, it was done.

I think with the first story that I was working on, I fell into the trap of thinking there are other writers here writing short stories; I have to do what they are doing too. And I didn’t think, ‘No, Jack just do what you enjoy. Do what you love’. And it was desperation that pushed me into that corner. Only then did I sort of come out with anything that was worthwhile.

So I learned a little lesson there. It’s really weird to be my age and be feeling as if you are learning things. You are always learning all the time. I don’t know how other writers feel but I always feel a bit like, I think because I didn’t do any training and I’ve always slipped in the back door one way or another, I always feel a bit like the guy who’s at a party and hasn’t got an invite. Just waiting for someone to ask who the hell I am. I think that will continue forever. I’ll never really feel as if I have legitimately paid my dues as a writer.

Valerie:
Probably only in your own head because I think you are fairly well established in the scene here.

Jack:
That’s what I mean. I’d be very interested to see whether, to know for sure, whether this feeling was prevalent among established writers. I’d imagine that it is because it’s such an unusual thing to be doing. You really need no tools for writing. There are too many examples of people who have popped up out of absolutely nowhere and become well-known and established writers. You always wonder if you have got what it takes or if you are one of the pretenders. It’s quite possible that you are a pretender without realising it. That’s a great worry.

Valerie:
I doubt that. But I think also because there is fluidity in what you write. You have gone from journalism to blogging, which is very different to writing a non-fiction book, which again is quite different. Compared to say a journalist who only writes a business news column or something like that for 20 years. They are going to feel like an expert after 20 years, but they would certainly feel a similar way if they had been moved into another genre. Perhaps that is part of it as well. But on that point, paint me a picture, say five years or so from now, what do you plan to be spending most of your time on? What would your ideal scenario be in terms of your writing?

Jack:
Ideal scenario would probably be writing fiction from home, while at the same time working on non-fiction that I thought really deserved to be there. There is this tremendous pressure on you to come up with an idea to flog to a publisher so that you can get the advance and go, ‘Whoopee!’ But I’m really resistant to the idea of writing anything that I don’t think is really, really worthwhile, like another biography of one of our lamentable politicians. I just don’t ever want to find myself having to do that.

In any case, so many times I’ve made five-year plans for myself and five years later found that I’m a million miles from where I was meant to be with regards to that plan five years ago. I’m not even going to speculate on where I’ll be.

I will say though, I’m finding lately I’m really impressed with television writers more so than I have ever been. Particularly coming from America, some of the really smart mainstream television coming from the United States. I’m wondering if that might be the challenge. It does seem to be that a lot of writers are finding that the challenge is in writing for television. Even those shows that are fairly popular, like True Blood, this vampire thing. I’m finding that the writing in that is superb. Same with The Wire. There is a terrific English program that I love called The Street by Jimmy McGovern. I think that he has only ever written for television but it is literature. It is beautiful, beautiful little half-hour stories.

I could be there. I certainly would like to see myself doing that, but I wouldn’t have the first idea of how to get into television. Plus, I have had some experience with dealing with the movie industry. Unless you have got the mettle to cope with accountants and everyone dissecting your work, you just really don’t want to go there.

Valerie:
It is much more a collaborative process.

Jack:
Yeah, and I’m not a team player, I’m afraid.

Valerie:
On that note, what is your advice for budding writers and journalists? Should they be team players? What should they do in terms of wanting to be published?

Jack:
In terms of wanting to be published? I don’t know. Gee, that’s a tough one because there is sort of no advice that you can give that doesn’t come with an example of how it is bad advice. One of the stories that has really buoyed me, and it is probably apocryphal and I like to think that it’s true: The author of Lord of the Flies; I read an interview with him years ago and he claimed that when the manuscript for his book was finally taken up by a publisher, the publisher who took it up almost threw it in the bin because it was so dog-eared. It had clearly been to every publisher in the United States before arriving on his desk. I sort of loved that idea that not everyone can see the beauty in something, but there is one person who will get it and behind that person are millions.

I don’t know that there is an answer to knowing whether what you are writing is what everyone else is going to want or not. But I think the best advice to give is just write how you speak. The writers that I have really loved, I’ve found that they actually spoke in the same way. One of the things that I find with a lot of young journalist undergraduates, is they try to write in the way that they feel like a person in their position should be writing. And then you speak to them and they are totally engaging speakers and you think, ‘Why don’t you write just exactly as you speak?’ Just record yourself and take your own dictation because that personality really comes through.

Something else, too, I’ve noticed in researching Australian Tragic was everyone’s going on about this new journalism, gonzo and what-have-you-been, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. That’s utter rubbish. When I look back into the old newspapers, they were doing it then. H. L. Mencken was doing what Tom Wolfe did. Mark Twain was in his own stories all the time.

There is really no such thing as new journalism. It’s just been the same thing all along. It’s always been part of your personality in the story where possible. That doesn’t mean you have to paint yourself into the story as a character, but simply put what is your spirit or your thought process in with the telling of the story. And I think that is always really important.

Valerie:
Maybe it’s merely labelled new journalism.

Jack:
Yeah, yeah, well they have got to keep creating new marketing plans for old. So I think the new journalism is just another one of those. It was just a bunch of journalists who are willing to take the same risks and hang their jaw out like the old ones used to do.

Valerie:
Do you always make a point to bring your personality into your writing because, are there some places where it’s not appropriate, do you think?

Jack:
There are some places, particularly in journalism, there are some places where it is not appropriate. But with regards to storytelling, I don’t think that it’s possible to write a story or to tell a story well and not bring your personality into it. That might be a bit of a black and white thing to say but I certainly know I’m a sort of an old-fashioned freak. I like the machine-age stuff. My heart is really in the first half of the 20th century, I guess.

I’ve found myself writing in that style when telling these stories from this book and I was very comfortable with that. So I suppose that is my personality dictating how the writing is going to go. Sometimes, it can get a bit over the top. One of my friends who is a writer thinks I’m a little too Dickensian for my own good a lot of the time. I think that might be true, but I like reading things like that and I’m comfortable writing like that so that is the way that it’s going to have to be.

Valerie:
Well, I’ve already started Australian Tragic. I haven’t finished it yet but I’m definitely very gripped. I find it very compelling and I can’t wait to finish it. So thank you very much for your time today, Jack. I really appreciate it.

Jack:
Total pleasure.

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