Andrew McMillen is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia. His first book, Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs is a pretty frank look at the plentiful world of drugs within the music industry.
We caught up with him recently to talk about the book and his approach to writing. But nowhere in this story will you hear him say “writing is my drug of choice” because that just isn’t true.
So, Andrew, what exactly are we talking about here?
“Talking Smack is an analysis of both sides of the discussion surrounding drug use in this country. By speaking with 14 prominent Australian musicians, including Paul Kelly, Tina Arena, Gotye and Holly Throsby, I explored how those individuals had navigated this topic while working in a creative industry with which drug use is commonly associated.”
And why write a book like this?
“I started to realise that I’d bought into the hysteria surrounding illicit drug use in Australia without considering the other side of the argument – namely, that people wouldn’t use drugs if they didn’t see a potential benefit in this behaviour. Plainly, they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t feel good.”
How have you structured it?
“The book devotes a chapter to each musician’s life, viewed through the lens of their drug use (or abstinence), with the goal of using honesty to cut through the hysteria and misinformation that tends to dominate these discussions.”
So that’s covered the what, the why and the how. Now when did this whole concept come to you?
“The idea for writing a book about illicit drug use among musicians came about because I’d always wondered about the link between the two, and whether the use of drugs contributed to creative insights, but I’d never read anything that really answered that question in any great depth. So I pitched a book that sought to do just that.”
Can you tell us about your previous magazine stories on drugs?
“I had dabbled with writing about drug use in two feature stories published in 2012: ‘The High Road’ for Australian Penthouse, which examined the online illicit drug marketplace; and ‘Building A Better Brain’ for Rolling Stone, where I explored the emerging world of so-called ‘smart drugs’ by using myself as a guinea pig, ingesting various cognitive enhancers and reflecting on whether the marketing claims were real or bullshit.”
So back to the book, how did your timeline look on this one?
“I sent my book proposal on 21 September 2012 and signed the contract on 31 December 2012. I worked on Talking Smack throughout 2013; the first half of the year was spent travelling to interview each musician, usually in his or her home. The latter half of the year was spent writing the chapters, which I filed one-by-one to my publisher for feedback. We finished edits in late January 2014 and it was published six months later, in July 2014.”
But it wasn’t a full-time process, right?
“All of the above was done while writing freelance assignments, as per usual, throughout the process. In hindsight I could have finished the book much quicker, if I’d transcribed the interviews and written the chapters immediately after each meeting, but like many writers I struggle with procrastination. The hardest part about being a writer is forcing myself to sit down at the desk and do the f**king work. Deadlines help.”
We hear ya! So how did your book deal with UQP come about?
“My [now] publisher at UQP, Alexandra Payne, emailed me out of the blue in August 2012:
‘I’ve been watching your work over the past few years and wondered if you’d considered writing a book at any point. Originally I’d been thinking of you for a music book but now your work is really quite diverse, and you could write anything. Would you be interested in having a conversation about this at some point?’
“This was hugely exciting, as I’d been fantasising for a few years that I might one day write a book, but had no idea how to even begin that conversation. This was an entirely unexpected but welcome shortcut through the whole process!”
“Prior to my initial meeting with Alex, I used my whiteboard to start brainstorming ideas that interested me.
I quickly hit upon the idea of combining my interests in music and drugs. (Only people four from that list appear in the final book, which gives you an idea of the difficulty I had in convincing people to partake in the project!)
“I met with Alex in September and pitched her the book idea, which she loved, and encouraged me to put together a book proposal and sample chapter. Alex then took this text into her next acquisitions meeting at UQP. They liked the idea, and offered me some money to write the book. I signed the contract on the last day of 2012.”
Did you find the process for writing this book similar to your normal journalism pieces?
“I designed Talking Smack as a series of distinct chapters about each of the 14 musicians, which run between 3,000 and 6,000 words – around the length of most magazine features. Rather than developing a single narrative that runs through the book, I thought it made more sense to break the book into smaller chunks, so that readers could dip in and out while still getting a sense of closure with each chapter.
“Because of this design, I found the writing process identical to my usual routine of writing magazine feature stories. This approach worked well for me with Talking Smack, though I don’t intend to replicate it with my next book.”
“I’m exploring ideas for my next book. Talking Smack was a rather simple and straightforward way to write a book, one distinct chapter at a time. Next time, I want to challenge myself by writing a book-length narrative – which will be much harder, I’m sure.
“Outside of that, each week I’m pitching, researching and writing feature stories for several magazines and websites, on a range of topics. My journalistic work is driven by my curiosity in many fields. I feel there are plenty of stories out there for me to tell. Five years into my career, I’m only just getting started.”
Andrew McMillen (@Andrew_McMillen) is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia.
His first book, Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, is out now via University of Queensland Press.
You can also contact him through his website.