Caroline Overington: Award-winning journalist, magazine editor and author

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Caroline OveringtonCaroline Overington is an award-winning journalist, magazine editor and author. She has twice been awarded a Walkley Award for investigative journalism – in 2004 for for her investigation into the author Norma Khouri (along with Malcolm Knox) and in 2006 for her coverage of the Australian Wheat Board Scandal – and is currently the associate editor of the iconic magazine, Australian Women’s Weekly.

In 2010 Caroline published her first novel, Ghost Child. Since then she has written and published one book a year. Her fifth novel is No Place Like Home, a thriller set in the beachside suburb of Bondi. Early one morning a young Tanzanian man walks into a shopping centre. Strapped to his neck is a bomb and within minutes, he is locked in a shop with four hostages.

All of Caroline’s novels have been bestsellers as well as critical successes. She is currently working on her sixth book, due for release in 2014.

Click play to listen to the audio interview.


Transcript

Danielle:
Hi, Caroline. Thank you for joining us today.

Caroline:
Thank you for having me.

Danielle:
First of all, tell us a bit about the latest book, No Place Like Home.

Caroline:
No Place Like Home, the premise is quite simple. You have a young man who runs into a shopping centre, he’s chased by security guards, and he ultimately finds himself locked in a shop. Once he gets into the shop it becomes apparent that he has some kind of explosive device strapped or locked to his neck. There’s four other people in the shop with him, two men and two women. Two of them you would classify really as children, although they are teenagers, they’re children.

The question I guess is who is he and what does he want? I guess the feeling for readers might at the beginning be, well, it must be some kind of terrorist attack, because it’s very quickly revealed that he’s a refugee to Australia, but he doesn’t say anything. It’s quite difficult for the boys to work out exactly what’s going on.

Danielle:
Where did the idea for this story come from? Because obviously a lot of readers now might see some parallels with recent events in Kenya.

Caroline:
I was amazed by that, actually. When I write my fiction I always have real life in mind, because my argument has always been that you can say a lot more in fiction than you can in journalism. I worked in journalism for a very long time and I’m still the associate editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly. So I’m engaged in journalism everyday, but it’s very different to writing fiction because in fiction you can really tell the whole story, you can get inside people’s minds, you can explain what they’re thinking, you can give explanations for what’s going on. And you’re often constrained in that when you’re working in journalism because there’s a range of different laws, like for example defamation, if you say something negative about a person, then there’s the potential for them to sue. So, you need to cast your language, so you don’t have to worry about any of that in fiction.

I was surprised on one hand to see that siege three weeks ago now in Kenya, where terrorists broke into a shopping centre and really massacred a lot of people because it was so close to what I had been trying to do. Although I think my book is more of a political message, it’s not meant to be a story of a huge tragedy; it’s meant to have a very delicate political message at its heart.

Danielle:
With all of your novels you tackle sometimes quite confronting themes. It sounds like you do that intentionally, or do these things just kind of grow out of the story sometimes? Or do you always have a plan to tackle a particular theme in your books?

Caroline:
Yes, I’m always trying to tackle a particular theme in each one of the books, or a particular idea in each one of the books. In the past 12 months I’ve really been fascinated, as I’m sure many Australians have, by the debate surrounding new arrivals on our shores. In part that’s because my own grandparents were refugees, although they were called migrants in those days. It was after the Second World War they came out from Germany. My grandfather is Jewish, he’s still alive, he’s 91-years-old, living in the same house he moved into when he came out on the boat. There was a lot of fear, of course there was a lot of fear, but Australia has always been an incredibly welcoming community and people very quickly adapted. I’ve been interested in the past 12 months to see much more anger and much more resentment towards people who arrive. I did want to tackle some of the issues around that.

Danielle:
Now your first novel came out in 2010, is that right?

Caroline:
Yes, although you’re testing my memory, it might have been 2009. This is my fifth and I’ve written one a year for the past five years.

Danielle:
A novel a year plus your usual work as a journalist and magazine editor. What was the thing that opened the floodgates for your fiction writing?

Caroline:
I just found that I suddenly had a lot that I wanted to say, and I wanted to say it in a long form way. I had been getting pretty frustrated working for newspapers, because I was working for newspapers at the time when I started, because of constraints in those days, and this was only five years ago since I came. But there were constraints in terms of space, because the internet has really only taken off in the last five years, so journalists who worked for newspapers used to worry about how much space they had in the paper. If you had a story on the front page, for example, you might get 600 words or 700 words, that’s not a lot. If you had a feature in one of the feature pages, maybe 1500 words, you can’t really say all you’ve seen and all you’ve learned in a 20 year career. And so I did have a lot that I wanted to say. In the beginning it was about children and the way we care for them and the child welfare system, because I’d seen how broken that was, and then it kind of expanded into other areas.

But, you’re right, it’s a big undertaking to write a book a year, very few people do it in Australia. I know Di Morrissey who’s formally also at The Australian Women’s Weekly does it, and I think she’s just produced her 21st novel, so that’s an extraordinary undertaking. I think Peter FitzSimons, too, writes a book year – different because they’re not fiction, they’re historical novels, historical books, actually. But, there are very few people who take on that undertaking. It’s been a wonderful ride for me, I’ve really enjoyed it.

Danielle:
What was that transition like? Was it very easy for you to start writing fiction, or was there a bit of a struggle to get into it?

Caroline:
I felt very free, if that makes sense, because I suddenly didn’t have to worry about all of the things that I had been worried about before. I remember actually thinking, I was writing something down, it was kind of a fictionalised version of something that happened in real life and I wanted it to go off in a particular direction and I thought, ‘I can’t do that, because that didn’t really happen’. Then I thought, ‘Actually, I can do whatever I like’, and that actually felt quite free because obviously when we’re working within the constraints of fact and journalism you can’t do that, you can’t just go off on a tangent and decide the ending.

And it’s nice being able to decide the ending, because in real life the ending can be entirely unsatisfactory, particularly when you’re dealing with court cases. Very often as a journalist you look at the outcome of a court case and you think, ‘Oh, you have to be joking’. Whether you think the person is guilty or whether you think the person is innocent, the outcomes can really shock you.

Also events that I’ve covered in my career I’ve looked at and I’ve just gone, ‘I can’t believe that. I would have ended it so differently’. If you could play the hand of God, which of course you can in a novel. You can decide.

Danielle:
Even though it was quite a freeing experience for you, were you nervous about seeing that first book being published?

Caroline:
Totally nervous. I mean nervous about showing it to anyone, because I think one of the fears that we all have, and I’ve discussed this with so many other Australian writers, you just worry, you write something down and you read it back so many times and you just can’t help but thinking, ‘This is just rubbish, this is just absolute rubbish’. And it’s because you’ve looked at it too much, and you’ve thought about it too much, and you’re over-wrought and you’re anxious and you’ve got your ego involved. And your expectations of your parents, and your childhood baggage is all there, and so you kind of worry. I thought, ‘I can’t show it to anyone’, and I really had to push myself even to send it to someone. Then, when they came back and they said, ‘We’d love to publish it’, it’s a sense of elation, it’s close to the best day of your life.

Danielle:
Obviously, you’re still working as a magazine editor and journalist.

Caroline:
Yes, I’ve had the busiest year imaginable, and that’s why I was so thrilled to be able to stick to the schedule of doing a book a year. Because I started at The Australian Women’s Weekly this year, and as it happens it’s the 80th year of the Weekly. That’s a very historic occasion for us – it makes us the oldest magazine continuously in Australia. Also these special souvenir editions, the 80th edition, they go into the national archives in Canberra, and 50, in 20 years – 100 years from now, people can pull them out and they can look at the food we ate and the clothes we wore, but also what life was like for Australian women in 2013. I’m sure you’ve done this, most people have done this, look back at the magazine, the Weekly from 50 years ago, 30 years ago, and have been amazed by the way we lived. We took the responsibility of producing this issue very, very seriously. We’ve had to really go looking into our hearts and our conscious and thought, ‘What kind of women should we put into this magazine?’, ‘What kind of interviews do we want to have?’, ‘What sort of people?’, ‘How can we show all of the complexity of Australian womanhood in this magazine?’. And it has been a big year as a result.

Danielle:
It sounds like it. This is going off track a bit, but I’m curious, how do you see (The Australian) Women’s Weekly has changed over those 80 years in terms of its relevance to the audience?

Caroline:
Actually, it’s finance, because people will say to me sometimes all of your readers are going to die out, the idea being that our readers are over the age of 45 or 50 and they’re getting older and one day they’ll die off and then we won’t have any readers left. But actually what happens is people grow into the Weekly. You get to a certain age and you find that it does appeal to you, and that’s true, I think, with everything in life. You might have watched The Young Ones or Generation Z or whatever it was called when you were a youngster, but it doesn’t appeal to you anymore. When you’re 40, you’re more interested in something like Breaking Bad; you just grow up and your tastes change. Among our readership there’s always a group of new people who haven’t read us previously and who remember their mums reading us.

We find the things that we need to talk about have to be appealing to certain womanhood today. There are vastly more working mothers than there ever were, vastly more. There are vastly more people making the decision not to get married and not to have children than there were 50 years ago. Those are the kinds of things that you can just see in Australian statistics, and they are reflected in our readership, too.

Perhaps in the past where we might not have tackled different stories about different family make-ups, we would do that now. For example, last month I did a story on Ricky Martin, who’s coming out to Australia to be a host on The Voice and on his decision to IVF twins through a surrogate, which was a story that would be unfathomable for the Weekly 20 years ago. The idea that a gay man would pay a surrogate to have children for him would not have been something that was even scientifically possible, let alone something that would have been in the magazine. So there are big changes and we are very keen to reflect them. We don’t want people to pick up the magazine that we produce this year and say, ‘Well, that’s a throwback to the 1950s’. It has to look like we are today.

Danielle:
Sure. It must be exciting to be involved with something like that.

Caroline:
It is exciting. It’s also incredibly busy.

For example, this year I had to go to London to interview Helen Millen, I had to go to Los Angeles to interview Ellen DeGeneres, I had to go the Pilbara to interview Gina Rinehart, who is the richest woman in the world. I’ve just done an interview with Anna Bligh, the former Queensland premier. We didn’t choose her because she was going through cancer treatment, she was one of our most admired women in the 80th anniversary edition. We chose her because of her achievements in public life. She was the first woman premier in Queensland, but she was also the first woman ever elected to the office of premier in any state. Previously women had been put into the role, like Kristina Keneally and Joan Kirner and others have been put into the role. But she stood for election and she won it in her own right, so she had that. But she also had terrific handling we thought of the natural disasters and calamities that have affected Queensland, the floods and the fire.

We wanted to include her, fortunately or unfortunately the timing that she would have to be photographed bald, and so that was a challenge for us – how to do that? We knew that if we had a picture of Anna Bligh bald that would be a sort of interest to people. People rush to look at that for sure. But what we were very conscious of is there are a lot of people out there who are battling cancer and she was very worried about having them think, ‘How come I’m not doing that well?’. Because we were going to glamorise her, we were going to make sure that she was absolutely beautiful, she’d be wonderfully styled, and she wanted people to know, ‘I don’t always look like this, this has been as tough for me as it has been for anyone. Don’t think that I am bravely going on and just conquering this’. She said, ‘There are people out there who have much tougher things to deal with than I do, and I don’t want anyone to think that this has been easy for me’. There’s a responsibility of capturing those messages and capturing those stories, and not presenting something that is even a little bit false.

Danielle:
Sure. Back to your writing life, obviously you’re working on a million things at once.

Caroline:
Yeah, it’s true. And it can be quite schizophrenic in a way, because you have to drag your mind from one topic to another and it can be exhausting.

Danielle:
Do you have strategies for doing that? A daily routine or something?

Caroline:
I’m currently writing my novels on Fridays. I used to write them on Mondays, but now I write them on Fridays. When I went to the Weekly I did speak to the editor in chief about my passion for writing novels, and I do need a day a week to do it. You can stay up all night and do it and snatch the time away from your children and your family life and so on, but I wanted a little bit more structure and so I tend to write on Fridays. I start quite early in the morning and then I carry on through the day. I’ll often have a break at noon. I’ll walk my dog on the beach – I live in Bondi. We often sit there by the water together and she has half my sandwich, and then we come back to the house and I work again solidly for a couple of hours until the kids come home. And then I prepare their dinner, and I might work a little bit, read over what I’ve written in the evening. That’s a day that’s solely devoted to the writing of the novel, and that I’ve found has really helped.

Danielle:
Do you set word counts for that writing day?

Caroline:
Actually I don’t. I know a lot of people do. That they, for example… a counter on something like Scrivener, which is a computer program, can give you a counter for the day.

For me, no, sometimes if you could just get the start of this paragraph going you’d be off and you’d suddenly be writing 6000 words, and so you really have to concentrate on getting it right. I wouldn’t want to think to myself, ‘Well, I just have to write 3000 words, even if it’s rubbish’. There are people who’d say, ‘Yes, that’s what I have to do, I have to write 3000 words, even if it’s rubbish’, and then go back and polish every word like a pearl. So, different approaches, yeah.

Danielle:
What are you working on now? I assume novel six is already on the cards?

Caroline:
Yes, I am writing on another novel. It is slightly different in that I don’t think it will be set in Australia. At the moment it doesn’t seem to be set in Australia. My husband and I and our children lived for a long time in the United States, for a few years in New York City, when the children were very small. I’ve wanted to revisit that time, I remember a lot about it and there were things that happened that I want to revisit. I wanted to revisit it in the form of a novel, so I might take my imagination over there, I think.

Danielle:
Another exciting development for you.

Caroline:
Yes, exactly.

Danielle:
Just one final question, what is your advice for new writers?

Caroline:
Everyone will say this, but it so absolutely true, you have to write. I meet a lot of people who come to writers’ festivals, and I meet a lot of people who just come up to me and say they’d really like to write a novel one day, and when I say to them, ‘Well, what have you written?’, they may not have written anything, and that’s a mistake. I think they’re waiting for the right opportunity, or they’re waiting for the contract, or they’re waiting for something they’re not even sure what they’re waiting for.

But, you need to start, because in Australia today it’s so hard to get a book published, and any publisher is going to want to see at least 30000 and probably 50000 words. Even if you were writing something and you think, ‘This is never going to get published’, don’t worry about it. Just go and do it for the love of it, just do it because you have something you want to say, and then if you do manage to produce 30000 or 50000 words, then you’ll have something to send off. But you can’t get the contract without starting. So get to work, that would be my advice.

Danielle:
That’s excellent advice. Thank you so much for taking some time out of your writing day today to chat with us.

Caroline:
Absolutely. Thank you.

Danielle:
Good luck with the next novel.

Caroline:
I really appreciate it.

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