Ep 107 Do skinny pretty, writers get more book deals? And meet Sonya Voumard, author of “The Media and the Massacre”.

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podcast-artwork In Episode 107 of So you want to be a writer: Beware where you send your manuscript. Do skinny, pretty writers get more book deals? Discover writing tips from bestselling YA authors, how to speed up your writing, and what “feckless” mean. Plus: a blog for teen writers and meet Sonya Voumard, author of The Media and the Massacre. Hear tips for juggling parenthood and earning a regular income from writing, and much more.

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Show Notes
Inkitt – The Hipster’s Library

Writer Beware: Spam, Spam, Spam Spam: INKITT and the Grand Novel Contest

Skinny, Pretty Writers Getting Better Book Deals Isn’t Even the Whole Problem

7 Kick-Ass Writing Tips from 7 Best Selling YA Authors

7 steps to accelerating your writing

30 Things I’ve Learned About Writing That Made A Big Difference

Writer in Residence

Sonya Voumard

Author and journalist Sonya VoumardSonya Voumard is a journalist, author and academic.

Her book The Media and the Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016 is published by Transit Lounge and explores the hard questions of journalism and ethics in the context of the Port Arthur Massacre.

Working Writer’s Tip

How to juggle having being a parent and making a regular, stable income from writing?

Answered in the podcast.

Competition

WIN a Literary Tea pack valued at over $100!

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Sonya, thank you so much for joining us today.

 

Sonya

Thanks for having me.

 

Valerie

I really enjoyed reading the book, but for those readers who haven’t read your book yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

 

Sonya

The Media and the Massacre is an in-depth literary non-fiction story about one of Australia’s most complex and fascinating breakdowns between journalist and subject. In this case the mother of the perpetrator of Tasmania’s 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, Carleen Bryant, and two former Fairfax journalists, Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro.

 

Valerie

Did this arise initially out of an interest in the event itself, the Port Arthur Massacre? Or at the handling of the book written by Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro?

 

Sonya

Well, I mean I had always been fascinated by the events of 1996, The Port Arthur Massacre, but then I saw that there had been this terrible breakdown in relations between these journalists and this kind of high profile, but very weak, in terms of social power, subject. So, those two things coalesced in my mind as something of great interest.

 

Additionally I have great interest in the works of American writer, Janet Malcolm, who’s great scene is the idea of the writer’s treachery. So, I’m very interested in the way that we as writers treat the power dynamics between ourselves and our subjects. And this seemed to me to be an emblematic example of all of the issues that you could explore in such a case study.

 

Valerie

What happened in the breakdown in communication, or the way it was handled between those two authors and Carleen Bryant, Martin Bryant’s mother, is — I don’t even have the words for it, gob-smacking.

 

Sonya

Yes.

 

Valerie

In case people aren’t familiar with it, because it’s the essence of your book and the way you tell it and the way it unfolds is absolutely fascinating. Can you just give listeners a summary of what happened?

 

Sonya

Yeah, sure.

 

Carleen Bryant’s story became a prized commodity in the media marketplace. Everybody wanted to get at it. She had been treated very poorly over the years after the massacre by journalists who sort of would chase her and effectively stalk her to try and get access to her, get photographs of her. And, she was very traumatized by this and obviously the events themselves.

 

And she had tried to commit suicide twice.

 

Then ten years after the massacre she decided that she wanted to tell her story to, as she put it, to set the record straight. By that she meant about details of her family, some of them were quite small details, but they were important to her. She felt that the media had effectively ransacked her life, her story, that of her family, and had left many mistruths strewn along the way.

 

It was complicated by the fact that she still expresses doubt about the guilt of her son Martin, and I do describe her in the book as an unyielding female victim.

 

But, anyway she wrote a 10,000 manuscript, which she submitted to a literary agent. Now the agent said that the manuscript was very interesting, but Carleen would need professional writers to help her tell the story.

 

So, after a series of sort of communications across the channels Carleen was put in touch with then Fairfax journalist Robert Wainwright, and he then brought his wife, another Fairfax journalist, Paola Totaro, in on the project. Carleen allowed the journalists to have her manuscript, in her mind so that they could write a book outline for her review.

 

Now, she didn’t like what they produced and she sought to end the arrangement, believing that nothing further would come of it, and she asked for her materials back and they were given.

 

The journalists, to Carleen’s great surprise, then went onto write their own book, using many of her verbatim extracts from her manuscript, she said without her explicit permission.

 

She later received an undisclosed settlement over the book’s use of her personal manuscript.

 

Valerie

Now Port Arthur, of course, occurred 20 years ago. The book in question was ten years ago. At what point did you know you were going to write a book about this?

 

Sonya

Well, I had taken a career break in… I think it was 2010. And, this story had occurred along the way. And had planned to go and do a doctorate of creative arts at UTS. And, when this story sort of bubbled up through the various media channels, mainly Crickey, it just struck me as a fascinating study of the wilderness of ethics and how things can go wrong. So, essentially my desire to do a doctorate and this kind of complex breakdown in conflict occurred sort of around the same time, and I seized on it with intellectual relish.

 

Valerie

So this started off as a part of the doctorate and turned into a book, is that right?

 

Sonya

Yes, correct. I did a doctorate on the power dynamics between journalists and their human subjects, with a specific focus on Port Arthur and this case study in particular. Part of that doctorate, the creative component has ended up being this book called The Media and the Massacre.

 

Valerie

You say you took a career break in 2010, can you just give listeners just a quick a potted history of your career so that we’ve got some context?

 

Sonya

Sure. I started as a cadet journalist on the Melbourne Herald in 1980, and I went on… I worked there for five and a half years and then went onto work at The Age and then later the Sydney Morning Herald for a further decade. I worked as a political journalist in Canberra and also in Victoria, New South Wales and Brisbane, in fact, in the aftermath of the Fitzgerald Inquiry and the downfall of the Bjelke-Petersen government.

 

But, I’ve also worked a lot in the field of arts journalism. So, questions of philosophy and politics and ethics have always fascinated me.

 

I went freelance in 1995. And, I was in fact a freelance journalist when these events happened.

 

And then in the… I think it was the early 2000s, I started teaching non-fiction writing at UTS while doing my masters and also writing a novel about being a political journalist. But, in the meantime I also made a living in the corporate world through speech writing and other sort of story-telling around corporate social responsibility and those sorts of subjects.

 

 

Valerie

So writing about real life, which is obviously what you have done here, particularly when you’re writing about a sensitive issue like Port Arthur or a controversial issue like the way those authors have handled their involvement in the book, is difficult and you’re effectively portraying your version of events, in a sense. What do you do to balance the fact that you have obviously got an opinion about certain things, balancing it with the other side? What did you do to make sure that you did that? Or did you make sure that you did that?

 

Sonya

Yes, I most certainly did. I mean any journalist who has been trained properly knows that you should always try and get both sides of the story, and sometimes there are more than two sides, of course.

 

I read a great deal around this particular case study. I spoke to many of the players. The journalists themselves declined to speak to me on two occasions three years apart. Carleen Bryant also declined to speak to me. But, her close friend had kept a very comprehensive set of archives around the events, so I was able to learn a lot from what the communications had taken place throughout the course of this conflict and well before it turned into a conflict, but when it did and afterwards as well. And then, as I said, I interviewed many of the other players, and also used my own professional judgment based on me having been in similar sort of situations where subjects have been highly sought after, but difficult to interview or perhaps traumatized in some respect, to the point where it makes it quite hard to negotiate the terms of engagement.

 

Valerie

When you are writing something like this you need to represent the facts and represent, as you say, the balanced kind of facts. But you also need to, especially in a book-length, something that’s the length of a book, you also need to tell a compelling story and write it in such a way that people are not only, you know, learning about the story but they’re hopefully savoring the words that you use.

 

Sonya

Absolutely.

 

Valerie

What did you do to do that? To not just represent the facts, but to tell it in that compelling way? How did you think, “How am I going to structure this story?” Do you know what I mean? It’s so complex.

 

Sonya

I mean structure is one of the toughest things for writers, I taught creative non-fiction at UTS for most of the last ten years. And I learnt a lot along the way. And one of the things that I always spoke to my students about was how tough structure is.

 

I guess I’ll come back to that in a moment, but what I did to make it readable and interesting, there’s a genre of writing in which you’ll be familiar with, which is literary non-fiction. It gets called lots of things, creative non-fiction, it gets called literary journalism. But, the idea is that you use novelistic techniques to bring true stories to life. And by that I mean, you know, simile/metaphor, you know, you appeal to the senses with descriptions and color around, you know, what people are wearing and what the atmosphere is like. It’s a form of journalism that arose, I think in America, it might have been the 40s and 50s and then, you know, received a lot of attention with the likes of Hunter Thompson, and the new journalists.

 

But, it’s been continued on in a great tradition through people like Jane Giddan, Janet Malcolm, of course. And the idea is that journalism can still, and true stories, can still be true, but be beautiful to read and be interesting to read and be full of color.

 

Valerie

And so this book did have a lot of research. You’ve interviewed lots of people. You went places… there’s a lot of stuff in it. How… and in over how many years — it wasn’t just a three month job.

 

Sonya

No.

 

Valerie

On a practical level, what did you do to organize your research? I mean, you know? How did you keep track of it? Because of the sheer volume of it is so different to writing a 1,500-word feature.

 

Sonya

Yeah, sure.

 

Yes, I mean well, one of the pieces of advice I got very early on when I was doing the doctorate was from somebody who was quite unconnected to the school of humanities that I was working in. But, she said at the beginning of the project, “Make it physical.” So, I got a great big plastic box, and I still have it sitting under my desk, as I’m talking to you now. And everything to do with the project that was physical, as opposed to electronic, I threw into that box, in a sort of loose form of filing, I guess. That made it, as well as knowing, that even if I didn’t know exactly where they were in that box, I knew that things were in there and I could find them.

 

And that was psychologically very reassuring to me, it felt like a very organizing act to just have that box in a sort of contained form.

 

And then as well as that, of course, you have all of your electronic recordings and you keep hold of those in your computer files, and then you have all of your books, your reference books that you’ve collected over the years. And some of them I obviously borrowed from the library about 20 times before I had to return them.

 

Yeah, I mean that’s the sort of organizing you do. I did physical transcripts of all of the interviews I did as well, so that I could quickly access sections of them and recheck them if I needed to make sure that I quoted things in a way that I was happy with and that I felt was balanced.

 

Yeah, that’s pretty much how I went about it.

 

Valerie

Was this a labor of love, or was this an intellectual exercise? Because it’s massive and it’s obviously took a long time. And there’s a great result, but what pushed you on during those times when you were just like, “Oh my god, I don’t want to do this.”?

 

Sonya

Well, it was a labor of love, but I mean I don’t want to sort of overemphasize the passion that I felt for the topic at hand. I mean I did feel very interested in it. I was intellectually fascinated by it. The labor of love, if you like was in the writing. I just love researching and writing. And when I was doing that — it was like three years of being in a dream, in a way. I know that sounds strange, but there was nothing that I enjoyed more than coming home on an afternoon after teaching and sitting down at the computer and just disappearing into that world.

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

The way that the authors, Wainwright and Totaro handled, the way they dealt with Colleen Bryant’s manuscript, like I said is gob-smacking.

 

Sonya

Yeah.

 

Valerie

Did you have to hold yourself back from… you know? Going to town?

 

Sonya

Yes, of course. It was complicated by the fact that I have been… I was a long-term member of that tribe of Fairfax journalists. So, a lot of their friends and my friends even still… they live in the UK, but we have a lot of people in common. So, that made it kind of awkward. There were some people who felt very kind of comfortable about it. They felt loyalties to Wainwright and Totaro, but they also respected me for what I was doing.

 

Yes, I mean that was difficult. But, luckily I think because I had left journalism, in the sort of day to day sense, I didn’t feel frightened or kind of compromised by that sort of tribal loyalty that a lot of journalists do, where they won’t kind of tell on their own.

 

And, I think one of the biggest issues with the profession at the moment is that the complaints process is seriously broken, and if somebody has a complaint against a journalist there are very few robust ways that they can go about getting it sorted out. The code of ethics for the media union is confused with the codes of ethics of the individual media houses themselves and then there’s the press counsel, which doesn’t deal with book-length works. And, so for a person who is not versed in matters of journalism and kind of writerly ethics and all of those kind of debates, it’s very hard to work out where the hell to go.

 

And this is something that Carleen Bryant’s friend, Joan, who I interviewed, felt very, very keenly. And I think even when I spoke to, as you would know from reading the book, some of the people at the Media and Arts Alliance who were involved in the complaints process, they were kind of scratching their heads and agreeing that the whole thing was broken.

 

Valerie

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

 

Sonya

Oh, gee. Well, I guess the hardest thing — it depends on how you look at that question, but the first hardest thing I guess was that three of the key protagonists wouldn’t talk to me, so I had to learn to write my way around that. And some people even suggested, “Well, if you don’t get them, you haven’t got a book.” And, I just refused to bow to that, because I believe that it would be utterly un-journalistic to give up on the chase, simply because people who don’t want to tell you their story, or don’t want a particular story told, you know, refuse or decline to talk to you.

 

So, there was that aspect.

 

Then I suppose there was — yeah, I’m entering into a very small — some would say incestuous world in criticizing fellow journalists and I guess there’s that thing about, “Am I going to sort of lose friends out of it?” And, that’s I suppose still to be seen, although most people have been very supportive and very encouraging.

 

And, what else? The other thing I suppose is just in terms of going to Tasmania and talking about those events, albeit in the context of the media coverage of them. I suppose not wanting to be seen, to be putting myself forward as an expert on events that I hadn’t experienced and in many ways didn’t necessarily have a right to sort of jump in on.

 

Valerie

What then was the most satisfying thing about writing this book?

 

Sonya

I felt that I wanted to give voice to some powerless people. I feel like I did give voice to Carleen Bryant. And I know from — I haven’t spoken to her directly, but her friend, Joan, has been in touch with me since — Carleen has read the book, has told me with a couple of exceptions that Carleen’s very annoyed about, I won’t discuss those, but she said Carleen told me to tell you she thinks it’s an excellent book and she’s going to recommend it to her friends. And she thanked me on behalf of Carleen for bringing this story to light, because she felt that the story had been buried.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Sonya

Just to sort of articulate that a bit further, I’m really interested in writing in between the dominant narrative, and seeing nuance rather than ignoring it, and I think that so much of the narrative, especially that gets put out by mainstream media is so simplistic and if a story is complex, and this one undoubtedly is, you know, people don’t see the commercial value in it.

 

And I was really proud and pleased that my publisher, Transit Lounge, did see the value in it and did see that we need to have more nuanced discussions around things like ethics and writing.

 

Valerie

Well, it’s very sensitively written, and it’s very — I think you do. You have given voice to something that would have otherwise been buried.

 

Let me just take us back to — you mentioned that you previously wrote a novel, that was Political Animals in 2008. Writing fiction obviously, writing a novel is very different — totally different to writing something like this. Which process do you enjoy more?

 

Sonya

Gee, that’s a tough one. I mean, look I loved writing the novel. I remember when I — I did the novel as a masters before I obviously did the doctorate. And, the reason I suppose I wrote about Canberra in a novelistic form is because I wanted to say some fairly outrageous things about journalistic culture in Canberra in terms of the way people behave and the sorts of — the sort of subculture it is. So, I felt that I couldn’t really write that in a non-fictional way. So, I chose fiction, and I really enjoyed it. It took me a long time because I was doing it while working full time. But, eventually I came out with something that I was very happy with.

 

The thing about fiction, I think, is that you can write away from the truth. So, if you want to tell a truth instead of saying, you know, as was the case in my case, in my real life my father died when I was young, I created this character whose mother died when she was young.

 

So, I did those sorts of things to sort of fictionalize the story. And, I mean certainly the story of Political Animals itself is completely fictional, but there are truths in it. The events themselves didn’t ever occur, but of course the texture and the embroidery around the events is very much based on my experiences as a news reporter in Canberra.

 

So then while I was doing that book I was also teaching non-fiction writing part time, I sort of became in love with non-fiction writing, and I realized that non-fiction writing with a literary kind of take is probably something that I’m much more enjoying pursuing now. And once I took that career break I started writing essays that I was submitting to publications like the Meanjin and Griffiths Review.

 

And I had some success and I realized that this was something that I actually could do. And seemingly it is easier to get published writing non-fiction. And even my publisher, Transit Lounge, told me that it’s really hard to find good non-fiction, where as he gets inundated with fiction, some of which is good, but he can’t publish it all because there’s just, you know, there’s more of it than there is good non-fiction.

 

Valerie

What are you working on now? Are you working on another non-fiction book?

 

Sonya

I am, I’m actually working on a series of essays that are autobiographical. In fact, I was writing them sort of in parallel with The Media and the Massacre. Originally I was going to sort of alternate one chapter, one chapter, but that didn’t work out.

 

And so I took all of those essays out of The Media and the Massacre and I’m collating them into another collection. And I’ve still got to write some more, but I’ve got a pretty good, I suppose I’ve probably got three-quarters of a project done before — you know I’ve probably got to do about three or four more before I show it to the publisher.

 

Valerie
Are you saying that they were in The Media and the Massacre?

 

Sonya

Well, originally I was doing — I had this kind of idea that I would do one chapter about my memoir and then I would do one chapter about this other narrative, but the two things were too far away from each other. It just didn’t have enough of a logical spine. So, I took those pieces out — they’re not related to it at all, but they were related to, “This is what happened to me and I was just going to tack between the two worlds. But, it wasn’t working structurally.

 

So, I separated them out. So, they will be, hopefully the subjects of another book in the not too distant future.

 

Valerie
Tell us, when you were writing — because obviously there’s a whole lot of research you need to do and then — did you do all of the research first and then sit down to write? Did you write as you researched over the years? How did this actually work on a practical level?

 

Sonya

I started writing straightaway because I couldn’t — I can’t drive myself unless I’m seeing some words on the page. So, I would I would it in parallel. So, I would research and write, research and write, research and write. And — yeah, so you just end up in this kind of interesting pincer movement, where you’re doing bits of research and then you’re writing — because the writing, of course, for me — research is exciting too, but it’s getting there and getting it down on the page that’s the exciting bit. So, in a way the writing is the reward for the research.

 

But, yeah, I did them concurrently.

 

Valerie

Did you have any kind of word count target or how did you pace yourself?

 

Sonya

A doctorate of creative arts has to be between 80,000 and 100,000 words and there was another component to the doctorate, which is called an exegesis and that was called The Interviewer and the Subject and that’s also something that I might dive into and try to sort of shape into something publishable in the not too distant future.

 

But, we were told sort of unofficially by people who knew about these things that it was best not to — it was best to stay on the 80,000 side of 100,000 because the examiners themselves only get paid a very small amount of money and they don’t want to have to wade through too much.

 

But, yeah, I think if people are thinking about writing something for publication commercially, you know, 60,000 to 65,000 words seems to be the sort of the ballpark.

 

Valerie

The Media and the Massacre, absolutely fascinating book. If somebody had told me that somebody was going to write a book on this and I would have gone, “Oh, really?” I mean it would have never even crossed my mind, to be honest. But, I’m very glad you did because it’s, as you say, a story that I think needs to be told and it has been told very, very well.

 

So, thank you so much for your time today, really, really appreciate it, Sonya.

 

Sonya

Thanks very much, I enjoyed the chat.


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