Ep 139 Meet Mark Tedeschi QC, author of ‘Murder at Myall Creek’

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 139 of So you want to be a writer: Discover how you can use your holidays to prepare for 2017. Do you have bibliophilic tendencies? We think you might! You’ll also meet Mark Tedeschi QC, author of Murder at Myall Creek. Plus, we reveal our favourite episodes of 2016 and much more!

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Review of the Week
From BrittanyRileyAuthor from Australia:

I listened to my first podcast (#133) and I find myself informed, educated and inspired! I'm a great admirer of Veronica Roth's and I can't thank you enough for bringing a comprehensive and interesting interview to my ears! I'm 22 and my debut Y.A fantasy novel was self-published in the U.S this year. Listening to Veronica's rendition of her publishing/movie deal was amazing and I can't wait until the next podcast to gain more useful writing tips! Thank you, ladies! 🙂

Thanks, BrittanyRiley!

Show Notes

How you can use your holidays to prepare for 2017.

Writer in Residence

Mark Tedeschi

Mark Tedeschi QC is a true crime author and photographer. As a Barrister and a Crown Prosecutor for thirty-five years, Mark Tedeschi QC has appeared in some of the most significant criminal cases in Australia. He has been the Senior Crown Prosecutor in New South Wales for fifteen years and is the President of the Australian Association of Crown Prosecutors. In 2013 he released the critically acclaimed biography, Eugenia. His latest book Murder at Myall Creek was published by Simon & Schuster in November 2016.

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Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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Interview Transcript


Mark, thanks so much for joining us today.


It's a pleasure, Valerie.


For the readers who haven't got their hands on this book yet, and I highly encourage them to do so, can you tell us what it's about? Just your version of what it's about?


Well, very basic Valerie, it's the story of the two trials of eleven men who were charged with 28 murders at a place called Myall Creek Station in Northern New South Wales in New England history in 1838. And the life story of the prosecutor who conducted those two trials. His name was John Hubert Plunkett and he had an amazing life in the colony of New South Wales. And this trial in 1838 was probably the trial of the century, in my view.

It also followed a most tragic and — well, an atrocious crime that was committed by twelve men, eleven of whom stood trial.


How did you get interested into thinking, “I might write a book about this?” I know that you say that you can't remember when you first heard of Plunkett, but what made you kind of think, “Oh, I kind of want to write a book about this…”?


Look, I have known about the Myall Creek murders for some considerable time. When I got ahold of the transcript of the two trials I read them with great interest. And, of course, as a prosecutor myself I couldn't help but put myself into the position of the prosecutor, John Plunkett.

Then I became interested in him and I was amazed at what he had achieved for New South Wales in the 20-something years that he was attorney general. And I was so surprised that he's virtually unknown in Australia today. Considering what he did he really deserves to be amongst the greats of colonial Australia.


Why do you think he was largely unknown, especially when he was involved in so many significant things?  


I think there are a few reasons for that. One of them is he had a rather irascible personality. He didn't have many friends. But, he also didn't care what his society thought about him. And he didn't care for what history would think about him. And he took no steps to perpetuate his memory afterwards. He and his wife had no children, unfortunately. He left very few papers. All he was determined to do was to leave New South Wales in a better state when he finished up in 1856 than when he had arrived in New South Wales in 1832.


You say that you read the transcripts of the trial and started exploring a little bit further into who was this John Hubert Plunkett. At what point did you actually think, “I'm going to write a book.”?


That was some years ago, maybe four years ago, something like that, that I thought that it really would merit a book and he deserved to have a book written about him. There are two biographies that have been written about him. One of them is not at all accessible, it's a very highly technical document and very difficult to read. The other one is much better written, but it hasn't had all that much currency in the general community. And what I want to do is write something that's immediately available to the general community, to high school students, to anybody who's interested in Australian history, to try and get the message out there in the community that this is a great man who deserves to be well-known.


I'm interested in your research process then. When you decided that you wanted to do that, where in the world did you start your research? Obviously you already had the trial transcript. Did you go about it in a systematic way? How did you approach what you needed to research?


There's a lot of material available. He was a member of the executive council, that was the advisory body to the governor. There are extensive records of the proceedings of the executive council and select committee reports that they produced, some of which he was responsible for.

So, it was not difficult to find the official material of what he had done.

As far as cases he had conducted, murder trials in the Supreme Court, and of course the attorney general had as one of his major roles to conduct all of those trials in those days. Those transcripts were pretty readily available through a Macquarie University website that's been set up some years ago with all of the court reports, or many of the court reports for the old Supreme Court cases from that period.

I've, of course, used extensively the two books, the two biographies, that have already been written about him.

There's a lot of source material on conditions in the colony. I had to really learn a lot about what it was like to live in New South Wales during those first 50 years of the colony's existence. I did learn a tremendous amount that I didn't know before.


When you have that wealth of material it can be a little bit daunting, when you actually have so much to choose from. Did you approach that in a systematic way? Do you know what I mean?


Well, I hope so.


So you can pull together in your own research. A lot of people would be interested to know your approach, not the final product in the book, but how you actually gathered together this wealth of information and put it into some kind of order.


I'm probably more accustomed to doing that because when I do trials I count the material that I've got to read not in terms of folders or in terms of pages, but in terms of how many trolleys it fits on. So, I'm used to dealing with really large volumes of material and sorting through it and trying to get to the essence.

What I really tried to do in researching this book is exactly the same. I sorted through a large amount of material, I can read very quickly, and tried to get what was the essence, what would be of interest and relevance to ordinary readers?

So, that's what I was really focusing on.


Yeah, absolutely.

In terms of deciding what to leave in and what to take out, was that your benchmark then? What's going to be appealing to an ordinary person?


Not only appealing, but meaningful, what's going to be meaningful. I had to choose which of his other cases to look at, because I didn't just look at the Myall Creek massacre trial in 1838. I looked at probably about half a dozen of the trials that he ran over the years. So, I had to choose which ones I thought would be of most interest and significance to ordinary readers.


In most of it you write the story as if the reader is right there, or as if you were right there. It's very much describing actual scenes and in some cases then giving some background information, but obviously you weren't there. But, this is not fictional, it's real. How did you get yourself to be so present in some of the scenes? Did you have some kind of, I don't know, technique or way to immerse yourself in that world?


Yes, absolutely.

I like writing creative non-fiction, which means to try and work out what the subtext is, what the people were thinking, what was their motivation for doing the things that they did?

And with somebody like John Plunkett that was easy for me to do because as a prosecutor for more than 30 years I've done numerous murder trials and I deliberately tried to place myself into his shoes to try to work out why he did certain important things in the context of the Myall Creek massacre trial and the other trials that I discuss.

So, really it's just kind of inserting my own personality to some degree, or my own views, my own experience into his shoes. I think in most cases I was able to fairly easily see why he had done things the way he did.


Was your primary driver when you started thinking, “Oh, I'm going to write a book,” largely to highlight this unknown but significant person in Australian history? Or was it more because of the title of the book, to shine a light on an unjust situation and a tragedy?


I think it's probably both equally. I described the Myall Creek massacre trials because in my view they were more akin to war crime trials than they are to ordinary murder trials. I think that at that time there was a war that was going on, a war of attempted annihilation of the ingenious community of Australia.

The massacre occurred in the context of that war. If similar events happened today it's the sort of thing that could end up at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. You know? And it's attempted genocide.

I think that until that we as a nation recognize that war of attempted genocide that was being waged for many, many decades in the 1800s, we're not going to be fully mature as a national and that is, I think, one very important aspect of reconciliation. To acknowledge what happened and to teach our students about it. I'm not suggesting that primary school students have to be told the nitty gritty of the massacre. But, I think that if you're going to teach topics like the great explorers you should really be also teaching that following hard on the heels on the great explorers were the white squatters with their cattle and their sheep and they took over vast swaths of very rich, fertile agricultural land on which the indigenous communities had been living for tens of thousands of years and this was all a part of the war of annihilation.

And so the expansion of the colony following the great explorers' discoveries was at the expense of the indigenous communities. And I don't think that's really taught at all in schools.



You are a busy person, apart from writing books you're a QC, you're heavily involved in the legal profession. What proportion of your week is spent in the law and what proportion is spent on writing?


Most of the actual writing of my three books has been done during leave periods that I've taken. The first one I took ten weeks' long service leave and just did nothing but write. The second and third ones I wrote during Christmas holidays.




Plus a little bit of an extension afterwards. The vast bulk of the writing was done in that time, but then of course you've got to go over and edit again and again and again. So, the editing process happened in my spare time when I'm at work.


So did you do your research before you started writing though?


Yes, oh yes. I had all of my research material available before I even started writing. And that took some time.


I see, yes. So, you took time away from work. It's not something that you juggle?


Well, it is because it's only the intensive part of the writing, like the first draft, that I did during leave periods. The rest of it, the rewriting and the editing and the little bits being added and the little bits being subtracted, that took place in my spare time and I did that at night, at home and on the weekends. So, that was kind of… had to fit in with my work activities.


How long did it take to write the first draft of Murder at Myall Creek?


About ten weeks.

Yeah, right. Wow.

If you could just take me back to those ten weeks, so that leave period, how did you approach it? Like, did you have a routine? Did you think, “I'm going to write 1,000 words today.”? Did you structure all of your chapters beforehand? How did you actually approach it on a practical level?


So, as far as timing was concerned I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. I mean I actually locked myself away, much to the consternation of my wife, who was on holiday at the same time. So I spent most of my waking hours writing, and I didn't find that hard because I really enjoy writing. I find it almost meditative, I totally lose sight of myself and lose track of time. So, I didn't have to push myself to do it, I enjoyed it very much.

The process… what I find is that… I try to find a pivotal moment in the story and I like to start my book at that pivotal moment. And, you will have seen from reading the book that pivotal moment in this book, Murder at Myall Creek, is the moment in between the two trials, at the conclusion of the first trial rather, when Plunkett has to decide whether he's going to put the men up for retrial.

From the point of view of morality, from the point of view of what Plunkett was trying to achieve in colonial society, and from the point of view of the whole story, it is one of the pivotal moments.

And once you have decided where that pivotal moment is, then it's really easy to write that first chapter, to describe the dilemma, the essential central dilemma of the story. And once you've written that the rest of it flows much more easily, I find, because you can then go back and start at the beginning. I can then go back and describe his history in Ireland, which is essential to and understanding of what he did when he came to New South Wales, because he was determined that New South Wales was not going to go down the same track as his native Ireland, with all of the discrimination and persecution that had occurred for centuries to the Irish people when the English were the overlords of Ireland.

And it was important to go back and look at his family history to understand how deeply he felt the discrimination and the persecution that occurred for centuries. And then how he came to be in Australia and what conditions were like in New South Wales when he arrived. It was a society that depended upon slavery. I mean we don't look at our convict era of being a form of slavery, but that's precisely what it was. And economically the colony of New South Wales could not have survived and prospered for those first 50 years before 1838 without that compulsory unpaid forced labour of the convicts.

As opposed to the American system of slavery it was much more successful because whilst the American slaves really had no hope of freedom and if they ever were free their lives were doomed to poverty and discrimination, whilst the Australian slaves, the convicts, were released at the end of their terms, or if they were released early on a ticket of leave, they became full members of society, accepted as full members of society. They were able to own land, in fact they were given land grants, many of them. They were able to open businesses. Some of them became very prosperous. There was a very ready market for their labour. Whilst there was some discrimination initially between the free settlers who had come as free people and the emancipated convicts after they had been freed, eventually that division died out. So, it was very different to slavery in America.

And to understand those differences and to realise what slavery in New South Wales was like, it's important to know what the conditions were like in the 1830s when Plunkett arrived, because he was one of those responsible for the abolition of the system of assigning convicts to private landowners. He was largely responsible for abolishing the unfitted rite of magistrates to order lashings of convicts.

There's no end to the number of reforms that he introduced.


Yeah, it is quite outstanding that he is not more well-known.

You talk about writing almost being… you kind of go into an almost meditative state. Obviously, it sounds like you really enjoy it. Have you always enjoyed it? Like, was writing something you enjoyed at school or when you were younger? Or did you discover it later in life?


I think I've always found writing easy, it comes to me naturally. It's my…


It obviously does.


… natural form of expression, as opposed to visual expression, like photography, which comes to me much harder. I'm a keen photographer, but I find it requires a lot more effort to create a visual image in photography than it is to write something. I think as a lawyer words are our tools of trade, so it really helps that I find it easy to write.

As I've gotten older it's become more easy. I think as a school student I wasn't aware that I had any particular talent as a writer. It's probably only after I left university that I realised that I enjoyed to write and that I found it relatively easy.


Just take me back to when you first started writing and you thought, “I'm going to write books now,” what made you start writing later when you had already entered the law?


I didn't write my first book until 2011, maybe 30-something years after I became a lawyer, quite late in life.


So what made you start?


What made me start was that I came upon — in 2005 I came upon this incredible story of a case that had occurred in 1920 in Sydney. It was the case of Eugenia Falleni, who was born a woman, but had lived as a man for 22 years in Sydney and was married twice during that time, and neither wife knew that they were married to anything other than a full blooded Aussie male by the name of Harry Crawford.

In 1920 Harry Crawford was exposed as a female called Eugenia Falleni and was charged by the police with the murder of his first wife. And you can imagine the outcry in society to… because they had no understanding of transgender issues in those days. She was treated mercilessly by the media and by the public.

And she had a trial that gripped the whole nation of Australia. Her case gripped the nation of Australia for months. And it had largely been forgotten. And I thought what a wonderful story it was and how it showed how we've changed our legal system since then. We've changed our views in society, but it also makes you look at your own society today and ask yourself, “In 100 years' time how are people going to look back at us? What are they going to say about how we didn't have any understanding about…” something.

And I was determined to write a book about Eugenia Falleni.

It wasn't until 2011 that I found the time and the inclination to write the book. And I had no idea whether I would be able to write a true crime book. There were a few issues that I really had to grapple with, like as a lawyer you're really kind of totally bound by the evidence that you have for witness. As a writer you can infer what you think happened and be quite creative in reconstructing events based upon the known facts.

I had to work out for myself to what degree do I interpret and infer what happened as opposed to being like a newspaper reporter who just writes the facts? I had to grapple with that as a lawyer. I also had to grapple with the fact that… do I have a duty to my readers to specify every time that I'm inserting what I infer were the facts or what I infer were the thoughts or motives of some of the principle people involved? Do I have to say every time, “Well, this is what I think happened…”? Or do I just say it? Write it down as though it were a part of the story?

I had to grapple with that aspect of this genre, which is called creative non-fiction. As a lawyer, of course, it's totally fine.

I had no idea whether it would be a popular book. I wanted to write it, again, so that an ordinary person in the community could understand it, so that high school students could use it for legal studies. So, I wrote it at that level. And I was really gratified when the book did extremely well.


It did.


It's actually used a lot by legal studies students at high school. I can't tell you the number of ordinary people who communicated with me, wrote to me, emailed me to say that they really got a lot out of it and how much they enjoyed reading it.


What do you find most gratifying about writing?


It really kind of divides up into a whole lot of sections. The first part is the research, which I enjoy in itself. The second part is the actual writing, which I really love doing, particularly the creative parts, I find that the most enjoyable. Then there's the editing, and as surprising as it may sound, I really enjoy trying to rewrite my sentences so that they are as clear as possible in meaning and as concise as possible.

I believe in brevity of expression and conciseness of meaning. So, I rewrite my sentences often to try and achieve both those aims.

Then there's a long waiting period when your publisher gets editors to look through it and you get back proofs, which you then have to go through and decide whether you're going to accept or reject the suggestion that's been made by their editor. I have to say that my publisher Simon and Schuster have used excellent editors and I have accepted, I think, over 95 percent of the suggestions that they have made.

Then when the book comes out you've got the book launch, which of course is great fun and really gratifying.

Then I do lots and lots of talks about my books. I might do — I don't 30 or 40 talks at libraries and bookshops and community groups, rotary groups, historical societies, genealogical groups.


Do you enjoy that?


Yeah, I like doing the talks. It's different to writing. I also… my publishers arrange radio and TV interviews shortly after the books have come out. I enjoy that. I mean it's totally different to writing or to researching. It's really… I see it as being an important stage of being an author.

So, there's really the research, the writing, the editing and then the talking about it.


What's next for you? Presumably you've already got in your brain what your next project is going to be.


I've got a couple of ideas, actually. I haven't decided between them, but I will definitely continue writing. I've already arranged to take some time off next year so that I can do it. I'll probably decide over the Christmas holidays which one of the two…


On that point, you said you're going to take some time off to pursue those projects, when you just spoke about writing, about the various kind of stages of it, you spoke with such passion, about how much you enjoyed it. Do you enjoy the law as much as you enjoy writing?


Yes, I really enjoy my work. I think I've probably got the best legal job in Australia.

I've been a Crown Prosecutor for over 30 years. It's a very varied job, it's a very challenging job, a fascinating job, because you're delving into people's characters and motivation for committing serious crime.

As Senior Crown Prosecutor I have responsibility for distributing the briefs. One of the benefits of being the Senior Crown, which I have been for nearly 20 years now, is that I get the choice of which trials I'm going to run. And they're mainly murder trials. And, I choose challenging ones, ones that I hope will perhaps sometimes establish some new law, ones that have significance in the community for differing reasons. And sometimes I do just fairly straightforward trials in the district court, just to keep in touch with what my more junior colleagues are doing.


Would you ever give it up to write full time?  


I doubt that I would write full time, because I think that if I did it full time it would lose some of its shine. I think it's better to devote two months, three months to writing a book and do it because I feel passionate about the subject. I think that if you're doing just that all of the time… I don't think I would be as passionate about it.



Finally what would your advice be, because I know that there are people listening who may be prosecutors themselves, they may be accountants, they may be… whatever… in the depths of their profession, quite successful, who have had that inner hankering to do what you've done and write and publish a book. What would your advice be to them?


I think it's really important to follow your other passions, a part from work. And, you'll be much better at your main work if you do follow your other interests. It's sometimes difficult to make time, but I think if you're really disciplined about it and if you're really efficient with your time it is possible to do.

I mean I've had a passion for photography, I've got a passion for writing. I've had a passion in the past for genealogy. I've done a fair bit of bushwalking. I think you can do those other things, as part time activities in your free time, even with a very demanding, time-consuming job. Obviously you can't do it all of the time, but I think it's really important to maintain that balance. Really that's the best way to avoid burnout.


Wonderful. On that note thank you so much for your time today, Mark.


Thank you, Valerie.


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