Ep 187 $20,000 prize for writing 100 words. And meet Matthew Benns, author of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 187 of So you want to be a writer: Discover how you could win $20,000 for writing 100 words, plus the story of how Stephen King’s pen name was revealed. What your website should include as a freelance writer. Your chance to win a t-shirt with the words from your favourite book. And meet Matthew Benns, author of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

Shout Out

From Bobo009:

 SYWTBAW has become my mainstay for entertainment and education on a long commute. The interviews are great and it makes me giggle as Al responds to the word of the week; “Are you ready Al?”. I have learnt tips on improving craft and how to start an author platform. I even begrudgingly tried Twitter and love it now. Thanks for the advice and effort ladies.

Thanks Bobo009!

Show Notes

$20,000 for a 100-Word Story: The Museum of Words Flash Fiction Contest

Known Alias: How Stephen King Was Outed as Richard Bachman

A Step-by-Step Guide to Setting Up Your Freelance Writer Website

Writer in Residence

Matthew Benns

Matthew Benns has spent his career as a journalist chasing and exposing some of the biggest conmen and women in the world. He has worked for newspapers in Fleet Street including The Sun, Today and Daily Mail and in Sydney for The Daily and Sunday Telegraphs and The Sun Herald. He is also the author of a number of books including bestsellers The Men Who Killed Qantas and Fixed, an expose of the seedy underbelly of the horse racing industry in Australia. His 2011 book, Dirty Money, was number one on the business books bestseller list and described by investigative journalist John Pilger as ‘a terrific book – the first of its kind in Australia’. He is currently the Editor-at-Large at The Daily Telegraph.

His latest book is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, published by HarperCollins.

Follow Matthew on Twitter

Follow HarperCollins on Twitter

 

Competitions

WIN: Your fave book on a t-shirt with Litographs

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

So Matthew, thanks for joining us today.

Matthew

It’s a pleasure. Great to be with you.

Valerie

Now your latest book is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: A rip-roaring expose of Australia’s most notorious conmen, swindlers and larrikins. Okay, now the subtitle makes it quite clear what this book is about, but for readers who haven’t read your book yet, can you tell us a little bit more about what’s in this book?

Matthew

Well, these are the conmen, the scoundrels, these are the people who when you read the newspaper or watch the news your jaw drops open and you think, I can’t believe they did that. I can’t believe people fell for that. How did they do it? Why did they do it? How did the people fall for it? It’s the unbelievable group of people who work outside society’s norms, that make you shake your head and say, I can’t believe it. And they’re not worthy, but they are very, very interesting, and make us want to know more about them. So I explored that.

Valerie

And so it says in the introduction of the book that you pretty much have a lifelong fascination with the lives of conmen. Well, conmen and women. Con-people. Why is that? Why is it so appealing to you?

Matthew

As a journalist, I started out, I came from, I grew up in Norfolk in England. And my dad was a very much a straight shooting, very honest man, who brought me up with a very good sense of morals. So when I joined the local newspaper and I got sent off to my first bankruptcy hearing and I saw what happened and heard these stories, it was such a shocking revelation to me. And I just fell in love with it; I wanted to know more. And I’ve been interested in scoundrels ever since.

Valerie

Yes. And in this book, you’ve included – it’s a series of different stories, of different types of con-people, different swindlers – and there are historical stories, like of Richard Tichborne from the late 1880s or Ethel Livesey from the 1940s. But there are obviously much more modern stories in very recent times and also ones like Christopher Skase, which you lived through. But for the historical ones, I’m interested to know if you didn’t live through it, how did you approach the research for such things? Especially for something in the late 1800s? Firstly, how did you find out about them in the first place? Because they weren’t front page news like things are now. And so therefore you didn’t discover them because of what was happening now. And then how did you decide which ones to include? And how did you find out so much about them?

Matthew

Well, you’re right. There’s an enormous amount of research that goes into a book like this. So obviously when I began I had absolutely no idea that the Tichborne claim was such a big thing back in the 1800s.

As you dig and you research, there are little clues and little threads that appear in something here or something there. You pick them up, you chase it, you chase a lot of rabbits down rabbit holes that turn into nothing. But these little bits of gold come up. And then once you start digging, there’s papers, there’s historical societies, there are old newspapers which are a treasure trove.

And what’s so fascinating is that the stories are as remarkable today as they were back then. Here’s a guy, the Tichborne claimant, he’s a butcher from Wagga who’s claiming to be this aristocrat. The aristocrat’s mother who has advertised for him ignores the fact that he’s changed height, that he’s changed size, that his accent has completely changed, he’s completely forgotten how to speak French when he grew up in France. And she’s gone, my son! Welcome.

Well, you know, sons and mothers are a universal thing, we have them today. And you have to sit and shake your head and go, my god, how deranged was this poor woman? How desperate was she to find her shipwrecked son that she accepted a butcher from Wagga was him? It’s amazing! What a story!

Valerie

It is amazing. But take me back to when you first, before you even discovered him. What do you even do when you’re deciding who goes in this? Do you Google ‘conmen of the 1800s’? How do you even start?

Matthew

It’s a long process. I started with the ones that I knew. But also being a journalist and working on newspapers, I had a lot that I’d actually worked on and uncovered myself. And so you’re working with those and you know the backstories. And there’s so much more that you can get in a book that you can’t get into a newspaper story.

So I’ve met the victims, so many victims. And what becomes clear is you obviously think of the victims as the suckers who’ve handed over their money. But it’s not just the suckers who handed over their money. It’s the conmen’s wives, their children, their families. They are all still out there suffering from what these people do. And it’s the humanity, the humanity of the stories that really pulls you in and makes you want to tell it.

Valerie

Yeah, absolutely. So in a book like this, which is a collection of different but separate stories, about totally different people from totally different worlds, it’s still important to ensure that they all read well as a whole book.

Matthew

Absolutely.

Valerie

So how did you determine the order in which to place them? Or how you could structure the book so that it read well as an overall book?

Matthew

Yeah, you’ve nailed there the biggest problem I had with this. Because a book like this, initially, I was doing it chronologically. But as with many books, and other books that I’ve written, you don’t necessarily start a book at the beginning and finish at the end. Because someone picking up the book reads the first chapter and goes, yawn! That’s so dull. You want to start with the most exciting thing. But so I then structured each chapter to hopefully begin with a bit of excitement so that you’re drawn into it and you sort of leap from one to the other quite naturally.

But that was, it was tricky. Getting the order was one of the things that I worked through with the publisher quite extensively.

Valerie

And so how much new research did you have to do? Because obviously as you said you knew a lot of it, because you had uncovered some of them yourself, or you had worked on those stories. How much of it was really fresh to you?

Matthew

Yeah, quite a lot. Because you need to, you’re trying to get into the person, you’re trying to get into them as characters. So I was reaching out, contacting people, contacting new victims, contacting private eyes. You do an awful lot of research. Not all of it gets into the book. But you’re reaching out, you’re talking to people.

Carl Synnerdahl, the bank robber who pretended he was blind, I had quite extensive conversations with him. Which was fascinating. Not a lot of that got into the book. But just talking to him and trying to get into his mindset is amazing.

Valerie

And so when you are doing all this research – because an incredible amount of research has gone into this book – just talk us through on a practical level how you organised that research? Do you do it all first then you start writing? Or do you start writing and then fill in the gaps? And how do you arrange, do you have different piles of paper for each story? How does it work?

Matthew

It’s very funny. Well, this book had been a lot of research. And my other books, Dirty Money, The men who killed Qantas, I was sharing an office at one stage with another chap and eventually he said, “I can’t work in here.” Because basically framed around his desk were all the piles of papers.

So each, I have a giant, giant door sized piece of paper on the wall that is all the chapters are written, and there’s red arrows saying, this goes here and this goes here. And it evolves like a living organism on the wall. And then there’s a pile of papers and research all stacked along the floor. Each one that links to each chapter.

So then you’re going, now I’ve got to get that, and then I’ve got to put that over there. And it becomes this mad morass. It’s like Professor Brainstorm’s cupboard. And that’s the way it works. That’s the way it has to work. And then when you get a book at the end of it, you go, my god, look at all of that! There’s boxes of stuff and then it’s all neatly done in a book and all people have got to do is pick it up and read it. It’s great.

Valerie

You must love researching.

Matthew

Oh… Yeah. I guess I do.

Valerie

You must!

Matthew

I love people. I love stories. I love uncovering the truth. And I think all writing in some form or other is a quest for the truth. And journalism does that too. It’s the search for the truth. And there’s that great moment when you’re researching and turning things up and you go, holy crap! Look at that. I never knew that and that, and you put two things together and it works brilliantly. I’ve got –

Valerie

No, go on, please.

Matthew

I’ve got a story unrelated to that. Where I went, I was in America chasing grand old stories about Elvis Presley. And I met a girl in Las Vegas who said, I dated him, blah, blah, blah. And then I tracked down in Biloxi, Mississippi, Elvis’s first girlfriend. And she said, oh you know, I dated him at this time. And it was one of those remarkable bits of research coincidence. I put the two together and went oh my god! Elvis was cheating on his first girlfriend with this blonde in Las Vegas. What a story! Nobody knew. And just because I happened to find the two people in America at that point. That’s a research wowser moment.

Valerie

Yes. So when you were much younger did you think, I want to be a journalist? How did you choose your vocation?

Matthew

No, I didn’t think I wanted to be a journalist. I thought I wanted to be an author. I really wanted to write, and I loved, loved books. And I looked at the books I loved and the bookshelves at home were full of the detectives and so on. I particularly loved Ian Fleming. And I looked at all those books. And the common thread with so many of them was that the guys who had written the books were journalists.

And I thought about it and I thought, well, I know I’m not going to get straight into writing books at 18. I don’t know enough about writing, and I don’t know enough about life. So I thought, well if that’s way they did it, I’ll go and be a journalist, and that will give me the experiences to give me something to write about.

And as it turns out, I love being a journalist. And I work in a job that allows me to work and craft and hone words every day in search of truth. And that’s then what happens when you do a book.

Valerie

So with this book you said that one of the hardest things was nailing the order and having that strong narrative to carry you through to the end, for the reader to go to the end. Apart from that, what was one of the hardest things about making this book become reality?

Matthew

It was knowing who to leave out. There are so many conmen in Australia.

Valerie

Yes!

Matthew

It’s a rich vein. You think, well I’ve got Dirty Rotten Scoundrels II, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels III, so if everybody buys it there’s plenty more to go. It’s not what to put in, it’s what to leave out. That was the tricky part.

Valerie

I have no doubt, actually, that that’s going to happen. Much like Australia’s Hardest Prisons, there’s now Australia’s Toughest Prisons, and Australia’s most whatever prisons, by James Phelps, I think it is. And now Australia’s Hardest Women’s Prisons. So I have no doubt there’s going to be Dirty Rotten Scoundrels II and III. So speaking of that, then, how did you decide? What were the parameters on who made it into this particular book?

Matthew

Basically it worked on the basis of what’s the most amazing ripping story? I mean, you obviously have the ones that everybody knows about. And if you’re going to read about Australia’s worst dirty rotten scoundrels and you don’t put Christopher Skase in, and you don’t put Alan Bond in, people are going to go, well, where are they?

But then if someone’s reading it, they also want people they haven’t heard of, and they want some surprises, and you need some historical context. So you’ve got those, and then… So you’ve got the surprises, you’ve got the ones you expect, and then all those other ones that would slot in amongst them who didn’t make it, like I say, they’ll be in number two.

Valerie

What’s either one of your favourite stories from the book or the one that was the most surprising to you? Because you discovered something new that you didn’t know?

Matthew

I quite enjoyed the religious ones. Michael Guglielmucci, this guy who claimed that he had cancer, wrote a hit song called ‘Healer’, appeared on stage with his oxygen and his hair loss. And it all turned out it was a massive con. And really, apparently he had an addiction to porn, and he was so embarrassed about it that he came up with the claim that he was suffering from cancer. And that whole thing was amazing.

I’d been to the Influencers Church in Atlanta for a story for the paper, and talked to them. And it’s just the way, they call it swallow and follow, you swallow it and follow it. And what’s interesting is the way that if you don’t, or if you come to the end of your cycle, they punt you out the door while they’re bringing the new people in the front door. It’s this whole cynical business which, again, pursuit of the truth.

Valerie

Yes, absolutely. Now, let’s talk about some of your other books. You’ve written The Men Who Killed Qantas, which is kind of self-explanatory. And Dirty Money, and Fixed, which is about the horse-racing industry. And Mistress: the true story of mistresses and their men. With a lot of these, and I guess let’s just take the Mistress one, how do you get to know they are, and then to interview them and talk to them and spend time with them? For them to trust you with their stories?

Matthew

A lot of it comes through my job and that’s what I spend all day every day trying to find out, those kinds of stories. The Men Who Killed Qantas was probably the most ground-breaking book that I wrote at the time, because Qantas was under so much fire. And what was interesting there was that a lot of people within Qantas were talking with me. I was finding things out that the management didn’t want me to know, that was very damaging to the company at a time when the company was struggling. And it caused a lot of upset to them, and caused a great deal of pain.

But funnily enough the crews and the pilots and all of the staff of Qantas they loved it. Everybody read it. It was being passed around like hot cakes around the planes. And in a way, I think it may have helped them shake up their act a little bit. Because it pointed out very publicly some of the things that were going wrong.

Valerie

When you’re writing a book like that, which is an expose, as is Fixed, about the horse racing industry, especially with the horse racing industry, do you ever feel concerned or in danger? Do you ever worry?

Matthew

Yes.

Valerie

Can you expand on that?

Matthew

Yeah, you do. You’ve upset people, and it can be a bit confronting. So you take precautions. And again, as a journalist and working with The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, you’re out on the front line, basically you do confront things and reveal things that people don’t want you to. So I guess you get used to it.

Valerie

And so can you talk about some of the ramifications of some of your stories?

Matthew

Yeah. You get threatened. You get legal letters. You get people, you know, people are unhappy. And as much as there’s one side that loves to get that story out there, there’s another side that perhaps would rather you didn’t. And, you know, they threaten you sometimes. But again, I guess we… That’s the risk you take in telling a story like that.

I can tell you that doing the Qantas book was probably one of the most stressful times of my life. The pressure that was put on through so many different channels was really very full on. But at the same time, it was a story that I was passionate about and one that had to be told. And the publisher was fantastic. Totally backed me all the way.

Valerie

Great. So when you are writing, because you are also a journalist, you’ve got to fit in writing these books around your work as a journalist. So on a practical level, how do you do that? Do you divide certain days? These are book days, or these are book hours? How do you fit it in and make it work around your other commitments?

Matthew

I often wonder that. When I look back on it. And I think, how the hell did I actually do that? Because I don’t know. What I think, I think probably like most writers, what I do is I procrastinate for quite a long time until the deadline’s really, really pressing. And then I just put my head down and do it. On this last one it was every weekend. Every weekend was just flat out.

Valerie

Every weekend for how long? For how many months?

Matthew

Um. Well, I’d done, on this one I had done bits and bobs of chapters that had come up, because I’d known about them from work, or I’d done something through work, so I’d kind of written them as I went. But then so the rest of it, probably four or five months of solid weekends and nights and occasional, the odd week’s holiday. It takes a long time to write a book, as I think you and all your listeners know.

Valerie

Yes. So did the several months of weekends, did that include the research as well as the writing?

Matthew

Sometimes. I’d done a lot of the research. The research is easier to do piecemeal. I’ve got ten minutes here, I’m going to pick that book up here, I’m going to go and talk to that person here. It’s the actual sitting down and writing was that time on the weekends.

The research, like I say, you don’t have to have a consistent chain of thought for the research. It’s, I’ll grab a bit here and pop it in, and slot it onto that pile there. But then once you’ve got to put all those strands together, that’s the bit where you’ve got to have a continued strand of thought.

Valerie

So I know that you have been a writer, well, a journalist for many years now. So this question might be kind of like, well, I’ve just done it for that long so I know how to do this. But try and… Let me know if you can deconstruct it a little bit. Because you’ve got your pile of research and you’ve got to turn that into a chapter, into an interesting story. And it’s done beautifully. The order of information, it makes so much sense. And you have a great sense of humour. And the sentences just flow really, really well. It’s just so readable.

I know that you’ve been a journalist for decades so it’s kind of second nature for you. But if you can try and deconstruct it for me on how do you tackle a story like that? Or each one of those chapters? Do you have some kind of structure in mind? This is my go to thing first? Or I map it out first and then fill it in? How does it work?

Matthew

I don’t necessarily map it out first. I find probably the most exciting telling anecdote that really grabs me. The thing, I think about it and I think  – what’s the thing that if I was going to tell someone on the bus or ring my mum up and say, you know, this story, and I’d say, you know, this is the bloke, he was the one who fell off the back of the train when they were machine-gunning him and he landed on the horse and she’d go, oh yeah, right.

So I wouldn’t start Fred Blogs was born in so-and-so and da da da and have the machine gun falling off the train at the end. I’d do that anecdote and then I’d go, and it all began because… And then there’d be a link to that and then you can build it chronologically through it. It kind of happens.

Valerie

I knew you’d say that!

Matthew

It’s all there and you’ve got all the… Well, it’s like you’ve got all these dots, and the words you use are just the things that join them all together. They happen sequentially, and they link, as you’re writing, they link. You go, oh there’s a piece of the jigsaw there, ooh that will work, I’ll click that bit in there, and it goes click click click. Didn’t help, did it?

Valerie

No! Because I think you’ve been doing it for, you’re such a professional, you’ve been doing it for so long it just comes so naturally for you. So I’m also going to guess that it doesn’t actually go through that many edits. Would that be correct?

Matthew

Yes. No, very, very little. The editors, they always come back to me and go, yeah, I don’t really feel I’ve earnt my money here because I didn’t have to do anything.

But that’s not always true. I wrote a book, one of the early books I wrote was called When the Bough Breaks, which was about Kathleen Folbigg who killed her four children. That one was a high-pressure book. I had eight weeks to write it. And that was only, I think, the second book I’d written. And so it was quite hard work. And I hadn’t got my structures completely sorted.

And I remember one day, a whole day, a very, very valuable day where I was trying to get out 2,000 words a day and I was at like 396 words, and I could not get through this mental block. And what I did was, eventually I just threw my hands up in the air, and went this isn’t working, I’m going for a swim. I went for a swim, I was swimming up and down, got in the pool worrying about it. After a while I stopped thinking about it. And about lap 16, it went click. Oh, this is how you do it. This, this and this. Because I’d taken my mind off it, that will work.

Even still, I sent that to the publisher, and then the editor came back and completely restructured the chapters; made it much better. And I learned so much from that in terms of, oh right, this is how you structure a book, this is the way chapters work better. So you know I had a really good editor who helped me with that book and I’ve learned from that which is now why several books down the line it’s easier now.

Valerie

Yes. Are you already working on your next book?

Matthew

I’m in discussions with the publisher. They’ve got several ideas. And we’re debating.

Valerie

So that’s an interesting thing. Because you just said that they’ve got several ideas. With this, was this your idea? Or a publisher’s idea?

Matthew

Yeah, no, this was my idea. No, when I said they’ve got several of my ideas and we’re debating which one to do.

Valerie

Oh I see. Cool. This book was a rollicking read. And I can only assume it was a rollicking ride to write, if you know what I mean? Is that the case?

Matthew

Yeah, it was fun. Because they’re such, like I said, they’re great stories. And I think if you’re not enjoying writing it, how is anyone going to enjoy reading it? If it’s a punish to write, then it’s going to be a punish to read. It comes through.

I feel so strongly with writing, having done it for so long, and particularly as a tabloid journalist, is that one word can convey so much emotion. And I feel that the way you feel as you write it comes through.

And I don’t know, it’s like some mystical process, but if I’m laughing when I’m writing it, it’s like my laughter comes through the words and hits the reader and they start laughing too. I don’t know how that happens. Because you read the words individually and you think, well, they’re actually not that funny. But you watch people read them and they’re smiling.

Valerie

Yes. And so when you were eighteen and looking at your bookshelf, and thinking, I want to be like Ian Fleming or whoever – have you turned your hand to fiction?

Matthew

Yes. But it’s not been published. Funnily enough, one of the first books I wrote was a book called The Lottery. And it was in Britain just before the lottery came out, the national lottery. And I looked at Britain at the time and I thought, with all the different things that are happening, we’re not united as a country like we used to be, where you’d watch, everyone would be talking about The Carry On film that had been on Bank Holiday Monday or something.

And I thought, the lottery is going to unite the nation. I’m going to do a book about the lottery. So I wrote this book about the lottery. And it was inspired by a real event that happened in Australia. And I’d been in Australia, went to Tasmania, sat in my friend’s house for eight weeks – no longer – and wrote this book, went back, got it to the publishers in Britain, and then comes all the rejection slips, rejection slips, rejection slips. I don’t even know how many people actually read it.

And then I called in a favour from a bloke who knew a publisher, and got it in front of him, and I know he read it. And he came back and he said, “you know what. It’s well written, the dialogue is accurate, it’s funny. I just don’t think there’s a market for it.” And I looked at him, I wrote back and said, “I didn’t know it was well-written, I didn’t know it was funny, I didn’t know any of that stuff. The only thing I do know is that there is a market for this.” And sure enough, six months after the lottery started there’s a TV show, there’s fifteen books, there’s a movie. Everyone’s doing it! And if I’d had any hair I’d be tearing it out! But anyway, we all have that.

Valerie

So do you prefer to write fiction or nonfiction?

Matthew

Look, I love both. The great joy of fiction is that you don’t spend ten hours researching a quote; you can just make it up.

Valerie

Yeah.

Matthew

And they say exactly what you want to say, as opposed to researching it and saying, well, he said this, and it’s not quite where I need the story to go so I’ve got to reshape everything to make it work. This way, it’s fiction, if you want them to say, “damn you to hell”, well they say it.

Valerie

Well, of course truth is stranger than fiction. And I think that’s what works so well about this book. And obviously your other books as well. But this book is just really entertaining. And you learn so much. And it’s all so beautifully written.

Matthew

Thank you. Thank you very much.

Valerie

So congratulations on it. and thank you so much for your time today, Matthew.

Matthew

That’s my pleasure. Thank you.

 

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