In Episode 243 of So you want to be a writer: Discover how to sell more books on Kindle and learn the meaning of atavistic. August Furious Fiction is opening soon. Plus, you’ll meet Gabriella Coslovich, author of the enthralling Whiteley on Trial.
tabarnes from USA:
As an aspiring writer, I have sought out resources to help lift my craft to the next level. I came across Valerie and Al and was hooked instantly. I have since backlogged and started listening from episode 1. They do not disappoint. They are insightful, witty and informative without being condescending to new artists. They are an inspiration to other women by being kind and supportive to each other in a society that is lacking in such support all too often. I love this show and will continue to listen as long as they care to broadcast.
Writer in Residence
Gabriella Coslovich is a Melbourne journalist with more than 20 years experience, including 15 years at The Age newspaper where she specialised in arts writing and developed an extensive network of contacts in the arts world. She was writing about the three dubious Whiteley paintings five years before the case reached the criminal court system. Art dealer Peter Gant sued The Age for defamation for her efforts—the case was resolved confidentially. She was also the first journalist to gain an exclusive interview with Tasmanian art collector and gambler David Walsh, and revealed his plans to create the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart.
Her book Whiteley on Trial was published by Melbourne University Press in October 2017. It won a Walkley Award for Journalism.
Follow Gabriella on Twitter
(If you click through the links above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)
Connect with us on twitter
Connect with Valerie, Allison and listeners in the podcast community on Facebook
Share the love!
Gabriella, thanks for joining us today.
Thanks, Valerie. It’s great to be speaking with you.
Now for readers who haven’t read your book yet… Now, I have to say, Gabriella, I picked up this book and I read it one sitting because I literally could not put it down. And when I had to make my lunch, I had the book in front of me and I was shovelling food into my mouth as I was eating, because I couldn’t take the words off the page because it was so compelling.
So number one, congratulations on such a compelling book.
Thank you. That’s really good to hear. Because it’s not necessarily an easy topic.
Yeah. It’s not an easy topic. But it was very, very well treated the way you did it. So just in case there’s some readers who haven’t read the book yet, can you tell them what it’s about?
Yes. It’s about one of the most extraordinary alleged art frauds that have ever come to the courts in Australia. And it’s probably the most audacious case of alleged art fraud. And it involves two – well, actually there were three – huge paintings that are believed to be fake. And they were made in the style of one of Australia’s most famous artists, Brett Whiteley, who died in 1992.
And so these three paintings were sold for millions of dollars to people in Sydney, with a lot of money to pay for them. And the book basically looks at this case and follows it through the court system, through a jury that convicts two men of art fraud, and then their conviction, the jury’s conviction is overturned by an appeals bench.
Now, I know this case intimately because I was writing about it in 2010 when I was a journalist at The Age newspaper. And long before it got to the courts, it would be another four years or so, 2014, before the men were charged. And it would be another, you know, it was 2016 when they were brought to court.
I know the case intimately. I have very firm views about it. So this book takes the reader through the case with me guiding them along.
And I’m glad you said you read it in one sitting. I always intended it to be for a general audience. I never wrote with an art expert audience in mind or a legal expert audience in mind. Definitely not legal experts, because I’m not a legal expert.
And as a journalist, I had never covered the courts. But that’s what made the law so interesting to me, to see this other world. I was very accustomed to hanging out in art world circles. I feel very comfortable there. But entering the courts was something else. So all the characters, and the systems and the rituals jumped out at me.
And one of the best compliments I think I’ve ever gotten was from my mother. Who, you know, we’re migrants from Italy, she left school very early, she’s certainly a very intelligent woman. She read the book and she said, “gee, I was expecting it to be really boring and really dry and I loved it! I read it from the beginning to the end and it was fantastic.”
And I thought, well, that’s great. If she can enjoy it, anyone can enjoy it. And that’s not to underestimate her intelligence, by the way. It’s just I wrote it with a general audience in mind.
It’s definitely appealing to a general audience. Because it has all the elements of a soap opera. It is astounding. And it’s a great example of truth is stranger than fiction.
Now there’s so many colourful characters and so many interesting twists and so many mysteries and hidden paths that I think that it’s definitely interesting for the general audience. And yet you had to include a lot of the legal stuff in it for it to be an accurate representation of the facts, and we’ll get to that in a minute.
But as you say, the story unfolded in real life over a period of time. Years, many, many years. At what point did you think, I’m going to write a book?
As soon as I found out that these two men that I had been writing about – well, actually, it was only one man I was writing about, because the other one had always been rumoured to be involved. As soon as I found out that the two accused had been charged and that the case was coming to court to be heard at a committal hearing, I just thought, I’ve got to write about this.
So that was the end of 2013…. Go on.
No, you go on.
Hello? Oh sorry.
So that was the end of 2013. And I was no longer with The Age newspaper at that point. I was editing Gallery Magazine at the National Gallery of Victoria. And I ended up leaving that job because I really wanted to follow this case, and I knew that I would have to, it would take a lot of time.
So I left and started freelancing as a journalist. And the first thing I did when I found out that the case was coming to court was approach Melbourne University Press.
And the reason I approached Melbourne University Press was that one of my former editors at The Age, Sally Heath, is now executive publisher there and I have great respect for Sally Heath’s skills and I had worked with her at The Age. And I thought, I’m going to suggest to her that we… I went to pitch a book.
And she loved the idea. She said, now you’ve got to pitch formally. You know, I’ve got to present it to the board, the whole of the publishers have to like it. And she presented it to the board and I was very lucky that they accepted it and wanted a book.
So as soon as I saw that these two men were going to be tried, or possibly tried, I jumped on it. And the reason for that is because I had been writing about this case and these suspicious paintings back in 2010 – sorry, it was 2007. It was 2007. And I just thought, why has nothing been done? Why haven’t the police looked into this? What’s going on?
So as soon as it came to the courts, I thought, wow, is there some new evidence? What’s happening? And knowing all the characters, I knew there just had to be a book in it.
And I sat through the committal hearing, and that’s when I was convinced there was a book in it. And in fact it was after that, it was after that. Sally Heath said to me, “sit through the committal hearing. See if you think this idea’s got legs.”
I sat through the committal hearing in early 2014 and then I pitched the book and it was accepted.
So it obviously required a great deal of commitment. Because you left your job to go and follow this story. If for example the Melbourne University Press didn’t go for it, would you have been that obsessed that you would have followed it anyway? Or left your job?
I really don’t think I would have. I wish I could say, yes, I would have followed it. And I probably would have followed it, but I’m not sure that I would have had the courage to write a book.
It’s such a complicated case and there’s the threat of litigation. One of the accused had in fact sued me before, when I was at The Age and writing about this case. Before it got to the courts. So I really needed the backing of a publisher. I needed the support. I needed to feel safe – or as safe as you can when you’re writing these kinds of books.
And frankly, also, as a journalist, I need a deadline. I need an external, someone that can whip me from outside. I’m pretty disciplined, but there’s nothing like knowing that I have to deliver a project to someone. That someone is expecting something from me. And when that person is someone such as Sally Heath, who I greatly respect and admire, I wanted to also make sure that I delivered the goods and that they were good for her. Because I value what she does. I value the role she’s played in my life as an editor at The Age. And I just needed that external push and support.
So yeah, it was a kind of a big decision to leave the National Gallery of Victoria at the end of 2014 so I could then follow the committal hearing in March 2015. But I’d been there for a year and a half. I’d revamped their Gallery Magazine. And I was ready too for a change. So if the book proposal hadn’t come through, I would have freelanced. I would have just gone back to being a journalist and freelancing as a journalist.
But yes, the answer to your question is I doubt I would’ve taken it on. I really needed MUP’s backing. I needed it. I needed it.
So I’ll come back to the book in a minute. If we can just go on a sideways tangent and talk about how did you get into arts writing in the first place?
That’s a great question. I always wanted to be an arts journalist. That had always been my dream.
Yes. Well, from the moment that I got into journalism. I loved the arts. When I was a kid I drew and I painted. In fact, when I got accepted to do a post-grad in journalism at RMIT, the other thing I had applied for at the same time was in the visual arts. And I can’t remember which tertiary institution at this point. I was accepted to do that, as well. And if I had… Perhaps I’m a better writer than artist and I went down the journalist track. And also that was only one year post-grad.
So the arts have always been an interest of mine. I studied dance when I was a kid. I played classical guitar. I did all these things. I was a dabbler. And of course, and I just loved artists. I thought they were the best things on the planet. Creative people, they’re so inspiring.
So my first job, fulltime job as a journalist was at The Herald Sun. In Melbourne. And I was a general reporter, a health reporter, an education reporter. And all I wanted to do was write about the arts. But in newspapers, that’s kind of considered not that, you know, not that important. They just wanted me to write news, hard news. That’s where the important stuff happens. And I understand that.
And it was when I left The Herald Sun to work for The Age that I finally got my chance to be an arts journalist. And the editor, the then editor of The Age, said to me, “what would you like to do?” And I said, “I want to work on the arts.” And he said, “Okay. Fine. Great.”
And most people think, what? Why would you do that? That’s such a stupid career move. It’s not where the, you know, where the kudos is. And yet, I just followed my passion. And that’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to write about the things that I love. The things that I love. I wanted to talk to people who write and make dance and theatre and film. And all these wonderful things. They’re the best things in life, are the arts, aren’t they? The arts, and food and wine, I think.
But I think that the arts is certainly where some kudos is. Because we have to say congratulations because you have been, this book, your book has been awarded the Walkley for arts journalism. So that’s incredible kudos!
Yes. That is so good. But let’s remember that this is only the second time the arts journalism award has been awarded by the Walkleys. It started last year.
All through my career as an arts journalist, all the decades that I was an arts journalist, there was no separate category for arts journalism in the Walkleys. There’s one for sport. There’s one for lots of other things. Not arts.
So I’m really thankful that the Walkleys are now recognising arts journalism. It’s so important. Not just for me, for winning, but I mean some of the… The other finalists in that category created great work and I encourage your readers to get online and look at some of their work. I just think arts journalism needs to be better recognised in this country.
Well, let’s circle back to the book. You decided, I’m going to write a book. I’m going to follow this story. You attend the committal hearing, which is what they have before they have the actual trial. So it’s like two separate major events in this story, kind of thing.
Yes. The committal hearing is when you decide whether there’s enough evidence to take the case to a trial.
And when you’re sitting in court witnessing all of these things play out, and hearing all of these stories from so many different people, on a practical level, can you describe whether you had some kind of system or routine? Did you sit in the same place or a place that had a good view? Did you have to take notes? Were you allowed to bring in any recording equipment? Just on a practical level, how did you capture the information and the colour?
Okay. Yes. All right. So… And the trial, by the way, went on for five weeks. I was in court every single day of those five weeks.
Okay. Let’s talk about the Supreme Court and the trial there, perhaps, because that’s where most of the action happened, and that was the most intense part. So five week trial.
There’s media seating. And I would often go to the same spot. And that was because it was closest to the judge and closest to the front and therefore best viewing and best hearing. And you feel safe going back to the same spot. When you’re doing this kind of stuff, routine is very helpful. So I would always sit there.
You cannot record in a court. You can’t photograph. You can’t take in a tape recorder. What I had was notebooks, of course. Which I love. I love my notebooks. And I would take notes throughout the court case of the most important parts. Because I’d then go home and read the court transcripts. But they are thousands of pages. Hundreds of pages. I needed to know exactly what I wanted to find.
So as I was taking notes, I’d have a separate notebook near me making notes of the highlights. Must get this quote, this is great, blah blah. So I was sort of already very alert to what was going to go in the book, what I needed to go back to.
So you had two notebooks going at the same time? Is that what you’re saying?
Yeah. Yeah, but one is you scribble everything in there. And then the other one, you take really concise – must get this quote where he says… All the juicy stuff. So just so that I would know what the main… One was of main points. One was of everything.
And I think I brought my highlighter in. And also, you’re always aware of what people are saying. So I’d be having conversations with people and they wouldn’t see me taking notes. But as soon as that conversation was finished, if they had said something really funny or interesting or provocative or whatever, I would write it down. So I was always on alert.
I shouldn’t be saying this! Because it’s like giving away my secrets and people will never talk to me again! But you know, writers are like that. They’re sort of eavesdropping…
When I was a kid, I used to always fantasise about becoming a spy. And I guess this is kind of a little bit like that.
That’s very intense. And during the court case, not only would I sit in court, but then at the end of the day, after a very long day in court, I’d have to come home and I would just in this flurry write everything that had happened that day in a very rough draft of a story.
Because I had this intense deadline. My publisher wanted the book a couple of months after the trial finished. So I knew there was no chance of meeting that deadline unless I wrote every single night.
Of course then we had the appeal, so it was postponed. But not for that long. And then there was the appeal to look at, and things to check. And so forth.
I think I’ve answered all those elements of the question that you asked.
You mentioned the appeal. So basically, the court case is done. There was a verdict. And then at some point you find out that there’s going to be an appeal. Was that an anti-climax? Did that wreck your momentum and your publisher’s momentum?
No. We always knew these two men would appeal. They were not, they said they were not guilty from the start. They were not going to… They were always going to appeal.
In fact, we knew that they would appeal on the very day that they were sentenced. On the very day that the jury made its verdict, it was clear they were going to appeal.
What happened was, it just… We were tossing up whether we could legally publish before the appeal. Was it possible? And our extremely excellent lawyer, the publisher’s lawyer said, no, that is way too risky. There’s a chance that the verdict will be overturned and if we go to press, and they’re acquitted, that’s just going to be too risky.
So for me, it was this limbo, this feeling of, oh, I’ve got to wait. I’ve got to wait. But I had so much to do. So they were acquitted in April the following year. But of course, I was writing… In September 2016, we were almost ready to go to press and then our lawyer said, no, we can’t do this. So we had to wait for the appeal. Which happened a lot earlier than I expected.
And what was the most difficult part was when the appeals bench overturned the verdict and the two men were acquitted. Because then I thought, oh my god, can we actually publish any of this? Have we still got a book? Is any of it publishable?
From a legal point of view, you mean?
Yes. From a legal point of view. From a legal point of view, can we do this? What are we at risk of if we publish? In terms of defamation and so forth.
And again, I worked very closely with the lawyer. And I was very encouraged by the fact that we were able to use most of what I had already written. There were only a few things that had to be cut out. Not much. Some of my favourite quotes and things went, but it wasn’t much. The tweak was very minimal.
And the reason for that is, because I had been writing it as it was happening. So the whole story is told as it happens in a sense. Except for the very beginning where it’s a sort of flashback. And also, I make it very clear from the beginning that the two men were acquitted.
So the day that it was clear that the jury verdict was quashed and that the appeal judges said no, the jury made a mistake, that day I thought, oh golly. Have I got a book? Have I got a book or not? And it made it a better book. It’s a better book.
With the appeal?
Well, with the fact that you’ve got a jury that says the two men are guilty and then an appeals bench say they are not. Well, what’s the truth? That’s the theme of the book. What is the truth?
And I take the reader through it and I think my, you know, I lead them through. And then I think it’s clear where my biases lie and I’m very open about those. But the readers have to make their own opinion.
It makes it a better book because it’s such a mystery. Because it’s such a… It’s not clear cut.
Your biases are clear but you did offer a lot of restraint as well.
Oh absolutely. Who wants to read some… Oh for sure. I think restraint is really important. And I think understatement and allowing your readers the space to make their own decisions is important.
But also, nothing is black and white. And the art world certainly isn’t. And the accused are fascinating characters in their own right. And it’s very, it’s not easy… You can’t just say this person is bad and this one is good. It’s not that simple. Not when you’re talking about the arts, and not when you’re talking about the selling and buying of art.
And that’s also what made it interesting. I didn’t simply want to write a book where it was like, that person is the devil and that person is… I mean, who wants to read that? I’m not interested in…
And so apart from the legal considerations of whether you had a book or not, you had to acquaint yourself with quite a number of legal aspects by the mere fact that you were following a trial. And also by the very specific technicalities of why they were acquitted in the first place.
So was that hard? Because as you say, you weren’t a court reporter. What did you have to do to understand the legal aspects of the trial itself?
Well, I had some great people that were helping me in the law. There was one particularly, I have to say, Tom Gyorffy QC, who was involved in the committal. He was for the prosecution but didn’t see it through to the trial. And he was a very good person that I would talk to when I wasn’t clear about elements of the law, and he would point me to cases that I should look at, or websites that I should look at.
And in the end, I just got so immersed. I was fascinated by it. By this thing that I had always taken for granted. You know, we all do. We walk around, we know the sort of general idea of the law and the courts and innocent until proven guilty. We know all of that. But to actually see it in action, to see it in action, in practice, was really eye opening and fascinating to me.
And I started to question… We think about the law as being this objective thing, but of course it’s open to interpretation, just like art is. And that’s what fascinated me. That it too is blurry and has many facets and depends on the interpretations of the judges, appeal judges, and so forth.
Because you have written about the whole arts scene in general throughout your career, you knew a lot of stuff that happened to some of the characters involved in the past. And also, you went to the committal and you heard every word of the committal.
But there’s certain things that a) you know about it just from experience. And b) were discussed at the committal but now allowed at the trial. At any point, were you just tempted to go, but what about this bit?
Constantly. I had to stop myself from getting angry with the defence barristers. The way that they would twist the story really irritated me. And I had to remind myself, they are doing their job. That’s what they are there for. They are there to ensure that everyone has a fair trial, that their clients have a fair trial.
But so many times I just wanted to say to the defence barrister, “what are you talking about? That’s just rubbish! You know that’s not true.” Just lots of… I’m not sure if I should have said that. But I kind of do it in the book, anyway. I just do it in a way that’s above the law. That’s not going to get me in trouble or have me get a writ for defamation, or whatever.
But yes, there’s lots of, and there’s still lots of stuff that I know that isn’t in the book that I can’t talk about. There’s things that I’ve found out since writing the book. There are many things that, yes, I would love to say but one can’t. One can’t because one has to be fair and one has to write and speak within what is allowed by law.
I mean, I could just fly off the handle and get myself sued. But why would I want to do that? That’s just stupid.
Yes, of course. So this isn’t just a story about an art fraud, about the arts. This is a true crime book. And what I’m interested in is after the trial, I’m assuming that after the trial you were in the depths of sorting through all your material and other stuff.
A couple of things. Number one, were you working on it fulltime and how did you structure your day in terms of what output you wanted to achieve? And can you take us through, on a practical level, because you interviewed lots of people. I mean, apart from going to trial, you interviewed people separately about this. How did you manage the information? On a practical level, what did you do with all your thousand bits of information?
Let’s do the first one. So after the trial, and throughout the trial, I was working on this book fulltime. So during that time, I just couldn’t take on any freelance work. So I had set aside time when I knew I wouldn’t be earning much and it was just going to be the book.
So for a couple of months I just worked fulltime on the book. And after the trial ended, it was basically every single day from morning to night, that’s what I did. I’d get up, I would write, I’d go for a walk. I’d come back, I’d write, I’d have lunch. I’d write. I’d have dinner, I’d write.
Put it this way, I stopped drinking… I don’t know if you, well, I enjoy alcohol. I’m a journalist. I like to have a drink at the end of the night. I had to stop. I could not. I just couldn’t afford to drink because I can’t drink and write. And I needed the energy to keep going. So it was a fulltime concern.
And Sally Heath, my editor, said make sure that you exercise. Go out and get a walk, go out and whatever workout. Go out and do yoga. And that’s really important. You have to also be very disciplined about your health. Because if you sit in front of a computer for hours on end, your brain goes fuzzy. There’s nothing like getting away from the desk and going for a walk.
And it’s out during the walk that things would happen in my brain. Or even I’d go out with my partner for a walk and we’d talk about it. And we’d come up with ideas or whatever. So it was a full on time of just writing for two months to meet this deadline which was a couple of months after the trial ended.
So it was just constant. And I was exhausted at the end. And I’m very pleased that it was during winter. Because it was kind of nice being indoors. It was a horrible winter that year.
And managing the information. I like to have piles of things. I love hard copy. So I’d have a pile of all the court transcripts. I’d have a pile of the transcripts of my personal interviews. So I had these nice little neat piles in my very not neat study. That was one thing.
But also I had a timeline. Very, very important when you’re talking about a case like this. So from the beginning, I kept a timeline. As in all the different events that have happened. You know, like, 2007, photographs taken, or whatever. So a timeline of all the events of this case so that I could keep track of what was going on where. And I could easily go back to that timeline and check.
And also, when you’ve got a timeline, that’s when it becomes evident when there’s inconsistencies in people’s evidence. And what they’re saying. It becomes very clear. Because, hang on, that can’t be right because this, this and this. So a timeline.
And I also kept a notebook where I’d try to do a structure of the book and work out, well, this chapter is going to be about this. So I’d always have this structure of how the narrative would go. And that helped me along.
So they’re some of the things that I did.
And it was a lot of information, but because I’m a journalist by trade, I’m comfortable with dealing with a lot of information.
Ah, but because you are a journalist…
No, well because you are a journalist, you are used to writing much shorter things. Much shorter. So was there something you had to switch in your brain to do it this way? Where you had to write a whole book?
Oh, it was so nice to have length. It was so wonderful. I used to get in trouble all the time at The Age for writing too much.
And even my first day at The Herald, I think my first day at The Herald Sun was hilarious. I went out to do a story and I came back and I wrote… It was called 60cm back then, column length. And I got it sent back to me from the sub-editor saying, “60cm? This is a tabloid newspaper. Cut it back to 200 words.” Or whatever it was. So I was constantly getting in trouble for writing too much.
What helped me in this case was that I had just completed a masters in creative writing. And I’d written a 20,000 word creative piece as part of that. And I was used to doing feature writing, which was 1200 to 2000 words. You’re right. It’s not a lot compared to…
It’s nowhere near.
Nowhere near 130,000, yeah. What I did was I just… I also remembered what an editor said to me at The Age when I was writing slightly longer pieces. And he said, “just think of the different sections as different chapters.”
I didn’t think of the book as a book. I just thought it’s all these little different bits and steps that I have to get through.
At the start, I’ve got to say, I did worry. I thought, how am I going to write an 80,000 word book? Because that’s what I was commissioned to do. And I thought, my god.
So I started writing and writing and writing. And probably focusing too much on those early chapters… But then it became clear. The problem in the end was not not having enough, it was having too much. We had to cut.
So with that then, even though this centres around a court case which could sound dry – it’s so not at all – you also bring to life on the page the colourful characters. Wendy Whiteley. Steven Nasteski, who was one of the people who bought the allegedly fraudulent paintings. Well, he was the one who was first to make noise that it was a fraud. And he is a colourful guy who sells and buys art, but he’s like a car dealer or something. And you can just see him come alive on the page.
Same with Andrew Pridham who spent $2.5 million on the supposedly fake painting as well. And it’s just by virtue of his silence you make him come to life.
How did you think, for some of these characters – because you could just see Steven Nasteski – how did you, what notes did you write down? Or what did you do to give yourself some kind of technique to then make them really these fully rounded people in black and white?
That wasn’t really that different to what I was doing at The Age. Because as an arts writer, you’re always trying to get detail and bring people to life. And now I had the opportunity to really have fun while keeping to the truth of course.
Wendy Whiteley, Steven Nasteski, they were part, I met them during a trip to Sydney. And that was actually the first bit of the book that I wrote, even though it’s not the first bit of the book. That Sydney chapter is what I wrote first. And it was that Sydney chapter, the very first chapter I wrote, the very first thing I wrote was Steve Nasteski, that Steve Nasteski section.
And I sent that to my editor and said, this is what it’s going to look like and sound like and she loved it. She said, that’s great, keep going. So it was to set a tone.
And I just went back to… It’s almost in my head. It’s because I love reading and I just recalled my favourite writers. My favourite writers such as Helen Garner and the way that she has dealt with… Not that I’m in anywhere close to her. I mean, I’ve sort of grown up on stuff. I’ve fed myself all this stuff. I know what I like. I know what I want. I know what kind of writing makes me excited.
So I had this sense in my head of how I wanted to create these characters. And while writing the book, I went back and reread Joe Cinque’s Consolation, for example.
I mean, good idea, and very bad idea. Because I’m reading it and at some point I just felt like, what I’m writing is just garbage in comparison. I can never be this good!
No, no! Gabriella! Because I was reading it and there were some of the court scenes, in particular, that I actually thought to myself, oh, that must have been what Helen Garner felt like.
Yeah. Well, I did… When I went back to her books after experiencing the court, I thought, she is so good at encapsulating what the court feels like. And doing it so crisply and so sparingly. And I still, if I… And this is not false modesty. If I could go back I’d probably want to be even more sparing.
And it was interesting. I read about… I’ve just finished reading recently A Writing Life by Bernadette Brennan, which is a marvellous book about Helen Garner and her work. And Bernadette Brennan writes about when Helen Garner was writing the Farquharson book, This House of Grief. But at some point her editor said, “you’ve got too much detail in there. It’s not working. It’s too boring. It’s too dry. You’ve got to make this work.” And it was a really difficult thing for Helen to write.
Well, when I read that, I thought, oh good. So it’s not just me. I’m not the only one that finds this hard. Because of course, you know, when you’re so immersed in it it’s very hard to see, to sort of step back.
But I just went back to the all the writers that I loved and looked at their work and thought about how they do it. And I just tried to, you just try to tell a story. You just try to bring the characters to life by focusing on a few different details about the way they look, or about the way they sound and then picking out the best quotes. Which is very much a journalistic trait.
And I would always, once I had interviewed someone such as Wendy or Steve, I’d go back to my computer and in a rush… What I always do is, at the end of an interview, just in a rush write down all of the impressions that I’ve had. It’s all rushed, but it comes from the gut. And then you can go back to it and fix it up. But you’ve got to keep that very, that first impression, you’ve got to get it down quickly or you forget. You forget how you felt.
Sure. So now that you’re not as immersed in it, because it’s done and dusted, what are you working on now? What’s next for you?
Well since… Oh gee, after it was published in October last year, there was the publicity, all the publicity tour going to bookshops and all of that, which was really intense. And really fun.
Basically after, I just wanted a break. And I started freelancing, doing lots of freelance journalism, which has been fabulous. And I’ve been writing for Good Weekend, and for The Age. And also as a way of making some money. Not a lot, as a freelancer. But just trying to get the coffers up again so that I can then find the time to write another book. Find the time and not be so compelled to earn a living that there’s time to write another book.
So yes, I’ve been doing freelancing. Freelancing for various newspapers.
Do you know what the next book is about yet?
Well, yes. Yes, look there is one… And this might change. But when I was doing my creative writing masters, I wrote a 20,000 word beginning of a memoir. And it’s about, it’s a topic that’s really quite current at the moment. Everyone’s talking about it, talking about these ideas, or certainly some other writers have.
But just what it’s like to be a woman and the conventional ideas that are given to you as a woman about how you should live your life and how you should be. And whether you choose motherhood or whether you choose something else or whatever.
And I was playing with these ideas. Because my background is… I come from an Italian family. And it’s not just the Italians, but there are some very set ideas about the way a woman should live her life. And I was playing with these ideas, and using my life, and not just my life but the things I saw around me to write this book. And it won the Affirm Press Mentorship Award in 2015.
And in fact I’m seeing one of the editors at Affirm Press tomorrow to talk about it. Because they have the first dibs at it if I finish it. And I just need another deadline. I need the editor to say, okay, she’s still interested and let’s maybe think out where this is going and what kind of timeframe.
So that’s an idea. I’d like to finish that. And it’s a completely different style and topic to what I’ve just done.
I definitely want to write another book. Maybe it won’t be this memoir. Maybe… I mean, there’s lots of things to write about in the arts as well. So it might be more of that.
Well, who knows. There might be another art fraud that you could cover. I think you will forever be the expert, the go-to person on this particular issue, though, clearly.
Yes, well, that’s interesting. Because just before when I was thinking about what we were going to talk about, I thought, I feel that now I’m ready to go back to this book. And also find out well, what’s happened since? What’s going on now.
The sequel! The sequel!
It might just be a feature. It might just be a feature article. But I feel not so emotionally…
At the end of the book, I was just so emotionally drained by it that I just didn’t want to go back to that ever again. It was just so intense. But now that time has passed, and I can see it more objectively, I think it’s a fascinating area. And yes, it could be an area that I pursue again. It would be a shame not to, given all of the things that I learned in the process of writing this book.
And finally, before we wrap up, what would be your top three tips to aspiring writers who want to write – because this is non-fiction and it’s non-fiction that’s really come to life in the most amazing way – so to writers who want to write non-fiction with this kind of creative approach.
Top three tips?
Yeah. You can have, or one or two.
Oh. Okay. I thought you said three. I think it’s immensely important to read widely and read good creative non-fiction.
One of the things that I would do when I was stuck writing the book or I needed a break would be pick up a copy of the New Yorker and read some of their marvellous writing. So reading or read… I mentioned Helen Garner. I could mention others. Chloe Hooper’s book The Tall Man is brilliant. There are many others.
Read. And look at what… And when you read, do it with a sense of how is this, why is this working for me? What is it that’s being done here? How is this writer bringing this scene or this person to life? Look at how the descriptions are used and not over used.
So I think read. And keep a file of the things that you think are brilliant.
And then, practice. Practice. It doesn’t have to be an art fraud case. You could go out and you might want to do a portrait of your next door neighbour, for yourself, say. And practice writing. I think reading and writing are crucial elements of it.
And keep at it. Keep at it. If it’s your passion, you will do it. It’s sort of an obsession. It can become an obsession. And you don’t have, you know, you can do it on the tram home. Looking at someone across from you. Because it’s only be trying it yourself that you can really appreciate the work of people who have done it professionally, if you know what I mean. It’s in knowing how difficult it is. Not necessarily difficult. But trying it.
Yes. Reading and writing. It’s as simple as that, really.
All right. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Gabriella.
Thank you, Valerie.