In Episode 250 of So you want to be a writer: Meet Robert Wainwright, author of Rocky Road: The Incredible True Story of the Fractured Family Behind the Darrell Lea Chocolate Empire. Discover the difference between content writing and copywriting and how a romance author is accused of killing her husband. Plus, learn about your chance to win a copy of A Letter From Paris by Louisa Deasey.
MadelineKateF from Australia:
Listening to Val and Al is like eating the first bite of a cheeseburger when you’ve been dieting for a week; you appreciate every piece. This podcast is full of brilliant material that I will no doubt use on my literary journey. I look forward to every episode and appreciate all the effort the girls go to. I love the seemingly conversational tone of the podcast whilst delivering brilliant material.
Writer in Residence
Robert Wainwright has been a journalist for more than 30 years, rising from the grassroots of country journalism in Western Australia to a senior writer with the Sydney Morning Herald where he was a three-time finalist in the prestigious Walkley Awards. His career has ranged from politics to crime, always focusing on the people behind the major news of the day.
He is the author of, among others, Rose: The unauthorised biography of Rose Hancock Porteous, The Lost Boy, The Killing of Caroline Byrne, Born or Bred (the story of killer Martin Bryant), the bestselling Sheila, the award-winning Maverick Mountaineer and Miss Muriel Matters.
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Robert, thanks so much for joining us today.
Thanks for having me, Valerie.
So for readers who have not read your book yet, can you give us an idea of what it’s about?
It’s a book about several things, actually. It’s essentially a book about the family behind the iconic confectionary company Darrell Lea, which many of us grew up with, loving their Rocky Road, or Rocklea Road, as they called it. Their liquorice. And they were even the inventors of Twisties, believe it or not.
So it has that level as a business on the rise and ultimate demise of the company. But it’s more about the family behind this company. And in particular the family that lived in Melbourne, the matriarch of which had seven children. Four natural and three adopted.
And how did you get interested in this story? Because it is a cracker of a story, but what piqued your interest to make you think, I’m going to write a book about it?
Well, parts of the story had been told before. And it played out in front of national television a few years ago when brothers and sons were arguing over who was in or out of the company.
But the thing that changed it all was getting access to the diary of the matriarch. Her name is Valerie Lea. And it really put it on another level because you saw what goes on behind the inner workings of a family and the thought process of parents.
And then the agreement or the cooperation of one of the adopted children. Her name is Honey. She’s now about 69 years old. And her, I suppose, she’d never had a voice with this story. And the fact that she said that she would talk to me about what happened, and about its impact on her life, really changed the notion of it and gave it far more depth.
So it is amazing that you got access to the actual diary of Valerie Lea. How did that happen? And then how did you then proceed to get the cooperation of Honey?
Well, Valerie kept the diary. She wasn’t a great diarist by any stretch of the imagination. But she came back to it. Sometimes there’d be a 2 year gap and she’d fill in some gaps. But she had it typed out at one point, and distributed among her children and others. And so the copies, there were various copies made, there were never many copies, but ultimately the children and grandchildren had copies. And one of them agreed to let me read it. But it had been used in some form before as well.
And I think Valerie was, she had great opinions, and she wasn’t afraid to make them known. And so there was no great secret of her view of the world. But it made great reading.
After that, I contacted Honey, and she had some reticence about the thing because there were painful memories about childhood. But the fact that she hadn’t had a voice and she felt as though her story hadn’t been told was encouragement enough for her to go through the process. And we handled it carefully, over a period of time. And I hope that I was able to give her that voice that she missed all her life.
Well, you open with this scene of Honey when she was four years old, and it just sucked me in from the first page. And when you are telling the story of an entire family, of which there are seven children, and lots of other people who are involved, it does involve a ridiculous amount of research that obviously goes beyond Valerie Lea’s diary, and chats with Honey. So how did you determine where you were going to do your research? And how did you then, on a practical level, structure or compile that information? Did you do it all digitally? Did you have piles and piles of boxes? Can you just talk me through that?
Well, I was lucky enough to get on well with another author and writer named Diana Georgeff, who is a Melbourne journalist. And she had done a biography of one of the adopted children, named Shelton, about a decade before.
And sadly, Shelton and Brett, who is another of the adopted children, have since died. But she had interviewed them at the time, in a different book, in the sense that her book concentrated on Shelton’s life and my book was a much broader perspective about several members of the family and the way the family worked.
But it gave me access to a thought process of the children that I couldn’t get access to. And so it was through the cooperation of Diana that I was able to get access to at least some interviews with them.
And then it was really a balancing act. Because there was so much written about Shelton, and he had such a colourful life as a rebel poet in inner Melbourne, that it was more a case of trying to bring up Brett, who hadn’t had a voice at all, and find out more about him. And then get Honey to talk about her life. And then Valerie had the diary, the diary was there for Valerie’s life.
So it was more to me a case of trying to get the balance right between the characters than it was a great research job. There was a lot of research. I mean, I struggled to find out about Brett’s life, and ultimately had to make Freedom of Information applications through the Armed Services to find out about his record there. Court records, all those sorts of things.
And research nowadays, for a writer, is easier than it once was in the sense that we have great archival records online now. But it’s not as good as, and will never be perfect, as really getting out there, talking to as many people as you can, and actually going into archives and actually reading through microfiche or hard copy records, to actually see it yourself. It’s always a mix of those things that make the research credible.
Can you give us some kind of timeframe? Maybe just some signposts about when you first thought of the idea of the book, and when you started. How long it took you to write your manuscript, and so on?
I tend to work on more than one project at the same time. This is a little bit accidental, in doing that, but I found that the way I work I sometimes can get almost bored with one project. And then I find it quite refreshing to move on to something else. So it’s hard to really say, this is exactly this amount of time.
I suppose I had the project on the go for a couple of years. But the actual time I spent on it was probably half that. Maybe a year and a bit, I suppose.
And writers work differently, obviously. Some writers like to write early drafts, so they do all their research first and then write. I tend to do a mix of those things. I tend to research and write at the same time. Partly, because some of the books I’ve done have involved tiny, tiny pieces of information that aren’t immediately recognisable as important. And if I don’t write them down in some form, I can forget them. So I tend to research and write, research and write all at the same time.
But it’s just everybody has a different technique, I suppose. But I’d say about a year.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
Well, structure, which I think is a really, really important thing for writers. Because all stories are different. Even though they might seem the same in the way that they’re constructed, they aren’t.
So my structure was difficult because I had four big lives to try to balance and tell the stories of. That’s the three adopted children plus Valerie. I had also the story of the business to balance in the background, and other elements of the family. So structure I found difficult.
Also, in dealing with these types of stories – it’s not the first one I’ve done of this type – it is establishing a relationship with people who understandably protect their stories and they all have different versions of them.
And I think one of the important things, if you’re writing nonfiction, is to be very aware of people’s feelings. You can’t please all of them, but what you can try to be is fair and honest with them about what you’re doing and how you’re going about it.
So on that point, you dealt with Honey and other people involved in this story, but particularly with Honey as it comes out in the book – and this isn’t a spoiler, it’s obvious that her three adopted children, Valerie Lea treated quite differently to her natural children – how do you approach it when you’re hesitant about touching on certain topics but you really want to know the answer? Or when somebody starts to shut down? How do you approach really sensitive situations?
Well, one of the options I give is that people may choose to sit in their own environment and answer questions in their own time, in their own way. So rather than, if there’s a difficult issue, I might send an email with the questions and just let them dwell on it. And then when they’re ready, if they’re ready, come back to me and give me an answer.
It’s sometimes not easy to talk as we are now and suddenly throw in a question that’s very, very complex. So again, it’s being aware. Because answers can change. The first one they give isn’t necessarily the most accurate or they haven’t had time to think about it. So patience is important. And I think you just have to be a human being when you’re dealing with these types of stories.
As I say, particularly with this type of story, Honey has a sister named Charryce. And Charryce’s view of the same life and the same childhood is 180 degrees different than Honey’s. And I wanted… A difficult thing was to go to Charryce and convince her to talk and to give you her version. It’s important that she did, and it was important that I allowed her the freedom to express it the way she wanted to in her own context. And she did so, knowing that probably she wouldn’t like the end result, because it didn’t match with her views. So that was equally difficult to Honey, but in a different way.
So Charryce was one of the natural children. And when you spoke to her, and as you say she had a very different view of life, of her perception of what that family went through, you were probably at the stage where you had researched the family so much. You possibly knew more things than Charryce about their whole history. Apart from obviously getting her to talk, did you feel any compulsion to say, did you know this? Or did you know this? Or did you know this? About your own family?
Well, there were things that yes, I did know. I actually felt… Sorry is the wrong word. I felt for Charryce because she was in a difficult situation. So the last thing I wanted to do was show off what I might know that she didn’t. And her views are as valid as anybody else’s. And the story was really about the adopted children and Valerie. And so I think, thankfully for her, I don’t think she wanted her life explored personally to any great degree. So it was just a different balancing act.
But I know what you mean about knowing about families. I’ve dealt with other families before who have been just so surprised about what actually happened, and they had no idea.
I wrote about an Australian suffragette who was famous here. Her name was Muriel Matters, and she was a forgotten suffragette who was the first woman to make a speech in the House of Commons, believe it or not. And none of her family in Western Australia, and she had three nieces who are still alive, even knew the basics of her life. All they knew was that she lived an exciting life in London. They had no idea that she was one of the most famous suffragettes of all time.
Families are really strange things. Because people hide or don’t talk about things because at the time they’re considered embarrassing or whatever. But years later, they’re something to be proud of.
Do you recall when you very first heard that Valerie Lea had these seven children and she treated three of them very differently? Which is so bizarre, in itself. Do you recall when you first heard of that?
Well, the first time I became aware of the story was some years before I became interested. Which was the ABC had a program called Dynasties, which was about families, obviously. And two of the brothers, and one of the brother’s sons, were at each other’s throats on this program. And in fact, the oldest son was actually dying of leukaemia and he was, at the time, and he was on television explaining why he’d sacked his son and his brother.
And it was incredible that these family members were actually talking about it openly and honestly and this hurtful experience on national television. And it made riveting viewing, because not only what they were saying, but that family members would say those sorts of things.
And then it was after that, sometime after that, that the possibility of writing this story emerged and it grabbed my attention immediately.
Valerie Lea, I mean, I wouldn’t say necessarily that she’s batshit crazy, but she certainly has a very unusual view of the world, and bringing up children. Now that you’ve done all this research into her family, what’s your opinion on why she did what she did? And why she treated the children so differently? And why she was the way she was?
Well, there’s no doubt that Valerie was eccentric. She was an amazingly creative spirit. I mean, she designed the Darrell Lea uniforms that became famous, with the bows. She was a master of advertising. She was full of ideas all the time. She sang, she wrote songs. She sewed, she knitted. She was a fantastic person in those sorts of regards. She worked hard. Her work ethic was amazing, really.
But she had… I saw her as somebody who believed that they were doing the right thing, but didn’t understand it. So her view of love was that if you provided a good pair of shoes and a great school, then you were providing love. And you were providing something that was of great value to children that otherwise might not have them. That’s not love. That’s part of… Providing a warm home and food, obviously, is part of love and caring. But love is something far more emotional.
And what she ignored for years, with Shelton for example, were professionals who were saying, look, he doesn’t need discipline, he needs love. He needs understanding. He needs care. And she was so busy with this life of great business success and using staff to raise the children that she couldn’t really understand that part of it.
I think she thought she loved those children. She clearly loved her own children because it was a natural thing. So I don’t really think that she deliberately unloved the adopted children, but they frustrated her, they were far more energetic and creative than her own children, and it just became a burr in the saddle.
So she’s a very complex person who can be admired on some level and criticised on others.
You have written a number of different books, including one on Rose Hancock-Porteous, including Born and Bred about Martin Bryant, the Port Arthur massacre. One called The Killing of Caroline Byrne. They’re all so different.
Yes, they are.
So different. And Darrell Lea. How do you make the decision? Or are there some kind of parameters that make you decide I want to spend a whole heap of my time on this project? How do you choose?
Well, I’m a journalist by heart. And I think for me it comes down to two simple things. One is, it’s a great yarn. In the vernacular of the journalist. A story is a story. It doesn’t need to be tricked up. If it grabs you immediately, then it’s worth telling in some form. So at that simple level, they’re all fantastic.
The other thing is I love the notion of people. And people behind stories. And we’re all flawed in some way. If we wrote about somebody who’s perfect, it would be boring. So the one thing all these stories have in common is incredibly interesting, diverse, fascinating, flawed characters.
Rose was one that fell into my lap. I had written about Rose and I knew about her. I was one of the first journalists to write about her. And it was sort of because I’d done that that the opportunity arose. But her life is like a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. And the characters behind that are just, you know, you wouldn’t believe that it was true if it was a work of fiction. But it was.
And I found her a fascinating and admirable person, particularly in her early life as a young mother. But she actually looked on those times with derision and she wanted to forget them. She’s a fascinating character and worth writing about.
Martin Bryant, I think, is a terribly important story. Because as tragic and awful as it is, behind there there’s the story of a boy who was misunderstood, of a system that doesn’t work and still doesn’t work in taking care of people who have mental illness. And I think it’s a mistake if Australia turns its back on a tragedy simply because it was a tragedy. And I think there are great lessons to be learned, and there’s a human story behind that tragedy that needs to be taken into account.
So that was the journalist in me saying that this is a story that needs to be told properly.
But they’re all different, and I’m glad. Otherwise, again, you’d get bored if you wrote the same story all the time, wouldn’t you?
And so when you’re in the depths of a story, you’re in the middle of writing it, do you have a particular process or routine? I know you mentioned that you kind of write and research. But what I mean is a routine to your day. Do you divide it up, project one in the morning, project two in the afternoon? Or do you have a word count goal? Or something to give you some structure to get the words out?
I wish I was that organised. I tend to work… When I work well, I love the period where I would have my interviews set up so I was ready to write from them. And I’d get up at 5 in the morning and it would be black and there would be silence around me and I had a black coffee. And I just knew I was there to work. And it really worked well.
But I also find that I take great delight sometimes in an evening writing session with the window open, music in my ears, and a glass of white wine, and it’s the time when I let myself go. And in my world, I vomit and then clean up the mess. In terms of writing, obviously.
So I work different ways. But the thing that I think is important, all writers have a different way of writing, but I think one of the common things that’s important is that you plan big but you work small. So it’s often been said that you’ve got a mountain, and that’s true. So the days that you write 50 words are as important as the days that you write 1000. Because they might be the hardest 50 words as a segue into some other part of the book.
And all those sessions where you don’t write great amounts of words, but you work hard and you solve problems are as important as those big days. So that’s what I mean by work small. I think it is a common thread through people, through successful writers, in the sense that they complete projects.
And so in the process of writing this and researching this book, did you come across any surprises? Were there some things that you discovered that you just went, really?!
I think it was all a surprise, really. And I mean, sometimes when you’re pitching ideas to publishers, depending on where you’re doing it, some of them expect almost a completely written book. And I find that incredible, particularly with non-fiction, because it’s a journey. It’s an adventure. And if you think you know everything when you begin, you’re not going to learn anything more.
So you’ve really got to open your mind and go on that journey and enjoy chasing rabbits down holes, occasionally. You’ve just got to know when to turn back and close up the rabbit hole.
Writing is hard. It’s a hard, hard thing to do. But there’s some great joy and adventure in that. And I think you have to embrace that side of it as well. Things that turn around are when you interview two different people about the same event. And perspective suddenly changes what you know or how you write something. So I think that’s a terribly important part of the process.
Are you working on your next book now?
Yes, I’ve started on a new book. I sort of, the way things have gone in recent years, I tend to stagger things. So I know where I’d like to go next. I’m going to write about a woman named Enid Lindeman, who was an heir to the wine fortune who was…
She led this amazingly hedonistic life in the 1930s. She was Australian but she was a great friend of Somerset Maugham, who called her Lady Killmore because her four husbands died. She didn’t kill them, but it’s a great story. She used to walk down Mayfair with a leopard on a diamond collar. When she sashayed into the Monte Carlo casino, the whole place stopped. And the Aga Khan told her one night that she wasn’t allowed to wear white anymore, that she had to come dressed in black, because she was distracting him from his card game.
So she had this amazing life. And she was this figure who stopped traffic. And she was from downtown Sydney. So it’s a great rollicking adventure.
Yes. How did you come across her and decide that this is going to be the one?
Well, I wrote a story a few years ago about a woman named Sheila, which proved quite popular. And Sheila was this amazing tomboy figure who grew up near Goulburn and became one of the most famous women in the world, and had an affair with the Queen’s father, Bertie.
And like journalism, a bit, is that when you write something quite often people will come forward and say, have you heard this story? Have you heard this story? And that’s the way journalism works too, often.
And Enid’s name was brought up during a dinner conversation several years ago. And this person at dinner said, well, I’ll tell you what, I’ve heard of this woman who would make Sheila look like a nun. And proceeded to tell me a little about her life. And really, as soon as you start talking about parading a leopard on a diamond collar down Mayfair, you’ve got me immediately.
So it’s a great story of hedonism, but a wonderful story, I think. Colourful.
So you actually live in London, is that right? And you’re researching from there. Why are you living there?
My wife and I came here ten years ago. We were both journalists for the Sydney Morning Herald. My wife’s name is Paola Totaro. And she had been appointed the European correspondent for the paper. So we came here for a three year stint. And decided…
I mean, we loved being in Europe. And sadly, with the demise of our newspapers and the change in staffing levels and things like that, really forced our hand. And we decided that it was best to try to reinvent ourselves here than to head home and face the probability that, with many other colleagues, we could be out of work because of time. I mean, I think the Herald’s lost half of its staff now. We were of the great purge of about 75 of our colleagues lost their jobs in the same night.
So it was through necessity. And also adventure of life. I love Australia. Love coming back to Australia. And for all it is. But I also love being in the middle of the world, after growing up in the edge of it. So it’s just another adventure. The world’s a lot smaller.
And finally, what’s your top three tips for aspiring writers who’d like to be in a position where you are one day, writing books?
Well, I think you have to write because you want to write. I think the last thing that you should do, particularly when you’re starting out, is seek a financial footing for a project. Unless you’re extremely lucky, it’s not going to work. And the truth is, that’s not why you should write. Writing is a joy and a hard joy, but that’s the basis of it. So I really believe that anybody who wants to be a writer, wants to be a writer.
The one I mentioned before, I think is important. Because for all its joy, it is a practical exercise. And I think that planning but working small is a way of tackling the mountain that you will as a writer.
And I also think you should seek advice and listen to how other people work. But be happy to find your own rhythm. That’s important. With writing, it’s really hard to find that Zen moment where everything seems easy. It’s hard to get. And once you’ve found it, then you don’t let it go. So you find your own rhythm and pace and way to work. And I think that’s important as well.
Great advice. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today Robert.
Thank you very much, Valerie.