In Episode 297 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Joe Gorman, author of Heartland and discover how to improve your book with beta readers. There are three copies of Bake Australia Great by Katherine Sabbath up for grabs. Plus, the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers longlist has been announced with five AWC alumni making it onto the list.
Writers in Residence
Joe Gorman is an independent journalist, author, casual academic, and the 2019 Tom Brock Scholar.
His journalism has been published in the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Courier-Mail, Overland, New Matilda, Sports Illustrated, Penthouse and SBS.
He has made television and radio appearances on Al Jazeera, Copa90, Deutsche Welle, and the ABC, and delivered lectures, workshops, and tutorials at the Sydney Writers Festival, the Somerset Celebration of Literature, Professional Footballers Australia, and the Business School at the University of Technology in Sydney.
In 2015 he was nominated for a Walkley Award for sports journalism and an Australian Sports Commission media award for the best analysis of the business of sport.
In 2017 his first book, The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, was hailed as “one of the best and most important written on Australian sport” by the Age, and long-listed for the Walkley Book Award. His second book, Heartland: How rugby league explains Queensland, is out now via UQP.
Visit Joe's website
(If you click the link above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)
This podcast is brought to you by the Australian Writers' Centre
Find out more about your hosts here:
Or get social with them here:
Connect with Valerie, Allison and listeners in the podcast community on Facebook
Share the love!
Joe Gorman is an independent journalist, author, casual academic, and the 2019 Tom Brock Scholar. In 2015, he was nominated for a Walkley Award for sports journalism, and an Australian Sports Commission Media Award for the best analysis of the business of sport. In 2017, his first book The Death and Life of Australian Soccer was hailed as one of the best and most important written on Australian sport by The Age, and longlisted for the Walkley Book Award. His second book, Heartland: How rugby league explains Queensland, is out now through UQP. Welcome to the program, Joe.
Thanks for having me on.
So before we get to how rugby league explains Queensland, which I have to say is quite an interesting topic to me and to my dad, let's go back and start with your sports journalism. What was your career path into this, into writing about sport?
It's an interesting one. So I probably didn't take a traditional career path into journalism and into sports journalism. I studied history at university, at an undergraduate level. So I studied history and then I did my honours thesis at the University of Sydney in the history department. And my honours thesis is actually about Australian soccer and its relationship, I guess, to multiculturalism and notions of identity in this country.
And so from that point, I found that I really enjoyed writing. And my supervisor was like, you should try to get into sports journalism. You write like a journalist more than a historian. So go and write some articles for the public, basically. And so I did that. And essentially I just started working purely just as a freelancer, just pitching stories to newspapers, magazines, websites and so forth. And it kind of just went from there, really. So it really began with the interest in the history of one particular sport, and then just grew from there, I suppose. So that was around 2012, 2013. So a little while ago, but not too long ago now.
All right. So the thesis that you wrote, with regards to soccer and multiculturalism and stuff, was your interest in that through soccer? Was it through history? To come to that as a subject, you've obviously always had an interest in sport. Is that right?
Yeah. Well, that's true. Absolutely. Like many Australian kids, I grew up playing sport, grew up watching sport. I certainly have always been a huge soccer fan. And I guess at the time of writing that thesis, in 2011 I had to choose a topic and actually commit to a program of action, I suppose. And luckily my supervisor said, look, pick something that you're interested in.
And so I sort of scrapped some ideas that I'd had that were more politics, society and culture, and decided to go with sport. And I found that a great entry point into talking about those exact things; about politics, culture and society.
So it was a great way to combine my interest in soccer and in Australian sport with a kind of wider interest in the way we organise ourselves as a society.
And I'd always been interested in this notion of an Australian identity. And I found that soccer was a really interesting way to address that and ask some questions around that.
So let's talk about the writing then. Because your supervisor suggested that you approach it like a journalist rather than like an historian. Was writing something that always interested you? Were you good at that at school and stuff like that?
I think I was okay at it. I come from, I guess, a writing background in that my father is a poet. So although he is a very different type of writer, I suppose there's always been a love of books and literature in the house when I was growing up. So he encouraged to write. Certainly gave me some good tips and so forth. And was a really good sounding board as a teenager and a young adult. So I guess I had that background through my family.
And then I did enjoy, I've always enjoyed writing, I really enjoyed writing at university, essays and so forth. I've always really enjoyed that kind of thing. I don't, I wasn't one at high school and at university to find essays daunting. I actually found them kind of exciting. So it was a natural progression.
But I would say though that it wasn't until essentially the end of my honour's year at university that I actually felt like perhaps I might want to be a writer. I'd never once considered that prior to that. It wasn't something that I grew up wanting to do. I never really thought about it as a career option. And so it was kind of a happy accident that it all came together in the end.
Okay, so you said as far as following through into sports journalism you just sort of started pitching and that kind of stuff. How did you know how to do that? Did you do some networking? Did you speak to other writers about how it all worked? I guess some tips for anyone who might be interested in doing what you've done.
Yeah. Look, I didn't have a whole lot of guidance. I mean, having my dad right there was helpful in that he gave me the confidence to just go and start sending emails out. But in terms of finding the contacts and actually how to pitch, I suppose that was a lot of trial and error. I mean, I imagine I sent a lot of really terrible pitches, which are probably sitting in the inboxes of editors around the country. So I don't claim to have any great expertise at pitching.
But I guess the most important thing is I think I clearly had a passion for it and an interest. And perhaps coming from a background in history and interested in politics and that kind of thing, perhaps I was pitching different types of stories to sports editors and to editors who perhaps hadn't had those kind of approaches before. Like I was looking at different angles into sport.
But so I guess the thing is is that I suppose a lot of other young writers in particular, it's just that sense of trepidation about actually putting yourself out there, I didn't really have that so much because I had my dad in my corner saying, just do it. Just go and send those emails out. So I was really lucky.
But in terms of the actual process of putting a pitch together, I didn't have a lot of technical guidance or anything. I just sort of sent an email and said, I'd like to write this story, do you want to run it? And luckily, they said yes. It wasn't, there was no grand design in any of it. It was just a process of trial and error, really.
I think the most important thing is just to put yourself out there and have a good idea and a sense of passion for what you're doing, and I think people respond to that.
I think the point you made about the angles that you were possibly pitching as well, taking a slightly different approach I think is, as far as that goes, because of course with a pitch the angle is everything. So if you're pitching something that they're not getting all the time then clearly it's a much more interesting thing for them to consider. And to me it seems like you're as interested as what goes on off the field as much as what happens on the field. Is that something that has developed over time? Have you always been interested in that? In the sense that you're talking about the business of sport, was one of your first, the analysis of the business of sport in 2015 was what you got nominated for a Walkley for. Is that something that has always interested you? From the perspective of putting it into the wider culture?
Yeah. Absolutely. So I was never one to be fascinated by sports journalism, per se. It was more I was interested in, like when I was reading at university, for example, I was reading politics, I was reading essays, I was reading magazine stories. I wasn't really reading about sport so much.
And so I was more interested in those kinds of wider sociological questions, I guess. And then I just thought, this is probably a gap in sports journalism in Australia. Not to say that no one does it, but it's just kind of generally I suppose the way in which people write about sport is more about what's happening on the weekend and who's injured this week and what are the transfers, and so forth.
So I definitely I was never interested in writing about that stuff, and I'm still not. I'm interested in writing about why a sport matters to a community. Or perhaps some of the politics that is playing out behind the scenes. Or things like that.
So I think that, I mean, it's probably not for me to say, but I felt like that maybe was different, a different approach perhaps to some other journalists.
And certainly I pitched my first book to a publisher, I think it was only two years after starting to write at all. So I had this confidence because I knew that what I was writing about wasn't what people were writing about. So there was a market for it. Well, I didn't know there was a market for it, but I knew that it was different. So that probably gave me a sense of difference to editors and to book publishers and so forth. I hope, anyway. I think that's what happened.
So was the first book that you ever put out there, was that The Death and Life of Australian Soccer? Is that the first one that you ever proposed?
And that was based on your thesis?
It was in part. My thesis covered broadly that period of history between the 1950s and up to the 2000s of this period of Australian soccer. So Australian soccer and Australian society.
And my book largely built on that. But what was different about the book was that it had a lot more detailed research and detailed interviews with people involved in the game. And there was a big difference in the way it was written. So it was written for a much more popular audience, rather than an academic examiner.
So but I had a very clear idea from the very beginning in what I wanted to write. So I pitched it as the death and life of Australian soccer. That was the title of the book before a word was written. I had a very clear idea of how the chapters would play out. Very detailed understanding of where the book was going to go and what it was going to look like in 18 months time.
And I think perhaps that kind of foresight and that preparation is what appealed to the publisher. Because they didn't have a sample chapter, they didn't have really anything to go on except that I'd written a bunch of articles roughly related to this topic. And so I was a published writer. And I clearly had a passion for it and I clearly had a plan of action. And so I think that's what appealed to the publisher. And they gave me an advance and said, on your way. I'll talk to you in 18 months. And give me the copy back in 18 months sort of thing. And that worked out great.
So it was a really fantastic experience of writing my first book. Like it was very painless and just absolutely just really enjoyable. And had a fantastic publisher. Alexandra Payne, who is no longer at University of Queensland Press, but she was there for many years, she was the woman that basically took that from the genesis of the idea and the pitch to publication. She was absolutely fantastic.
All right. So you sell the book on a proposal. You get the contract. And then you have to write it. Now as far as, you said you had quite a detailed plan, but what was the writing process for it like for you? Because the jump from feature length stories to longform narrative work, nonfiction narrative, is a big jump in some ways. Did you find it to be that? Or was it more just a natural progression of building on the academic work that you'd done? And the features.
Yeah. Like I was still absolutely a rookie when I began it. So I had no real idea of how to put together an 80,000, 100,000 word book. But I had an idea of how it might look, right. So essentially the way I did it was I went, okay, I want to write a book that begins post-second world war, in the 1950s, with this great wave of migration from Europe to Australia and how that effected Australian soccer, all the way up until 2015. I'm going to write it in a chronological order, starting at the beginning and finishing at the end.
And I'm going to essentially break it into 12 chapters and each of those chapters I'm going to treat like a longform essay. And that was the way in which I made it seem possible. Do you know what I mean? Like thinking to yourself I've got to deliver I think it was 90,000 words to the publisher in 18 months can be really overwhelming. Rather than think of it in that terms, I just broke it into 12 essays. And I knew I could write 12 essays of 6 – 8,000 words. I knew that was not too hard.
So that's the way I tackled it. And then the process was… Like, I'm 29, and when I started writing the book I would have been about 26 I suppose, 25 maybe. So I didn't live through almost all the period which I was writing about. So it just was a real process of diving into archives. I read every frigging soccer magazine from 1955 to 2015.
You must really like it because that would just be punishment to me.
Yeah. Look, that's right. And for many people that's absolutely insane. But I actually loved it because this is a topic that I'm interested in. And so I could see the history and I could see it all playing out week by week. And it was just great fun. And what it also allowed me to do was go with authority to speak to old fellas and say, okay, this happened to you in 1971, tell me about it. And they were like, oh wow. How did you know that?
And so that research was absolutely fundamental in building trust with former players who looked at me probably as what the hell is this 25 year old kid writing about Australian soccer history for? It gave me that… And I think that allowed the interviews then to become more than just the good old days and nostalgia. But really proper interviews where I got some great stuff out of people.
So it was a really important part, doing that research, and really giving myself a foundation to then ask educated questions to various people within the industry.
Okay. So were you always going to write a second book? Where did Heartland come from?
Okay. So that's… Yeah like I don't… I've never really had much of a plan. Never. As I said, I never thought that I was going to be a writer. I certainly didn't start thinking about writing a book until post undergraduate studies at university. So there wasn't a great plan there or anything.
But I guess I just really loved, I really loved the process of writing that first book, The Death and Life of Australian Soccer. I just thought it was the best thing ever. I didn't make any money out of it really. I'm not rich by the end of it. But I just loved the process. And so I thought, I want to do this again. And I like the process of writing, of building an argument over the course of 80 to 100,000 words. I thought that was just a really… It was a fun experience for me.
And I was born in Queensland, which for your international listeners is a very large state in the north of Australia, on the north east of Australia. And it's a very political state. And it's always been seen to be a little bit different to the rest of Australia, I suppose. And Queenslanders seem to be a bit different to the rest of Australia.
And so I had this enduring fascination with Queensland, and particularly rugby league, which I would say is the most culturally important sport in that particular state.
And I wanted to narrow my focus a little bit and rather than write about the country, just write about one state in that country. And I thought rugby league, telling the story of rugby league, could tell you a lot about the development of that state over the last 40 years or so.
So that's where it really came from, is this kind of personal interest in both the sport of rugby league but also really in particular the state of Queensland. Why is Queensland seen to be different? Is it different at all? And what's the story up there, what's going on?
So did you approach the writing of this one in the same way? Or in a different way to the way that you went about your first book?
It was pretty much the same thing. It was a process of pitch the concept to the publisher, which they immediately accepted and gave me an advance, because in part the soccer book had done quite well, but also because it's the University of Queensland Press and I'm writing a book about Queensland. So it was like a perfect fit. And so they said, yep, go for it. And I think they gave me 18 months to do it.
So again, I spent probably the first six months just going through the archives. And then allowing myself to build what I thought would be like a hypothesis and a thesis on what I thought the book might be about. And then I went and started interviewing. So I just talked to everybody I could about…
And when you do that, and once you've talked to 20 or 30 important people, you start to synthesise, okay, this is the story. This is where I want to go. So I didn't have as clear an idea in my mind about what this book would look like as I did with the soccer book. But the process was very similar. Research, interview, write.
And it was great fun as well. And the way I've been able to finance all this stuff is essentially through freelance writing. But also through being a PhD candidate with a scholarship and various other scholarships. So that's been very useful for me as well.
I was going to ask you about that. And so as far as that goes, then, you said you had that 18 months to do the book. And obviously the research and the interviewing. When it actually comes time to the writing aspect of things, do you put aside a block of time? Or are you fitting it in around the PhD work you're doing, the freelance writing work you're doing?
How are you managing? Because you are swimming in words. Like you are academic, you are features, you are books. That's a lot of words. I know a lot of people would be… You know, the last thing you feel like doing after you've spent a day freelance writing is sitting down to write a book. So how do you juggle all that stuff?
Yeah. Well at the moment, this year I've been teaching sports business management at the University of Technology in Sydney, so I'm more focused on the teaching side. But pretty much between the years that I get – 2014 to 2018 – pretty much just fulltime writing. And the way I was able to do that was in part through earning from freelance writing, which I try to do as often as possible.
But then I've also been on a PhD scholarship since 2016. And while that's not a lot of money, it's enough to basically provide a basic wage from week to week. So I just live very frugally. And essentially just write as much as possible.
And I don't necessarily set aside time, like particular blocks and days to write. I find that, I'm sure that helps for some people, I know it works for my dad really well, but I find that often I'll just come across a piece of research and I just think it's so exciting that I found this thing that it just calls to me to go home and want to write. And so I just write from 6pm until midnight or something.
But then other days I can't write anything at all. So there's not really a consistent way in which I've figured out how to actually develop a writing schedule. I think I've been really lucky in that I've always just, whatever I've been writing about, is something that I've really wanted to know about. And I've been really, really interested in. So there's never been any real… I've never faced writers' block or anything like that.
But I try and treat it like a proper job in the sense that I wake up early and I start work pretty early. Whether it be writing, researching, getting out there interviewing people or whatever it might be in relation to that book or project, I'm starting at 8 or 8:30. So I try and treat it like a real job, otherwise you can just let this stuff get totally… It just gets out of hand. You just put it off and put it off and put it off and you just end up hanging out at coffee shops and not doing a lot.
Oh yeah, we've all been there.
I mean, I guess, the thing is that I haven't had the burden of having to work a fulltime job in an office and then come home and do the research and writing at night. I've been able to sort of put together a job where it's like I'm doing my PhD whilst I'm also writing the book. So the PhD that I'm still yet to finish, even though the book's out, is basically the same topic as my book. So that allows me to kind of kill two birds with one stone.
That makes sense. And it's interesting, because I can actually… The whole rugby league in Queensland thing is not my particular area of passion, but I can feel your passion for it in the book. Do you think that your natural writing voice stems from that passion? Because as someone with academic roots, it's actually quite a different type of writing. If you're writing it even together, side by side, they're two quite different styles of writing. How do you manage that? To stay true to your natural writing voice in the book as opposed to the thesis?
Yeah, and this is interesting, because I kind of came out of the honour's year of university back in 2012 and I pretty much had to unlearn how to write like an academic. Because I'd sort of been trained to write an academic style, which is horrible. Do you know what I mean? It's completely inaccessible. It basically makes interesting things boring. That's what academic writing is for me. It makes it dry and it's like nit-picking between little scholarly arguments.
And I understand why it all exists and why that process is there. But it is not helpful in communicating ideas to mass audiences. So I spent a fair bit of time essentially unlearning that and relearning how to develop a voice and a voice that just spoke to real people, you know what I mean? Rather than to peer reviewed journals or whatever.
And now I just try and avoid at all costs writing like an academic.
Right. So you just specifically try not to do it?
Yeah. I despise it. It's not something that I think is useful in learning again. I know that there's certain things you have to do to publish in academic journals and everything, but I feel it's… Especially when you're writing about sport, whether you're writing in an academic sense or not, it's something that people really enjoy. And so I feel like disguising that through really turgid kind of arguments with other academics or secondary sources is just really distracting people from what they enjoy about it the most. Which is the kind of narrative of sport, the narrative of the traditions.
There is an internal narrative to every sport which I think lends itself to sports writing. And so I just try and write as simply and as clearly as possible. I'm not saying that I always succeed in that, but that's always the goal, is to try and not become an academic, if that makes sense.
Yeah, that does make perfect sense. Now the book came out perfectly timed for father's day, which of course is ideal when you're talking about sport. I bought it for my dad. He's a former Queenslander. Although, I would say ‘former' is questionable'. And he's also a Brisbane Broncos fan. And for our international listeners, the Brisbane Broncos are one of the two teams in Queensland and you either go for one or the other if you're from up that way.
So he'd be right in your sweet spot. But is there a challenge in taking… I mean, it's a fairly niche subject that you're dealing with her in a funny way. Is there a challenge in taking that wider? Or is that not really the point of what you're doing?
Yeah, I know what you mean. I think there is a challenge in it, in that it's a sport… So rugby league is a sport that's only really played on the eastern seaboard of Australia, only really played seriously in two states in this country. It's only played in a few countries around the world. So it's a very… And I'm only writing about it in one state! So it is a very narrow…
It's getting narrower and narrower and narrower.
Yeah. Exactly right. But I don't think that matters. Because really, the book is not about the play by play of every game that every happened in Queensland. It's about why this sport, what this sport can tell you about a people and about a culture and a way of life. And I guess a sense of an attitude, a state of mind for Queenslanders. That's what the book is about.
And I think that, you know, for example, there's some great baseball writing. I have no idea about baseball at all. I couldn't tell you the first thing about baseball in terms of actually how the sport works. But I can connect with this kind of writing, the storytelling, because it tells you about the history of America, for example. Do you know what I mean?
So I don't think there's necessarily a massive problem with tackling a narrow subject. What you're talking about is cultural phenomenon. So as long as you're explaining that clearly and tying it in to broader social movements and trends, I think people can understand it. You've got to have a bit of faith in the reader to go on that journey with you.
Naturally, most people that buy this book I guess are going to be either fans of rugby league or sport or have some interest in Queensland. So I knew that my audience was not necessarily going to be the broadest audience possible. But I felt like it's important with both soccer and rugby league, in both those books, I felt like it was important to speak out rather than in. Does that make sense?
So taking stories from Queensland rugby league, or from Australian soccer, and trying to communicate them to an audience that might not be fascinated by either of those two subjects. That's for me the goal of all really good sports writing, is to make it accessible for people that don't necessarily watch the sport, whilst also being appealing for those who really love the sport. Now that is a challenge. But I think it's always really important to speak out rather than to speak to the core audience. Because you can get trapped in assumed knowledge and jargon and so forth if you do that.
Well, I have an interest in it from the perspective of someone who's interested in Australian politics. Because you only have to watch an election, a federal election, and the response to the federal election with everyone going – what happened in Queensland? – to realise that we all need to have some understanding of what's happening in Queensland!
Yeah, for sure.
And I mean that as no offence to our Queensland listeners on any level, but it is something that comes up every single time we have a federal election. So I think it's interesting from that perspective. But, you know, that would be me.
Yeah, and that's true because Queensland is a state that's under constant scrutiny. It's had a history of electing right wing often authoritarian governments, or having authoritarian right wing leaders or representatives. And so that's broadly speaking true and that's one of the reasons why the rest of Australia is often frustrated or perplexed by Queensland.
But what I found is that although that stuff might be true, sport is sometimes a reflection of those politics, but it also often can run against the grain of it. So Queensland, whilst also having a really awful history in many ways with race relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people, rugby league in Queensland has this tremendous indigenous presence and respect for indigenous players and participants.
And so it was kind of like a counternarrative to the deep north narrative that we always hear about Queensland society. And I think that was important to place side by side. To say, look, this history does exist. This political landscape does exist. But this sport is telling us something that is running again the grain of that, and it's telling us a different story about Queensland and it's equally important to recognise that.
So I try and do things like that, to look at how sport reflects a broader society and political and social and cultural make-up, but also sometimes how it can run against the grain of those things as well.
All right. Well, switching gears slightly, I see on your bio that you're not a social media fan.
How do you go about promoting your work? Are you travelling? Because it's often a way for people to get the word out about their stuff. And I'm just interested in your thoughts on that.
Yeah. It's not always been the case. I had a Twitter account probably from around 2012 or 13 to maybe 2017. So my first book I promoted through social media and had a reasonable following on Twitter. So that was helpful.
But I quit social media pretty much in all forms. I quit Facebook years and years ago. And I quit Twitter in early 2018. So I don't have any forms of social media at all at the moment. And so it does I guess make that promotion a little bit more difficult. But I'm not self-publishing. I go through a publishing house. So they've got publicists and their own internal mechanisms of promoting this stuff. So I'm still getting out and doing radio interviews and so forth.
I mean, you undoubtedly lose something by not having a social media, especially a Twitter account, when you've got a book coming out, and I accept that. But I think it's about opportunity cost. And when you're working, you mentioned before, you're working with words and you're swimming in words. Well, the other thing I'm doing is I'm on the computer all the time writing in some form, and the last thing I want to do is have two tabs open, one of Facebook friends and all that rubbish and then the other of the horror of Twitter. So I just… You know what I mean? It's entertaining and fun. But it's best, for me, to just be outside of that.
I've had some examples of friends who've gone through horrible experiences on Twitter, in particular, and it's just not worth it. Yes, you might lose something in the promotion of your work. But I feel like your work, your productivity increases a lot.
And also, your state of mind is much, much better. At least that's for me, right. I mean everyone's different. But for me, my state of mind is much, much better since having deleted all forms of social media. It's been fantastic. You know? Like food tastes better, the air is fresher, everything is just much better.
It's cleaner out. All right. Well, let's finish up today. Thank you very much for your time. It's been a really interesting conversation. We finish up every interview asking our infamous three top tips for writers question. So Joe Gorman, tell us, what are your three top tips for writers?
Um, okay. Probably the most important tip I would say is enjoy the process of it. So don't think too much about the result. That's something my dad taught me ages ago is the process of doing something is the most important thing. So don't focus too much on the result of it. You've got to enjoy that process. And so how I've taken that into my own life is rather than design these grand projects and talk about the end result is just go and do the actual thing and enjoy the writing and the researching and the interviewing and all that kind of stuff. So enjoy the process. If you can't enjoy the process, the result probably won't ever happen. And it won't be as good as you'd like it to be.
Secondly, I'd say write clearly. Like use simple words and short sentences. That's something I'm not always successful at doing. I'm not saying I'm an expert at that. But certainly that's a tip that I tell my students at university, is just to write clearly and simply with short declarative sentences.
And a third tip, wake up early. I don't know! Wake up early and start work.
Get on with it.
Get on with it. Don't… Yeah, I mean especially if you have the ability to have time to dedicate to writing, it's very easy to get distracted by other things and just spend the day kind of pottering around and doing other things rather than actually writing. And I think if you treat it like a fulltime job, get to work on time and actually begin the process, that's very useful. So yeah, get to work. I don't know. Those two things probably have all similar thing to them.
They are excellent. Thank you so much. We very much appreciate your time today. Best of luck with your book and whatever you decide to do next.
Thanks for having me on.