Ep 343 Meet Jeff Apter, author of ‘Friday On My Mind’.

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In Episode 343 of So You Want To Be A Writer: You'll meet Jeff Apter, author of Friday On My Mind. Discover why you need to remember that your genius comes naturally to you. Download Valerie's free printable. Plus, we have 3 copies of Enid by Robert Wainwright to give away.

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Show Notes

Valerie's free printable (go to the top of the page to get it)

Writer in Residence

Jeff Apter

Jeff Apter is the author of more than 25 books. His work includes biographies of the Finn brothers (Together Alone), Johnny O'Keefe (Rocker. Legend. Wild One.), the Bee Gees (Tragedy: The Sad Ballad of the Gibb Brothers) and many more.

His latest book is Friday On My Mind: The Life of George Young, the third part of his ‘accidental trilogy' on the Young brothers.

Jeff lives on the NSW south coast with his wife Diana, children Elizabeth and Christian, a dog named Neela and a cat that's so damned cool it needs no name.

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Interview Transcript

Allison Tait

Jeff Apter is the author of more than 25 books, many of them music biographies of the likes of the Finn brothers, Johnny O'Keeffe, The Bee Gees, Silverchair, Keith Urban and more. He has also co-written or ghost-written memoirs, such as those of musicians KC Chambers, and AC/DC's Mark Evans, as well as sports stars Michael Slater and Timmy Cahill. His latest book Friday On My Mind: the life of George Young is out now. Welcome to the program, Jeff.

Jeff Apter 

Thank you for having me along, Allison. It's great.

Allison Tait 

Excellent. All right, so we're gonna go back a wee bit in time to where it all began. Just a wee bit. How did you get started in the writing business?

Jeff Apter 

It's a series of fortunate events, I guess, is the best way to describe it. I had vague aspirations of writing, particularly about music. When I was about, I think about 18, you know I went to school, didn't have a real clear path apart from a pretty strong interest in sports, actually. I was a reasonable golfer and cricketer at school and thought one of those might be a career. But high school was a disaster for me. The only subject I excelled in was absenteeism although I always loved to read.

And I fell into a series of sort of mundane white-collar admin jobs for a number of years. And read a book called No One Here Gets Out Alive, which is written by a guy called… Sorry, it's a biography of Jim Morrison from The Doors.

Allison Tait

I've read it.

Jeff Apter

Yeah. Well, it was the first time I'd read a book with a musical subject that actually treated it with seriousness. So much as it wasn't a scrapbook, it wasn't some kind of sycophantic fan study. It was a serious biography of a really fascinating troubled character, a very flawed character, but one who was completely to me was, he wrote some great songs, and lived this ridiculously fast short life.

And it was the first time I'd read a book like that that actually suggested to me there was a way to kind of mix music, and not just strictly music, but the arts in general and writing about it in a way that brought it to life. And I thought, “now, that's interesting. So how do I do that?”

Now, late 20s, I was still kind of working in these anonymous jobs. But really, I'm talking from teenage onwards, deep interest in music. And I talked about this recently with a bunch of friends of mine who I am still in touch, we all had older siblings. And our older siblings always had good taste in music. One was into Bowie, one was into Lou Reed, one was into Dylan, one was into Neil Young. And they introduced us, and I'm talking the 70s here, obviously, they introduced us to all this music, which we all basically inhaled very deeply on. And it became a real passion for a whole group of us.

Perhaps I carried that passion through longer than most, because most of those people went on to become, you know, serious jobs, you know, proper jobs like teachers and businesspeople and so on. I stumbled through a series of jobs but always with this kind of idea of how do I become a writer? How can I write about music?

And I was reading a magazine, but it really was very unlike me to read, I think it was an Audiophile magazine, and I was only looking at it because there were some record reviews in it. And this must have been about 1989, I think. And there was a review of an REM record, and it was complete rubbish. I completely disagreed with every single thing the writer said.

And typically I just, you know, blow a bit of hot air and just let it go. But in this case, I actually wrote to the editor of the magazine and I said, “the guy who wrote that review is an idiot.” I said, “he has no idea what he's talking about. Everything in the review is wrong. Why do you publish such rubbish?”

And he wrote back to me and said, “the guy you're talking about was me. And if you're so good at it, why don't you write some reviews for us?”

So it was a challenge. Seriously, it was a challenge. And of course, he was probably expecting me to disappear into the ether. But I'd actually been chipping away at trying to do something like that forever. So I sent back, if I remember correctly, four or five reviews which he published. And I continued to write for that magazine for the next 15 years. It became my first permanent gig.

Allison Tait

That's hilarious.

Jeff Apter

Yeah. So, you know, while I after school I'd gone on to do a bunch of different courses, didn't do a degree, but I did a diploma in editing and publishing, I did writing classes and all those kinds of things, which was all very helpful. But none of which really… It was hustling that got me a job, my first start in writing, basically.

So that was great. So I got started. I was still holding down a fairly mundane job. But in the mid-90s, I had a bit of a life change. On the surface, it looked like a break down, but it was actually a bit of a breakthrough. I'd been in a long distance or a long-term relationship. We'd fallen apart, I met someone else and I moved to America. Quit my job and basically said, “I'm going to set myself up and become, I guess, the overseas correspondent.” Because my intention was always to come back after a couple of years. So I began filing stories back home about the people I met in America. And when I say the people I was fortunate enough to meet and interview, we're talking Aretha Franklin, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan. You know, legends. John Fogerty. All these great, great people.

Allison Tait

How did that happen though? Like that's…

Jeff Apter

Well, I already had a leg up. So I had a bit of a track record as a music writer. Because after that, Hi-Fi magazine, then I started to write for what were called street press, free press magazines. I got some work with Rolling Stone. So I had a bit of a track record. So then I went to America, I contacted different record companies, and they were fantastic. American record companies are great. If you're going to write about their artists, they'll help you out in any way they possibly can.

And also, I had this different angle that I was an Australian journalist filing stuff back to Australian magazines and newspapers, that gave me an addition special kind of quality, I guess, for them.

So it was a regular thing. Every couple of weeks I'd be invited, I was living just outside of New York and I'd be invited down to the city where, I don't know, I remember once it was Spike Lee, Stevie Wonder and Pavarotti were promoting a concert that was going to take place in Italy, which Spike Lee was going to film in Pavarotti's home city. Another time it was Aretha Franklin talking about her new album. Another time it was The Rolling Stones launching The Bridges to Babylon Tour under the Brooklyn Bridge. You know, all these amazing one-off events that I got to cover. As well as having the opportunity to see a lot of great artists and also to interview a lot of great artists.

So I'd built up a really good repertoire of work. And I got much better at what I was doing. I kind of got my head around what made a good story, what worked, how I could write something in 500 words, how I could expand that to 2000 words if necessary.

Allison Tait

Can I just ask a question on that, though? In the sense that you were being invited by the record companies, and I do know how this works, but you've been invited by the record companies, is there pressure on you at that point to produce a puff piece? That you're basically just doing PR? Or how do you balance that in the sense of, “all right, they brought me down to here to talk to Aretha. What if I really dislike Aretha's latest song?” or whatever.

Jeff Apter

Yeah, look, I'd be a liar if I ignored the fact that there was that unspoken pressure. But never, ever had… I only ever happened back in Australia. And I have a couple of funny stories about that. Only when I returned to Australia did I really experience the weird pressure that could be applied because the record company considers they've done you a favour.

Aretha Franklin was hilarious. I mean, it was held in the middle of summer in New York, which is blazingly hot. And it was hosted in this club called Le Cirque, which is a restaurant, sort of odd upscale New York club. Noa v a nightclub. But just a club. You know, like a library, and so on. Very, very upscale place. And there was five or six, typically there'd be five or six, there'd be the Swedish guy and the Germany guy and maybe a British writer and the token Australian reporter there as well, which is me. You know, so it was a really odd mix.

So when they came into the room, when Aretha would be these two very big burly black guys wearing overcoats in the middle of summer took up spots at the front and rear door of this room. And of course, Aretha Franklin is much more than a musician in America. She was a spiritual, her father, the Reverend Franklin, was one of the key African American spiritual leaders in the country. So, you know, she carries a lot of clout. She's a real important person. So she had her bodyguards standing in the room. So that was an interesting opening salvo to meeting Aretha.

But when she came in, she was fantastic. She was really gracious, and very warm. So what you do is ask, we'd all ask some general questions. Tell me about making the record, Aretha. What's your favourite song.

And then she'd have little one on ones with you. And she said to me, “so you're from Australia.” I said, “yes.” She said, “tell me, in the Thornbirds…” And she went on to describe this passage in Colleen McCullough's Thornbirds.

Allison Tait

Oh, that's a bit awkward.

Jeff Apter

Now if she'd asked me about… Yeah, I know. If she'd asked me about Peter Carey, I'd be okay. If she'd asked me about Tim Winton. Look, if she asked me about Bryce Courtenay, I reckon I could've winged it. But I had never read Thornbirds.

Allison Tait

No.

Jeff Apter

I didn't even see the miniseries!

Allison Tait

Oh no, that was my moment. I should have been there. I would have been able to chat with her for hours about the Thornbirds.

Jeff Apter

Oh, bingo. Well, the story gets funnier. She was very polite, but she did give me that kind of, “I know you don't know what you're talking about but you're trying your best” look. Which was very nice of her.

Fast forward ten years and I was interviewing Helen Reddy. And Helen Reddy was in the process of leaving Sydney, I was back in Australia by this time, she was in the process of leaving Sydney to go back and live with her son in America. And she was living in this little studio apartment in Elizabeth Bay, mind you, right on the harbour, nice views, but they're quite a small monastic like existence, you know. And she said, “look, I'm packing some stuff, but I'm clearing things off my shelves and I don't really want to take them with me, so take anything you want.”

Now the first thing I went for, what I was really keen on, was a signed photo from Gerald and Betty Ford. She'd obviously been to the clinic, but I think that was a bit too personal, so she wouldn't let me have that. But the next thing I spotted was, would you believe it, a signed copy of The Thornbirds. And you know, To Helen, lots of love, Col. And I'm thinking, damn, if I had this book ten years ago, I would have been in Aretha Franklin's entourage. We would have been best friends forever.

Allison Tait

You would have been besties forever.

Jeff Apter

Absolutely. So, yeah.

Allison Tait

Well, that actually brings me to one of the questions I was going to ask you later, but let's do this now, when you're interviewing someone like that, you're in a room with Aretha, which most people would be just, I probably wouldn't have even been able to speak, but that's a whole nother story. How do you go about getting a good interview with someone who has been interviewed so many times? And is likely to give you the rote answer to everything?

Jeff Apter

Yeah, it's a fair question and it's hard. I am, to be honest, in that situation, she kind of did all the work for me, because she opened the conversation and pretty much closed it too when she realised I didn't know anything about Colleen McCullough's work.

When I worked at Rolling Stone, I often… I remember a good example was an interview came up with Lou Reed. And Lou Reed was a notoriously difficult interview. Didn't suffer fools. He'd walk out of interviews if you didn't impress him initially. And I wasn't doing the interview, but I remember quite clearly sitting down with the writer, and we must have spent the best part of half a day coming up with the perfect opening question. And it turned out to be, it was a geeky question, it was asking about amplifiers, if I remember correctly. Something about his equipment. That got Lou Reed to love the guy. Lou extended their interview time and signed his autograph and signed his record covers and everything and was, you know, the nicest guy on earth.

That was an interesting and useful experience for me. It has to be the opening question. It has to be something which shows you've done your research, you haven't just walked in cold from being told by your editor you've got to go and interview someone.

And because so many questions are rote, and so many of those types of interviews, you see them with film junkets particularly, they just get wheeled into a room and get asked the same question by 50, 60 journalists a day. And of course, in the end, it's going to become laughable. So you really have to come up with some unique question. In hindsight, if I'd known about Aretha and The Thornbirds, I would have asked her a question about that. And that would have got me in.

And of course, nowadays it's easy to do that kind of research because of the notorious internet. It does have some useful qualities when it comes to finding out esoterical about not just artists, politicians, sports people, whoever. You've just got to try to reach a little further, dig a little further and come up with something that you hope hasn't been asked 100 times before. And sometimes it can, it doesn't have to be intrusive, it can just be about, “oh, you're a big fan of team X.” You know, “you like to use guitar Y.”

A friend of mine used to use, “tell me about your shoes.” That was a good icebreaker with a lot of people. Because a lot of people believe shoes maketh the man. And that used to work really well, particularly with rock stars who are very vain. You know, to ask them about their shoes often got a really, really good response.

So, you know, you just have to do your research. And you have to really, don't ask the ten standard questions, because you know the chances are that person you're speaking to has just answered those ten questions 20 times over and they're just going to give you the same ten answers as they gave to the same previous ten journalists.

Allison Tait

So you're basically looking for the perfect angle into the interview as much as you are into the story?

Jeff Apter

Yeah. Look, and that interview could then go into the usual stuff. Because you do need those nuts and bolts when you're doing a piece. But just to give you a slightly, present yourself slightly different now I guess to everybody that's come before, and also show that you've done your research. That's invaluable. It really is.

Allison Tait

All right, so let's talk about how you went from writing feature articles, because you wrote for Rolling Stone, as you said, you wrote for, you've written for a whole range of different publications. How did you go from doing that…

Jeff Apter

I'll tell you what, by the way, just so you know, I kill publications. I was the music writer for Bulletin – dead. Rolling Stone Australia – dead. GQ Australia – don't know if it exists anymore. Time Out. It seems that everybody I contribute to actually just falls apart. So, you know, never hire me, I think is my advice.

Allison Tait

That's quite the reputation to have!

Jeff Apter

Yeah. It really is. Oh, that's okay. I was talking to someone yesterday, I was doing an interview for the book and they said, we were talking about a couple of other Australian artists and we were talking about Jon English, and they said, “oh we interviewed him just the week before he died.” And talked about Greedy Smith from Mental as Anything, “oh we interviewed him about a week before he died.” And I said, “hang on a minute… Should I be checking with my doctor right now because you've got quite the track record.”

Allison Tait

This is not good.

Jeff Apter

So what happened after I left America, I left America, came back in 1998, and I got a permanent job at Rolling Stone in Sydney. And I guess, because I'd established a really good track record, and I sort of understood how it worked, how to get a good story, how to get a good feature, how to write a good pithy 100-word review. Even how to write a good caption, things like that. You had to have these broad base skills.

While I was there, and again at that point, I'd got to that point where most journalists get to, and said, I want to work on a longer form. You know, a book is always the ultimate destination for most writers, and anybody who tells you something to the contrary, I'm not sure they're telling you the truth. You're a writer. You know what it's like. You want to get… A book is the ultimate, it's the Everest of… Particularly for journalists, it's really getting to that peak of your career.

And we were… I was talking to a book publisher. He came into the bank. We were running an extract from a book. And we were just talking. And quite often the magazine would run extracts from books because usually we got it for free. It's a long story too about the difference between Australian Rolling Stone and American Rolling Stone. It's all about money. Or it all wasn't about the money because we had no money at all. So we were doing this piece and then the publisher just said to me, out of the blue, she said, “so where's your book?” And I thought, oh. It was almost a repeat of the situation when I got my first magazine writing job. Because she said, “well, you know, you come up with an idea and if it's any good I'll see if I can get you a deal.” I'm like, wow, okay. God, it's not supposed to happen like this.

And at the time, I'd been doing a lot of work for the magazine with the band Silverchair. I was particularly interested in the lead guy, Daniel Johns, the songwriter, the frontman, who was to me the most interesting character to come out of Australian music in the last 25 years. He's eccentric and he's really quite brilliant and he came out of Newcastle of all places which, like Wollongong, is not necessarily renowned for producing enigmatic and quite brilliant artists, although it's got their fair share. But, you know, the cities typically are renowned for other things.

And I said to her, “well, what about a book on Silverchair?” And she said, “Great. Get cracking.” And I actually got a deal. And again, it was more like a challenge than anything else. You know, of course I embraced it. I think I managed to turn around a 70, 80,000-word book in I think it was two or three months. It was pretty quick. Because I had all the source material because I'd been spending so much time with the band working on pieces for the magazine. I was able to utilise that and also get additional interviews and really, so it was a chance to expand upon, I think I'd written a 5000-word piece for the magazine, so they had the opportunity to expand it into, like I say, a 75,000 word manuscript. It was great. A bit of dumb luck, really.

Allison Tait

Did you have any trouble like, okay, you said, “I want to write a book about Silverchair. Daniel Johns.” And did you have any trouble convincing Silverchair that you writing a book about them was a good idea?

Jeff Apter

Well, you know, I write a mixture of authorised, unauthorised, ghost-written projects. I don't ever really, unless it's commissioned by the artist or the publisher has hired me to do a ghost-writing of someone, I don't actually actively pursue permission. What I'll do is, in this instance I knew the manager and I wrote to him and said, “look, an opportunity has come up for me to write a book. I'd really love to do it. I'm a big fan of the band. Do you think I'd be able to get some access?” And he basically said yes. But at no point, when he said, “but you can't call it an authorised book.” And I understood that. He said, “because that costs money.” It costs lots and lots of money.

So most of my book quite comfortably for me fall into that crack between authorised and unauthorised So for instance, books on AC/DC, you're never going to get access to any of the people in that band because they don't do media. They don't need to. Their records and their concert tickets without them doing any publicity whatsoever. So I would typically, and I've done this a few times because I've written quite a few books about them, I write to the company, I let them know, “hey, this is who I am, I'm writing this book. It's going to be through this publisher, it's going to be published then. It'll be written with nothing but respect and interest and admiration for the band.”

It's not… I won't necessarily be sucking up. I'll be saying, “hey, look, I’m a fan. I'm not a besotted fan but I'm someone who's interested enough in your story to write about it.”

And to me, I've never had, I've never received a response saying, “no, and we're going to sue you.” Or anything like that.

Allison Tait

Not yet.

Jeff Apter

The response, typically… Well, not yet, no. I mean, you do all your fair share of crazy in this job. But I've never had a bad response to that because most managers, record companies, and artists themselves are pragmatic enough to know that if someone writes a well-received, well-written book, which I'd like, you know, that's my ultimate goal, it's going to sell them records. It's going to sell them concert tickets. It's going to put the focus back on them if they've been out of the spotlight for a while.

And families, you know, say for instance I've written, and it seems like a bad habit of mine, but I seem to write about a lot of dead white guys. And families quite often will write, “gee, I really appreciate the efforts you made to remind people about my son, my husband, my whatever.” And that stuff is really grea.t

And I think people quite often if a period of time has elapsed and someone's gone, and you write about in an honest and forthright and sincere way, even exposing their flaws and foibles, people tend to appreciate that more than if you just did a puff piece.

Allison Tait

So do you remember, looking back at that first one that you wrote, what the most difficult aspect of writing your first full length biography was?

Jeff Apter

It was just word length. It was really just that. I mean, I had a vague idea about structure. Because I typically work in a chronological sequence, I knew that they had enough material and events and incidents and controversies to fill a book. I knew that. But it was really just about that transference from writing, you know, the most I'd, the longest piece I would have written for Rolling Stone would have been 5000 words. Suddenly I'm going to have to write 15 times that length.

But it was interesting because I didn't feel it was ever really forced. It's not a very good book. And I've rewritten it essentially to a much more successful book in the last few years. But it was a good starting point because it gave me the confidence to go, okay, here's techniques and methods to expand upon those ideas that I compress in magazines. Because magazine writing, newspaper writing, is typically compression. You're trying to make things pithy. You're trying to get to the point straightaway. Whereas obviously writing books, you can really expand upon a thought, hopefully without getting boring or getting off the path. These are things that I've learned as I went along. That first book, you know, I don't like even looking at it because it's just… It's not full of errors. It's just not very well written. It's a very obvious first book. And it's in the same way that most musicians would say, “I never listen to my first album.” Or actors don't want to look at their first film. Or a teacher will say, “I've totally erased my first year of teaching because it was so bad.” It's a learning curve.

Oddly enough, once I left Rolling Stone and started to write books fulltime, it was based upon an arrangement that I had with a UK publisher, again, through someone I met through work, through Rolling Stone, who was incredibly supportive and said, “let me write to the publisher in the UK and see if I can get some interest in you working for them.” And those books are 140,000 words long. Now that was a challenge and a half.

Allison Tait

That's a lot. Yeah. That is a lot.

Jeff Apter

It is. They were huge. What they would do, they'd do 400, 450-page hardcovers. And they'd do smallish print runs of those and sell at a premium price. And then do softcovers soon after. It was very, it was pretty manipulative, really. But it wouldn't work in Australia, as I've discovered, because in Australia people typically, if they see a hardcover, they'll go, “meh, I'll wait til the paperback comes out.”

So it was quite a different thing. But that was a crazy adjustment. That one was a really radical shift.

Allison Tait

So now that you've written so many of them, because you have written, I mean, you've written a lot of bios and different books, have you created a writing process that works best for you? Do you have a, like, I'm going to work out what the big incidents are, I'm going to work out what the chronology is, I’m going to… Is that, like, what would your advice be for someone who's attempting their first biography project?

Jeff Apter

Yeah, I'm you know, my approach is boring as buggery to be honest. I create a timeline. I create, it could be 50 pages long, it could even be 100 pages long. And it's every key event from birth to death, you know. It helps give me structure for the book and ensure that every key issue is addressed as I go along. It works as almost like a script to the book itself, you know. I can find myself, okay, tomorrow I'm going to be writing about 1972. March was a particularly big month, you know, and there's probably a couple of thousand words there. It can really help me break down the content in a very useful way.

And it also helps me know that I'm not going to get stuck, if you know what I mean. If I know I'm working on 1972 today, it's gonna be 1973 tomorrow, there's no two ways around it. So you know, if that timeline… And the timeline can take as long to put together as the book itself. You know, I could spend… I've been working on a timeline now for another, for a future book, for three months.

Once I get to the point of starting to write, it might only be three months to write those 80,000 words because it's all there. What I need to do is just really expand upon it and put a bit of, you know, colour and flair into it.

So and often that timeline will contain interviews I've done and all kinds of stuff. So, you know, links to videos and god knows what else and key points in songs or key people, you know, all that kind of stuff that you need. It's all there. So it becomes this invaluable document. I would say that anybody who's writing nonfiction to do that, because at least attempt to do that. Because I'm actually writing creative nonfiction where time and dates don't really count as much as they do in my world.

But it's really, really invaluable for what I do. A) because particularly with music stuff, people are very, very pedantic. Readers are incredibly pedantic about, you know, that obscure 1972 Japanese orange vinyl B-side that you didn't mention. That's the stuff I'll get messages about. And initially when that started to happen, I'd get angry about it. But then I found a really good technique, is when people start to play… Do you know about High Fidelity? High Fidelity, the TV series?

Allison Tait

Yep.

Jeff Apter

When people get all High Fidelity on me, and I used to be that guy, I was a music nerd for years until one day I realized, “you know, it's okay to like Abba. It's fine. You know, I'm not going to judge you on that.”

But I realized the best way to approach these people, and it's almost always men, is just to write back and say, “Hey, thanks for your message. Did you enjoy the book?” And nine times out of 10 I'll get, “Oh, yeah, I loved it. Yeah, but I just wanted to point out, you know, that I'm much more knowledgeable.”

Allison Tait

I just want to let you know what you missed.

Jeff Apter

Yeah, exactly. So it's really interesting and very revealing. And I really got a very clear idea of who my audience is. Because, you know, there is still a part of me that is very much that person too. “Oh, you don't know about… You don't know about, I don't know, that obscure Beach Boys record that never got released.” You know, that kind of stuff. It's just snobbery, basically.

Allison Tait 

It's a question I wanted to ask you though, because, you know, it's obviously a key interest for you, music, and it takes a certain level of music geekery to want to be able to list every George Young song in order, etc. But when you're writing about someone like George, and we will get to your new book in the next question, how do you decide what to put in and what to leave out? Okay, so you leave out the orange B-side, you know, the orange vinyl B-side or whatever.

Jeff Apter 

Oh, I wish I didn't. They pick me up on that.

Allison Tait 

Do you ever find that because you know so much about Australian music history that you might assume knowledge that everyone knows what you know? And then you have to like maybe spell it out or something when you've met, you know, is there ever that problem? That you assume that people know what you know?

Jeff Apter 

If there is… It may have happened at a certain point in my career, but not now. I've worked with a couple of really, really good editors, who aren't necessarily music experts, but just really good nonfiction editors, who've made it clear that don't assume anything of your audience. Make sure you spell it all out.

And the other thing too is, you know, you say what about what do I leave in and leave out. What I leave out is writing about writing songs. Nothing's more boring than saying, “Well, he came up with this magical chord, you know, he was sitting in the lounge room one day…” That's all boring.

It's about, you know, and it's probably a segue into this Friday on my mind, the most interesting thing about that song and perhaps even that book is not how they came up with a chord structure or something but the fact that the song “Friday On My Mind” was inspired in part by a French acapella group called the Swingle Sisters. You know, just, I love that kind of silly, esoteric stuff, because it's fun, and it's interesting, and I think it's what keeps readers engaged. Not being nerdy, necessarily, but finding the fun and the curious and quite odd, offbeat things about music and musicians. That's really what I'm interested in.

And then storylines. You know, I've approach stuff I do now much more from a traditional biographer's perspective than I do sort of music nerd, which is what I used to do. You know, I used to get hung up… I had this great experience. I was writing about Jeff Buckley. And I was interviewing someone who knew him really well. And I was asking all the wrong questions. I was asking quite specific questions. “Was it June? Or was it July? When did this happen? Who was involved?” You know, and he said to me, “look, I know what you're trying to do and I commend that. But,” he said. “Your goal is to make it a good story, to make people interested in this person, this very interesting person, to heighten their interest in that person.” And it doesn't mean you have to go racing for their records. But it means you learn more about them and go, Oh, wow, what a life. What an interesting life they led. Rather than, you know, playing that guitar or came up with that magical chord. You know, that's not so interesting.

And it actually turned out when I was working with Kasey Chambers, you know, the first thing she said to me, when I was ghost-writing with her was, “let's not write about music.” Fantastic. “Let's write about the inspiration for things.” You know, that's great, because I'm not a musician. I'm not a player. I'm not a musician of any… I can barely sing in the shower. And karaoke, it takes about six drinks before I even get near the microphone, you know. But I'm so interested in music and the lives of musicians because, like sportspeople and so many other people, they just live very different lives to ours. You know, that's fascinating in itself.

Allison Tait 

So how do you choose a subject for your biography? Like, how did you come up with George Young for this particular book? I mean, I know you said, it's on your website, you call it “the latest volume in your accidental trilogy of the Young brothers.” But like, how do you… Is it about the people who interest you or the people that you think will interest other people, that will interest readers?

Jeff Apter 

Yeah, I think every book, it's gotta be, there's got to be a commercial perspective. You know, I can't, I can't naively think that I can go to any publisher with a story about that poor misunderstood Australian musician who never got… but has a great story. No one's gonna want to buy that. Or if they do, if there's an audience for it, it's a very small audience. I have to write with a mainstream perspective, no doubt about it. And most of my books are about people who are well known.

There are a couple, I have a couple of pet projects that one day I'd love to get off the ground about lesser known people in that world. But the reality of the situation as a career writer, as a professional writer is that, A) I have to make a living, and B) I have to keep publishers interested in working with me.

I've had some good fortune, you know, recently in particularly some of my books have sold really, really well. And, you know, that's kept me going. But at no point has that given me an in with a publisher where they’ll say, “We'll publish anything.” I always have to come up with something that's reasonably commercial and doable.

George Young was, you know, that accidental trilogy thing is true. I'd wanted to write about Malcolm Young a few years ago, when I knew he was ill. And the publisher at that time, said, “Look, we think Angus is a more commercial possibility.” And I got that because if you think about AC/DC, you typically think about the oldest schoolboy in the world running around with his guitar.

Allison Tait

You do.

Jeff Apter

So, you know, and I'd worked with people from AC/DC so I had a good idea about the story. While I was doing that, Malcolm and George died, and another publisher came to me and said, “Can you write both those books?” And it was fantastic. “That's great. Yeah, I'd love to.”

And of course, doing the Angus and Malcolm books first really made it very apparent to me that, as interesting as their stories and the AC/DC story is, the reality is the big story is George. He was their older brother, he was their mentor. He was a trailblazer, not just for the Youngs, but for Australian music. The Easy Beats were the first Australian band to write and record their own songs and have hits with them. You know, that was monumental. That was Beatle-like. That was absolute trailblazing. And they were the first Australian band to go overseas and have success.

So there was this great story. And then I learnt more about how The Easybeats didn't make any money. When that all fell apart, George spent four years scraping together a living in England, you know, before he came back here and hit absolute paydirt with Albert's records, and you know, AC/DC and The Angels, John Paul Young, and all these fabulous Australian acts.

So the story was much more expansive and interesting and, I think, probably dramatic than that of Angus and Malcolm, who were very fortunate that the first big band they were involved in became enormous. You know, George didn't have that experience. George went through this whole rollercoaster journey for the better part of, you know, 10 years before he really had major success as a producer.

So I, you know, just as a straight up storyteller, I could tell there's much more scope to that story than there was… And you know, there's nothing wrong with the Malcolm and Angus books. I'm proud of them. I think they told a story that has certain parameters. You know, it's only about AC/DC. Hopefully told it pretty well. But the George Young book to me is just a much bigger canvas.

Allison Tait 

So when you're writing about someone like George, you know, who died in 2017, is no longer around, you can't interview him. You know, obviously, the networks that you've built over many years of writing in this space are really important to kind of keep the story authentic, because you have to talk to other people who knew him. Right?

Jeff Apter 

Exactly, exactly. I've got a good, a really good basis. Not a huge amount of people. But I know there's a good half dozen people or so that I know well who are very helpful, and I've helped them in certain instances, people I've also helped get book deals, who are more than willing to pick up the phone and expand upon whatever it is I need to know about with little notice. And that's fantastic.

So yeah, it's networking, in that way, you know, the music industry, there's all kinds of networking. None of which I'm interested in. But the networking for me is developing really good working contacts, you know, and I've managed to be able to do that, definitely, and draw upon all of them, particularly for the George Young book. But you know, the next book I'm doing is a family sanctioned book, so it's different altogether. And it's not about anybody whose name ends with Young, you know. I'm branching out.

Allison Tait 

I found the George book quite interesting because I have a great interest in songwriters and the song writing process and stuff. But he's not, like, from the perspective of the subject of a music bio, where normally you're looking at drugs, problems, wild love lives, you know, the whole bit, kind of the drama that fuels a whole range of, you know, high points in a narrative. With George, you've got someone who focused so hard on the work, and, you know, he was married to the same person for, I don't know, 8 million years and, you know, was obviously very family orientated. You know, does that make your job easier or harder when it comes to creating a, you know, a compelling narrative?

Jeff Apter 

Yeah, it's not the most glamorous, it's not a sex, drugs and rock'n'roll story, that's for sure. I mean, there's more of that in the AC/DC story.

I think it was interesting, you know, because to me, it's a working-class story. And it's a sort of classic rags to riches working class story, for me. I like, I mean, because I'm very working class, I was raised in the western suburbs of Sydney in the 60s and 70s, when they really were western suburbs. You know, you were really on the outskirts of the city. And there was a reason you were living there, you know, so vastly different to what it's like now. So I understood that and I could really relate to that. And yeah, it is good when you've got a bit of sexiness, a bit of glamour, a bit of sensation.

And, you know, this book, there was a terrific review written by ___ Baker who said it's not a controversial book. And it isn't. Because there's nothing particularly controversial about George Young's life. It's a story about total focus and dedication and, you know, and, you know, an amazing musical diversity, you know. To have produced “Love is in the Air,” “Bad Boy For Love” and “Yesterday's Hero” in the same, and “Friday On My Mind,” they're all vastly different types of music. And yet he is this guy who managed to be able to create it all seemingly effortlessly. That was really interesting to me.

I mean, there was drama. That whole four-year binge I talk about in the book. That to me was really interesting because that was hand to mouth. I mean, that was going from being part of a relatively high flying, you know, internationally successful pop band to living in a bit of a dumpy house and working in this very pokey studio with anybody who'd come in. And ended up later discovered, they were working on jingles. They were doing anything that came in the door, you know, anything that would make them a living. So I thought that was really interesting.

But yeah, it's not, I guess, you're right. It's not your typical, it's not the dirt. You know, it's not the Motley Crue story. It's not always a typical rock'n'roll story. Because this is a guy who's probably by nature a pretty serious guy. You know, a bit stern, a bit dour. A bit Scottish, you know? Probably as successful as he became certainly hung on to his working-class roots and kept those, kept his family close, you know. It's no mystery, it was no accident that when Malcolm Young went into AA in the 80s and also in the 90s and was out of AC/DC for a while, they brought in their nephew to play. They were never going to bring in some, you know, high flying guitarist from Bon Jovi. That was never going to happen. So that's interesting for me, too. You know, that clannish nature of immigrants.

And it's a Ten Pound Pom story, too, which interests me because I think there's an entire book to be written about the Ten Pound Pom scheme, and its contribution to the Australian music industry.

Allison Tait

Well, yeah, well you see a little bit of that just in this book, don't you. I was fascinated by the number of them that there were. They sort of turned up on the pages.

Jeff Apter

Yep. The Youngs, the Gibbs, the Barnes's. You name it. They're all Ten Pound Poms. It's a really long and lengthy bloodline. It's probably a very good story in itself, you know, and a real reflection of the possibility of Australia, post-war Australia. You know, I think that's really interesting.

Allison Tait 

All right, so, um, you mentioned you're working on something different at the moment. Is that the one that will come… Are you sort of doing one a yar at the moment?

Jeff Apter 

Yeah, that's what the necessity is to basically keep my head above water. One book a year, a trickle of royalties, hopefully, speaking gigs, the occasional newspaper or magazine piece. That's basically how I get by. ELR and PLR. But I don't, you know about that.

Allison Tait

I do. I know all about it.

Jeff Apter

I think that's pretty boring for the average listener. But it's incredibly helpful. I tell you, I love June. I really do. Yeah, but I'm always juggling. I'm like, at the moment I've finished, I just finished the draft of a manuscript. I've done a book on John English which is coming out March or April next year. It's being edited now. And I've got two other projects that I am at the starting point of. And I'm spending the next six weeks promoting this book. So you know, there's a lot going on all the time.

But projects always at different stages of evolution, if you like. You know, one of those projects I'm working on that timeline I talked about. Another one because it's a ghost-writing/cowriting project, I'm waiting for the borders are open. I have to go to Queensland, and I just can't get there to get started, because I need to sit down with this person.

So um, you know, everything's at a different stage of evolution. But you know, now I… I used to think about books as being done when the manuscript's done. But I don't do that anymore. The last ten books, I've been involved in everything from the original concept through to, you know, the promotion of the book two years later. I'm involved in cover decisions, even involved in decision of use of type and font and captions and photo selection and all that stuff. You know, that's the bit of advice I give to any writer if they have that option is to get… Never, ever don't get involved in certain aspects of the creation of the work. Even though, you know, if you're working with a reputable publisher, you're working with good people. At the same time, you need to be comfortable with everything that goes into a book. And, you know, there's no point saying when a book is published, “Oh! Person x screwed it up.” Well, you know, in most cases, that's something you could have had some input into as well. So, you know, I'm a big advocate of being a control freak.

Allison Tait 

Well, that's an excellent segue into our the last question we ask all of our visiting authors, which is for their top three tips for aspiring writers. So your first one would be to be across all aspects of the production of a book?

Jeff Apter 

Oh, yeah, yeah. And I'm not kidding. Be a control freak. Yeah, it may irk some people, but just make it clear that want to be actively involved in all stages of the book, not just the creation and the writing and editing and so on of the manuscript. If the publisher is open to that. I mean, it's very hard for a first-time writer to do that. But if you're, you know, getting established and you've got a reasonable track record, publishers are very open to that because it helps make the book better. It is simple as that.

The second bit of advice, learn how to make really good coffee because there's a good chance you're going to have to work as a barista for a while, no doubt about that. It's serious. Absolutely. I think it was Christos Tsiolkas said something about if you want to become a writer, make sure you've got a good second job, because it's a very hard job to make a reasonable income from.

And third, keep reading. You know, I sometimes fail to do that. And, you know, sometimes I get so absorbed in my own work, that the idea of, you know, even cracking the spine of another book is just not something that excites me. But I find I go through periods where, you know, I'm reading Utopia Avenue at the moment. It's just great. I love it. I just read a book called, you know, Daddy Cool by Darleen Bungey. And it's just, and they were just really refreshing. And I wouldn't say necessarily I went, “oh great. Here's some good ideas for me it.” It was just relaxing, I think. It was just a totally different world to kind of lose myself in. And sometimes you lose grasp of the value of that, of other writers. Some people get really paranoid and think, “Oh, I better not read too much, because I'll just be too much like a sponge.” And that is a concern. But it's when you get away from… I don't read a lot of the books, the type of books I necessarily write. I'm more of a nonfiction fan. But you know, I try to mix it up a bit. And sometimes it's just a reminder, what are you doing it for in the first place? It's because a book can achieve so many things. And you know, if I can get even close to that, I'm really satisfied.

Allison Tait 

Brilliant. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Jeff Apter. Friday On My Mind: The life of George Young is of course out now for all of those people who are interested in biography, interested in music, or just really fascinated by song writing, which I am. And of course we can find out more about you Jeff at your website which is JeffApter.com.au.

So thanks again for your time. I'm sure that our listeners have found that as interesting as I did, and we're all a bit jealous that you got to meet Aretha and we didn't, but that's okay.

Jeff Apter 

Thanks, Allison. That was great.

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