Ep 73 Books sold with no cover, an Instagrammer’s quirky micro book reviews, media awards’ embarrassing mixup, what uber-blogger Dooce said at Problogger event. And Writer in Residence Jill Margo on her biography of Frank Lowy. Also, we talk about how to deal with a copywriting project that blows out and our app pick is The Brainstormer.

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podcast-artwork In Episode 73 of So you want to be a writer: Grab your blind date with a book, quirky micro book reviews, one traveller’s odd reading habit, an embarrassing mix up at the Kennedy Awards, the book “Write Better, Faster” by Monica Leonelle, what uber-blogger Heather from Dooce said at this year’s Problogger event, Writer in Residence Jill Margo on her biography of famous businessman Frank Lowy, The Brainstormer app, the importance of a good copywriting quote, and more!

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

Show Notes

Blind Date with a Book

Instagrammer’s Micro Book Reviews

Let Me Entertain You

Guardian photographer stripped of award after organisers sent wrong name to engravers

Write Better, Faster: How To Triple Your Writing Speed and Write More Every Day (Growth Hacking For Storytellers #1)

Writer in Residence 

Jill Margo
jill margoJill Margo is Australia’s leading men’s health journalist and health editor. Her column on men’s health appears every Wednesday in The Australian Financial Review. She has won 18 international and national media awards, including two Walkley Awards for Journalism. In 2011 she won a Churchill Fellowship to study rehabilitation following treatment for prostate cancer. In 2006 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her work in cancer and in pioneering men’s health journalism.

She is the author of five books, including the best-selling biography of Frank Lowy Pushing The Limits and the health manual, Man Maintenance.

Jill Margo on Twitter

HarperCollins on Twitter

App Pick

The Brainstormer

Working Writer’s Tip

The importance of a good copywriting quote

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Jill

 

Jill

It’s my pleasure.

 

Valerie

You’ve written two biographies of Frank Lowy now, tell me why Frank Lowy?

 

Jill

Well, because when I first heard his story it made an impact on me. It moved me. The sweep of his life was impressive. He told his story with very little sentiment and in such a matter of fact way that I sensed that the understatement was probably rich in meaning.

 

Valerie

Do you remember the first time you met Frank Lowy?

 

Jill

Yes, I do. I went to a function and there were very few people there, we were standing in a little circle and he was in the circle and someone mentioned that I had a book coming out in few days’ time, it was a book on men’s health. And he said, “Would you send me a copy?” And he gave me his card. And, I did. And that was the beginning of this whole saga.

 

Valerie

When was that?

 

Jill

That was in the ’90s. I think it was sort of about 1996, around there.

 

Sometime later, I can’t remember exactly, his secretary called and said, “Would you come in and discuss the book with Mr. Lowy.” I said, “Sure.” So, I went in and we talked and that’s when he told me bits and pieces about his life. I really knew nothing about him. My imagination was really lit after that meeting.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Jill

He said he was having a corporate history written about Westfield. And he mentioned who was writing it, it had been written by one woman and then by another woman, both of whom I know and who are both very good writers. And he asked if I would look at it and I said, “Sure.”

 

I took the manuscript home, I had a look, and then sometime later he asked me what I thought. I could see, actually, that there was two things going on in the corporate history. There was the wonderful story of Westfield. It was an incredible sort of building of this commercial empire. And it was also his personal story, and he thought it was one in the same. But, I thought it was two different things.

 

 

Valerie

I have to say I have zero interest in Frank Lowy. I know who he is and all of the rest of it. But, I picked up this book, having no… you know, I’m not a fan of Frank Lowy or Westfield or anything like that. You know, I don’t have any particular opinion and I have not been able to put it down. It is a page-turner.

 

Jill

Oh, I’m thrilled to hear it.

 

Valerie

It really is. I was saying to my partner, “I just can’t put this book down. I’m not even interested in this man, but this story is just unfolding and the way it’s written is fantastic.”

 

You’ve already written a biography on Frank, that was 15 years ago or something. Why did you decide to have a second go?

 

Jill

As I explained, I wrote that first biography after meeting him in the ’90s and that was really the sort of classic rag-to-riches, you know? It just sort of bursts us to the age of 70 from being penniless to being a multi-billionaire and everything that went with it. And that was enough. He kind of got to 70 and he thought that he would retire and that was largely the end.

 

But, then I watched from a distance and I saw, in fact, he entered a whole new period of creativity. And in his mature years it was a different way of being and with different objectives and different aims. It was fascinating to watch.

 

And I watched him for a few years, and because I had written the first biography I would read everything about him in the newspapers and listen to the radio and watch television whenever he was on. And, I started to see some new patterns unfolding. It occurred to me, with the first book being rag-to-riches and the second book could be, “And then what?” What do you do once you’ve got to that kind of level? And that’s what the second book is about. It’s a mature years, 70-plus.

 

Valerie

Can you tell us how the first book came about, because you specialize in health journalism, how did a biography of Frank Lowy come about? Did you propose the idea? Did he propose it to you? Did a publisher suggest it? What happened?

 

Jill

There already was this manuscript of the corporate history, and I thought it could have been much more successful to be divided into two, to have a private… the corporate history with all of the facts and the business angle which would be interesting for a particular audience, a specialist audience, so have one for corporate interest and corporate biography, and then take the personal story, it would have much more universal appeal.

 

So, I kind of looked at the manuscript and I played with it and I made the suggestion to him that perhaps two things could happen. And he thought that was OK. I don’t think he was particularly enthused or… he thought that was an OK idea. He agreed to cooperate with me. I started working on it and I got a publisher, I went to Harper Collins. I did go other places first, but Harper Collins said ‘yes’ and we were away.

 

Valerie

Just coming away from Frank Lowy for a second, you are health literature at the Australian Financial review, can you just give a bit of an idea of how you got to where you are now? Did you decide from when you were at school that you wanted to be a journalist? Just a brief career path, if you will.

 

Jill

Sure. Well, I think I became a writer because I always felt I couldn’t… I was attracted to writing because I thought I couldn’t do it. You know? My mother was an English teacher and a librarian and a great reader. And she was always trying to encourage us children, the four of us to read. In fact she got to the point where she would bribe us to read. I think we would get five cents a book or ten cents a book, whatever, 20 cents for a big book.

 

She always said that I was a hopeless case. I just looked at the pictures and read the front and the back covers.

 

I really feel a lack of having not been a great reader… I wish I had been. I always felt that I couldn’t write, so that’s why I was drawn to it.

 

Valerie

Did you become a journalist immediately?

 

Jill

Yes… well…

 

Valerie

After school?

 

Jill

Quite soon. No, no, I went to university, after I finished a honors degree in English I got a lowly job as a tutor. And, then I really… I thought I would prefer to be a journalist. I immigrated to Australia from South Africa and I went to Fairfax and asked if I could be… I think they were called cadets, they’re not called interns, but I was a cadet. I wanted to become a cadet and I became one.

 

I just started at the bottom, on a rag, it was called The Sun.

 

Valerie

Yes, I remember The Sun.

 

Jill

You write so much and you’re writing every day that you don’t… eventually it becomes… you lose your self-consciousness. You’re just forced to, because somebody is standing over you and the clock’s ticking. And you can’t be too self-conscious or too pretty about what you’re doing. You get a kind of skill, you know? It becomes easier.

 

Valerie

Being a health journalist though is very different to writing biographies. Did you find that you had to call on a different set of skills? Or did you think that they’re the same skills?

 

Jill

No, I think they’re the same skills. In journalism you can write about anything, and you have to on a regular basis. But, I’m very interested in health for a whole lot of personal reasons and background reasons. As often happens in journalism I was sitting next to the health reporter and he went away on holiday and somebody said, “Well, just cover for him.” So I started covering for him.

 

And in those days, this was many years ago, all of these medical journals used to come into the paper. And I would read them with fascination. It wasn’t work for me, for me it was pure interest. I worked up from there.

 

He actually came back from wherever he was and wanted a different job and so I slipped into his position and so it went.

 

It’s all quite haphazard and by chance.

 

Valerie

Yes. The book, A Second Life, is very in-depth and the reader finds out a lot about Frank Lowy, the Lowy family, generally. Can you talk us through the process of how you did this research? I mean I can’t even begin to think, because there’s such a huge body of work and research there. Did you have a series of structured interviews? Or did you just spend time with the family? Can you talk us through that?

 

Jill

Yeah, sure. Well, you must remember that I had the solid foundation of the first book.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Jill

When I came to write the first book, until that point. Westfield has a very sophisticated publicity machine and marketing machine. And everything that was known about Frank and the family had gone through this machine and was carefully managed. So they weren’t use to sort of talking… to showing themselves publicly or talking openly.

 

They revealed something of themselves to me for the first book. Because that was safe and because nothing bad came of that, they had more confidence with the second book. So they were quite open.

 

I have this technique where I say to people in an interview, to anyone really, even in journalism today, I say, “Just talk to me freely, just talk… and after we’ve finished talking you can tell me what you think you’ve said that you would prefer to withdraw.”

 

So, I give people a kind of freedom up front, and I’m true to my word. And I don’t… I don’t take a hard line. I keep it open and fluid. They can get back to me a week later and say, you know, “I told you about that and really that’s awkward. Please don’t use it.” And I won’t.

 

I think I’ve built up trust over many years. Also there’s a lot about them in the public sphere now. I went to all of the Westfield public meetings and shareholder meetings and I read all of the annual reports. I just read everything that I possibly could and I listened to everything I possibly could about him and his family. Plus I had tremendous access.

 

Valerie

What kind of access… like did you sort of sit down for ‘X’ number of chats? Or was it just a causal thing until you got what you needed?

 

Jill

No, no. It wasn’t casual. I had a tape recorder. I recorded everything. What I do is I just… I’ve found a wonderful kind of recording program for my iPad. So, you just put the iPad on the table and it’s pretty unobtrusive, and then you chat. And it picks up everything in the room.

 

I would never just… the visits weren’t social. The visits were work-orientated. Because he trusted me, his wife trusted me, his sons trusted me, and so the trust trickled down through the family. I think this technique of asking people to speak freely and then being true to your word to withdraw what they want to withdraw is quite effective, for me.

 

Valerie
Can you estimate at all how many — I’m just trying to get an idea of how much time is spent. Can you estimate how many hours that you might have spent with Frank Lowy or the Lowy family, generally?

 

I only ask because we interview some people who’ve written biographies of people, I’m sometimes very shocked, to be honest, to hear that they had six hours and that was it.

 

Jill

I had multiples of that. I think it depends on what kind of biography you’re writing, really.
Valerie

Yes.

 

Jill

It’s a different animal if you’re writing a biography with very little personal access. But, what I was writing here is plainly an authorized biography. He cooperated, he agreed to cooperate.

 

Valerie

Yep.

 

Jill

And so he gave me the time. And everybody around him gave me the time. You gain something through having an authorized biography, but you also lose something. What you lose is that hard… the kind of distance. You’re not looking at the subject from, you know, from 200 yards. You get really close up and you can have a very close look. You might lose some critical distance, although I tried to retain my critical faculty.

 

But, what you gain through the loss of distance is that you gain revelation. They talk to you. They tell you things, they open up and they trust you. And that’s… and I think that that’s… a lot of the detail in the book is a result of that process.

 

 

 

Valerie

And in the process of writing this biography did you do all of your research in your interviews first and then when you felt that you had this critical mass you started writing, or were there bits of writing in between? How did that work?

 

Jill

It was kind of a melody. I struggled a lot to try and get some order into… I struggled trying to think how would… what I would do for the second book. When I watched his life unfolding from 70 I thought, “Oh, I know what I’ll do. I just add a post script to the existing book, I’ll just add a couple of chapters onto the existing book, it will cover it.” But, then when I started exploring it I realized there was much more.

 

Then I tried to do it in subjects. I thought, “I’ll do football,” or, “I’ll do…” he’s interested in foreign policy and establishing the think-tank or medical stuff. But, they were all evolving and unfolding as I was writing it. And so I eventually just had to draw a line in the sand and say, you know, “I’m stopping here.”

 

Valerie

And how did you then decide, because there’s some bits that are obviously chronological, because it makes sense to tell it that way, and there’s some bits that you kind of told in… well, not in a chronological order. How did you make sense with what you were going to do with this massive research that you had in front of you? I know you said that you tried different things, put it in different subjects. But, in the end, how did you decide the structure of your work?

 

Jill

That was probably the biggest challenge, was how to organize the material. I cut and chopped it in various different ways, and I moved it around in different blocks. The way I work is that I just keep going at something until some kind of solution eventually emerges. And, it’s not a conscious thing. It just kind of happens somehow. After struggling and getting a really awkward silted unsatisfactory… one unsatisfactory solution after the next, suddenly I just realized how I could do it.

 

I put it into three silos and married them together. And, then I had relief because I had some kind of internal order.

 

Valerie

You knew it felt right.

 

Jill

Yeah, I knew it felt right, but there were two things that were a great struggle. One was trying to figure out a way to order this material. And secondly was trying to find a place for myself to stand in relation to it, and to find the right tone and the right voice, or the right perspective.

 

Valerie

When you’re hearing someone else’s story, like, Frank Lowy’s, or a member of his family, it’s really their version of the story. It’s their recollection of events, particularly if these are things that happened years ago.

 

In what instances did you feel necessary to verify that story or get another perspective? You know? Just to make sure that it was… you were putting forward something that was accurate?

 

Jill

The first book was largely historical, looking back. But, this book I was actually living through the period of 15 years, having already known him quite well. So, for example, he did a big commercial restructure of Westfield last year, which was enormously controversial and brought a lot of vitriol and there was a lot of sentiment that he was a tall puppy about to fall. And things got pretty nasty.

 

And I went to all of the meetings, I had my tape recorder on. I read all of the press, and there was a lot of it, and I watched the television. And so I kind of had a context. I knew what was being said in the public sphere. And then I went to him, at the time, and got his story from how he saw it, and from these antagonists and from people, advocates for him.

 

And, then six months later I went back to him and looked up to him with some hindsight. You have to take… in some cases you have to take quite a few soundings until you get the right thing, because it’s changing and it’s retrospective as well. It looks different.

 

Valerie

I keep coming back to this sheer volume of research that you have, but it’s a massive amount of research. And as you say, you went to all of the meetings, you’ve taken notes at all of these things. On a practical level, because there are listeners who often wonder, “How on a practical level do I manage all of this research?” Can you tell us, how did you manage the research? Did you have particular files on different eras? Or by topic? Or by dates? Or by who said it? Or what? Or was it just this mess and you hoped that you could pull it together in the end?

 

Jill

I have a big box into which I throw everything for my tax return, like a big shoe box. It’s chaos. And then I’m amazed at what order can be emerged from it when the deadline is upon me. It was similar in this case. And I had big, big boxes of sort of football, and another big box of business, and another big box of this and another big box of that. I get three newspapers delivered to the house every day and I would tear out stuff with the date.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Jill

And put it in a box think, “Well, I’ll look at that later.” You know? So when I came to write about business I had two big boxes.

 

Valerie

Oh my goodness.

 

Jill

And plus annual reports and all sorts of other stuff. You just start going through, you’re just looking for trends. I find it too boring to trump through it kind of chronologically. I was looking for… I decided on a few themes and trends and then sort of try and follow that.

 

But in business, for example, the thing for Frank was that he… he really thrives on being in charge and having the power. But, he’s also engendered in his children, he encouraged his children to become powerful and to become… to hold the levers too. So, there he was at the top of the mountain, feeling the power, looking down and seeing his three sons coming up. First of all, he knew they would take some of the power from him… the discomfort of having to share the power was mitigated by the parental pride he had in the fact that his children were going to share the power.

 

The sharing of power is a theme, for example, when you get to business. So, if you look at it that way rather than looking at it, you know, one deal to the next deal, to the next deal. You kind… it makes the text richer, I think.

 

Valerie

Yes, absolutely.

 

When you get to know somebody and you talk to them in such depth and they trust you, which obviously they did, they often reveal pretty personal things. I know you gave them the option, “Hey, you can withdraw that,” at any point did you censor them in a sense? Kind of thinking, “Oh, really, he shouldn’t say that?” You know? Did you ever think, “That’s too personal, maybe I shouldn’t include it?”

 

Jill

Eventually what they told me other people might have said about them as well. You know? Sometimes you’ve got to be aware of… some deals have confidential or had legal restraints. You’ve got to be aware of all of these different factors. The issue about writing about a living active person, writing honestly about a living, active person has complications, because people who are commercially involved with him don’t want to go on the record saying bad things about him, because they don’t want to be commercially compromised.

 

A lot of people are happy to talk to you anonymously and say things. But, you have to find your way, because if somebody doesn’t own what they say it’s not believable, really.

 

So, it’s complicated. I learned a few things that I wasn’t able to use, because of other constraints. Did I censor them? No, none of them were that unguarded with me, that I needed to censor what the Lowy’s were saying. I don’t recall doing that.

 

Valerie

When you are writing, I mean you’ve a full time job, did you take time off or did you juggle this with your job in journalism? How did you manage the writing process and your professional career?

 

Jill

It’s not full time. I only work three or four days a week.

 

Valerie

But, still that’s significant.

 

Jill

Yes, it is. It’s a writing job. So, actually, it keeps my machinery oiled, so to speak.

 


Valerie

Yes.

 

Jill

So that’s good for me. I never had holidays. As a journalist you get quite — journalists get six week holidays and sometimes a couple of weeks unpaid leave too. I took long service leave, which I used as well. I worked very hard. I had to work at night and I had to work… I have a household too, with some children at home. I was always looking for an opportunity to slip away and perhaps take an hour here and an hour there.

 

Valerie

So you’re writing whenever you could, at night. But, when you did take a chunk of time off, like long service leave or whatever. Did you try to get in some kind of writing routine where you would try to generate ‘X’ number of words a day? Did you have a target, or anything like that? Did you have a routine?

 

Jill

I went through all of those things that people say, “Don’t get up until you’ve got 1,000 words.” “Don’t get up until you have 500 words,” or whatever it was.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Jill
But, that didn’t work for me because sometimes I would just get on a roll and it would be wonderful, and sometimes nothing would happen, or nothing useful would happen. I would look at it and I would think, “Oh god, that’s sort of breathless and ghastly.”

 

Did I have a routine? I did. I decided that one December/January was very hot. I had an air conditioner put in to this room, where I work. And, I just decided that I would do ‘X’ number of hours a day regardless and the rest of the day would be free. And that worked for me.

 

Valerie

Great. For people who are interested in writing biographies and who haven’t, you know, had the opportunity yet, what do you think is the biggest mistake they could make?

 

Jill

Wow, um…

 

Valerie

Something that you’ve obviously learnt.

 

Jill

Yeah, I think my first book on Frank was a little bit breathless, you know? I was very impressed. I think I could have taken it a couple of steps… if not, you get too close, you can take a couple of steps back, I think.

 

You also have to know… if you’re writing a book about… in depends on if you’re writing a book about… if you’re writing a book about a person who’s passed on, that’s completely different, that’s a completely different exercise. You don’t have to worry about the author coming back and saying, “Finding the book,” reading it from the bookshop and saying, “What’s that?” “What does that mean?” “What do you mean by that? Well, that’s not right, that’s not true.”

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Jill

I think that that the second book is not breathless in the same way. And, I think you’ve got to keep your critical faculty.

 

I think that… I was thinking about biography really, and there’s kind of layers of writing a biography. The first thing is that you’ve got to get the facts and you’ve got to get the chronology. And, some people think that’s enough for a biography, you know? “He was born here… did A, B, C and then died.” I think that’s just the substrata. And then on top of that comes… on top of the events and the chronology I think there’s got to come a layer of emotional reality, and give it some warmth, and breathe some life into it.

 

You try and create… the next layer is kind of an emotional layer that’s interwoven with the chronology below.

 

And then once you’ve got the emotional layer, then on top of that you kind of add reflection. You know? “What does this mean?” You have a person thinking, “What are their thoughts? What does it mean? What were they intending? What was the impact of what they were doing?”

 

And then I think you put it in the whole context of their era and when they were living.

 

So it’s in many layers, there’s many ingredients and many sort of techniques that go into constructing a biography. It’s like making a mini layered cake.

 

Valerie
Beautifully expressed.

 

What’s next for you?

 

Jill

I’m going to do another men’s health book. I’ve written two men’s health books, for men’s health. And, I think after this biography I think it’s going to be quite a different exercise. I’ll just fall back into what I do for a living, which is men’s health, and write another book on that.

 

In fact, I’ve already begun in a little way to do that.

 

Valerie

Would you be interested in writing another biography?

 

Jill

Along the way I’ve written memoirs for people. Sometimes… on two occasions I’ve ghosted a memoir. The memoir is a first person, written, “I did this…” and, “I did that…” And my name doesn’t appear. I find that very interesting, writing memoirs for people in their voice.

 

I’ve also been a researcher on other people’s autobiographies.

 

For the moment, I think, I want to have a bit of a rest and I think it will be restful, actually, doing a little book on men’s health.

 

Valerie

Yes. I think the Lowy book was a tour de force“. So, I think you’ve probably deserve a rest.

 

What’s your advice to writers who are interested in getting into this area? Into writing about other people’s lives?

 

Jill

 

What’s my advice?

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

Jill

Well, I think you’ve got to find somebody who you think you can stick with for the long haul, because it takes many years to do it.

 

It takes many years to do it. And, I don’t think there’s any real shortcut. You’ve got to accumulate all of this material. You’ve got to find seams. You’ve got to speak to other people, you’ve got to put it in context. All of the things that I talked about. I mean it’s a kind of commitment. It’s undertaking quite a big task and sometimes you’re not happy with what you do.

 

I mean I wasn’t happy for a long time with this book. It took ages before I felt satisfied with what it was.

 

Valerie

But, you got there in the end.

 

Jill

And I’m still not entirely satisfied.

 

Valerie

Really?

 

Jill

Yes.

 

Valerie

What are you not satisfied about?

 

Jill                                                                        

I think it’s too big. I think if I had been more disciplined it would have been smaller.

 

Valerie

  1. Well, as I said, I think… I wasn’t even interested in Frank Lowy. I certainly am now. But, I picked up the book, started reading and I just couldn’t stop. So, thank you very much for writing it. And, thank you for chatting to us today.


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