Gregor Salmon is a Sydney based freelance writer. He has written for many Australian magazines including Sunday Life, Inside Sport, Ralph, Readers Digest and Playboy. He has also worked as a producer in television for Beyond Productions, The Morning Show on Channel 7 and an online producer for Channel 7 and Yahoo7.
His first book was Heart Soul Fire, which he wrote with boxer Paul Briggs. His latest book is Poppy – Life, Death and Addiction inside Afghanistan’s opium trade, the story of Afghanistan’s thriving poppy and heroin trade. Salmon spent eight months in Kabul in 2007 and spoke to farmers and harvesters, smugglers and crooked cops, addicts and doctors, investigating every layer of this lucrative drug trade.
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* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability
Thanks for joining us today, Gregor.
Thanks for having me Valerie.
Now you started off in sports journalism, is that right? How did you get started as a writer?
I had my first full-time job in sports journalism. My first full-time job was as an assistant editor and sub-editor for some skiing and snowboarding titles which is a great environment to work in. I worked with guys on tracks and ways. It was a great environment with a bunch of young guys who were working on magazines and who were really into writing and into photos and the whole magazine business.
The first thing that I published and the first real trigger for working in magazines was when I did some work experience in London. I had two weeks at GQ magazine. During which I sat next to an editor called Michael VerMeulen who was credited with transforming the magazine at that time. I was just so impressed with the way that he went about things. He was such a dynamo. He was so on it and yet he was really mindful about what I was there to do and he just showed me a few things and introduced me to a few things.
He got me to appraise stories and I will never forget reading the first feature that he asked me to. He put me in touch with the features editor and he said, “Have a look at this and let me know what you think.”
It was a story about [inaudible] and it was just so gripping. It had this fantastic introduction. It was such an awesome story and at that point I realized that I not only wanted to work in magazines. I had wanted to write up until then but it was then that I realized that I wanted to be a feature writer.
Wonderful, so it wasn’t just to hang out with a bunch of surfies or anything like that because I know that you are into surfing as well.
When I came home after that experience in London and wanted to work in magazines that was my entry job. That enabled me to learn the businesses of publishing and magazines. But also to start to find my feet as a writer and work on my craft as a feature writer.
Because it was fantastic. I was able to do trips. I would go to France or Austria and then sit there and have to write a feature story about it. It was kind of like a travel piece but I aspired to be a better writer and this is a great vehicle and a great environment in which to further that ambition.
How do you hone your craft as a feature writer do you think?
I think that it’s about getting across a whole bunch of tools. One is the power of observation, your sense of what the story is about, your curiosity as to what is of interest in relation to this story. Because sometimes writing a feature you can find yourself interested in a little angle or sideline which can be quite revealing if you pursue it further.
It’s a quest about being sort of open ears and open minded and yet to try and get a sense about what is at the heart of the story. It gives you a bit of room to write and there is a risk of being self-indulgent sometimes. But I think that it is just the ability to work out who you need to speak to, when it is enough interviews, when have you got the story. Because you can’t just get the story after a couple of interviews.
It’s a question of how much that you need and then sitting down and writing it. The composition of a feature and what you want to start with and I think with feature writing, I’ve got great experience with Inside Sport doing this, another mentor of mine, Greg Hunter. And that is as a feature writer you are there not to just inform but to entertain. I think that it is something that I have held as a rule throughout my writing career and that is that no one has to sit down and read your story.
You could be writing a story about something that is completely out of someone’s usual frame of interest so you have to write something which will get them into reading your piece. Then within that story find themselves actually interested in what you are writing about. It’s the power of bringing in someone cold to a story that they end up finding interesting and then finish the story feeling, “Well, that was interesting. That was a good read.”
That was a good story because they have been and they have felt entertained enough to keep reading through it. I think that has been a need that I have tried to stick to and that has extended into books as well.
So speaking of books, your first book you wrote about boxer Paul Briggs. How did this come about and why were you interested in writing a book after doing features for so long?
I think that it is the next progression and again to test myself, challenge myself as a writer. I think most writers have some aspiration, it could be quieter in some than others but I think that most writers harbour the desire to write a longer piece and to write a book. I did want to do that.
A friend had recommended me to a publisher and we had a meeting. I got up and handed over a bunch of features that I had written. From that a few months later she called me up and said, “Look, we are looking at this project. This guy called Paul Briggs. I think that you would be good for it.”
I think that someone else had knocked it back, you know? So I wasn’t the first in line but when I found out more about his story what interested me was that it was a story about an interesting life. I had wanted to move away out of sport. As much sport had given me the opportunity to hone my writing craft I didn’t want to stay just writing about sport and this book was a great bridge for me in that respect.
I met Paul and we clicked. I basically just said, “Yeah, I’d love to do it.” I had to go through a couple more hoops to get the gig but from the time of meeting him it was okay, now I’m starting to work on the book. I’d pretty much approached it in the same way as I approached a feature story. I was basically okay, right I need to get all of this information, true interviews.
I spoke with family members and friends, all that kind of thing and had a whole list of people who I needed to speak to. Once I had done that I spent a couple of months actually living with him and his family and interviewing him almost on a daily basis.
But the volume of information for a book is massively different to the volume of information for a feature. How did you manage that or did you chunk it down into bits or how did you make that actually workable?
When you look at the scale of a book from page one or from word one its just so daunting. Its immense. Its really, really off-putting. But it is a one step at a time. Essentially I found myself, okay, I’ve got all my interviews. I’ve pulled out these various storylines from all different interviews.
I’ve laid out the strata of the story and then sorted of the chapters out. Essentially these chapters became like extended feature stories. They might carry something that hinted at what was to come in a further chapter down the track but in essence it was a chapter by chapter progress.
It’s really laborious job, the process of writing. It really is like digging a ditch in a way. You just have to keep going one shovelful at a time and eventually you get something that has a semblance of a book and you keep going and then you have got a manuscript at the end.
Did you at the time combine that with your magazine writing work?
Yeah, well I think with Paul’s book it was I wrote it in the first person so and he was really articulate and I was blessed to have him as a subject. He was articulate, he was smart and he was philosophical and he was candid. He was really open.
So I was able to get him to talk about many aspects of his life, a lot of which are really uncomfortable. One of which was his abuse as a child and it was a lot where it was almost his own words that I was putting down, that I edited. I had to try and keep the book in his voice so I had a voice after having listened to him and that kind of stuck that I tried to maintain through the book.
That was a challenge because so that meant talking and writing it in a conversational way. Paul has got a great vocabulary. I was never there to put in things or words that someone is going to have to look up a dictionary to find. It was about choosing words that could convey the message or even deep or philosophical messages in very simple ways. I think that was part of the challenge which was to sort of keep that voice running through.
So now Poppy, you’re writing about opium. What in the world made you decide to write about this? How did this start?
It was the follow-up to writing Paul’s book. I was up for an adventure essentially. I wanted to go out and write something experiential, something where I would go and see and gather, see things and speak to people, gather information and write a book that I delivered from first-hand experience. The subject of opium had come up and I was checking publishers and the subject of opium came up and it was like that will be a great story.
So my initial thought was well okay to do that so how would you write this? And so I went away and thought about it. I thought that I will go to a producer country and I will speak to people and follow the chain.
Yeah, just do that.
I thought it was going to be southeast Asia because that is where most of Australia’s heroin comes from. I didn’t want to sort of pursue it to the street in Sydney or Melbourne. I just wanted to focus on the producer country and what was going on there.
But when I researched the proposal I realized that Afghanistan was not just another producer. It was producing 87% of the world’s opium at that stage. So if I was going to write a book about opium I wanted to write the model story of opium so to do that I had to go to Afghanistan.
Initially I was going to go to southeast Asia after Afghanistan but when I got to Afghanistan it proved to be quite a challenge so that I had to reduce it down to the one country to try and get that story.
Afghanistan must be one of the world’s most dangerous countries. Were you commonly in situations that were life-threatening or dangerous or bizarre?
I think, yeah, it is dangerous. There is no question about that but it is kind of like saying New York is a dangerous city. There are certain qualifications that you can make about that. There are certain, say Kabul I would walk around the streets of Kabul and it would seem normal, people going back to whatever they had to do. People were also wearing western clothing and would look at me and were welcoming and they were pleased to see me out on the streets.
It didn’t mean that I wasn’t watchful or apprehensive or tense because wherever you are you know that bombs are going off around the city and you could just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So you were ever watchful. You are not fully relaxed and when you go out to provinces like I lived in Kabul and I planned trips out to different areas of the country.
You know that it is very unpredictable. Things do happen. It could just be bandits. It could be Taliban, could be anyone pulling your car up or stopping you here or there, whatever. But the Taliban at the time had pretty much declared open season on foreigners specifically trying to get more and more.
It was at a time when the 29 Koreans we kidnapped and the Taliban had twigged on to this idea that this was a great way for publicity and a great way to earn money and so they basically said get as many foreigners as you can. So when you go out of Kabul obviously you know that is the case so it was a question of finding the people to trust to go with in the first place and then I guess you take the risks. There were some areas where I just didn’t travel around freely at all because it was just too dodgy.
You spent eight months in Kabul and you spoke to lots of different types of people researching this book. How open were they to talk to you and to give you information about the opium trade?
It really depended on what their role was. The farmers were very open because they’ve got a situation that they want to convey. They are not the ones who are making a lot of money out of it. They are really – it’s just a subsistence life and I think its not just a crop for them it’s a financial system. So they want to make their situation understood to people who come asking questions about it. Some are hostile because of the eradication issues and that kind of stuff but if you go about things in the right way and depth to the farmers at ground level then they will talk to you quite freely.
Small time smugglers I spoke to were quite open about what they were doing and it was just kind of like a guy running a little hardware store. This is just the business that I am in kind of thing. Once you get up to the more serious aspects of the involvement as senior officials involving the police and what have you people put their lives at stake to speak to me.
They only did so once that they had been assured that I wasn’t going to identify them that I wasn’t going to use their name but they could talk candidly. Sometimes I would be in the midst of an interview and then they would just clam up. They would get uncomfortable and just reconsider. They would just say, “No, no I’m not going to talk about it.”
And get up and walk or just stop the interview. That’s understandable because I’m in and out of the country. I don’t have to live there but if sometimes if people felt that if by just talking to me or people knew that they were talking to me then they would be killed or their families would be killed. This is what happens to people who talk openly about corrupt officials who are involved in the drug trade.
Now a book like Poppy must need a lot of research so apart from the time that you spent living in Afghanistan what other kind of research did you do? Where did you get your information?
I started with books and I read a few books. I subscribed to Moby updates which is a free news service which is emailed to you a whole bunch of stories about Afghanistan everyday. I did Google for opium and for Afghanistan. I had a lot of information, a lot of stories coming in.
I didn’t have everything clear in my head when I went into the country. The history, the politics, what’s going on there since 9/11 it’s a very, very complicated thing to try and absorb. And even after months there I still couldn’t get my head around it because yes, it is a very complex matrix of politic, social, historical things going on in Afghanistan that make it a tough thing to get your head around.
As much as I had read, it did help but it felt like it provided a faint backdrop of memory for the actual experience of landing in the country. And then when you start talking to people and then they start to talk about someone like Yassou or talk about Ismail Khan or other figures who are featured in Afghanistan’s recent history that these figures start to take on more of a personality, a more solid figure in your mind and you start to develop a clearer framework of what’s been going on.
When you finally started to sit down and write the book did you focus on it full-time or did you combine it with your magazine writing and other journalistic endeavours?
I had a job and I spent all of 2008 writing. I had a part-time job for three days a week working for the Morning Show as an editorial producer which is a TV show producing editorials. So I would be working there three days a week and so four days a week I’d be working on the book so I really didn’t have any time off.
When you have a book its kind of like a 24/7 thing. It’s really obsessive. It’s kind of like having a jealous wife because you feel if you are not home that you should be at home. There is this feeling that if you are not attending to it you feel guilty that you are not. It’s this thing that quite just grabs a hold of you in such an all consuming way. I could be with people but my head would be somewhere in the book. That went on until I could do no more with the book and we finished the whole editing process.
But I think what was good about the job too was that I was able to turn up, do my job, and then not have to do anything else. I didn’t really want to do any feature writing or freelance writing while I was writing the book because A) that’s laborious in itself, doing interviews, transcribing and pitching ideas to people. You do a lot of late work and then the actual creative exercise of writing the story itself I just felt that A) the money ain’t great and its quite time-consuming. And its taking the thoughts and energy that I want reserved towards all of those creative energies and writing energies for the book. I didn’t want to be looking at or thinking of other stories to write. I only had one story to write and that was the book.
So when you finally did get to the end and you could type “The End” did the jealous wife go away or did you feel liberated or did you feel a sense of loss because it was over. How did you feel?
I think that it was a weird feeling because it was a quiet sense of having finished and a quiet sort of pride in that. And yeah, the jealous wife wasn’t so vocal just to some extent she had been sort of pacified and home life was good. It becomes a sense that I never thought this day would come that I could write no more about this. That’s it, the book is going to be printed now.
That is quite a strange feeling because yeah, I’m a man but I think that this the only thing that could come close to me having a baby is that I’ve been so involved and it’s such a huge part of me put into this. It’s the biggest thing that I have ever done in my life and the most challenging thing professionally and personally. For that it’s great but its still full on and its taken a lot out of me.
I think yeah, now I see it going from almost a private endeavour into becoming a product, a book that sits in a bookshelf and bookstore. People can or cannot buy, do or don’t buy. They can or do or don’t read it and they do or don’t like it and they do or don’t say they like it or they say they don’t like it. It’s quite an unusual process.
I did go through that a bit with Paul’s book as well but I think that this one I had invested a lot more personally in it. So it was kind of a weird, strange sort process of transition seeing it go from private project into something that is out there for the public to assess.
So now that you have had this baby is there another one in the wings?
Yeah, yeah, but I might do something like the murky world of the world badminton pro tour or something like that. Something a little bit less dangerous. I don’t really have a danger or the lust to go and pursue the dangerous stories but I think that I have kind of seen that aspect off with this book. There was a sense that I had nothing holding me down, nothing holding me back. This was even during the most frustrating times and dangerous times.
I never lost sight of the fact that this is the best job in the world to me. It’s back from when I was working in magazines. If you said down the track that you are going to be in Afghanistan with an advance from a publisher to write a book about the opium trade I wouldn’t care what happened in between. That is exactly what I would have loved to be doing.
Wonderful and I have no doubt that people are going to love it. I was lucky enough to be on your email distribution list when you were in Afghanistan and I remember hanging off every word thinking this is going to be a book one day, this is going to be a book one day. I haven’t finished your book yet but I’m still hanging on every word that I have read so far. I’m loving it.
On a final note what would your advice be to aspiring writers who want to research and write their own non-fiction book like this?
I think A) encouragement is one of the most important things in writing. I think once you sit down to write a book at some stage you have probably had some encouragement from other people about how you can write and that kind of thing. That is something that really pays to take that into your self and rather than to have to seek that externally. Because really with a book that becomes really, really challenging in terms of what you do.
You really have to say well this is what I really want to do. This is really what I want to do and be very determined. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going because a there are a lot of things that really aren’t mentioned in the book. There’s a lot more obstacles to me getting it.
Obviously my publisher wanted me to write a book and there were a lot of people who were supportive. But a lot of people just don’t care. Your book doesn’t matter a damn to anyone, to a lot of people. But I think that is just the thing.
Just be patient. Be determined but not arrogant because I think if you are talking about a book where you are going to another country to explore an issue there get a lot of mileage out of just being respectful and polite to those people. That’s something that I gained just from doing a lot of travel I think. Just the ability to go in and listen and I think for the purposes of writing a book you have just got to be determined.
Perfect advice and on that note thank you very much for your time today Gregor.
Pleasure, Valerie, thanks for having me.