Hugh Mackay: Psychologist, social researcher and author

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image-hughmackay200Hugh Mackay is the founder of the Australian quarterly research series The Ipsos Mackay Report (previously The Mackay Report). He is a psychologist, social researcher and writer.

He is a regular columnist in The Age and a regular commentator appearing on radio and television.

He has just launched his latest book Advance Australia Where?. Hugh has written four novels called Winter Close, Little Lies, House Guest and The Spin.

His other books focus on his work as a social researcher looking into media and society like Media Mania, and Right and Wrong.

Click play to listen. Running time: 23.57

Advance Australia Where

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thanks for joining us today Hugh.

Hugh:
Great pleasure Valerie.

Valerie:
Now tell us, what came first for you? Being a social researcher or a writer?

Hugh:
The work of social research came first, the dream of writing came first. As a kid I was one of those kids who was always lost in a book and I sort of vaguely dreamed of being able to write. But it didn’t dawn on me until I was into my mid-20s that I could actually do it, and I did then write a couple of novels which were like practice runs and which now when I look back to my great relief were never published.

But my working life began as a social researcher, or as a marketing media researcher initially and then into research. But the idea that I might be able one day to write in a way that was not to do with my research work was an idea that has been with me for a very long time. My first book was not published until I was in my mid-50s so research was a major distraction.

Valerie:
Yes. But also it gave you that foundation I suppose because you turned your social research into best-selling books, so it was a really good background.

Hugh:
That’s true. And also of course the thing about research is that you’re constantly writing research reports. As I moved more and more into qualitative social research, the writing itself became more of a challenge and more of a pleasure because it was not just describing what the statistics said but interpreting and analysing qualitative data. So the transition from research reports into nonfiction books was a very painless transition because my first nonfiction book, Reinventing Australia, was like a kind of media research report.

Valerie:
How did you get interested in social research in the first place when you started off as you say in media and marketing research?

Hugh:
I think like the writing thing this goes right back, as a child I was a bit – I mean, I had a very cheerful kind of childhood and some very good friends but I was always, particularly in adolescence, a bit of an outsider, a bit of an observer. So I just kind of stumbled into research. My father had heard of this new industry, we’re talking about the late 50s now, and it was a very new industry and he suggested that I should make contact with what was then the McNair organisation that subsequently became AC Nielson.

So I got a job straight out of school just as a kid looking for work really and it just happened to be the kind of job that engrossed me right from the beginning, this whole idea of observing and analysing human behavior. Whether in a commercial or political or social context, I was really hooked from the start and I did all my undergraduate and graduate study as an evening student. From the beginning I kept working.

Valerie:
Advance Australia Where? which is about Australia’s progression of say the last 25 years, the Australia then compared to the Australia you described in Reinventing Australia which is a seminal book, what have been the most profound changes that you’ve noticed if you had to pick a handful of them?

Hugh:
Yes, I think – there is a handful. I think one is that in that 15 year period the place of women in our society was massively improved. The whole gender revolution, which I was reporting in Reinventing Australia, was no longer revolutionary. By the time I got around to writing Advance Australia Where? even though there were still many areas where women would feel as if they were struggling for equality, in the culture at large the idea of gender equality is now entrenched. And even the recalcitrant of slow learning males who’ve resisted this, I think they know that it’s a losing battle they’re fighting, that you can’t deny equality. And that’s made a huge difference to Australia 15 years later. It’s affected every aspect of Australian life from politics to the work place to marriage and parenthood.

So I put that at the top of the list. The other big changes: economic and technological. I think Australia in this 15-year period has been through a major restructure of the economy. There’s been a lot of changes in the work place. We’ve moved in this period really from being a society where people expected the idea of job security where today most people in most organizations, in most industries live with a sense of job insecurity. That’s been a huge change.

The rise in casual and part-time work and corresponding to the changes in the work place a shift in the distribution of income with big growth in rich households and big growth in poor households. I think that split is far more dramatic now than it was in the early 90s. We saw the beginning of it then but we I think had no idea just how far it would go. And back then the concept of the information technology revolution, what the mobile phone and the Internet would do to us as a society, wasn’t really being imagined. Computers were certainly part of the scene but we hadn’t imagined how sophisticated information technology would get or how it would change our lives.

Valerie:
Absolutely.

Hugh:
I think the other things to be said about the social thing, in the early 90s even though we were living with a much higher divorce rate and the birth rate was falling, I don’t think any of us predicted that the divorce rate would remain so high as it has or that the birth rate would go so much lower as it has. So there too, again, changes that have a big effect on the culture and on the shape of our society.

Valerie:
What do you prefer writing? Your nonfiction, which is certainly not dry nonfiction, it’s very engaging, or do you prefer writing fiction?

Hugh:
I’d have to say I prefer writing fiction.

Valerie:
Really?

Hugh:
I enjoy them both which is why I alternate as much as I can. The nonfiction is my work. As a lifetime of being a social researcher, I’ve spent 50 years at it and it’s what I do and it comes relatively easily to me although there are always surprises. But I love trying to make sense of how society is changing and I really, really enjoyed writing the latest book Advanced Australia Where? That gave me an enormous amount of satisfaction because there were so many changes since the last time I’d tried it. It was fascinating to be able to pull so much of my own research together and other people’s research and statistical research and so on and make sense of it.

So of course I love doing that and it’s kind of second nature but fiction, which I dreamed of writing for most of my life, is a much more liberating, much more therapeutic process and in a curious way I feel as though fiction gets me closer to writing the truth than nonfiction. With nonfiction of course I’m doing social analysis and I’m trying to make sense of what’s happening and I’m relying on a lot of data from a lot of sources, but especially from people talking about what’s going on in their minds and how their attitudes towards this or that topic might be changing. And I have to believe them, I can’t get absolutely inside their heads and I’m relying on people telling me the truth and I’m relying on my own skill in trying to interpret all of this.

But with fiction of course that filtering process, that problem of dealing with second-hand data does not arise. With fiction it’s straight from the imagination and onto the page and there’s a kind of directness, a kind of authenticity about that which I really enjoy. It’s also when a nonfiction book is published, I enjoy that experience and I like discussing it with readers and talking about what I’ve found and so on. But with fiction having the book published is a completely different experience because it is so direct, it is so straight out of your imagination that you’re very vulnerable. People are much readier to criticise and attack fiction because it’s a personal revelation even if it is not supposed to be. It can’t help being that. Whereas with the nonfiction people say, “Well you’re the professional. This is what you found. That’s great.”

Valerie:
When you wrote your first fiction book or when that was first published, was it quite stressful because you were known for something entirely different? Was it easy or difficult or what to make that transition to get out of writing in that nonfiction space to writing fiction?

Hugh:
The actual writing was a joy. The writing of my first novel, Little Lies, which came out in 1995 that was an absolute pleasure. But the process, exactly as you just described it Valerie, the process of having it published was very stressful because I knew that people would not automatically take this seriously because what they expected from me was nonfiction, and what did I mean by jumping the fence and getting into this other paddock and I wasn’t really prepared for how tough it is to read reviews of a book which are very negative. And when Little Lies first came out, the first few reviews were very hostile, negative and discouraging. It was only really later in the review process that some quite glowing reviews finally appeared, but by then I’d taken quite an emotional knock.

Valerie:
Yes.

Hugh:
I’m now ready for that. now know that when each novel comes out, the reaction will be qualitatively different from reactions to the nonfiction work.

Valerie:
You’ve got several under your belt now.

Hugh:
Four novels have been published and the fifth is now nearing completion. It’ll be out early next year.

Valerie:
Can you tell us what that’s going to be about?

Hugh:
It’s an extension, it’s not a sequel, but it’s an extension of my fourth book which was called Winter Close which was a book written in the first person from the point of view of a counselor in his early 40s talking about suburban life in the street in Sydney where he lived, his relationships with various neighbors and his work, and a lot of introspective stuff about what was happening to him after the collapse of his own marriage, etc. This is a much more ambitious book. Tom, the counselor, is still the writer and he’s living in the same street and some of the neighbors are the same and some of those relationships are explored, but it goes into much deeper water.

Tom is really becoming a bit burnt out having a bit of a crisis, becoming a bit impatient with the middle class angst of his clients and their quest for perfect lives, which he thinks is very unrealistic. That’s a major theme. He also gets caught up because he’s getting a bit jaded in his counseling work, he gets caught up in a number of other activities including motoring journalism and university politics courtesy of a friend. So there are many, many strands, it’s a more complex plot and emotionally it’s a bit darker, a bit more complex because Tom really is at a bit of a turning point in his own life.

Valerie:
Has this book got a title yet?

Hugh:
It hasn’t got a title yet. It hasn’t got a title or a cover. We’re working on those two things at the moment.

Valerie:
When you are writing a book like this, can you describe to us your typical working day?

Hugh:
Yes. If it’s a writing day, it’s very, very solid. I try to set aside weeks for writing. I often don’t succeed because I might have lectures to give or other things that interrupt. But I find that I’m not the kind of writer who can say, “Well the first three hours of every day I’ll write and then I’ll do other things.” I really need pretty well uninterrupted days to make proper progress. So in the diary in any given month I slash out a certain number of days which are to be writing only days and I try to crowd the other things into the other days.

So a writing day typically begins at about 8 or 8:30 a.m. I’ll write consistently for a few hours, have a break and then write again in the afternoon finishing normally at about 6. So it’s a very solid day of writing. Then what I would normally do at the beginning of each day before I start the new work is do a lot of editing of what went on the day before.

Valerie:
Oh, you do that? That’s interesting because some writers say that they do that at the very end.

Hugh:
Well, I do it both. I clean up obvious infelicities and things that strike me the day after. Because I write quite quickly when I’m writing, it’s not good the first time. It rushes out and it feels terrific but when you go back 24 hours later, you think, “Oh dear. This needs a lot of immediate work.” So I do that immediate work but then of course once the thing is drafted the rewriting, polishing, editing process goes on for months.

Valerie:
Of course, yes.

Hugh:
I’m in the middle of that right now. The working title of this book is Ways of Escape. That may survive as the title. We’re not sure. But with Ways of Escape I’m now in the thick of this editing and polishing process, which I love. The writing is done and now the polishing and culling and cutting and refinement is a process which I take every bit as seriously as the initial writing.

Valerie:
Your fictional books are about various issues but a lot on human relationships as well. You obviously need to research the fictional books to some extent. Do you actually do that kind accidentally by default as you’re researching your nonfiction books or do you actually go on a different process to research those books?

Hugh:
That’s a fascinating question because two things happen. The idea for a novel comes to me often as a particular scene, which I visualise between certain characters and I think, “That could be a really interesting moment in a story.” And the story evolves backwards and forwards from that moment. Now where does that come from? I’m sure a lot of it does come from this continuous process of social research, of listening to people talking about their lives and their hopes and so on. So I feel as though my professional research work gives me all the material I need for insights into human nature and the human condition and personal relationships, plus of course my own experience.

The actual research, the specific research that I do for a novel tends to be more geographical than psychological. That is I go to the places and soak up the atmosphere and walk around the streets or the shops or the areas that I’m dealing with so that I really do get the sense of those places. So, it’s research into place. The research into the relationships, the characters, the interactions and the trajectory of the plot takes place very much inside my head and I do very little on paper plotting of that. I do make a lot of notes but they’re fragmentary notes.

I don’t for example have a chart on the wall as some novelists do where they go from the beginning to the middle to the end and it’s all laid out. Because I find the process of writing far more spontaneous than I expected it to be and it takes directions, twists, turns that I certainly didn’t plan and which I not always go along with but I am open to the fact that when you put characters in a context and in relationship with each other, they do and say things that you don’t always expect. That to me is what the imaginative leap is about, what the creative process is about, letting it happen rather than making it happen.

Valerie:
And that’s partly also due to the fact that you must be a very astute observer so you would naturally know how a character would react in a certain situation even if it does surprise you, I think?

Hugh:
It’s kind of you to put it like that. It’s partly a function of age. If you’ve been around for a while and you’ve got a family and you’ve got friends and you had various working experiences, you know what people are like and what they get up to and what they say. My passion is about relationships and as you said, the book might be about politics or it might be about a counselor who’s impatient with his clients or whatever it might be about, it’s always about relationships and why people react to each other in the way they do. Why they so often say one thing and do another.

And the other way of expressing this is to say the theme of all my books I think is, never setting out for this to be the case but it turns out to be the case, is there’s always more going on than meets the eye. If you start peeling it away, there are many layers and they’re all fascinating and they often seem to contradict each other.

Valerie:
What a perfect combination to be able to do your social research and then transform it in a sense into your fictional work.

Hugh:
Well, I love it and I do feel as though it’s all part of the one life, the one work in a way and I’m just delighted that rather too late in life I finally got around to giving fiction it’s head and letting all this stuff come out in the novels. But certainly there are two or three more novels still to come and I’m looking forward to that.

Valerie:
I remember actually the first fictional novel I read of yours and I’ll admit I picked it up going, “Let’s see.” You know, and I could not put it down. I remember actually once you said something about when you were researching a character who was in her 20s and one of the things that you realised people in their 20s, and at the time I was in my 20s; one of the things you realised that people in their 20s say is this, “Really, really” thing. Everything is “Really this” or “Really that” and of course my instant reaction to that was “Really?” And from that day on in my own writing I’m there crossing out the really(s) because I thought it’s really overused.

Hugh:
It’s kind of interesting.

Valerie:
On a final note, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Hugh:
Start young and keep writing but never assume that everything you write is for publication. A publisher has given me this advice even now that it’s just practice. You just get the rewriting, the refinement, the trying out, just makes you better and better at the craft. And I think anyone with the urge to write must write. If it’s almost a daily discipline to write something, it’s almost inevitable the writing will get better and eventually you’ll have something to show someone else.

Valerie:
Wonderful. Thank you for your time today Hugh.

Hugh:
It’s a great pleasure. Thank you Valerie.

Valerie:
That was great. Thank you.


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