Sandra Hall: Journalist and author

Share on Pinterest
Share with your friends










Submit

image-sandrahall200Sandra Hall is a journalist who is well known for her film reviews for The Sydney Morning Herald.

In 2006 Sandra’s novel, Beyond the Break was published. It was long-listed for the 2007 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

She has also written books on Australian television – Supertoy and Turning on, Turning Off and another novel, A Thousand Small Wishes.

Sandra has just released her biography of Ezra Norton called The Tabloid Man: The life and times of Ezra Norton after five years of intensive research into Ezra’s character.

Click play to listen. Running time: 20.55

 

A Thousand Small Wishes Beyond the Break The Tabloid Man Turning On Turning Off

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thanks for joining us today, Sandra.

Sandra:
Thank you.

Valerie:
So tell us, what made you want to be a journalist in the first place?

Sandra:
Well, I’ve always wanted to write. I didn’t have much confidence at that stage that I would be able to create fiction or really creative writing but I just thought I’d like to make a living out of writing, somehow, and journalism seemed to be the only way in and the best way in at that stage. It sort of combined a bit of adventure, as well. My other thing was wanting to travel, so journalism seemed to be the ideal way of combining the two.

Valerie:
And did you start off as a cadet or how did you get into it?

Sandra:
I went straight from school. I was only 16. My father knew somebody in the Fairfax building who worked downstairs where the papers were put together and he knew the head of – well, we didn’t really call them copy girls. They’re all – everybody was a copy boy, in those days.

Valerie:
Right.

Sandra:
And that’s where I joined. I became a copy girl in The Sun, straight from school and then I got my cadetship 18 months later on the afternoon paper, The Sun.

Valerie:
And eventually, you became interested in films and you’re now quite well known for your film reviews. How did you get interested in that and when did all of that start?

Sandra:
Well, I’d been taken to films from the time I was a baby and I loved them and because I was going to university at night on The Sun, I was sort of known to be faintly bookish and their idea of being interested in culture, which was a bit of an oddity on an afternoon newspaper. So I sort of used to sort of understudy the film critic at the time; I was at 19 at that stage, so I did a few film reviews there.

And then, much, much later on, after I’d come back from England, I was freelancing and working for The Australian and The Bulletin. And when I had my first child, I was doing everything at The Bulletin, not because I had stories. And there was no film review around the magazine at that stage and it seemed to be a good thing that I could combine with parenthood, so that’s when I started to do, review films and I was there for years at The Bulletin doing that until The Herald made me an offer about 11 years ago.

Valerie:
And do you have a favorite film of this year?

Sandra:
This year. Oh, you’ve caught me on a hop. I tend to sort of think of the last thing I saw. I’m very fond of Persepolis, the animated film that’s around at the time.

Valerie:
Right.

Sandra:
About a girl growing up in her own. It’s really good.

Valerie:
So your first book, A Thousand Small Wishes with Allen & Unwin in 1995, was a novel about Australia and India. What inspired this novel and why Australia and India?

Sandra:
Well, I’d been to India and it’s such a vibrant place and it so many people speak English that the culture is sort of accessible and they have that thriving film industry in Bollywood and wondrous sort of movie magazines which far outdo any of the gossip – anything that the gossip mags here do.

And I’d sort of picked up a bundle of those and read them on the plane at one stage and I was just sort of captivated by the whole thing and by the country, really, and I’d always – I’d sort of been wanting to write fiction for some time. I’d done some short stories and I’d wanted to do a sort of novel about a small group of people with this kind of out of their comfort zone and thrown together in a place where they had to sort of, kind of reacclimatise fairly swiftly and a film company, because I knew how they operated on location, or I had a fair idea because of doing so many interviews on sets and things.

It was an ideal situation and the combination of the two, wanting to write that kind of novel in India just came together and I worked on it for quite a while before I really got it right but it was something I just really enjoyed doing.

Valerie:
Now writing fiction is so different to journalism. How did you make that transition? Was it difficult to start?

Sandra:
It was difficult.

Valerie:
Writing fiction? Yeah?

Sandra:
Well, journalism sort of pins you down it kind of requires you to be very picky and very accurate and it doesn’t really, well critical writing in sort of invites you to use your imagination, but it doesn’t really encourage you to sort of leap off into making creative decisions and conjuring up people and characters out of the air. And in a way, you have to go into another sort of state of mind.

It’s almost like going on auto-pilot. At first, I had that thing where if I don’t get this sentence right, I won’t go on to the next one but I kind of abandoned that. The novel – I’d also, before that, I got some money to adapt somebody else, a friend’s novel, into a screenplay, which never got made, but it did sort of teach me that if this idea didn’t work out, I would get another one that I didn’t just have more answers.

A plot idea inside me made me sort of think flexibly so by the time I got around to trying a novel, I at least had that sort of experience and –

Valerie:
You have to learn a whole new set of skills almost?

Sandra:
You do, yeah. And you’ve got to relax into it. After a while I abandoned that idea of concentrating on the detail and the perfect sentence and just sort of sat down and realised I could really be working wherever I was, walking or having a shower or going to the beach.

You’re creating a character or a set of circumstances and you can go back there and just sit there and scribble in longhand and sort of refine it when you go to the computer and fill in more detail. And it’s a sort of layering process I found, which is very different from journalism.

Valerie:
And with journalism, you’re dealing with hard facts and here you’re relying a lot on your imagination. Have you always had a fertile imagination or did you actually have to nurture it after, dealing with hard facts for so long.

Sandra:
Well, you sort of have to uncover it. I think I’ve always it but maybe I didn’t have confidence in being able to use it. I’ve always had a good ear, I think, for dialogue and I’ve sort of – I’ve always been fascinated by people and motivations and character and so on. So that was already there. It had – it’s sort of being able to mash all those kind of instincts you have into something that will sustain you over the long haul because it does take a long time. Maintaining your interest is a big thing.

Valerie:
Now your other novel, Beyond the Break, is about friendship and goes back to Sydney in the ‘50s. What inspired this novel? What made you want to write this idea?

Sandra:
Well, I’ve always wanted to write a Sydney novel. I know the city very well. I was born here and grew up here and I wanted to write about the Sydney that had disappeared, the sort of Sydney of my adolescence and childhood. I was old enough by then to feel nostalgic about it whereas in my sort of earlier life, I just wanted to get away from it.

I grew up in the kind of generation that sort of couldn’t wait to get off to Europe and England and so on which I did – but coming and when I came back, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be here, but as you get older you realise you do want to be here. That sort of Sydney that I’d known and was sort of rapidly changing, I sort of wanted to get down on paper.

Valerie:
And in capturing that, did you do a lot of research or did you rely on that nostalgic sort of memory?

Sandra:
I kind of relied on memory a lot, yeah. It was very – it was very vivid. I went back and looked at places and sort of realised, sat there and thought of what they’d been like when I was a child and so I did a bit of that but no, the memories were very sharp.

Valerie:
What are you currently working on? Are you working on another novel or something else?

Sandra:
No, I just finished a non-fiction book, Tabloid Man, which is a biography of a man from that period, called Ezra Norton, who ran the Sunday scandal sheet, Truth, and The Daily Mirror, which was the opposition to the paper that I worked on, The Sun.

And so that was another chance to explore the sort of period of – well, he died in the – in 1967, retired in 1958 so that again was Sydney during the ‘50s as well as very early on because a lot of the book takes him through his sort of extraordinary career.

It’s his father, John Norton, who actually started – or helped start Truth back in the 1890s so the book actually goes from Sydney in the 1880s, Australia in the 1880s right up to, well, Truth didn’t really finish up until the 1990s. So it’s 100 years.

Valerie:
When did you get – when did you get the idea you wanted to write this book on Ezra Norton?

Sandra:
Well, after finishing the novel, I thought I’d like to do something with some research attached to it and he was a sort of rather shadowy figure; he’s a mystery man. He’d been a very secretive kind of character when he was alive and unlike the Packers, the Fairfaxes and the Murdochs, you’ll have had lots of books written about them; nothing had been done on him.

Valerie:
Right.

Sandra:
Short pieces have been written about him as an Australian fiction and biography and so on but he was a bit of a sort of an enigma and he – but he also was quite a seminal figure in those years in newspapers and it was a way of talking about tabloids, which are fascinating, really. I’ve always – still find them fascinating after all this time.

And so there was a bit of a hole there because he hadn’t been written about and it was also a good opportunity to write about social history of Australia over a long period.

Valerie:
I understand it took you five years to work on this biography. Is that right?

Sandra:
Sort of – I did it in the middle of other things. I’ve been reviewing film all that time and writing other things as well but the first interviews I did were back in 2003 and I was horrified to see. I went back and looked in my diary.

Valerie:
Did you think it would take that long?

Sandra:
No, I didn’t. No. Partly it took that long because he left no papers; there were no letters or diaries to draw on so I had to sort of stitch it all together from sort of anecdotal materials, stories that were told to me by people who worked for him. So I had to track people down and then go to various different sources and spend hours in the Mitchell Library with the microfilm, going back and looking at the papers, which was hard on the eyes.

So it took a lot of work.

Valerie:
Did it seem never-ending? What motivated you to keep on going?

Sandra:
Well, I was fascinated by it. Curiosity got me going in the beginning and he’s a very interesting character and, in fact, the Nortons were a fascinating family. And it’s quite an extraordinary story when you put it all together, so I mean, his father, John Norton, has been written about in two books, Cyril Pearl’s Wild Men of Sydney and another one by Michael Cannon called That Damned Democrat and they sort of covered his life so thoroughly that I thought that I wouldn’t dwell on John Norton. But once I got into Truth and saw how extraordinary his papers were and I just found myself spending a quite a lot of time on his life as well as his son’s.

Valerie:
So now you’ve kept quite a bit of experience writing both fictional books but also non-fiction books. Is there one that you prefer or one that comes easier to you?

Sandra:
No, I don’t think so. I like the variety. I like the sort of idea of being the kind of writer who dips into all sorts of different things. It really appeals to me, as I said, after I finished the novel I kind of wanted to do something which got me out of the house and got me looking into something that I didn’t know about. So it’s nice to be able to switch between the two, really.

Valerie:
So what would your advice to be to aspiring writers who do want to have that variety, who do want to be able to make that switch easy?

Sandra:
First of all, you’ve got to write about something you’re really interested in. Otherwise, it just becomes a drag and you bore yourself and once you bore yourself, you’re boring everybody else. If you’re bored writing something, you know somebody’s going to be bored reading it, so that’s the first thing.

And, it’s just sort of – you’re in a cultivated sort of inner-editor. I don’t show anything to anybody before I sort of got it right in my own head, you know? If I’m reading it in my head and the sentence, it just begins to flag, I know that something needs cutting or rearranging.

So just sort of cultivate your own judgment, really, in regard to your own work, if you can and when you’re starting out I think you do need advice from people but I think you’re your own best judge, really, if you’re at work. So that’s what I’d say; otherwise, if you show it to too many people too soon, you get all these different opinions buzzing around in your head and you end up being lost.

Valerie:
Now that The Tabloid Man is done, have you decided what your next major project is going to be?

Sandra:
Not quite. I’ve got to thank Joan for a new novel, which would be a modern one, set in Sydney again but I haven’t got any more than an idea for two characters and a bit of faint, faint outline of a plot and that’s it at the moment.

Valerie:
Sure. So can you tell us about your typical writing day? Because obviously, it’s a combination of fictional writing, research but also your work as a journalist. What’s your typical day?

Sandra:
Well, film reviewing sort of sets the pattern for the week so Monday and Tuesday are writing days for the The Herald. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning are deadline – are the deadlines so everything else is sort of shaped around that and the films that I’ve got to fit in between. If I can, I go to a 6:00 screening so I can work in the daytime.

Valerie:
With film reviewing, there’s elements of your opinion, criticism but also not giving too much away for the reader. What would your advice be to people to get that balance?

Sandra:
Certainly not – to tell as little as the plot – of the plot as possible, that’s sort of a cardinal sin to give too much away, I should say. But you should be able to evoke the flavor or the film to give people some idea of what sort of world they’re stepping into when they go to see the film.

Put it in context, if you’re talking about a director or actors, try to place the work in context of what else they’ve done. And venture away from descriptive writing; not plot but, as I say, that sort of, if you can evoke a kind of atmosphere, I think that’s always a terrific thing.

And the opinion, of course, is absolutely essential but I think it’s – you don’t kind of just sum it up at the end. It’s best if you can to sort of sprinkle opinion through the piece, how the actor is, how the lead actor is, what the performance is like and then maybe back to the atmosphere of the film. It’s a sort of to-and-fro effect you’re after, I think. Each film dictates the shape of the review, of course, so each one’s different.

But yeah, it’s finding your own style and you inject your personal kind of attitudes into it as you go. I think that there’s – the reviewers I like to read have got fairly general attitudes to other arts as well; they’re interested in music, they’re interested in books and theater and the state of the world and if you can meld those things in with your review, it always makes it a lot richer.

Valerie:
And finally, fast forward, say, five years, ten years – you pick the time frame. Tell us what you see your career doing then?

Sandra:
Slowing down maybe. I’d always want to write.

I don’t know, probably the same as I’m doing now, a little bit of everything I think. I think it’s the happiest way to go. For me it is.

Valerie:
What do you love about writing?

Sandra:
I just like language. I like using language and finding the right word for the right kind of mood and whatever it is you’re trying to describe. It’s just a very satisfying thing to me; it’s hard. I don’t have the radio on; I don’t believe in listening to music. I find, while I’m doing it, I’m just concentrating on that. It’s not like painting. The painters I know listen to the radio all day, which must be wonderful. I can’t do that with writing.

But it’s just – I just find it the most demanding, most sustaining, fascinating thing I can do, really.

Valerie:
It’s very satisfying, isn’t it?

Sandra:
Yes, absolutely.

Valerie:
And on that note, thank you very much for your time today, Sandra.

Sandra:
Thank you.


Comments