Andrew Rule has a long history in journalism and crime writing in Australia. He is perhaps best-known for co-authoring the Underbelly true crime series with John 'Sly of the Underworld' Silvester. The series is still going, and inspired the hit Underbelly television drama on Melbourne’s gangland war. Andrew has also written the Chopper series, as well as a number of stand alone books including Rule on Crime (2017) and in 2016 Man and Beast (2016).
Andrew is the Deputy Editor of The Herald Sun and hosts a regular fortnightly spot on Triple M’s Hot Breakfast called In The Rule World. As a senior writer for The Age and The Sunday Age, he won a Gold Walkley, the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of The Year Award (twice) and the Melbourne Press Club's Gold Quill Award (also twice).
- Andrew brought a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing to the interview.
- Andrew read the Pocomoto series by Rex Dixon as a child, and also referenced Roald Dahl and The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder by as literature good to encourage young readers.
- Andrew references The Godfather, Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas and The Sopranos, as well as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Helen Garner’s This House of Grief (about Farquharson).
- Andrew was influenced by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Beyond Belief by Emlyn Williams.
- Andrew mentions several Australian newspapers and magazines, including The Gippsland Times, The Age and The Good Weekend (run by Fairfax), and The Herald and The Australian Magazine (run by News Corp).
- Andrew wrote the authorised biography of Kerry Stokes, Kerry Stokes: The Boy from Nowhere. The unauthorised biography, Kerry Stokes: Self-Made Man ,was written by Margaret Simons.
- Graham Perkin, Les Carlyon and Greg Taylor were all editors of The Age. Andrew also looked up to sports journalists Peter McFarline and Geoff Slattery.
- Andrew wrote extensively on the murder of Jennifer Tanner, which remains unsolved.
- Andrew mentions Amanda Hooton’s award winning piece on Takeover Target.
- Andrew was the first to publish allegations against Geoff Clark on 14 June 2001, in ‘Geoff Clark: Power and Rape’ in The Age.
- Andrew admires the writing craft of Michael Lewis, who wrote Moneyball, Liar’s Poker, and Boomerang (among others), as well as admires Anson Cameron, and the writing of Lawrence Money and Gideon Haigh. He also references George V. Higgins’ reflections on his own writing and Martin Amis talking about the death of language.
- Andrew mentions cartoonists Ron Tandberg and Mark Knight.
- Nic references You Will Go To The Moon by Mae Blacker Freeman, first published in 1959.
Nic Brasch: Welcome to The Garret. Andrew Rule is one of Australia’s premiere non-fiction writers and journalists. He is currently the Deputy Editor of the Herald Sun in Melbourne, but, well, if I stopped his introduction there I’d be leaving out so much.
I want to start our chat with Andrew Rule today by sharing with you just a few of his many accomplishments. Dual Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award, Hall of Fame in the Melbourne Press Club, decades of experience across newspapers and in radio, non-fiction writer, crime writer. You may best know him for writing the Underbelly series and the Underbelly television series, but his breadth and knowledge is almost beyond peer in this country, so welcome, Andrew, to The Garret.
Andrew Rule: I’d like to live up to that.
Nic: (laughs) I’m sure you will.
Andrew: I feel that I’m becoming one of those dreadful people, a veteran.
Nic: Aren’t we all. Well this is all about writing but reading is such an essential part of writing.
Andrew: It is.
Nic: Let’s go back, when you ten, what or who were you reading?
Andrew: I think you can’t write – unless you’re some sort of lunatic – you can’t write unless you read, and really, the template that we apply to stories, we learn it at a young age by reading. My mother was a school teacher. I grew up in the bush and we didn’t have television. We had very poor radio. Really, the only stimulus outside the family for me was reading, and I read voraciously from a very young age.
Nic: Everything? In particular, your favourites?
Andrew: I would read the back of the cornflakes packet. I would read, I’m not terribly well read, but I‘m very widely read.
Nic: What’s the difference between well-read and widely read?
Andrew: Well-read you’ve read all the classics and you’ve kept up with literary fiction. Well, I haven’t read all the classics or kept up with literary fiction. But I have… I’ve got a broad… I don’t know much about anything, I know a little bit about a lot of things. My mother was a voracious reader and so I grew up with that example. She did nothing else but read, really. And, I remember clearly going to school – she taught me at home to read and write – and then I went off to school, primary school. I might have been a year younger than my peers, and I was in a class and it was very boring. There was a large class, and I was doing maths or something, I didn’t like it, and I reached over behind me and plucked a cowboy book from the… it was Pocomoto, I remember this. And I’d be sitting there reading this thing under the desk and the teacher caught me and sent me up the front. I wasn’t listening to the lesson, I was reading what was really a… I was in grade two and it probably a grade six book I guess, I don’t know. But that hooked my attention, because before that it had been sort of John and Betty, and this really boring stuff that could almost have soured me, but I was lucky enough to find an adventure story with somebody who had a mule and a gun and a dog and whatever it was, and away I went.
Nic: It’s funny you should talk about that because I’ve gone into schools a lot, and I love seeing schools that have books that are relevant to the students. And I remember, the opposite is horrible to see. I remember going to a school in the northern suburbs of Melbourne one day, and looking at the bookshelves and I picked one book out and it was called, I think it was in the Doctor Seuss series, but it was a non-fiction book and it was called When We Go to the Moon. And it wasn’t a science fiction, it had actually been in that school since 1963 or something and that was on the bookshelves and they were expecting kids to be reading it. And I actually said to them, Can I take that? I’ll give you a new one because I’m just absolutely amazed that a school – and this was probably six or seven or eight years ago, so about the year 2010 – that still has a non-fiction book called When We Go to the Moon.
Andrew: That is just staggering.
Nic: It’s frightening.
Andrew: Well, this is the thing. We foist on children who have bright, good imaginations… Children are as sophisticated as you allow them to be, really. Many of them. They’ve got a limitless imagination at a young age, that we don’t feed and foster it. They can be very sophisticated in some respects.
Nic: Absolutely. And the best books for that age, it’s all very well to have the words and the text at the right level and all the other components, but the subject matter is so critical. If they’re not interested, if the subject matter doesn’t appeal to them, they’re just not going to be interested in reading it.
Andrew: Yeah, you’ll turn them off. Particularly I think, and this is my teachers hat – meaning my mother, as she is a teacher and she’s an expert at teaching little kids things. She said particularly little boys, they’ll just bored straight away, and you’ll turn them off. So, she would always read to them in class with class sets of books, interesting books that she knows work, because she’s done it forever. Whether it might be Roald Dahl or Little House on the Prairie or whatever. She’d buy these entire class sets at her own expense, hand them out and then read at the front while they follow. Of course, these are fairly riveting, and most kids like it and they become interested.
Nic: Absolutely. Fast forward ten years. Early twenties, around twenty. What were you reading by then? Do you remember who or what was really taking your interest?
Andrew: I can remember key books that influenced me, and I have to say, In Cold Blood.
Nic: Absolutely. I’m re-reading it now.
Andrew: It’s probably a cliché.
Nic: (laughs) No. I’m re-reading it now.
Andrew: It’s funny, when I first read it I thought it was unparalleled, and I guess it was. It was one of the first, it was really the first of that, the novel technique, used for journalism. And I also read what I would think would be the British equivalent, a book called Beyond Belief about the Moors Murders, which was nowhere near as popular, but equally skilful. A very different but similarly macabre and it was written by the Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams. And, that was a brilliant book about a real crime. And those two books influenced me greatly in the way I wrote feature stories about crime.
Nic: Okay, let’s talk about journalism now, let’s get into it. How you got into it, was it through the old cadet system? And what were your early days like and what were you taught?
Andrew: Old cadet system? It was.
Nic: (laughs). Tell me.
Andrew: I think I won the essay competition at Sale Agricultural Show in Year 11 and then in Year 12. I was back to back winner.
Nic: Back to back winner, fantastic!
Andrew: A $5 prize, which was quite a lot of money, $5. And one of the results of the prize was awarded by the local newspaper, which was The Gippsland Times in Sale. And because of that they said come down and have a week, or a few days, of work experience, which I did. And I got to write captions and little stories and of course, because it was a country newspaper it had three staff. Whatever you wrote when in the paper! (Laughs). It was child labour. But of course, this is magic here. I’d written stuff in long hand and on bits of paper and handed in, and it appeared in print the following week. And I thought ‘how good is this?’ So I got a job at the paper as a cadet. One of my older school mates, older than me, had gone there, and I think he had a, some sort of breakdown. He didn’t last through his probationary period, because they had a very cunning three-month probationary thing, and he was relieved of the job and they slipped me in. I worked there in 1975 , and then I went to University after that, and then I went to The Age. But The Gippsland Times gave me my start.
Nic: So you studied Journalism at university? What were you studying?
Andrew: I did not. I did one week of journalism at RMIT by correspondence, but sadly, I think the shorthand night – they did shorthand by correspondence – in Sale was pay night, so I never went. I wasn’t that dedicated. (Laughs) My short hand remains poor to this day. But I got into The Age. I could also have got a job at The Herald. I was offered a job there later, you know, a week later, but I went to The Age. Then later I went around to The Herald, you know, five years later.
Nic: Okay. And so when you went to The Age it was all hands on training… Where you learnt the basics…
Andrew: I was lucky enough to go to one of the world’s great newspaper, as it was.
Nic: It certainly was. Who was the editor at that time?
Andrew: The editor was Greg um… he was the guy that followed Les Carlyon, who had followed the great Graham Perkin. It was pretty well at the peak of its power in circulation and in revenue.
Nic: And in influence as well.
Andrew: And in influence. Perkin had made it great, and it was still coasting. So I was lucky enough to work there at a time it had, like 400 staff or something. It was a massive place; it was like a small town. Even to get something in the paper was a red-letter day, and there were very good senior sub-editors. I. It was a great place to work, because you worked up against very good journalists that you could measure yourself against, and ask their advice.
Nic: Who were your mentors at the time, and later?
Andrew: Many of them were in sport. They took one look at me and said this bloke will be in the farmers, in the agricultural round, then they put me on sport, then they put me back on police rounds. Eventually I became Chief Police Reporter. I did a lot of sport and crime, and I did courts. So, a lot of the sport and crime and other general stuff as well.
But, while in sport there were many good writers there. There was Geoff Slattery, there was the great Peter McFarline of course, who, I became one of his ball bearers when he died. I was very close to Macca. Flawed human being, great journalist, as many of them were. You could write things and show them to somebody and say ‘does this work?’ And I was always happy to do that and they’d go, ‘Oh, have another go, it’s a bit long’ or whatever. So, you know, we had those measuring sticks. And that’s a craft, and you learn by doing it. Like playing football.
Nic: Journalism has changed a lot in terms of, obviously, technology from then to now. But the basic principles and lessons of journalism, do you think they remain the same now? Or have things changed because of all the different platforms a journalist has to write towards now? I mean, is the old inverted pyramid still taught to the young journalists and the who, what, when, why..?
Andrew: Well, I hope it is.
Nic: You hope it is.
Andrew: Those basic fact-gathering skills are the same, I just think they have to be more sure footed today, and to be willing to learn, and when you’re young you can learn. I think 18 year olds and 20 year olds can learn things very swiftly.
Andrew: Now that not only have to learn to write the stuff, but to put it on tape, do it in front of a camera. I think Australia is increasingly becoming like America, where there is a generation that is far more fluent and confident than my generation was, verbally.
Nic: When I think of the work of yours I’ve read over the years one thing is apparent is that, or one common thread, is that you tend to try and find the characters in the story. The events are important, but it seems to me in the same way that a fiction writer creates characters, I get the sense that you’re looking for the characters. Is that true?
Andrew: That’s true. One learns to do that. And also, I’m a storyteller. I look for narrative. A favourite phrase I’ve cooked up lately is ‘I want to write things where narrative meets knowledge’. Where you’re seamlessly winding together a story that could almost be a film. And knowledge that is of some interest or consequence to people. The guy that ran from Wall Street, Michael Lewis, that wrote Moneyball, that wrote Liar’s Poker, and that book Boomerang about the GFC. There’s a fellow who combines brilliantly storytelling and inside knowledge. I think that is the goal standard for journalists.
Nic: Look at Moneyball, for instance.
Andrew: It’s part of the language.
Nic: But if he just pitched that to a publisher in the first place they’d be like ‘How are you going to make that interesting?’
Andrew: Exactly. It’s like a joke.
Nic: Absolutely. Totally and utterly. Looking back at some of the stories that you’ve written over the years, which ones are particularly memorable? Which ones do you remember for any particular reason? Whether because it was particularly difficult or particularly satisfying.
Andrew: The biggest story I’ve had anything to do with was the one I did on Geoff Clark, about 15 years ago. It was probably the biggest domestic story I’d seen for many years. It was sort of as big as the dismissal of the Whitlam Government for a couple of days, it was massive.
Nic: Geoff Clark at that time was the head of ATSIC?
Andrew: The head of ATSIC, yes. And he was brought down, essentially, by a story that I wrote about him. That is surely the story that had the biggest impact. Another one that was interesting to me because it sort of righted a wrong was the Tanner case, where I wrote a story about the suspicious death of a young woman called Jennifer Tanner in the country. It looked like a suicide and it probably wasn’t. That continues to be one of the great mysteries of Australian law enforcement.
Nic: I was going to say, it still comes up all the time doesn’t it?
Andrew: It does, it’s an evergreen. I think I’ve written some, an not consequential stories, but some of the nicest stories I’ve written for words, actual lyric piece I wrote about my father when he was dying, which is no consequence to anyone else. But it was published in a book of eulogies. It was a moving and powerful piece.
Nic: How was it different writing that compared to some of the stuff that are less subjective?
Andrew: Well, it’s one of those rare things that does come from the heart. It sort of pours out of you, whereas the other stories, you have to build them bit by bit. That one, I sat down one night while my father was in the next room, dying, and I wrote it overnight. Pretty well word for word in one hit.
Nic: Have there been any stories that you’ve started for one reason or another that you’ve just stopped. You just haven’t – and not necessarily for the obvious one that would be legal reasons – any others for any reason? Any others where you just felt someone would be too hurt by it or anything like that?
Andrew: I’ve certainly gathered a list of stories that have never been written.
Nic: (Laughs) Right, okay.
Andrew: And one day I’d like to write them. You know the stories that were too hot to touch.
Andrew: They’re the ones that go a bit beyond journalism into the realm of speculation. Mysterious deaths, rumours about mysterious deaths. I mean, we could throw up one. There was once a very important politician in Victoria, whose wife mysteriously fell over in the garden and hit her head repeatedly with a garden spade, or something like that. And the very understanding police took her down to the Coroner’s Court where she was very efficiently disposed of, and I think within 24 hours, in fact cremated.
Andrew: That was very interesting.
Nic: Yes, that’s fascinating.
Andrew: Yes, because it’s widely held by some people, that it was an inside job.
Nic: Goodness me.
Andrew: I don’t know, might be just a vicious rumour.
Nic: Well, they make the best stories, don’t they? Before we move on from journalism, I just want to touch again on young, budding journalists entering the industry today. It seems to be a different pathway in. In some ways, they seem to have so many more opportunities because of online opportunities that may or may not be paid, just to build up a portfolio and stuff like that. But then, there’s also this, within the media world, disappearing jobs etcetera in the traditional media. I’d love your advice to young people trying to get into it.
Andrew: It’s almost the same advice I would have given 25 years ago, it’s just that it’s harder now. Really, none of my children have gone into journalism per se. My daughter did work in radio briefly and in public relations overseas before going to advisory roles and things. Two out of three of my children probably had the ability to do it. I wouldn’t advise them to do it, but had they wanted to, I’d say something like this. You know, it’s like boxing and ballet. You wouldn’t advise anyone to take those up as a way to make a living, however, there are people who are very good at both of them, and those people will make a very good living. So, if you really feel that that’s what you want to do, have a real good go at it. You can still do that in our business, but it’s just a lot harder than it used to be.
Nic: Sure. Who are the next generation of journalists below who are working now that you most admire that you can see, you know?
Nic: So I mean age-wise, in their twenties and thirties, the journalists that you see today.
Andrew: Not many. Now, that’s probably just old age and crotchetiness. It’s interesting to me and I think it’s a pity, that I look around and I see many retired or retiring or people that could retire, who are probably as good at it as anyone. I can even name names if you wish. Someone like Lawrence Money that just left The Age. He’s a flawless wordsmith. He writes copy that doesn’t need subbing. Now that’s a rare thing. I’ve only known a handful of people like that. He’s very good at what he does. There’s another guy, Gideon Haigh’s father-in-law. He’s a fellow called Gary Parker. He was a Vietnam War correspondent once. He ended up, in his seventies, writing about computers for The Age. Perfect. Once had dinner with Ernest Hemmingway and wrote a piece about it. Fascinating man, lovely fellow, great writer, perfect craftsman. I don’t see many that have that sort of craft. Having mentioned Gideon Haigh, he’s obviously… I don’t agree with everything he does or says.
Nic: No, nobody does, but he’s a class of his own as a writer.
Andrew: He’s a very good writer, yes. He possibly has other flaws, but he’s a very good writer, and the book he wrote about the old murder recently, Certain Admissions, is a terrific book. One of the best of the year along with Helen Garner’s book about Farquharson. Helen Garner is not exactly younger, but she’s marvellous.
Nic: Take me through the process of writing a feature article. So let’s talk about long form journalism in a feature article, whether for the Good Weekend or something similar, The Australian Magazine or something like that. How you go about it, the length of time it takes, how much time is spent interviewing. All that sort of stuff.
Andrew: Harder than it looks to do anything with complex facts. So, if you need to do a searching profile of someone, as opposed to sort of, you’re the visiting playwright and we’d sit with you for an hour. Not that one?
Nic: No, not talking about the search story.
Andrew: The piece that requires research, two to four, two to six weeks depending on what they are. Having said that, I think there are other stories that are easier to pull together. I once suggested doing a story about a race horse to Amanda Hooton, about a horse called Takeover Target who was then taking off, and she said ‘What’s Takeover Target?’ And I explained and I said he’s a great story, I can’t do it because I’m tied up with this. Why don’t you do it? Ring this guy, this guy, this guy, here’s the phone numbers, and a week later she wrote a story that won a Walkley. She wrote it in a matter of probably three days.
Andrew: Because the story was there and she told it beautifully. But that’s sort of a one joke story. If you have to pull together a lot of information and then turn it into a smooth, seamless 4,000 words, that’s another trick. And avoid lawyers.
Nic: So the equivalent, you’ve got your Takeover Target, as you said it’s the one trick article, as opposed to an exposé of the Fine Cotton thing, which takes weeks.
Andrew: And it is legal implications. You’re being a detective, then you’re sort of being a defamation lawyer when you’re constructing it, then you’ve got to write it like a novelist, so these are all different skills.
Nic: Let’s move on to true crime writing. Obviously both in newspapers but in books and… What was it about crime that fascinated you? Was it before you were a court reporter or did it help? Or is it just because it has so much conflict, which is where you are going to find good stories?
Andrew: The best stories are about people. And the best stories, ultimately all we’re interested in is life and death. When we tell fairy-tale stories to little children, or we used to, it’s about the big bad wolf. You know, if you’re not careful it will get you and eat you. It’s death. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll outrun the wolf and you’ll live. That’s life. And really, in the end the stories that preoccupy humans, and always have, since caves, are about sex, death and betrayal. In the end, that’s what it’s about. Obviously in the end sex is love and all forms of that, and I really think that crime is… What’s Macbeth?
Nic: Absolutely. Crime and Punishment.
Andrew: What is The Merchant of Venice? It’s really a gangster story when you think about it. It’s the Sopranos, think about it. We’ve got this Shylock and he’s lending money. That’s what it is. Shakespeare knew a bit about it.
Nic: So did the Ancient Greeks.
Andrew: When people look down their nose at crime; crime is all really… what is ballet, what is opera, what is Shakespeare, what is the Old Testament? It’s always crime.
Nic: Did you have issues with the… you obviously know a lot of the figures in the criminal world. Over the years you’ve met a lot of them, you’ve talked to them, you’ve run away from them etcetera. Do you have an issue with them being glamorised in some way, becoming celebrities? Particularly, if we look at the Underbelly series, it’s on TV and that sort of stuff.
Andrew: Yeah. Not that I wrote the Underbelly series on TV.
Nic: I get that but it came from your book.
Andrew: I’ve sued the people who made the Underbelly series.
Nic: (Laughs) Okay, alright. The first series I thought was wonderful. Absolutely, sharp and wonderful, but after that it just became this...
Andrew: But that becomes drama criticism. You and I are both entitled to criticise it for its quality, and the first one was better quality then the second.
Nic: That’s right but it’s also the characters, to me, became glamorised. To the extent where you look back and go oh, that lifestyle, I might do that.
Andrew: True, right, but not my problem.
Nic: (laughs) No, it’s not your problem. So it doesn’t bother you at all?
Andrew: Well, I didn’t do it.
Nic: But in general? You know these people, in terms of the perception of criminals in society…
Andrew: Yeah, but, go back to my previous answer, it’s always been the case. Cagney? Every gangster walked around, wanted to look like George Raft.
Nic: Yeah, and Tony Soprano’s the same.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean these Melbourne crooks, they’d all watch Reservoir Dogs. They even spoke about it. They all watch Goodfellas. Life imitates art.
Nic: Was it harder writing stories about these people because of lack of access, compared to some of the feature articles?
Andrew: Well, it’s the same thing. Basically, John Silvester and I, we wrote a lot of crime stories, particularly him. He’s a career crime writer. John’s really a career police reporter, that’s what he’s done. And, between us we both had complimentary strength, so between us we could turn out a lot of stuff.
Nic: What were the complementarities? So, working in a collaboration is obviously different to journalism. You write the article, it’s there, you’ve done it. In terms of collaborating with someone like John, and you talk about he has strengths and you have strengths. What were they and how did it work? In a tactical sense?
Andrew: Well, John writes a lot of crime, so there’s material. He’s got good police contacts, so he’s got a chance to get stories and to check stories. I was better at publishing, and I knew how to write and edit stuff, and get it to the publisher full form. I’d done a book, my first book was in the eighties. And that sort of opened the way a bit, and he said yeah we could do something together. So we cooperated and I was able to take his stuff and edit it a bit, and we could check each other’s copy for facts and style and all the rest of it. And polish each other up. He brought to the table a lot of knowledge, and a lot of natural storytelling chops. I mean, he’s a great natural storyteller, and a highly intelligent guy with a lot of great natural timing. He would have made a marvellous barrister.
Nic: Yeah, and seemingly a great sense of morality.
Andrew: He has.
Nic: His stories are almost always about morality. They’re all morality tales.
Andrew: He would have been an honest barrister.
Nic: Yes. (Laughs).
Andrew: Possibly why he didn’t do it.
Nic: In the middle of that you mentioned the word contacts. You said he had a lot of contacts.
Andrew: He has.
Nic: Every journalist I’ve ever met, I’ve always been amazed. Almost, the key to journalism in knowing who to contact, how to contact. Whenever I’ve seen journalists at work or spoken to them, their list of contacts and their, almost fearlessness in picking up the telephone, is it not hard?
Andrew: You do get better at it. I wasn’t fearless at 17. You just get better at it by doing it as various people around here would know. If you dial the phone 40 times every morning, you do get tougher and better at it. You build a great list of contacts. The first thing I tell young journalists is, we can’t put in what got left out. Like, with footballers or anything else, but what you can do is build contacts and work them.
Nic: What’s the best story you’ve ever written from an outside tip? Someone contacting you, going ‘Hey, Andrew. I want to chat to you about this.’
Andrew: Um, outside tip.
Nic: You know, someone just contacting you out of nowhere.
Andrew: Uh, Tanner, Tanner.
Nic: Okay. That was from an outside tip?
Andrew: No, it wasn’t a stranger.
Nic: No, but it was someone contacting you rather than you deciding, yeah?
Andrew: Yeah, it was. It was a guy who I still know quite well, who was then a policeman.
Nic: Okay. Writing about the world of crime, have you ever feared for your life? Have ever been scared? Physically?
Andrew: I’ve had a few… Uh, not terrified, but I’ve had a few brushes. That Tanner thing produced an ugly incident with a car windscreen being smashed at home late at night, which indicated they knew where I was, they knew which car I had, and they knew when I got home, because it happened shortly after I’d driven home.
Andrew: Yeah, that and a few others. I’ve had bricks delivered to my letterbox with warnings. They nearly always just show you that they know where you are. It’s just a little…
Nic: Scare tactic.
Nic: Okay. Moving on into one of the more recent books and seemingly away from the world of crime is your biography of Kerry Stokes. Although, going from crime to business I am reminded of the quote at the beginning of The Godfather, which I think is ‘Behind every big business is crime.’ I don’t know if there’s a relation between…
Andrew: Yeah. ‘Behind every great fortune!’
Nic: Yeah, yeah. ‘Behind every great fortune,’ that’s it. ‘Is a crime.’
Nic: Yeah, that’s it. Is there a relation between the crime world and the business world?
Andrew: You do wonder don’t you?
Andrew: It wasn’t a hostile biography, obviously. But you would wonder sometimes whether, I don’t think it’s literally true of everyone. I mean I doubt Henry Ford perpetrated many crimes, but you would wonder about some, whether they have taken a few shortcuts.
Andrew: Stood on a few fingers.
Nic: So how did this come about? Kerry Stokes contacted you or…
Nic: Or was it something you wanted to do?
Andrew: I did hear that he was up for a biography because there was an unauthorised one starting, and he wasn’t happy about it. And for no particular reason, he just said it’s my story and I want to tell my story and I don’t want somebody else to sell my story. And I do explain that in the book.
In fact, he had one of his own people, this is true. This old fellow that worked for him had started putting together a biographical dossier of his life. Amateurish, but comprehensive. This had already been in process for a year or two, a long slow thing. He’d already started redoing oral history things, as much as we are now, at the library in Canberra. He would go in there every second Wednesday and tell his life story. They put them away on tapes – never to be seen again until he’s dead or something – but I was actually given access to those.
I think he was just really not happy that someone was going to do an unauthorised one, and it was known that he would do an authorised one. One of his people, I do know, and she said to me ‘Would you be interested?’ I said no, I’m busy, but I’ll give you a list of people I think would be good. And I nominated Greg Bearup and various others. And, whether they canvassed those people or not, I think they did, and I think they were all busy on other things. Eventually they got back to me and one thing turned into another and eventually I said, ‘oh alright, I’ll do it’. That meant I didn’t go to work in New York at News Corp at the time.
Andrew: I was supposed to go to New York and do that job for a couple of years but, I stayed here instead and worked here and did the Stokes book
Nic: Did you find you had to compromise, being a so called authorised biography? Were there moments when you realised you couldn’t go down certain rabbit holes?
Andrew: Well, look, I think I covered all the things that matter. And, that would be his… there’s a few issues. And, I think if you have a look at the authorised one you’ll see pretty well…
Nic: The unauthorised one.
Andrew: Yeah, sorry, the other one. I didn’t read it until I finished mine, because I thought I don’t want to cross contaminate. So, both of them have sort of tackled those things in their own way. But, I had the advantage of having the real story from the inside, and a lot of cooperation from many people that knew him, which was an advantage.
Nic: It took a long time to get a biography of Stokes. I mean he’s almost the unknown media magnate. In a country that’s been fascinated by magnates for 150 years, he seems have just totally and utterly…
Andrew: If he put on sunglasses and a cap, he could walk anywhere…
Nic: Particularly on the east coast, he doesn’t even need the sunglasses.
Andrew: There’s an anecdote. He walks into the bank in Broom, and he wants to cash a check for $400, and the girl behind the counter rings head office and says there’s a man here who says he’s Kerry Stokes, wants to cash a check. (Laughs). It was him.
Andrew: So, that wouldn’t happen with Kerry Packer.
Nic: In your, dare I say, spare time, do you have creative writing pursuits? What I tend to call passion projects that you work on, whether fiction, non-fiction…
Andrew: No, I haven’t sort of got to the novel in the bottom draw. I’ve always been a bit more business-like than that. I work to the market, and I write something to make money. The day might come when I might try a novel, but my next project – if I get it up – is a non-fiction project, and it’s an international one. It’s where, to use that beautiful phrase, it’s ‘where narrative meets knowledge’. So, I want to do about horseracing. The sort of thing Michael Lewis has done with Moneyball with baseball.
Nic: Fantastic! What do you about writing?
Andrew: I guess it’s a slightly neurotic business. And, I’m not as neurotic as the good novelists, therefore I’m not as good as they are. But I guess it enables you to polish something on a page to get it right, that you don’t get right when you’re speaking. So we all can wake up at 3am in the morning and say ‘I wish I’d told that joke better, what I should have done was this, that and that’. But when you’re write it you can, you can sit there and get it right.
Nic: It takes a while though, doesn’t it?
Andrew: Yeah, and you learn what works and how it should look on the page. I think if you’ve read enough, you end up getting an idea of the template, what works and what doesn’t.
Nic: It’s the key isn’t it, reading?
Andrew: I think it is, yeah. I can’t see how you can be very good at it unless you’ve read a lot.
Nic: I’ve noticed in front of you is a notebook, open, pen. You take it everywhere? What do you use it for, what do you write down and why?
Andrew: Well I got up this morning and I thought ‘I’ve got to do that writing thing today. I don’t know what they want me to do’. So I read a little bit of George V. Higgins on writing, and then, George V Higgins, the great Boston crime writer…
Andrew: …and lawyer, and other things. Then when I got to work I pulled out Stephen King’s On Writing, then I printed out an essay on bad writing from and Australian write in Sydney, just to give myself some ideas. None of which I think I’ve used today, but had you asked me tricky questions I would have had the answer.
Nic: (Laughs). Well, what did George V. Higgins say that you…?
Andrew: It’s funny, he came up with a couple of very original things. His observation is, and it might be right, his observation is that writers are not all right handed or left handed, predominant one or the other, that most of them are a bit ambidextrous. And that they’re analytical side and their creative side is sort of balanced, and he hardly knows a writer of any note that is not to some extent ambidextrous. I thought that’s interesting. I’m a left – I’m a right-handed writer but a left-handed axemen, you know, very ambidextrous. So…
Nic: You fit the pattern.
Andrew: I fit the pattern so I was delighted with that. But, no one else has ever noticed that but he might be right.
Nic: Have you always kept diaries and journals and taken notes?
Andrew: Yeah I just have a work diary, but not a diary that would be publishable. Just you’re ‘Meet Jay at State Library.’ You know? But it’s handy to just write stuff down if you need, and also just to get it into my head.
Nic: Ok, sure. And what is bad writing?
Andrew: Bad writing? There’s a lot of it.
Nic: There is a lot of it, isn’t there?
Andrew: There’s a lot more.
Nic: What makes bad writing?
Andrew: Oh, let me count the ways!
Andrew: Well, cliché, mainly. Not writing about the concrete and the real, writing about generalisations.
Nic: Martin Amis talks a lot about clichés as the total death of language.
Andrew: Yeah he does. And really, as you get older and wiser you see that and you sort of steer… and then you see that the craft. When I was 17 I thought that In Cold Blood was beyond compare, and possibly the work of God. Now that I’m old and cunning and I’ve done stuff myself, I can see all the stitch marks, and I know, I know where he’s cheated. And I strongly suspect that Truman Capote took a lot of liberty with reality to create that novel effect. And it’s still great, but I can see the tricks.
Nic: I’ve always thought the mark of a great writer is when you read something that is being described in a way you haven’t read before, it seems so simple, and it’s so correct, you get it straight away and you kick yourself by going ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ It just seems so obvious. And that to me, only the great writers can do that.
Andrew: That’s true. Like a Tandberg cartoon, or a Knight cartoon, it’s so simple and you say that’s easy, I could have done that, but you couldn’t.
Nic: Absolutely, exactly, exactly. You just see it straight away and you go, that must have been done 100 times before, but it hasn’t.
Andrew: Some people just have that originality.
Nic: They do.
Andrew: Anson Cameron, the novelist, he has that quirk of originality. Some more than others, they just seem to have a fountain of oddities.
Nic: Totally. And it is that simplicity.
Andrew: And confidence.
Nic: Thank you Andrew very much for spending time it’s been an absolute pleasure chatting to you, and all the best with your new venture.
Andrew: Pleasure. Yeah, I hope it gets off the ground.
Nic: I hope so too. Thank you Andrew. Cheers!
Andrew: I hope this helps.
Nic: Thank you.