Jess Hill is an investigative journalist. Her exceptional 2019 work See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse received the 2020 Stella Prize, and is now being published around the world.
Jess has done what few writers can - she has taken difficult subject matter and not only made it compelling, she has contributed to a societal shift. In this interview, Jess discusses how writers can 'find the way' to the story, and also reflects on what topics she may tackle next.
ASTRID: Jess Hill, welcome back to The Garret!
JESS: Thank you Astrid!
ASTRID: We are talking via Zoom as is the way of the world right now, and I feel very lucky getting some more of your time Jess. We spoke after the release of See What You Made Me Do in about September 2019, and two weeks ago in April 2020 we did a livestream chat with the State Library of Victoria about your phenomenal, disturbing and brilliant non-fiction work See What You Made Me Do. I’d like to take our conversation a little bit further today about how as an investigative journalist and writer you approach the difficult topics and then how you get people to listen, to pay attention and to change because that is so phenomenally hard to do. How does that sound?
JESS: Sounds good! (laughs).
ASTRID: Before we get any further, I would just like to mention yet again that See What You Made Me Do was awarded the Stella Prize this year in 2020. I wanted to talk to you today about not just writing about difficult topics, but then getting people to engage with them, getting people to read them, getting people to stock them in their bookstores and get them out into the world. Because that is not something you can plan, but it is something that you can approach in different ways.
But before we get there, I’d like to take a step back and ask you about the recent profile of you and your work See What You Made Me Do in The Saturday Paper. So, that came out at the beginning of May 2020. In it you express what it was like for you to go into the world of domestic abuse for four to five years and bring this work to life.
JESS: Sarah Price the writer, she came to me and she wanted to talk more personally about what the book writing process had been like and it’s really probably only since winning the Stella that I felt like it’s okay for me to talk about that now, because the book has landed. The book is now a living thing, and it’s had a good life so far and I’m not interfering with it by adding my own context. And up until now I sort felt like if it becomes about what a long and torturous process it was for me, it’ll distract away from the content because ultimately personalities can be a lot more interesting than hard topics. So, I just sort of wanted to avoid that.
But this piece, I thought she did it so well. She said she had 6000 words and brought it down to 2000—we had a very, very long chat. And I guess what I really wanted to get across both for people to understand where the book comes from and how much heart there is in it, but also for people and other journalists to see that us talking about vicarious trauma, we’re not necessarily detracting from our stories. We’re not putting ourselves necessarily in the story, but we’re signalling to other people that if you feel like you’re coming undone as a result of working on these subjects that’s not because you are uniquely vulnerable or that you’re not hard enough. It’s really hard stuff to inhabit and people who write about anything from domestic abuse, to global conflict, the catholic church and child sexual abuse, they inhabit worlds that we try to avoid most of the time and if we see it come up on the news for five minutes it can really take our breath away and feel like, oh god everything’s going to shit. We live in that shit for like, for me three-and-a-half years.
And I think that probably part of me looking for the fascinating aspects and the compelling and captivating aspects was not only because I really wanted the book to be this page-turning experience, as much as it could be, but also probably to save myself from sinking. Cause I knew that if I’m sinking completely and I don’t feel that transcendence on an almost daily basis of having found something that just blows my socks off, or just absolutely upends something I’ve always believed, or something that just really moves me, then the person reading it is going to be sinking into the shit too. It’s a long project to read a book of that size—it can take people weeks or months. So I guess I just really wanted to design a journey for the reader that was the journey I needed too which was that we come down into the depths of it, feel it, really try to understand even just as much as we can if we haven’t experienced it ourselves, just a slither of what it would feel like to go through that. But then surface again and go, right what’s going on here? What have I always thought about it? Why might that be wrong, even if I’m a smart person? Even if I’ve thought a bit about trauma or thought a bit about these difficult subjects, how might my perspective have been warped by the culture? That’s what saved me, and I think that’s what ends up moving the readers along—this sort of inexorable tide that keeps moving towards better understanding and just engagement.
ASTRID: And it’s not just better understanding and engagement, although they are clearly compelling and just essential, but you take the reader to a place where you have potential solutions. Not to solve everything—this is not advocacy; this is not just look at everything that’s happened and understand it. This is look at everything that’s happened, think about it, feel it, understand it, and now consider what we’re going to do about it in our daily lives and as a society. And that is really powerful.
So, you are a journalist. Before you wrote See What You Made Me Do you are an investigative journalist—you have a history in radio and reporting from overseas. If I can be so bold, that’s a skill but also you are working with words, you are a storyteller, you are conveying information in a way that hopefully makes a long impact on your audience. And now you find yourself in this situation where you are one of the people who aren’t a policeman or aren’t a healthcare professional who has immersed themselves in this topic domestic abuse in Australia, but also around the world because See What You Made Me Do is going to be published in the US, UK and other jurisdictions. Where do you as a storyteller and as a journalist go next?
JESS: I don’t know. I mean, that’s… I’ve sort of been thinking the last few months maybe I will never be able to stop talking about this because literally it’s been most of my thirties now that I’ve been working on it, starting at the end of 2014. That was never supposed to happen. I read a really great essay by Helen Garner the other day that was extracted in The Guardian and there was this line in it that absolutely talks to the mystery of how these stories find you and get these hooks stuck into you. She said ‘…the force that draws a writer to one story rather than another does not tap politely at the front door. It shoots an invisible arrow into some murky region of the writer’s unknown needs, and hits a target she didn’t even know was there’.
That’s absolutely what happened for me. Aside from tapping into a very murky region that literally I am still trying to figure out with my therapist (laughs) I don’t know why, as someone who has not had a major life-altering experience with domestic abuse, where it would make sense to go on this type of crusade—which is essentially what it’s become for me—it doesn’t make sense as to why that became a calling for me. I was wracking my brains like what is it? I mean, sure when I was a kid, I wanted to start an intelligent alternative to women’s magazines because I thought women’s magazines were just pigeonholing girls in a reprehensible way and convincing them that intelligence wasn’t their bailiwick you know? (Laughs) And I’ve been a feminist for a long time. I thought maybe they’re the reasons why. But honestly, I’m still sort of dredging up my own family issues. What is it about me that wants to save everyone? (Laughs) Especially in some of the family court stuff—literally feeling on the hook to save people’s children which is absurd.
So, in terms of where that goes next, it’s always carrying the kernel of trying to get people to understand, and not just understand at an intellectual level and not just understand the statistics and oh isn’t that terrible? But to really viscerally understand what goes on in these scenarios of whether it be domestic abuse, and as we’ve talked about before I’ve wanted to apply the same thing to climate which would be, I think, an even bigger challenge. So how do you make people understand it in a way that, as you say, moves them either to action or to engaging with the world differently? So, whether that be engaging with individuals—say, for example, from domestic abuse that they next time they have a friend or family member go through it they approach it entirely differently. Or if you’re writing about climate change, engaging with the entire world and the way that they fit within it and what they fight for differently, or what they don’t fight for.
So, for me that kernel of wanting to make people understand and take that understanding into action—that’s what’s driving. So I think that the gendered violence aspect of that will continue to be a part of what I do for, I don’t know, the foreseeable future, but what I want to do is connect that in with the various interconnected crises of climate change, racism, workplace harassment and assault. All of these interconnected crises that we need to deal with much more viscerally in order to change. And there’s no better example of that happening and working than the #MeToo movement. It does work and that’s not to say that now women aren’t being harassed in the workplace, and now when women come forward, they are welcomed with open arms by society and their abusers are admonished and sentenced, that’s not what’s happening. But what is happening is that the culture has changed in a way that it’s hard to see it going backwards from here. It’s like the eyes have been opened, and I guess that’s what I want my work to do regardless of what subject it’s focused on.
ASTRID: I believe that you have a podcast coming soon.
JESS: Yeah, well soon. ‘Soon’ in inverted commas. Yes, with the Victoria Women’s Trust and working with Georgina Savage who did the podcast Silent Waves about a family coming to terms with a pattern of sexual abuse. And she’s brilliant. We’re still kind of working it out, but essentially what we’re looking at is the key and driving concept in our culture of power over, and how power over and the entitlement that we feel to have power over each other, our partners, our colleagues, nature, animals and all the rest of it is the fundamental use-by date that we’ve put on our culture. In exhibiting this type of power, and believing we have a right to it, and believing that we are separate to nature and we are separate to one another.
The sort of concept that really got going in the 80s and what really drives neoliberalism—it’s driving us all towards this cliff and as we drive towards this cliff we see all these problems and we look around and we’re like, oh my god the climate is changing so fast and oh my god, domestic violence is still so terrible and they just shot this black kid on the street. And we’re like what is going on? All these different things just seem to be getting worse. And for a long time, we’ve sort of looked at that and gone why are all these separate issues all seeming to get worse? And it’s like, because they’re not separate. Because they’re all connected in the flow of where we’re going and the project that has ramped up and just accelerated since I was born in the ‘80s. You go to protests and people go, why have they got signs about all these other issues? That’s a distraction. And it’s like we’ve got to look at the whole, we’ve got to look at the system.
And that’s what I think the pandemic really has really brought home to a lot of people is that these things are interconnected and that we are interconnected. And that to say that we just are individuals playing out our own personal dramas on this world stage, and then going back to our four walls, heading out again as though our actions do not affect the actions of others is absurd. And it’s a myth that has been incredibly dangerous but quite persuasive. And we need to really start to interrogate that and see what can we create out of where we are?
ASTRID: Jess, I am also a child of the ‘80s and I don’t understand what has happened in the course of my lifetime. It’s disturbing and I am looking forward to all sorts of journalism and reporting and unveiling of that kind of social commentary of what we’ve done, what we’re doing and what we can change.
When you think about this podcast that you will tell these stories and kind of interrogate these questions that you’ve just outlined—I know you haven’t produced it yet, but I’m interested in how you as a writer and a worker of words are approaching this? In order to make that impact on your audience, in order to grab people’s attention and hold it and then make them make some kind of change in their life, how are you looking for the right stories? Or looking for the audio grabs? What will make something appeal to you, so it gets in your podcast?
JESS: Well as my EP Georgina keeps saying, ‘it’s got to be about stories, it’s got to be people, don’t make it academic.’ And when we were first talking about it, I was like, ‘think about all these amazing thinkers: bell hooks and going to the writing of Rebecca Solnit’—going to these not academics but thinkers. And she’s like, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah but that’s got to just background what the stories are. It’s always got to be about humans’. And you know, my mentor and great friend Mark Colvin made that point to me too—it’s always got to be about people because that’s what people care about, they care about other people. They don’t necessarily care about concepts and issues, you know? You can wind all that stuff around the people.
So, for me I’m looking for the stories that make people connect another person’s experience with their own life. Say for example, we’ll be looking at the issue of coercive control probably over a couple of episodes. But looking at how coercive control, not just used as we know in the home, but how it’s used in the workplace, how it’s used against, I think when we take a close look at it, refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. How it’s used in all of these different contexts and the experience of people that seems utterly disconnected: someone working in an office where they feel they are being undermined, and degraded, and subtly coerced in a way that they can’t understand—how their experience relates to that of a refugee in a camp on a Pacific island. That’s the sort of thing that I’m looking to really explicate and draw out, and in using that web of connections approach, continually reinforce the interconnected nature of all these problems. It’s sort of like, as I did in the book, taking the concept and the idea of what I’m trying to get across like coercive control or whatever, and through the writing or through the storytelling trying to get people to feel just a little bit of the effect of that. Whether that’s a feeling of being a tiny bit suffocated, or a feeling of oppressiveness, or a feeling of relief and then a feeling of oppressiveness as what happens in coercive control.
So that’s how I’m planning to approach it and I know Georgina will be really good at pulling me back (laughs) to those stories. But you know, stories like—I had no idea this would have such an impact—but the story of how Stockholm syndrome was first diagnosed in the book. Sarah Mohammed who’s an Australian, she was really flabbergasted by it because it kind of shows how Stockholm syndrome is actually not a real syndrome and it was basically devised to pathologize a woman who just used tactics in order to survive a bank hostage situation in Sweden. So Sarah, she screenshotted all these parts from the book that told that story and tweeted it, and it got retweeted like 24,000 times and liked 50,000 times. It has just gone bananas all over the world. So, I think what that tells you is that people are really hungry to understand how things they may just have assumed may have been constructed in a way that they utterly disagree with and that is utterly against their values, but they continue to perpetuate because they don’t know. And people were contacting Sarah and me and thanking us and just saying, ‘thank you so much for letting me know,’ you know? So, those sorts of stories—that’s what really gets people and that’s what makes people… when I went and did some training for Queensland Magistrates’, one of the most senior Queensland magistrates came up to me and said, ‘When I read that story about Stockholm syndrome, it made me question everything that I thought I knew.’ That’s the stories you’re looking for, where you go at the end of this podcast not only are you going to go and talk to your friends on Zoom (laughs) about what you cannot believe you just heard, but you are going to be second-guessing so many other things that we didn’t even mention.
ASTRID: Absolutely. I obviously love the podcast medium and I can’t wait for you to explain the life I find myself living, Jess because I don’t understand what’s happening in 2020 anymore.
You’ve mentioned climate change and we have chatted briefly before about how someone can write about climate change and have an impact, because it’s so darn big. People have been writing about climate change for decades and the systemic change that is required to address climate change has not yet occurred. So, when you talk about feminism and racism and domestic abuse and all the inequities that we are experiencing in today’s world, climate change is a factor in all of them and it can multiply everything that’s already wrong with society in manifold and unequal ways. And I guess I’m interested in—I find myself thinking about this a lot—how can we communicate, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, about all the aspects of climate change? And I’m interested in your thoughts, what are the beginnings of an answer there? Why have storytellers not cut through in a way that we needed them to?
JESS: Yeah, I mean I guess that we’re starting to see over the past few years more fiction writers really tackle it. That is definitely an answer. I remember that one of my heroes Martha Gellhorn, who was one of if not the first female foreign correspondent, she had this real moment where she realised that writing non-fiction was only ever going to convey so much. She’d always thought that as soon as people understand the truth then they will act differently, they’ll make different decisions especially around war. And [she] found that wasn’t the case. And what she realised was that actually you can say a lot more and you can reach peoples’ hearts through fiction. And so she started writing fictionalised accounts as a way to do what she had been trying to do through journalism. She didn’t abandon journalism, but that was part of what she was trying to do.
And I love the fact, and I know you just interviewed James Bradley, people like James who are going into that really difficult, fearful territory—territory that terrifies so many of us that I think is far harder to write about, personally, than domestic abuse. I’m much more afraid of going into the belly of that beast. But they’re really taking it to a place where we can go with our imagination to places that are not pragmatic solutions and that are not all of these sorts of hard things that we’re constantly coming up against at the moment and hearing about in the news, but more what if we brought Neanderthals back to like you know? (Laughs)
ASTRID: Thank you James Bradley!
JESS: Yeah! But taking it back to that almost absurd notion, but making you go why is that absurd? And what would that do? And how locked into our perspectives are we? So, I think that when we come to non-fiction approaches to this, I think a lot of what we need to do to cut through that mental resistance is to find the way in. Someone who found the way in in a non-fiction way, not as a writer but as a campaigner, was Greta Thunberg. People who are finding the way in are a lot of these young people and it’s why so many climate scientists now say that the young people are their hope. They have a way of communicating that’s unobstructed and unhindered by ideology and university divisions between Marxism and other ways of coming at government structure—they’re not worried about all that. It’s just really simple. And Greta Thunberg has a remarkable communication style. Hearing her talk and seeing the messages she’d put out on Twitter was the first time I didn’t feel afraid. It was the first time I felt like I could engage. But it was just—here it is, it’s logical, it’s straightforward—but in a way that just felt like come on board, why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we do this, you know? So, if we have fiction writers really coming and talking to our hearts and we have people like Greta and the other school-strikers who have a miraculous way of getting to our heads and trying to move us as adults—like, if we’re not scared of this (we’re kids) you don’t have to be scared of it either. Then as journalists, I think we need to sort of bring those two things together and try to get past the doom part of it, which is ever-present and try to make people feel like this is a fascinating and an amazing time to live through and one in which there is actually so much opportunity.
But it’s something that I haven’t really figured out yet. I’ve often felt like I wish—and this is silly because I’m so glad that I’ve spent this time on domestic abuse, obviously, I’m very committed—but I also feel like I kind of wish I’d spent five years trying to figure out how to break through those walls of resistance around climate change and trying to figure out how do you write to that? I think it would’ve been a much harder project, but I think that we are actually much further down the line now than when I started writing the book in 2016. In terms of communicating about climate change, I think we’ve come huge leaps and bounds.
So, I think that I’m just trying to get past that approach that we have sometimes in writing about these issues that feels like we’re just talking about it as though it’s rote learning. We’re just taking it in, spewing it out. It’s the same thing—why won’t anyone ever care? It feels so wet. That stuff isn’t working, that’s why Greta Thunberg’s anger is such a revelation. It’s like stop being pathetic. Stop saying why won’t they care? And poor us and the poor animals and all the rest of it and just go, ‘how fucking dare you!’ (Laughs) How dare you? And it’s not up to us just to stop using coffee cups. That’s obviously important, you know, but how dare you the members of industry, who are making this happen. You know, we’ve had a pandemic that has shut down the global aviation industry and much of the industry and much of the transport and we still are only getting an emissions cut-off by a percent. Why is that? Because it’s not down to individual action, it’s down to the action of about 400-500 people who continue to kill the planet. Like let’s be a bit angry at them.
ASTRID: Greta Thunberg’s anger as she wears that pink shirt and is visibly shaking with rage saying, ‘how dare you,’ to a bunch of guys in suits has to be one of the best things to come out of this millennium so far.
JESS: Absolutely, yeah.
ASTRID: Jess, have you read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement?
ASTRID: It’s a non-fiction work where Ghosh actually tries to tease out the question of why has fiction failed to address climate change? Now, as you said that is changing in the last couple of years and his work is about four years old now. But in general, why do we have novels of the Great Depression or the great financial crisis or whatever, but we don’t have the great novel of climate change? And I find myself thinking about it and it’s one of the questions that I like asking people I respect which includes you Jess. About how do we get that out there? And why haven’t we done it yet? And why are we looking to a 16/17-year-old when we haven’t done it yet?
JESS: I think part of it is that up until recently, the big climate change connected disasters were mostly happening in the developing world. Now, I’ve read amazing books, like one that immediately comes to mind is The White Tiger which is looking at the lower caste and the inevitability of that. Like, as if people will just continue to accept their oppression ongoing. But I wonder, why haven’t we seen more writing about climate change from writers from the subcontinent? My only foray into understanding just how incredibly dangerous climate change is for an area like India—I got married in India in 2010 and we timed it for the end of the monsoon thinking good, great, all the rains will be over. And the monsoon basically started again, and we were in this area in Rishikesh and they declared an emergency—I think it was a national emergency. Anyway, there were floods all over India and it was like you have that monsoon go for two more days than it’s supposed to, and the area will flood. This is a very delicately balanced natural system and I just think that we’ve seen a lot of those floods through Bangladesh, so many different climate emergencies go on through the developing world. So, I would have loved to see more, like what we see from writers like Arundhati Roy where it’s really bringing home to people why that matters.
Now, that was in a lot of people’s minds—climate change was something that was going to really ravage developing countries and that developed countries would by and large be able to find a way to be safe inside that, at least for the foreseeable future. And then of course the bushfires happened in Australia. And that I think was such a worldwide event, not only because of its severity and obviously all the things that went along with it and the sheer, horrific scale of animal death, but also because it was like holy shit, it’s happening to white people. You know? (Laughs). And that means none of us are safe! And I think that out of that we’re going to see much better responses. Now it is about people. Unfortunately, we have waited for the climate issue to be about people, the only stories that people seem to care about, you know apart from maybe The Overstory and some stories about trees but leaving that aside. Now it is about people, it’s now been left to that point where it’s much harder to arrest, but that’s where we’re at. So, we don’t have the problem anymore that we can’t write stories about climate change affecting people.
ASTRID: No, it is certainly here. I am going to ask you what is probably a horrible question, but I feel like I want the answer to it Jess. As someone who has written about the hard stuff—domestic abuse—and to put it bluntly, See What You Made Me Do has sold a bunch of books and no one necessarily foresaw that. For writers out there who are picking the hard topics, how do they get it to sell? And I don’t mean to make money, although that is a wonderful thing and all artists should make lots of money, I mean because the more people read it, the more it’s bought the more of the impact it has. And if you’re writing to change you need huge readership, you need an influential readership. So how do you sell the hard stuff?
JESS: Gosh, it’s hard because it’s such a team effort. The fact that I had a publisher that was backing me, and Black Inc. have just been amazing. They’re a small publisher but that was also an asset because this book meant so much to them, so they really pushed it very hard. I had a publicist who just made this her mission to get people to pay attention to it. So, it’s not on the writer alone. I think that part of the reason why Black Inc. wanted to push it so hard is because the amount of work that went into it, into making it compelling, it meant to them that this was a book that could have an impact. So, the first thing that writers have got to do is to know that a). people want this stuff. Especially in Australia, they want writers to go into this, take it really seriously and treat them like adults, but not adults who only want to read boring stuff you know? Treat them like adults who want to understand but who also need to be—not the right word, necessarily—but entertained, engaged. They need to want to turn that page. Don’t make them do it because it’s like you should eat your vegetables, do your homework, these are important things. If you come at it like it’s just worthy and that’s why you’re doing it, that’s the wrong approach. It’s got to be that we’ve got to crack this shit open for people to be as obsessed about as you are. So for me it was like if at the end of 3 ½-4 years of writing, as I was reading through, if I felt like anything was a bit old or I’d read it quite a lot of times written by other people, then it went. It had to still switch me on even after I’d rewritten it thousands of times (laughs) or hundreds of times. So that’s the first section—you’ve got to make sure the writing is alive, that it’s electric.
But everything that happens after that is a little bit up to the gods and up to whether you’re going to have support from a publisher. So sometimes it means trusting those small publishers. I was a bit sad that I went with Audible for the audiobook version, and they were great—like I loved the recording people that I did it with, Audible have been fine, they’ve put it up, it’s an Audible exclusive, but they haven’t done much to promote it. And I had a small audiobook publisher come to me early on and they were so enthusiastic about it, they wanted to get the audiobook into libraries, they really wanted it to be about access and all the rest of it. And when Audible put a bid in I was like—and it wasn’t that it was more money and in fact the smaller audiobook publisher wanted to give more money—but I just felt like I should go with the bigger name because it’ll have more reach. You know what? In the end it doesn’t. The enthusiasm of a small publisher is worth all the kudos of a big publisher and more. So, I always felt like the biggest advice I’d give to people is always go with enthusiasm over prestige (laughs). And then it’s just about getting out there and to be honest I know that people say feel like you can say no, but I literally did just say yes to everything. And I was listening to your interview with Anna Spargo-Ryan just before, in fact I was almost late to this one (laughs) because I was listening to her…
JESS: I love Anna. And she was saying that it’s a very quick flash in the pan that you get in terms of publicity and then it goes quiet again and people are interested in the next book from other writers. And this book, I have not stopped talking about it—like it was out in June last year. To the point where I’m like, I need to stop talking about this now (laughs). And I think part of it is like seek out other avenues for publicising and getting your book’s message out there. It’s not just about the classic publicity routes, writers festivals, bookstores etc… Find the sectors who want to engage with your ideas and with domestic abuse, obviously that was very broad. But with all sorts of issues, sectors who have had to go through the same sort of training or listen to the same experts on and on, they love to hear with an author that’s engaged with their subject material. It’s something new, it’s bringing a different approach. So, look much more broadly about how your book can sort of start working its way through the people it’s most relevant to and just go hell for leather. And, I don’t know, Twitter has been quite useful for me—I haven’t been trolled much at all which is very fortunate. And that’s been great too in just continuing to generate momentum. I don’t know, unfortunately there’s nothing formulaic about it there’s luck, there’s timing, there’s where the culture’s at and you just cross your fingers and hope for the best.
ASTRID: There are so many lessons in that, Jess. I suspect that See What You Made Me Do is a book that you will be talking about in 40 years and the updated versions will still be sold because it is that relevant and has had and will continue to have such an impact. But I am also so darn excited about what you do next because you’ve cracked through in a way that most people can’t and hats off to you, Jess. Congratulations.
JESS: Thanks Astrid.
ASTRID: Thank you so much for talking to me once again.
JESS: Yeah, it’s my pleasure.