At home with Rick Morton

Rick Morton, author of the acclaimed memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt, was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder in 2019. His second - dare we say exquisite - memoir My Year of Living Vulnerably explores not only complex PTSD, but also love, history and forgiveness.

Rick has been a journalist for more than 15 years. He was a social affairs writer for The Australian, and he is now a senior reporter for the Saturday Paper. Rick regularly appears on television, radio and panels discussing politics, the media, writing and social policy.

At home with Rick Morton


ASTRID: Rick Morton, I have been waiting to speak to you for so long. You were on my hit list over writers that I wanted to interview for The Garret so welcome.

RICK: Thank you for having me, I feel like it's been a long time coming. We've been circling each other for so long, and I'm just very happy to be here. I'm very excited today.

ASTRID: Today is actually the publication day of your latest work. And oh my goodness, congratulations. This is a work of beauty.

RICK: That is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. I mean, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to write a book that was beautiful and kind of curious in its approach to the world and engaged. And if you say that, then I'm honestly so stoked.

ASTRID: So, people listening, they're going to have to forgive me because I am going to talk up Rick. I am going to talk to you up because I think that what you do for journalism and writing in Australia is exceptional. So you have been a journalist for about 15 years. You worked for News Corp, now you're with Schwartz Media and writing for The Saturday Paper.

You are my favourite voice to hear on 7am, Australia's daily morning podcast. And I get very excited when I see your name there and hear your voice. But also, in addition to your journalism, you have written two autobiographies and the short essay, On Money, all seem so genuine. And Rick, not everybody in writing in journalism in Australia is genuine. How do you come across like that?

RICK: Honestly, I don't... Having these conversations is so weird because when you're talking about how genuine you are, you feel like you're not being genuine at all. It's very strange, but I don't know any other way to be. I used to be very afraid of who I was and what I looked and sounded like, and whether I said the right things to the right people. And I think it kind of blunted me a little bit and made me not as useful as I could have been.

And the best thing that ever happened to me was losing my fear response when it comes to who I am as a person. And I realised that if you just put yourself out there, nothing bad happens. Certainly not in a kind of literary sense, obviously there are people who get caught up in all sorts of debates and storms and whatever, but I don't know, I don't know any other way to be to be quite honest. I just want to tell the truth as near as I can explain it.

ASTRID: Now, your first autobiography, One Hundred Years of Dirt, came out in 2018. That is not long ago, about three years. I like to think that most people who listen to The Garrett will have already read this work and that they will pick up My Year of Living Vulnerably very, very soon. But my first specific question to you, Rick, autobiography is a craft. A good autobiography is a craft. How did you interpret that for yourself? What were you aiming to achieve with these two together?

RICK: That is a question I'm still working out in my head because the first book, One Hundred Years of Dirt, was really something... I had to do it. And I don't mean that in the sense that like I knew I was going to be an author and I knew I was going to write this book, I just had to get that story out in whatever form it was going to happen.

And I didn't think too much about it as a writing project, if that makes any sense at all. It was really the culmination in 10 years of work and trying to understand my family and how I'd come to this point. But having finished it, I realised, and funnily enough, readers picked up on this, particularly readers with a background in psychological therapy and whatnot, they read it and they were saying things like, ‘I reckon something's missing’. Or, ‘He's not completely figured out what's going on’. And I don't know if they were referring to this, but they were right. I mean, I was missing a kind of a grand unified theory, I guess, for why I am the way I am and why my head was in such turmoil all the time. And I'd kind of come close to it, but I hadn't really hit the mark.

And so, in both cases, the writing was a way of discovery, a method of engaging with the world. But this book, My Year of Living Vulnerably, particularly I wanted to write something that was elevated above just biography or just a family memoir, as I described it, I wanted to write something a little bit daring, I guess, because I kept asking myself what gives me the right to talk about philosophy and science and these big ideas. But gosh, darn it, I'm just a huge nerd. I just wanted to do it.

ASTRID: I appreciate huge nerds. I am also one myself. Reading your work feels intimate. And I don't mean intimate in the way of it's an autobiography and you're telling us stuff that happened, that always happens in biography and autobiography. I mean, you actually think about what has happened. You muse on it, you ponder it, you research it, you find meaning or question if there is a meaning. There are so many different layers to what you put on the page, and intimate was the best word I could come up with, but there are so many that would otherwise describe it. I sat down and read all of your work in order.

RICK: I'm so sorry about that.

ASTRID: No, this is a thing that I do. This is how I psychologically evaluate the writers that I interview. Even if I have read a work before, I like to see how a writer changes or grows. I don't know, it's this thing that I love to do. And One Hundred Years of Dirt feels like it had the seeds of your second autobiography, My Year of Living Vulnerably, but also On Money, the essay that you wrote for Hachette as part of the On Series.

And I wanted to ask, Rick, not many writers, and this is showing my judgement here, but not many writers can return to material and continue to plumb the depths and find more. I feel like a lot of writers kind of get something out, and then put it away in a box, or put it on a shelf and say it belongs to the audience. And I feel like you have given me a gift that I will keep thinking about. And I guess my question to you in a very long-winded way, you'd think for a journalist I would have a better hard hitting question for you, but is...

RICK: I love it.

ASTRID: How do you keep going back and finding meaning?

RICK: It helps, I think, that I, and this sounds incredibly narcissistic, it helps that it's about me. I mean, I do spend so much time in my head, and it is an occupational hazard sometimes because I have been famously an over thinker in my family, but I also love it. I mean, that's the stuff of life. That's these questions, particularly with the latest book where I'd allowed myself permission to go there, about why is it that we live at all? I mean, what is the point of any of this?

And I don't mean it in an undergraduate sense, like we're all just kind of smoking J's and going, ‘And do we see the same colour green as each other?’ But also, I mean, those questions are interesting questions. So I think partly it's a structural issue in the publishing process. Like my first book, I was a debut author and I didn't feel like I had the right to call myself even a writer, let alone an author so I didn't stray too far from the boundaries of what I might think the publisher wanted. Whereas this one, I'm just like, ‘Well, hell, I might never write another book. I hope I do, but this might be my final shot to write as close as I can to the ultimate Rick Martin book’. Which is this collection of science and philosophy and kind of artefacts of living, which I love and have always, always kind of grabbed my attention. And now I get to put it in some kind of context, ideally. At the same time, it's trying to figure myself out. I mean, what better project is there for someone who's interested in life?

ASTRID: There is no better project. And thank you for trying to figure this out in a public way because I think so many of us can learn from it. In One Hundred Years of Dirt, you do talk extensively about post-traumatic stress disorder, complex PTSD. I am a person who has just turned 40 and I was diagnosed with PTSD for very different reasons than you in my 20s. I mostly have a handle on it these days, but I also always keep an eye out for people who describe it, who talk about it, who attempt to comprehend and explain it, and mostly I find peoples attempts pretty shit. I really enjoyed yours.

RICK: Yeah. It's a hard one to grasp.

ASTRID: It really is. But my question here is about language. How do you take something that does have a psychological description, et cetera, but how do you take something that is all encompassing, that is so huge, and sometimes even make it funny, as well as understandable?

RICK: If you take like 10 steps back, it is kind of funny, we are beholden to the lizard part of our brain, it's ridiculous. It's like, ‘Do I like eating insects? No, but somehow I'm still attached to this trauma in my background’. I mean, it is the hardest thing to describe. I mean, you've lived it, you know what this sensation is, but how do you actually articulate it?

And I still struggle with it. I don't think I've ever nailed it. I think I've come as close as I've ever been able to in this book, and it really is a matter of... It sounds silly, but part of it comes from the therapy, which is being able to recognise the sensations almost individually as they happen in your body. So, you recognise the thought process, which is separate to the physiological response of the nerves and the kind of firing sensation of unease and trying to recognise the direction it forms or heads in your body. And putting those things together once you've understood the separate elements, I think is part of the challenge.

And honestly, it's part of the challenge of working out how to deal with this condition in the first place because when you know all of those things, it does give you a little bit more power over it. And I mentioned, as you said, I wrote about trauma in One Hundred Years of Dirt, but I had never heard of complex PTSD. I'd heard of PTSD, I'd heard of trauma, and all the different names, and I'd certainly never thought that it was applied to me. And so, it kind of was energising in a way to think that I could write a book that maybe someone would read and be in the same position I was, and go, ‘Hang on a second, maybe this applies to me so that they can actually go and get their own support’. Because it's been life changing for me.

ASTRID: And this brings us squarely to My Year of Living Vulnerably. People won't have read it yet because it has literally just being published. Can you give us the elevator pitch, 30 seconds of your take on what you just published?

RICK: It's a book about trauma, but it's not a traumatic book, I don't think. I was diagnosed with complex PTSD, as I said, I'd never heard of it, but it is a condition that is defined by a persistent lack of love or emotional abuse and neglect, particularly when you're a kid. And I thought, ‘Well, if that is the diagnosis, then perhaps the solution is the opposite, which is just more love’. And I mean, love in the broadest possible sense, which is that kind of the zesty part of life. It's the beauty, the growth, as James Baldwin says, the quest in daring, and I wanted to write a book that brought all of those things together in as nerdy a way as possible through science and philosophy. And I think I'm really happy with it. I'm happy with the discovery process. I think it's been fun.

ASTRID: I am so glad you are happy with it. I hope you can see me on Zoom, and I hope the audience can hear it in my voice. It is a beautiful work, and I'm interested in the emotional and the intellectual kind of path, journey, god, that's such a terrible word, but the journey you took yourself on in order to decide, ‘Yeah, I'm going to share this with the world’.

RICK: Yeah, it's funny because, again, I don't have that fear response so I'm just like, ‘Well, this is the thing that happens to me’. I mean, I always used to... So in the depths of our own despair, my mother and I, single mum, poor raising three kids, I always used to say to her, I'm like, ‘At least it'll be a funny story one day’.

And these things are not in and of themselves funny, I mean, we went through it in a really horrible way for many, many years, but I've always been on the view that, at least as a writer, I can turn it into something which sounds so strategic, but it really is the way I engage with the world, it is how I am. And I've always been that way, I've always been a little bit weird and my mum thought I was an alien brought here to report back on humidity. So here I am doing all of that.

And it's a story she's been telling me since I was four, and it just kind of stuck in my head that my job on earth is to observe and write about it. And doing that for this book seemed so natural because there were already things I'm interested in, I'm already interested in my mind and how it works, but also consciousness and how we work as a species. I was raised to love and adore animals as pets, but also as curiosities in the world, these living kind of temples to, I don't know, evolution and science and incredible things.

And I've kind of been thinking anyway, over the years, without having this diagnosis about things like masculinity and what it does and does not do to us, and touch, forgiveness, and beauty, and these kind of little visitors in life that I think they have... When done badly or misapplied, they can damage us, but when we know what they are, and we know how to deploy them properly, they are the most wonderful things in the world. And writing something about any of those things is literally a dream come true for me

ASTRID: A few moments ago you said the word natural, and that words stuck out for me because your writing, and your approach, and your outlook feels natural. And I joked with you when we set up this interview that I'm hoping you do what Maya Angelou did and write seven autobiographies. You're somewhere in your mid-30s and you've written too. You have time to get me another five, but I genuinely believe that your writing is intimate, it is natural, it feels right, and I feel like I should be reading another one of these in a few years. So I'm just letting you know for the public record, Rick, please keep writing.

RICK: If no one shoots me before then for talking about myself too much, then yes, I 100% will. I mean, I'm kind of... I mean, I guess it's hard because I'm fascinated by the world, but I also relate to the world through me, I am the vessel that comes up against the world. So it's hard to separate myself from that sense of wonder and all that I have, but there are somebody subjects about which I would love to write, which unfortunately, or not, depending on your point of view as a reader, may or may not involve me in my thinking, but perhaps not memoir necessarily.

ASTRID: I like to think you'll manage both, Rick. Now I have a question about when you wrote this. Parts of My Year of Living Vulnerably mentioned COVID, you went to Japan in March last year, that feels very stressful just thinking about it.

RICK: Yes.

ASTRID: When were you writing this book? Where you in lockdown?

RICK: Well, yes and no. So I had all the time in the world during lockdown and I didn't write a single word.

ASTRID: Well done.

RICK: Yeah, I gave up a little bit, which was funny because I'm trying to write this book that's filled with hope, and here I am just desolate. And I think part of that was I tell this story all the time but I was living with an intensive care nurse at the time, my flatmate, and he was literally looking after COVID-19 patients. The very first one in intensive care, I think, was in Sydney at his hospital. And here I am trying to write a book, which I can't describe to people when they ask me what it is, I'm like, ‘It's a book about love, I guess’. And I made this joke. I said, I felt like I was one of the people left behind during World War II who couldn't fight on the front line, and so I'm back home making socks for the soldiers.

And I just gave up a little bit because I'm like, ‘What I do isn't real work’. That's what it felt like. And I don't want to be that guy in the arts community who's like, ‘Artists don't matter’. But that's how I felt personally because I was raised in a completely different world where... I was back home working on the edits for this in late... Over Christmas, 2020. I was still trying to think of stuff to put in and my mum was like, ‘I thought you were writing’. And I'm like, ‘I am, I'm just staring off in the distance, trying to think of what I'm going to write’. And that was actually the hardest part.

Before COVID-19 hit, so between October 2019, when I signed the contract, and March, when I got back from Japan and New York, I was thinking a lot about what I was going to do and reading, but I hadn't written anything beyond what I already showed the publisher, which was the introduction and an outline. And then April through June is kind of a non-event, it doesn't exist in my mind anymore. I blacked it out, and we didn't even have it that bad in Sydney, but I was doubly locked down because of Shamus' work as a nurse so we didn't leave the house.

And then I realised that I had 90,000 words to write. But thankfully percolating at the back of my mind somewhere was this kind of the stuff that I wanted to formulate in my own head. So it was a difficult thing to write, but it wasn't as hard as it would have been if I hadn't had that time to kind of just ponder a little bit.

ASTRID: One of the things that struck me most about your latest autobiography is your vulnerability. Now I know that word is in the title, so no surprise, but also, being vulnerable, most people aren't good at it, and if I can go out on a really stereotypical limb, men, aren't good at it.


ASTRID: And you are. Thank you, on a personal level for showing how it should be done. What responses do you get from readers?

RICK: This book has only been out in the world for technically a day, but some early readers... Already this morning I've got messages from people who've started reading or have read some of the extracts. And notably from quite a few men actually, and men who I know, some of them I know through friends of friends, but some of them are complete strangers, but they've just been saying, ‘We have been living in a prison’. Essentially. And I mean, honestly, it's the best thing that's ever happened to me in my whole life, really, which is people seeing themselves on the page.

And I used to think it was such a kind of lofty expectation that what I write might be so visible to someone else, or so effecting. And yet, already with this book, I'm getting those messages. I got a lovely reader from Adelaide who got one of the first copies that at the writers festival, sent me this message on Instagram, just saying, ‘I felt like I could curl up from the catch next year and that you completely understood me’.

And honestly, I'm not going to pretend, that's amazing. I don't know, is it false modesty? I don't know. It's just the coolest thing in the world. And I'm still getting emails, sometimes two, three, four a week, about One Hundred Years of Dirt from people who've taken the time to read it and respond to it in such a beautiful way, and I honestly couldn't ask for anything more than that.

ASTRID: One of the questions I was going to ask you was, ‘Hey Rick, who were your influences?’ And as I was reading and thinking about your work, I thought, stuff that. I just want to say publicly to Rick, that I think you are going to be the person who influences others. I think that your willingness to look in the dark places and shine a light on them is exceptional. And your ability to combine fear with humour, horror, with this eternal happiness sometimes, is remarkable. So, I think this is just my generic thank you, Rick Morton, you are doing something that male writers in Australia don't do.

RICK: You're going to make me cry.

ASTRID: No, happy tears. You can cry if they're happy tears.

RICK: No, I've spend so much time looking through the rear vision mirror at the eight year old version of myself, and just how overwhelmingly fucked we were. Not just me, but my mom and my family, through all sorts of things, cultural, financial poverty, the whole kitten caboodle, really, just the lack of access to the world. And yet there was just this kind of undimmed optimism in that boy's brain that things would work out. And he had no right to be optimistic because had he known what I know now about the way systems crush people, he probably wouldn't have expected to get out. And certainly he wouldn't have been in a position to help his mum.

And I look back now and I just pinch myself that not only did he get to do some of the things that he wanted to do, but that people say things like that. And honestly, his little head would explode if I got to travel back in time and say what I'm doing now, and that people are actually nice about it rather than like, no, I've just done a couple of things here and there that were okay, because he was this kid who wanted to be those people, to be the idols that he idolised.

To a far lesser degree, but I remember when a cadet journalists at my old workplace once told me that I was one of the senior journalists that I looked up, I'm like, ‘Wow, when did that happen?’ And it's just so cool. Honestly, I don't know how we got to this, but it's a lovely place to be, and I don't ever want to forget what that means to me. And when I say me, I do mean the eight year old version of myself who's still very prevalent. And if I do forget that, then I've lost, I guess, any of this privilege that I have to do better and be better, I guess.

ASTRID: I want to read you some of your chapter titles. Forgiveness, Animals, Beauty, Masculinity, Loneliness, Kindness, Dysfunction, and there are more. You don't write the work in chronological order, you take an event, an idea, a thing that happened and go into it from all different angles, from the scientific research side of it, to the deep thinking, ‘Why are we here?’ Philosophical side of it. And that helps each chapter stand alone, even though this is a very cohesive work, but I did want to ask you about the chapter on forgiveness. I read it twice, Rick.

RICK: Yeah. That chapter is so difficult for me, not just for what I think you're about to ask about, but about my family's history and all of these things. It's just a really tough chapter.

ASTRID: It is a tough chapter, and that's why I wanted to ask, would you like to explain to the reader what's in or would you like me to?

RICK: You can do that part for me.

ASTRID: I hope that Rick's chapter, Forgiveness, is read by all Australians, and I hope it is published in multiple different areas because it is an extraordinary look at forgiveness. What a hard thing to really do. In this chapter, Rick reflects on a time that he was raped, but also on the history of his family in remote Australia and the history of a Morton who may or may not have been linked to frontier violence, and the massacre of Indigenous people. Now to have rape and frontier violence in one chapter on forgiveness, Rick, I mean, you didn't call that chapter Trauma, you called it Forgiveness. And I think this is why your writing stands out and is different.

RICK: And intellectually, and I guess emotionally, that was the hardest chapter to write. It's easy for me to say as I do, and I genuinely believed this, that I forgive my rapist. I do. I don't know them. I don't remember them. I remember the rape, but I don't gain anything from holding them anywhere in my heart, for whatever reason. I mean, it's something that happened and I don't know who they are, but even if I did, I suspect that there would be things that led them to that moment that I wouldn't have wanted for myself. People are just complicated, but forgiveness is such a personal thing.

RICK: And I remember, it can be weaponized, the expectation of it can be weaponized against minority groups, and which is why I want it to then get into this struggle with my own family's history. And it's not a struggle in the sense that I don't believe it, I believe it 100% in terms of what my ancestors got up to in the interior of Australia at a time when nobody treated Aboriginal people well, let alone was unaware of the violence and trauma that was perpetuated both personally and as a colony.

And it kind of brought to mind these kind of national projects of forgiveness, and truth, and reconciliation, and healing, which we've seen in South Africa, and in Sierra Leone, and a whole bunch of other countries around the world. And with those things, including with the Uluru Statement of the Heart, there is a truth telling component. It's not the first part in the Uluru process, in fact, it has to come after this commitment to reform, but I am old the belief that we can't change anything until people like me, and Australians in general, just admit what happened.

And the point of writing that chapter, I guess, is not me asking for forgiveness from Indigenous people, but it's laying the groundwork so that at some point in the future, if I've done the bare minimum on my end plus more once I've got that out of the way, and other people do the exact same thing, we actually can do something as a country. I don't know how to put it any better than that, it was a really interesting, difficult thing to write because it's one of those things where obviously you listen to first people's voices and you elevate them. But at the same time, I felt guilty sitting in silence and not being able to articulate what I knew or should have known. And in many cases we don't talk about these things in white Australian families at all.

ASTRID: We don't, and we need to, because otherwise we just perpetuate the lie.

RICK: And also, it's just fucking ridiculous. I'm going to start to get a bit ranty now, but I was taught nothing at school about the culture that I was lucky enough to inherit through first peoples. The fact that they have been so generous, still to this day, I was at Byron Bay Writers Festival when I was talking about the connection I had to the land, and Melissa Lucashenko was on stage, and I felt... I was trying to... I was being a typical white guy being like, ‘Oh my god, I don't know if I'm allowed to say this’. Or, ‘I'm so sorry’. And Melissa's like, ‘No.’ She's like, ‘If you respect the land, we invite you to be a part of it’. And I'm like, ‘Fuck, that's generous. You do not need to do that’.

But that is part of the culture. And it is an astonishingly vibrant and rich culture that we have just fucking ignored for lamingtons and tea and British gardens. It's embarrassing, and I'm sorry, but the Brits have so much, as a country, to answer for not least of all, some of the stiff upper lip stuff that I address in the masculinity chapter. But like, the fact that we have vanquished that from our own national psyche in that what we got right here, I mean, it's just ridiculous.

ASTRID: I could not agree more, Rick. I just want to say thank you again. This book is coming straight to the nonfiction teachers at RMIT, because I think everybody should be reading this and learning how to say shit and mean it.

RICK: That's honestly the best compliment. I don't know. I was so worried about this, I was so fucking worried. I'm sorry, I'm just going to keep swearing now, I'm being myself.

ASTRID: It's all right, we both are apparently.

RICK: Yeah. I don't know, I don't know how else to put it. This book is me, for better or worse, it's me. This is literally how I think about the world. And part of me was like, ‘Well, why me?’ Which, you can ask that question about anything. Why anyone? And there are other people who are more qualified than me who are writing about these subjects, but I feel it so deeply, and I really genuinely think that I've come across at least a way of viewing the world, or an application of an energetic kind of curiosity which I think is a shield against depression, and anxiety, and trauma. Curiosity will save us all, I think.

ASTRID: Rick, there are always people who are more qualified, but very rarely are the most qualified people able to communicate well to a wide audience. So we definitely need you. I have one final question for you, and this is looking to the future. This is about Growing Up in Country Australia.

RICK: Ah, yes.

ASTRID: I'm so excited.

RICK: I have finally finished reading all the submissions for that. Holy shit. So there were pieces in the submissions that we got for that, we had hundreds of them, and just pieces of writing that were so exquisite that I wanted to quit because I'm like, ‘This is ridiculous’. And they are just so wonderful, and such a cross section as well, which I love. There are so many stories from different backgrounds, different class worldviews, race, the whole kitten caboodle, sexuality, identity, but also the most interesting thing to me, six or seven essays about the country school bus. Which I love because I had completely forgotten that that is just a country Australia thing. The same bus, same time, same people every day, and if you miss it, you're fucked. And honestly, I had trouble choosing just one or two school buses.

ASTRID: And can we expect this at the end of 2021?

RICK: Actually, it's not released until early 2022.

ASTRID: So, we have to wait?

RICK: I know, and I've got a few more surprises up my sleeve, but what I'm going to be doing, and we're going to start to alert the people I've chosen from the selection, there's a couple that I... Well, I want to work with all of them on the editing process, as well as the editors at Black Inc on the structural stuff, and I'm just really excited to kind of get stuck into making this stuff absolutely sing, which I'm very excited by.

ASTRID: Rick, I am a massive fan of the Growing Up series and I am really looking forward to inviting you and some contributors back, wherever they are in Australia, because we're on Zoom these days, to talk about how they got to work with you because I think that would be fascinating, and I would like to know what that is like. So thank you, Rick, for talking to me today, but also, once again, thank you for making Australian literature a bit better.

RICK: You are just the most generous person. Thank you. You are an absolute delight. I mean it when I say that. You are a gem. Thank you, Astrid.

ASTRID: And we both swear too much. Thank you, Rick.