Clementine Ford is a writer, broadcaster and feminist thinker speaker.
She has been writing freelance for more than a decade, including a weekly columns for Fairfax’s Daily Life. She is also a regular contributor to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Clementine has published two best-selling non-fiction works, Fight Like A Girl (2017) and Boys Will Be Boys (2018).
ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Clementine.
CLEMENTINE: Thanks so much for having me.
ASTRID: Congratulations on the launch of Boys Will Be Boys in Melbourne last night.
CLEMENTINE: Thank you. It was an amazing time. I remember nothing of it.
ASTRID: Now I would like to talk to you about your two books Fight Like A Girl and Boys Will Be Boys, but also the last decade where you have been a public commentator and writing in public.
Now, I guess my first question, I'm interested in how you, as a writer seek to write for and persuade those members of the public, who may not already agree with you, or may not already dislike you. How do you find that middle ground?
CLEMENTINE: It's a good question, because so often it's easy to fall into the trap of just writing for people who are already on the same page. And I do that sometimes because sometimes it's also nice to preach to the converted and I think that preaching to the converted gets a bad rap, but sometimes when you're working in an activist space, it's actually quite healthy and beneficial for you to all take time together in that space to bolster each other up and to not have to work so hard to convince people, that's actually part of good self-care. I don't know if I've ever sat down and consciously thought, ‘How do I target the middle ground?’ Or, ‘How do I target people who don't agree with me’. And people's advice for that tends to be, you have to sort of handle them with kid gloves and you have to use a carrot and a stick kind of method, which really isn't my approach at all.
So, if I do that, if I do address people who aren't already on side, I must do it in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable enough to want to interrogate that discomfort. And I say that because I've had quite a lot of men, especially in recent years, contact me to say things like, ‘I used to read you and I hated you, but I kept reading and now I get where you're coming from’. Or I have men who contact me to say that they'd previously thought of themselves as good guys, but had read my work and then realised that actually they were just neutral or they weren't doing enough in their own lives. So, I feel like I don't know what the formula of that is. I don't know what I'm doing that has that effect, but it is having some kind of effect.
And one thing that I say to other feminists and to feminist writers in particular, is to stop using that carrot and stick approach, because all it does is give people permission to excuse themselves from the problem. They either refuse to recognise themselves in it or they clutch onto the one thing we've said, ‘Well, of course, I know that you're a good person’. Or, ‘You don't do these things’. Or whatever it might be. And they go, ‘Yeah, I am a good person and I don't do those things, so I don't really have to engage with this work beyond reading it and maybe sharing it. If I do, even that’.
ASTRID: I guess I'm interested in how you persuade people to reflect on themselves and society. When you write, are you ever consciously trying to not confront them, but make them want to read your next article?
CLEMENTINE: Again, a tricky question and it's tricky because I don't really think a lot about the approach that I take to writing. And I think part of that is because I've been writing columns for ten years, my style has changed and I've evolved with the practice. It's a discipline. It's not something that you just come to and you're automatically good at. And my writing is changing all the time and it improves in some areas I think, and then gets lazy in some areas. And so, every so often you kind of go back in and check in on what you're doing and challenge yourself a bit more. But I don't think that's something that I've been conscious of happening or how I do it.
I think one of the things that's effective and one of the things probably that I could consciously say that I do is just to confront people with the facts and to confront people with the necessity, for them to try harder and be better. It's really hard to argue, although some people will try, but it's really hard to argue with statistics around men's violence against women. If you are genuinely someone who claims to be in favour of changing the world that we live in and in favour of ending violence like this, it's really hard to come up with some kind of argument against just presenting people with facts. I suppose from a writer's perspective, if I'm forced to think about that question, what I do is I present the facts or I come up with the facts, I identify the facts, and then I present them to the reader with compelling or what I think is compelling rhetoric.
ASTRID: I agree. Clementine, for the record I enjoy your writing and I'm interested in how you think, going back to what you just said, you have changed as a writer, writing columns over a decade. Where do you think that you get lazy and how do you notice that?
CLEMENTINE: I think any columnist has the experience of needing to file their piece for the week. I file two pieces a week and mostly, I don't want anyone to have the impression that I just file them five minutes before their due. I just think that every so often when you're writing op-ed weekend and week out and some weeks, there are amazing things to write about and things that touch on all of the issues that you're passionate about. And then other weeks you're tired because your toddler didn't sleep the night before or the four nights before that. You've got a lot of it on your mind, whatever it might be.
And you just kind of pull one out and that is the reality of op-ed writing and look, anyone who would be sort of motivated at that point to say, ‘Oh, well, that's bloody ridiculous. You shouldn't be paid for that. You're admitting to be lazy’. Everyone goes to work and has a few days, whatever your job is, whether it's writing, whether or not it's working in a bank, or if it's selling cars because everyone has a few days here and there where they go in and they just phone it in.
ASTRID: Totally. That's life, isn't it?
CLEMENTINE: It's life.
ASTRID: Now tell me, how did editors react to you and I mean, not in the book space just yet. How has that changed over time?
CLEMENTINE: When I first started working as a freelance writer, I had to really struggle to get editors to pay attention to me. And partly that was because I was unknown, but also it was because the space around feminist writing was very different even just ten years ago. People had the attitude that it was, I mean, a lot of people still think it's niche, but it's definitely moved into the mainstream. And for better or worse, feminism sells, people are interested in feminist opinions, even if it's just to disagree with them. So back then, I had to really hustle and work hard to get editors, to pay attention to me and also to get them to care about the things that I cared about.
And I guess I just plugged away at that more and more. I started writing quite regularly for The Drum, which was on the ABC at the time, which was a great sort of starting point and a really good place to practice again, that discipline of writing opinion columns that in the early years, I would write opinion pieces that were 1,200 or 1,300 words long, which is about 400, 500 words too long for a good succinct op-ed now, which isn't to say that opinion pieces that are that long or longer are not great. It's just in the kind of the nugget sized space that we work in now with news op-ed, it's too long. So that was a lesson that I learned along the way. I mean, I'm very fortunate that I can contact a lot of different editors in online publications in particular. And what I will say is they will at least take my email. They might not necessarily want to publish me, but they'll at least respond.
ASTRID: Over time, is there any online outlet that has refused to publish you?
CLEMENTINE: Oh, I'm sure. I mean, I still experience knock-backs, I pitched to places and I still get polite rejection letters. I'll tell this story because it's really embarrassing and it's a really good lesson of what not to do particularly, if you're starting out and I talked about this with the editor at the magazine in question a while ago, and we had a big laugh about it. But years ago, probably about 10 years ago when I was just sort of trying to kind of find an edge in, or a way into the freelance writing space, I was a big fan of Frankie magazine.
And I remember pitching, and also my pitches were terrible. They were so long that often my pitchers would be 1500 words, just don't do that. And I remember pitching a bunch of different ideas to the editor at Frankie, who I was just cold emailing. I'd never met her before or had any interaction with them. And one of my pitches was this very predictable, very pedestrian... Blogs were really big at the time. And I wrote a blog. This was like 2006 or something like that. And so one of my pitches was, ‘Oh, just a guide to the best blogs to read in Australia’. Like super cutting edge.
And I never heard back because, you often don't hear back from editors. They get thousands of emails a week. And in the following month, the Frankie magazine came out and on the last page, there was the 25 best blogs or something like that. And it was written by Ben Law, who's just the best of humans and is now, I'm very lucky to call a friend, but who I didn't know then, and I remember looking at it. Now to be very clear, a magazine does not get put together and printed. I mean, this is a magazine that comes out every two months. My email, well, and truly missed the boat on the plans for that magazine. But I of course knew nothing about the magazine world, but I remember looking at this article and just raging about it and being outraged and they stole it. They stole my pitch, how dare they. My incredibly pedestrian pitch.
And I wrote the snarkiest, rudest email to the editor, Frankie. And it was so obnoxious and arrogant and all of the arrogance of youth and someone who is trying very hard, but doesn't really know the landscape. And she wrote back to me and she sort of explained, look, magazines don't really work like that. She didn't say this exactly, but it was sort of along the lines of, ‘But I admire your moxie. So why don't you send me a few pitches?’ And I did that and never heard back from her. But the worst thing I did really was that when it happened, I took to my blog and wrote this scathing piece about how they ripped my idea off. And it's embarrassing to think back on now, but it's a great story as well, because we all make mistakes like that. And we all think that our ideas are the most ingenious and unique of all. But the thing is in the opinion factory, everyone has exactly the same ideas. They're all swirling around the space at the same time. And it's just the way that it works.
ASTRID: It's a lesson learned. So, what publication would you like to be published in?
CLEMENTINE: It almost feels like speaking it out loud would jinx it. I don't know everyone's got their list of publications that they'd love to be in. Everyone would love to be published in The New Yorker or the New York Times. I think it would be really cool to be published in Teen Vogue because they're doing really good work at the moment. Yeah. I mean, I don't really spend, you might find this hard to believe, but I don't really spend a lot of time at the moment thinking about other publications to kind of get my work into and it's not because that's not a goal for me. It's just because I've been focused for so long on writing this book. It's hard to think of two books. Well, it's hard to think of writing for anywhere else at the moment.
ASTRID: I actually wanted to ask a question. So, you've written two books in the last three years, and you've been writing a weekly column in that time. How did you move between the writing, the research of the books and that constant deadline pressure?
CLEMENTINE: Fortunately, there was a lot of crossover between the two. A lot of the things that I wrote about particularly in Boys Will be Boys were things that I could also write columns about. So that was fortunate, but also it's just again, coming back to that word discipline. And I don't mean it just in the sense of having discipline to sit down and do it, but it being a discipline, it's a practice that one of the first mistakes that I think a lot of writers make is thinking that they need inspiration to write. And some people do, for some people that's the only kind of writing they want to do, but you don't actually require inspiration to sit down and just put words on a page. And those words may be rubbish, but it is true that the more you practice, it's like a muscle, the more you work out your writing muscle, the easier it will be to tap into the skills that it teaches you.
ASTRID: Do you have a writing routine?
CLEMENTINE: Well, I guess a loose one. I wrote a lot of this book in libraries and in cafes, it's pretty cliche, but I can't work at home because it's too distracting and it doesn't feel right to me to not go out to work somewhere. Definitely, I would say my writing routine involves a lot of just wasting time on Facebook. As most writers would probably say now, wasting time on Facebook and on Twitter. But I think especially since having a kid, I really have to use my time really wisely. So even though I still do a lot of that messing around and procrastinating, I also know that if I've only got four hours of day-care that I have to get this amount done. And so, every day that I went out, I tried to write most days of the week on the book.
I usually work four or five days on the book and I would try and write 2,000 words each day. And again, not all those words were great. A lot of them didn't end up in the final piece, but I think just putting that target out in front of you and saying, ‘I'm not going to leave here until I reach it’. Means that if you work hard enough at that system, and if you become used to using that system, then you fret less about whether or not you're writing the best of your words. For me, the practice that suits me best is definitely getting words down on the page and then worrying about the quality of them later, because you can always cut things out and you can always reshape things. And the worst writer's block I've ever had is when I'm sitting there staring and worrying about whether or not everything I'm saying is deeply profound because of course it's not.
ASTRID: I think all writers worry about that. Now, moving on to both of your books, Fight Like A Girl and Boys Will be Boys. I really enjoyed the structure of both.
CLEMENTINE: Thank you.
ASTRID: And also the chapter titles. First off, did you pitch the first book or were you approached?
CLEMENTINE: It was sort of a mix really. I mean, over the years, I'd had publishers reach out to me and ask if I'd considered writing a book, which of course I had, but I wasn't sure exactly what that book would look like. And in about 2012, I think I pitched a version of this, of Fight Like A Girl with a different title, to a particular publisher who I won't name because it's not important, but it is interesting to show how very quickly the landscape changed and the editor who had approached me actually, and who I was working with was this wonderful woman who was really passionate about the project. And it's a good example as well of how you should never get too excited about things before you've actually got a signed contract in front of you. So, she took the book pitch to the acquisitions meeting and had to write back to me and say, ‘Look, I'm really, really sorry, but the acquisitions team has decided to not go ahead with this’. Because feminist books don't sell, which was really true at the time they didn't sell. If you looked at any of the figures on them, they weren't really selling that many, I mean, books in general, don't really sell a great deal of copies. The average income for an Australian writer is $13,000 a year, so this book came out in 2016. So just four years later the landscape was totally different. I think it was in 2015 that we pitched this. I got an agent in between that time. And when I pitched to a bunch of different publishers and my agent's brilliant, and we went and met with I think, seven different publishers and got offers from most of them. And then we chose to go with Allen & Unwin, which has been for me, I've never had a single regret about that.
ASTRID: That is good to hear. Was it, if I can ask, a two-book deal?
CLEMENTINE: No, it wasn't, it was a one book deal, but I've such a good relationship with my publisher as well at Allen & Unwin that when I pitched, it wasn't like the second book was just a foregone conclusion. I don't think that anyone should rest on their laurels like that, but we already had the in to go and say, ‘Well, look, this is my second idea. What do you think about it?’ And she was really excited about it. I feel like I've developed a really good working relationship with them now, which may be if we'd had a two-book deal, wouldn't necessarily, I'm not saying that the relationship would be different, but maybe this second book would be different.
For aspiring writers, particularly who want to publish books. I think that there's lots of different things to think about. Advances are not very high in the publishing industry, but if you can fight for a higher advance, at least a bit higher than what you're being offered, it's not just about you, I mean, you could say, ‘Oh, well, if my advanced is low, then it means if I do sell really well, then I won't have to pay as much back when the royalties come in’. But my personal feeling is that if your advance is low, then it doesn't require quite as much investment from your publisher to try and sell that book, which is not an indictment on publishing. I think, again, that's just the way that the industry works.
I wouldn't necessarily say that it's the best thing to get a two-book deal. I was very lucky because I love my publisher and I've been really happy with them, but you wouldn't want to start working with someone who you had a terrible experience with and then you're locked in for two books. My best advice is, well, I know you didn't quite ask this question, but my best advice for anyone who is either working on a book who wants to connect with a publisher really is to try and go out and get an agent. And I couldn't have done any of this without my agent, because she knows the industry like the back of her hand. And she knows how to deal with publishers. And she knew things like how to negotiate rising royalties and how to retain world rights and all this stuff that I have no idea what even means now.
Yeah. And I think that if you sit down with a few different agents and hopefully you're in a position where you can kind of choose someone that works well for you, it's really invaluable to have a relationship with someone who can do all of that side of the industry, who you trust and who you get along well with and who also believes in your projects. For me, the best part about working, not just with Jacinda, my agent, but also with Jane at Allen & Unwin is that they both so strongly believe in the product, which is great. And it comes back to that thing that you're asking about, are there any editors that won't publish you? I think there are always editors that will publish you because they think that your name will get readers to the site, but if they don't care about the work that you're doing, then it's not the best of relationships.
ASTRID: You obviously care about the work that you do. Tell me about crafting and shaping Fight Like A Girl and how much of your previous columns you were able to learn from, or is it completely different when structuring a book?
CLEMENTINE: Yeah, it was interesting with Fight Like A Girl, because I had never written a book before. I had written chapters for anthologies. And I feel like that gave me a good sort of training ground because it's not a linear text. You can dip in and out of both of these books and you can read them out of order if you want to. I think they're probably better if you do read them in order, but it's not a requirement. So learning how to write essays that most of the chapters are between five to 8,000 words long. And I really kind of focused on structuring them, like not 10, 800-word columns, but say four column ideas that could then be expanded out to 2000 words each, but that all kind of spoke to the same theme.
That's how I sort of approached it, breaking it down like that. And again, I had that daily word challenge of 2000 words, which is really just how my brain works is I think, ‘Well, if my challenge is to get to that, then I just need to keep putting words down on the page’. And at the chapter at the end ends up being 10,000 words and I can cut 2000 of them out you end up having... The ideas are there, it's just about sort of moulding them into something readable, any of these chapters could have looked completely different and they would have worked in a different way.
ASTRID: I'm quite fascinated by your daily target of 2,000 words.
CLEMENTINE: I didn't always reach it. But even as a target, I spoke to a lot of writers and not all writers have targets. There's no right way to do these things, but those that do often have a smaller or a lower target than you, they are writing fiction, not nonfiction.
ASTRID: Do you think that your ability to write so much is because you've essentially had decades worth of practice?
CLEMENTINE: I think that's absolutely it. Yeah. And like I said, it's not like all of those words are amazing. If you're crafting fiction, then you're probably a lot more worried about making sure that it's right. Whereas if you're doing non-fiction and polemic style, it's a bit easier to kind of bullshit. Well, not bullshit, but you don't have to worry quite so much about whether or not the sentence evokes a particular place or time or whatever it might be. But I also do think that it's just a decades worth of practice. It's writing a guaranteed two columns a week that you have to sit down and write, no matter if you have an idea or not, you have to come up with something and wanting to do that in a space of two hours and not eight hours, it's just repetition.
And again, especially when young writers ask me about advice, like what should I do? One of the things I've always found really interesting is when someone tells you that they want to be a writer and you say, ‘Okay, cool. What do you write about?’ And they say, ‘I don't really know. I don't really write’. Okay, well, what do you want to write about? I'm not really sure. And I think that I understand that feeling because it's possible of course to love writing and to be good at it in ways that you may not be comfortable sharing or maybe you enjoy that process of writing. But I think that you really should sit down and figure out what it is that you care about and what you're passionate about before asking people, how do I become a writer, that's part of that process.
One thing I always say is that it's just about practice. Even if no one's reading your work, if you can sit down with them, if you can sit down and write 200 words a day or 500 words a day about whatever it is, I mean, one of the things that was so beneficial to me was I mentioned blogs before and back in the mid 2000s everyone had a blog because we didn't have Facebook yet. It was much more common to see people write really long things rather than short snippet of ideas on Twitter or Facebook. And I guess I was passionate about not just about blogging, but also about the networks of other writers that I was meeting in that space and the community that was being built. I've found that over that time, what I wanted to write about became more and more obvious because I just wrote about different things every day. And then over the course of a few months, I started noticing myself writing more and more about the same kinds of things.
ASTRID: You've now published two books. Boys Will be Boys, as a reader, I felt it was a natural progression, kind of the next idea that I enjoyed you tackling for me, I guess, how did you decide there was another book in you?
CLEMENTINE: Well, I always hoped that there would be. It's a fear for every writer who writes a book that, that's it, that they've got nothing left in them now. But I agree with you, I feel like it was the natural progression. To me I see them as companion texts. I've obviously been writing about a lot of the topics in Boys Will be Boys for a long time. And it's something as my profile as a feminist has grown the backlash that I experience has also grown. So, it was becoming increasingly disturbed by the behaviour that I would see from young men, especially online. And it was just a topic that I couldn't stop thinking about. So, it was one that I wanted to really kind of sink my teeth into and I'm glad that I finished it.
Hopefully, it'll do really well. More than anything, I hope that it will prompt conversations in people who maybe knew some of this stuff or didn't know any of this stuff at all, or didn't feel comfortable addressing this stuff but who'll actually... I know there are people who already want to dismiss it as my ‘Man hating book’. Which is funny because that's what they also called my first book. But I actually feel, even though it's detailing a lot of really horrendous things. It's also written with a lot of hope and a lot of love because my son is all the way through it. It's a hopeful state for how we can start to reframe masculinity in a way that actually liberates all people from its more destructive elements.
ASTRID: I found that hopeful, confronting, but hopeful.
CLEMENTINE: Thank you.
ASTRID: Who were your first readers?
CLEMENTINE: Lou, my publicist was one of them and obviously my editor, my agent, but the most invaluable readers I had, I employed a couple of sensitivity…
ASTRID: That was my next question.
ASTRID: Can you tell us about that?
CLEMENTINE: Yeah. Well, the first chapter is about how we gender children before birth and I'm a Cis woman. I knew that I couldn't really speak to the trans experience and the effects that gender coding of binary people has on us is devastating. The effect it has on trans people is even more so. I employed a couple of trans friends and activists that I know to be sensitivity readers on that chapter. And they gave me really invaluable feedback. Then in another chapter as well, I employed a woman I know who's a sex worker and a porn performer and porn creator. And that was a chapter about sexuality in young boys that specifically in one part address pornography. And again, I'm not a sex worker and I don't want to speak to that experience or to malign it in a way that I don't really have direct experience. She was really wonderful in terms of giving feedback on that as well. And then I had a close friend of mine, who's an editor who works for an education publisher, and she's a really strong feminist. She's also the mother of a daughter and a son. She gave me really comprehensive feedback on some of the chapters that I was feeling a bit nervous about in terms of, are they too lengthy? Have I lost my way a little bit here? So she was fantastic. They were my three most valuable readers because their investment in it was different to the investment that people I was working with on a more day-to-day basis. The investment was different.
ASTRID: You published two books, Clementine we're about the same age, and you might very well be writing for another 30 or 40 years. How do you…
CLEMENTINE: Let's hope.
ASTRID: When you consider your own future career, how do you place these two first books in it? I mean, are these your foundational texts?
CLEMENTINE: I don't know. That's an interesting question. I mean, one of the things that I've found in the last ten years of writing columns even is that your ideas are constantly changing. I can't imagine that I'm going to ever look back on these books and say, ‘Well, I don't agree with any of that now’. And obviously I have a huge amount of love and affection for both of them. It's that thing of you always want to keep getting better. You always want to keep providing something new. And one of the best bits of writing advice I ever received was to tell people something they don't know about something they thought they did. So that's kind of what I've strived towards with both of these books and what I hope will continue to be a guiding principle.
But I suppose it's one of the reasons why I wrote Boys Will be Boys was not just because the content affects my life in a professional sense, but also because I had a child. So whatever happens to your life is what kind of dictates your interest. Isn't it? But yeah, I'm not sure, it's exciting. I hope that there's still an industry to write books in.
ASTRID: And people are still reading them.
ASTRID: Clementine, thank you so much for coming on The Garret.
CLEMENTINE: Thank you so much, Astrid. It was really great to be here and I really love talking about writing. I hope that your listeners enjoy this too.