Erik Jensen

Posted on Posted in Biography, Erik Jensen, Interview, Journalism, Non-fiction, Writer

Erik Jensen is the founding editor of The Saturday Paper. He previously worked at The Sydney Morning Herald, where he won the Walkley Award for Young Print Journalist of the Year.

His first book, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, won the Nib Award for Literature and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

His most recent work, Erik Jensen on Kate Jennings, is a part of the Writers on Writing series (by Black Inc, the State Library of Victoria and Melbourne University Press) and is a literary profile of Australian poet and writer Kate Jennings.

He has also written for film, television and the stage.

Related episodes:

Transcript

 

Nic Brasch: Erik Jensen is a journalist, screenwriter, playwright, the author of the award-winning biography Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, and a book on the writings of Kate Jennings, and he is a founding editor of The Saturday Paper. And he’s only twelve years old… Well, not quite, but he’s still remarkably young to have achieved so much. Erik, welcome to The Garret. 

Erik Jensen: Thanks so much. 

Nic: Is your career tracking the way you thought it might a decade ago? 

Erik: Look I didn’t… I don’t have any plans ever, at any time. So, it’s probably why I’m always wanting to do more because I don’t really… I’m very anxious about what comes next. 

Nic: Even now? 

Erik: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s quite normal for writers, isn’t it? It’s a vexed kind of thing to want to do, and so you just spend your time hoping it works out. 

Nic: You do, indeed. It’s the only way to do it. Did you grow up in a family where writing and books and ideas were encouraged? 

Erik: They were neither… Ideas and conversation were certainly encouraged. I don’t think writing was a huge part of the family I grew up in. There were certainly books at home, it wasn’t as through we lived in a house without books. But I’m the only writer in the family, which I think is again… You know, a lot of writers I know come from families of writers, and that wasn’t so much the case for me. 

Nic: So, at what point did you even think about writing or think about it as a possible career or interest? When did you start writing? 

Erik: I was never a child who kept a journal, I never wrote little stories or really expressed an interest in writing in that way. I suppose I was about 14 and decided I wanted to be a music critic and went to a magazine and asked the editor if I could have a job. I hadn’t really done any writing at that point, and he said yes, and then I just started writing. 

Nic: Was that more from a love of music or for a love of writing? 

Erik: I think an interest in both. And I suppose at 14 you can be quite fatalistic and you feel an urgent need to decide what you’re doing with your life, or at least some people do, and I certainly felt that at that age. So it was an arbitrary combination of two things that interested me, but I hadn’t really done much writing before I started. 

Nic: Who were your primary influences as writers then, when you started really reading and becoming interested in writing? Who were your primary influencers? 

Erik: Unfortunately, like all people who start as teenage music writers, Lester Bangs and people like that were figuring large in my imagination, and a whole lot of unnamed writers who were writing in music press, writing for NME and Rolling Stone and elsewhere.  

Soon after that I became more interested in new journalism. Again in a very clichéd way, the way that all journalists are. And so I think figures like Joseph Mitchell played a role in my imagination as did… Again, the problem with being a teenage boy is that at some point you will think that Hunter S. Thompson is a good writer.  

Nic: [Laughter] 

Erik: And I suppose I worked through reading quite a lot of new journalism at that point. There’s that terrific anthology called The New Journalism that Thomas Wolfe edited that has in it a kind of selection of writings that Thomas Wolfe believes represent something of what the new journalism is supposed to be. It’s a very incomplete idiosyncratic collection, but each section is also ostentatiously introduced by Thomas Wolfe. And so, I suppose I worked through that book and found writers in that book whose writing I then looked to. 

Nic: Then it becomes clear later in your writing how influential that was. You started in journalism then, writing music reviews, and then how did you get into journalism in a more permanent way? 

Erik: The same sort of way. I went into The Sydney Morning Herald offices when I was 15 or 16 and asked the music editor there, Bernard Zuel, for a job. And he said yes as well. 

Nic: [Laughter] 

Erik: Life is just a series of people saying yes when they shouldn’t.  

And then I was finishing school and had become very anxious around the fact that I thought I’d sort of failed, and if not failed school certainly failed to get into university. So at that point, the editor of the Herald had an idea that he wanted a cadet who was not an Arts/Law graduate or someone with any life experience, and so I filled that role. And I suppose – again without a great deal of thought – I became a news reporter. 

Nic: Was journalism, working at The Sydney Morning Herald, what you expected? Did you have expectations? 

Erik: Yeah. I think I had fairly romantic notions of what journalism was at that point. 

Nic: Beers at the pub and cigarettes hanging out. That sort of thing? 

Erik: Yeah. Well just… Newsrooms that were remarkable for the remarkable people that were in them, and that was true of The Sydney Morning Herald when I started there. 

Nic: And who were some of the remarkable ones? 

Erik: I mean, at that time, my early mentors were people like David Marr, who I was sitting next to early at the Herald, and Kate McClymont who is still there and is a very good investigative reporter.  

The Herald then was still full of characters. Journalists like Malcolm Brown who had storied careers and peculiar geniuses that would not be recognised anywhere else. I had a strong sensation when I was at the Herald, after a couple of years, realising that I thought everyone there was very talented and almost none of them were employable.  

And I think, you know, it’s something that journalism allows writers to experience. Not everyone gets to be like that, I suppose. But it’s not a bad place for a teenager to work because you’re allowed to spend a lot of time in fairly idiosyncratic ways working out who it is you might be. And you do that in journalism by trying to understand other people, I think. 

Nic: Ok… We could almost call you a veteran now. How has journalism changed over the decade or so that you’ve been involved? The biggest changes? 

Erik: The changes that are obvious and have been sort of essayed so much as to be unremarkable. There is a lot less money in journalism now, and so people are not allowed the indulgences that they once were, and that means that less time is spent on stories and it means that sometimes, I think, writing is prized less than it might be or should be.  

And I think also the fear that comes along with losing the model on which your journalism was based produces a sort of panic that can occasion perverse outcomes. So, I think newspapers have changed their minds at various times about what it is their purpose might be, I think, with a negative impact on journalism sometimes. Certainly with a negative impact on writing and those things in newspapers that take time. And you know, there’s also some pretty crude assumptions around what audiences are like or what readers want.  

Journalism has changed enormously in the ten or so years that I’ve been doing it. But I’m not convinced that readers have changed the same way, and yet I think newspapers have allowed themselves to believe that they have. 

Nic: Is the passion still there? I mean, amongst those who are still working in it? Are people still as passionate about it as they were despite the changes? 

Erik: I think, absolutely. You can’t really work in journalism without being passionate, because those of you who are actually employable – I’m not saying that’s all of us – but you could almost certainly make more doing something else. And so journalism has always depended on people who are willing to push themselves further than what their job is necessarily asking of them. 

Nic: Is that holy grail of the future model any closer than it was a few years ago? 

Erik: I think so, in a number of ways. Newsrooms such as the one that I started my career in will perhaps not exist again in this country. They’re too big, and they have worked into them all sorts of romantic inefficiencies that I think might not be acceptable to media proprietors. But on the flip side, the model is finding itself and in a lot of positive ways, I think. I think it was about 2007 that The New York Times for the first time ever in their financials had greater earnings from subscribers than they did from advertising, which fundamentally changes what you are doing as a journalist. No longer are you building an audience that you then hope to on-sell to an advertiser. What you are doing is selling your journalism direct to your readers. And that’s a real positive. 

Nic: Much more optimistic, isn’t it? 

Erik: Yeah. That’s the sort of thing I like to focus on when people start becoming gloomy about the future of journalism. I am woefully optimistic though, I think, and maybe that’s not surprising to other people when they see me buffooning my way through life. But in journalism you very quickly decide that you are all cynics, and you sit in a newsroom with talented, world-weary people and you think that cynicism is what it is you are trafficking in. And certainly cynicism is an ersatz kind of wisdom. It allows you to be right, at least, or to be wrong in a glib way. And so it’s only after starting a newspaper of my own that I realised how kind of dreadfully optimistic I am, and happily that optimism pays off. And I am all for celebrating optimism. I think… because writing is solitary and cerebral, it allows you at times to be quite gloomy about yourself and the world. I’m all for just… just sort of jumping in and hoping it works out. 

Nic: Is that optimism, you think, something that Morry Schwartz might have identified and it might have appealed to him? I interviewed Morry recently and you’re part of the Schwartz Media stable. Is that something that you think appealed to him? I mean, he’s a very optimistic person. 

Erik: I think so. I think if anyone has a chance to work with optimists they should, because its only when things go bad that you realise they have. And that’s much better than predicting it. 

Nic: And how do you find working with, for, Morry? 

Erik: Terrific. I mean, again, it’s only when you’re doing something that you have a chance to look back and realise how ludicrous it is that someone might have chanced on an idea for a newspaper and let you just go and basically make something up out of your notebooks.  

I was moving some things recently and found the notebooks that I had started The Saturday Paper in. And they are full of sketches of what I wanted the paper to be like. You know, it’s almost childish to think that that seemed reasonable to me at the time… that I would just draw pictures of what a newspaper should be like and then go and make one. But the other happy part of finding those notebooks is to see how much the paper is like it was in those notebooks, how little of it has changed and how much it’s adhered to its original vision. I spent about 18 months working on the paper before it launched. Really, I think, I hope, interrogated what it was The Saturday Paper was going to do and what its purpose might be and how it might be different to other newspapers. And it’s a relief when you go back and realise that on the assumptions you were testing you found yourself to be largely right. 

Nic: How did The Saturday Paper come about? 

Erik: I sent Morry Schwartz an email while I was still at The Sydney Morning Herald, and I was increasingly agitated about not doing the sort of reporting I was wanting to do. You know, I was 23, I was just agitated generally, I think.  

And we met and had a long conversation around journalism and Australia and the things that interested and excited him and the things that made me feel interested and excited, and quite soon we’d agreed that we would start The Saturday Paper. And again, it all seemed very reasonable to me. I went to work the next day and resigned and moved to Melbourne. 

Nic: So why do we need The Saturday Paper do you think? 

Erik: I think because we can’t ignore the crisis in journalism, and we can’t ignore some of the outcomes in that crisis. And those outcomes include things like shifting away from a focus on narrative, on writing. I think… I looked very closely at newspapers as I was working on the scaffold for The Saturday Paper, and of all the things that had dropped out of them, the thing that was most confounding was that narrative was missing. The building block of life in some ways is the telling of stories, and newspapers had stopped doing that to some extent. They’d started just arranging facts from most important to least important, and that’s not really storytelling. And so I felt it was important to reconnect journalism with writing, but also to find ways to pay for the kind of journalism I think is important. And again it’s that fatalism of youth, I think. I felt a peculiar responsibility to my industry to the thing that I loved and believed in, and I thought if I wasn’t actively involved in ways in trying to make it financially viable then I had kind of failed, I suppose.  

I don’t know where that drive comes from. I remember being… I went to primary school in Fiji and I went to a Methodist school for a little while, and I remember realising that my family were godless and conducting prayers for their benefit. It was the same time that I found God at about 6 and left him at about six and a half.  

Nic: [Laughter] 

Erik: I was praying for the family at dinner and when I opened my eyes I realised that everyone was laughing at me and that I wasn’t going to save them. Maybe it’s a similar impulse… I’m way off track now… 

Nic: [Laughter] I love it going off track. 

Erik: But I think it’s a similar impulse, in that you just have to take responsibility for things. Newsrooms are full of complaint. It’s kind of the white noise of all newsrooms. And I love complaint as much as the next person, but I do think if you complain and then don’t try to fix things then you’re being fairly impotent. 

Nic: So, you’ve gone from trying to find God to becoming God. 

Erik: Being an editor is not like being God. 

Nic: [Laughter] 

Erik: It’s taken me four years to realise that. It didn’t take four years, it took about six months. For the first six months of the paper I went completely mad. 

Nic: Right. In what way? 

Erik: Because I’d been in my notebooks, so I believed that you could make a perfect newspaper. And then I tried for six months to do that. I was rewriting pretty much every piece in the paper, I was working until I was really going quite mad. And then, I had – you know, I think Doctors would call it seizure, just from kind of exhaustion – and realised that the greatest truth about newspapers is that they are imperfect, because they try desperately to understand the world but the world is imperfect. No week is going to give you news that perfectly fits into your newspaper. No person is perfectly going to do what you want them to do. And so while I think I remain a perfectionist, I realise that there are limitations to perfectionism and there is untruth in perfectionism. You have to accept that the world is going to be unruly. 

Nic: And unpredictable. 

Erik: And if you could explain it, you will have kind of rendered yourself totally obsolete if you got to something that resembled an explanation. I think it’s the same reason I write about other people. 

Nic: Just wondering actually, you were talking about your youth before, I’m wondering if for your generation, if All The Presidents Men is still as inspiring a story, an event, as it was for my generation of young people? 

Erik: I don’t think I ever wanted to believe that I was, you know, entering journalism for my own Watergate or something. My Chief of Staff when I first started used to call me Woodward and I really liked that. 

Nic: [Laughter] 

Erik: Other than that… it’s a movie I saw for the first time only recently, and I found it ludicrously procedural. But there was a journalist I worked with at the Herald who went to great lengths to look like Robert Redford and I think succeeded… So, it’s not without its impact. 

Nic: [Laughter] Ok. Let’s move on now. You’re talking about writing about other people and your extraordinary biography of the artist, Adam Cullen. How did your involvement with Adam come about? 

Erik: I suppose that book begins with a lie, and it’s the lie that there is a book contract that Adam Cullen has with Thames and Hudson, that he wants me to write this book. I’d met him writing a profile for the Saturday edition of The Sydney Morning Herald, and he obviously liked the profile and liked meeting and called me a couple of weeks after it came out and said that he had this book contract and that I needed to urgently move into him spare room and start writing this book. Which again, when you’re 19, seems entirely credible.  

Nic: Well, not for most 19 year olds. Most 19 year olds are not going to go and move into the spare room of some unhinged… 

Erik: I think they would!  

Nic: You think they would? 
Erik: I think a lot of the foolishness of youth is tied up with believing other people, and so is a lot of youth tied up in wanting to be grown up. And this seemed like it could do both things. I was able to, you know, credulously believe someone, hope to grow up and also, I think, that sense that some young people have, at least, of things running out. I felt like if I hadn’t started a substantial project, substantial writing project, then I’d be, you know, a cadet journalist. 

Nic: Why did you keep going with Adam? I mean, he accidentally shot you. He pushed you off the back of a motorbike. There was the drugs. Was there a point at which you thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here?’ 

Erik: A peculiar thing about journalism is the way in which it prizes professional detachment. And so I allowed myself to be in fairly traumatic settings during that book, because I had convinced myself that the professional response was to be absent from them. And its only really having written a screenplay based on that book that I’ve taken time to interrogate my own character, because I didn’t feel my own character had a place in that book. And the other thing is, when you tell enough people you are writing a book, it’s too embarrassing not to. And so, there’s a lot of professional obligation that goes along with saying you will do something and then do it. Particularly with someone like Adam, whose entire identity was constructed from lies and half-truths. I realised far enough into the project that I was somewhat entangled in his lies, and had even perhaps been lying for him, and that I needed to continue working on the project to properly extricate myself from it. I didn’t think there was a way to stop without doing something solid and purposeful, which is what I hoped the book was. 

Nic: How did you then determine… Of everything that he said to you – I’m not talking about things you witnessed – how did you determine whether something was true or not? Or how did you go about including it in there, when you weren’t sure? Because, I mean, you could almost not believe anything he says. 

Erik: Yeah. I mean, I think there are two things there. The first is that with a character like Adam, a person like Adam, the lies themselves are revealing because they tell you something of who he wished to be…  

Nic: His character, yes, sure. 

Erik: And that was terribly important to him. I think I balanced through the book this sense that you could report what was, at times, ludicrous, what Adam would say, and either disrupt that through juxtaposition or saying explicitly that it was not true or that you could not find evidence for it. Where that doesn’t happen in the book, where things are reported quite straight from Adam, they’re largely based on having been able to verify the account with other people. So there’s a lot of interviews with other people who aren’t in the book, because I wanted the book to be more of a singular voice, but there’s a lot of work behind that in terms of trying to ascertain the truth of what happened.  

Also, the book doesn’t attempt to say that it’s definitive or complete. It’s quite deliberately fragmented. I think a realisation while I was writing that book was that silences or ellipses of time or information are really important because most of us will never really know ourselves, I suspect, and its almost impossible to know other people, and so the best you can do is try to get some portion of that person on to the page and accept in your writing that the rest of them might be absent from the book, might be absent from themselves. 

Nic: I particular love the thematic structure of the biography, rather than chronological structure. At what point did you decide to do it? Was it an epiphany part way through? Was it something you decided from the outset or only toward the end? 

Erik: I think a couple of things there as well. One is that I never really learnt to be a writer, so I’ve only ever really been writing 300 word news stories and just putting them in order, more and more of them, until books emerge. I think that’s an entirely OK way to work. It is the way I work. I also can’t stand long books, and so it’s a necessary feature of trying to be as brief as is humanly possible.  

And then, beyond that in terms of the structure of this book, I had been interviewing Adam for about four years. And then he died. And he had announced his death in our very first interview. It hung over every conversation we had. It was inevitable from the very start. By the time those four years were over, I had a pile of notebooks and I had become incredibly frustrated and really quite detached from Adam. I had moved cities, in part, possibly to get away from him. And then, when he did die, I was unexpectedly grieved by that death, and I kind of looked at this pile of notebooks and decided I really should turn them into something.  

And I didn’t really have a plan. I never really have a plan or a scaffold for something I’ve been writing. So I just started with the first notebook I opened, and it happened to be the most recent one which recorded his death. And then I worked backwards haphazardly from there, and found myself organising things into chapters and those chapters to be thematic. But there wasn’t like a careful bit of planning in that, and there wasn’t really a rewriting or restructuring. It was really about trying to find places to put things, which I think is all writing is in some ways. A lot of the time you are like a removalist, you are just looking for spots to put things so you can get on to the next job. 

Nic: Do you think you would have finished the book if he hadn’t died? Do you think you needed him to die? If he was still alive, would it still be a pile of notes? 

Erik: I think I would have finished it. In a lot of ways it would have been a lot easier for the book to come out when he was alive, because there wouldn’t have been a question about whether or not he could defend himself. 

Nic: What would he have thought of your representation of him, do you think? 

Erik: I think he would have liked the book in the first instance. I think at different times he would have been very angry at the book. At other times he would have really enjoyed the sense of notoriety I think that comes with being a subject.  

It’s almost impossible to predict someone’s response to your portrayal of them. In journalism you’ll write a story that you think is going to destroy someone’s career or bring them great legal or financial grief, and they never call to complain. And you write about the pickles judging at the Easter show and you get these furious phone calls about how you’ve done egregious and terrible things to someone. So you just can’t predict how confronting it is for other people to see themselves on the page. And some people deal with it and others do not. 

Nic: Your latest book is in the Writers on Writing series and you’ve written about Kate Jennings. Was that your choice? Were you asked to write it? Or did you say ‘I really want to write about Kate’ and if so, what is it about Kate Jennings and her writing that appeals? 

Erik: Chris Feik, who is the editor of that series, asked if I would write one of the books. And I was not at that point keen to write another book. I was distracted by a couple of other things, but I have always really wanted to write about Kate Jennings. 

Nic: And he said it would be a short book. [Laughter] 

Erik: Yes. Exactly. Kate, I think, is a much under-appreciated Australian talent. And I have always been fascinated by Snake, her first novel, partly because I could never properly get around to understanding exactly what that book was about. And yet there’s not much in that book so it should have been easy to comprehend. 

Nic: How old were you when you recall reading that book? 

Erik: I would have been in my early twenties. 

Nic: Ok. 

Erik: It was not like a book that I read in childhood or anything. It’s such a staggeringly realised piece of writing. And so… I had developed a friendship with Kate before I started writing on the book, but I didn’t know her terribly well and I certainly didn’t know her well enough to ask the questions that I would have liked to ask about that book and about her life. So writing the Writers on Writing book became an opportunity to be impertinent, I suppose, which is the only reason people become journalists – because it gives us permission to ask questions that society otherwise asks us not to. 

Nic: What sort of writing appeals to you most? What sort of reading do you like doing? In you spare time, not necessarily professionally. 

Erik: I am really taken, it seems, by poets who become writers. Kate Jennings, obviously, was a poet before she was a writer and I would probably say she is my favourite Australian writer.  

A writer whose work I became enthralled by, and obsessed by, a little while ago is Jennifer Clement, who is a Mexican-based poet who wrote… Her first book is called A True Story Based on Lies and it’s an exceptional novel. None of her novels are longer than about a hundred pages, which suits me. This is one of my, I suppose we’re talking about writing, so I’ll get into one of my gripes… 

Nic: Please, please. 

Erik: The bastard form that is the novel: all other storytelling is contained in a single evening at most, because it has a straight line between it and oral storytelling. And then the novel exists, I think, to satisfy male insecurities, it’s just completely unreasonably long. No story needs all that space. And I’m constantly making the case for books to be shorter. 

Nic: I’m glad. I’m with you, because I love short books. I always find it much easier to spend $25 or $30 on a short book than a long one. But publishers… 

Erik: It’s obscene, it’s a racket. 

Nic: Publishers over the years have said, ‘It’s got to be bigger, it’s got to be bigger’ because people won’t pay more, as if you’re paying for the quantity rather than the quality. But to me, I’m the thin spine person as well. I love 150 to 160 pages. And if you can’t tell your story then, you’re not trying hard enough. 

Erik: I don’t think anyone has the time to properly choose the words in a book as long as that… 

Nic: [Laughter] That’s true. 

Erik: So not all of them have argued for their place. But also I think it’s almost – it’s almost obscene – that a story would occupy so much of your time. It just seems wrong to me. But every time I make this case with a proper writer they explain to me the various ways in which I am a complete philistine, and it’s not untrue. 

Nic: [Laughter] Let’s move on then to professionally. What sort of pitches from freelancers make you sit up and take notice? Because you must get lots of them, all the time. Which ones end up in your publication? 

Erik: I think what you’re always looking for, as an editor of a newspaper, is someone who has been able to tell you something you didn’t know, or take you into stories that you’ve been dimly aware of but haven’t had access for. Journalism breaks down into fairly predictable categories. One is new information, things you didn’t know. The other is kind of access. And the thing that hopefully bridges those two things and that I want to see for either of them is writing, and that’s something that is not always prized. So if someone pitches a story to me and they can write then I’m usually fairly excited.  

Nic: Are there any particular articles that spring to mind that you are particularly proud of over the years with The Saturday Paper, either because they’ve broken news and attracted more attention, or because of the quality of the writing, or a different perspective that obviously hadn’t been considered by you or the readers? 

Erik: I won’t go through an exhaustive list because we’re close to four years of issues of the paper and there’s often pieces in the paper that I feel especially proud of. One piece that does spring to mind that I think speaks of the things that I’m interested in more broadly for the paper and also those things that as an editor I think we hold responsibility for...  

Martin McKenzie-Murray, who is the chief correspondent on the paper, wrote a piece in the first year of the paper’s life, wrote a piece about pedophilia that was surprising insofar as it interrogated quite objectively the mindset and motivation of a pedophile, but did so also through personal memoir and disclosed abuse and disclosed the personal fear of offending that comes with – occasionally comes with – the aftermath of having been abused. And it was a very intimate piece to edit because of the material in it. It was a very well realised, well-structured, well-written, purposeful piece. And it was also the kind of piece that comes out of trust between a writer and an editor. And I think on every level it achieved what I think good journalism should achieve. 

Nic: Did that come to you as an idea or as a finished piece? When you were first aware? Did he say, ‘I’ve written this?’ 

Erik: It came as an idea and then it went through a number of drafts, back and forth. And I think… it’s the sort of writing that Martin is best at, and why I think he’s an asset to the paper. His principal field of interest are the questions to which there are not answers – which in journalism is not a terribly useful field sometimes – but if you are willing to accept that journalism doesn’t always have to look the way that for a hundred years we’ve been told it should look, then it’s absolutely this sort of open-ended thing that a journalist might, and should, be doing. 

Nic: And as a reader I much prefer, or often much prefer, that feeling of leaving an article thinking about it, than leaving an article finished knowing all about it. 

Erik: Yeah. But I mean equally I edited, last week, a piece by Imran Mohammad, a Rohingyan refugee held on Manus Island. And he is a man who has learned English while in detention. He is, I think, an incredibly skilled writer and observer. And also on top of all of that, he’s writing in really constrained circumstances. There is enormous privilege in editing a piece like that. 

Nic: You said you hadn’t studied writing. I’m wondering if you’ve read books on the craft of writing and if so, whether you have a particular favourite or one you believe is influential? 

Erik: Look, I suppose Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism is a book about writing in a round about sort of way, if you can put up with the pomposity as he introduces each new writer. 

Nic: He writes as he dresses. 

Erik: Yeah, well, without the restraint. 

Nic: [Laughter] 

Erik: And if you can get through that then it is a very useful thing to read. 

I think that I am often guilty of singing the praises of autodidacts. But I think you just get a lot out of reading. And I think you get more out of that than just reading about writing. And I think you get a lot out of writing.  

One book that everyone has on their shelf and is actually very, very good is Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. There is a reason that book is in print still, and it’s because it’s terribly effective. 

Nic: Just finally, I’m wondering if there’s another Australian figure you’d like to do an ‘Adam Cullen’ on? Immerse yourself into their lives and write about them, obviously with a bit more of a break perhaps, but is there someone who you would find that fascinating again? 

Erik: I haven’t got a book project that I’m working on at the moment. There’s always half formed ideas for stories you might like to write.  

I did, quite a while ago, start writing a small book about Michael Hutchence.  

Nic: [Laughter] 

Erik: I thought that was a good idea. This was before the telemovies and whatever else. But I got just to writing a prologue, wherein my mother explained to me Michael Hutchence’s death, which happened when I was about eight. I do vividly remember my mother explaining what had happened. Because I was concerned… I think Australia was concerned. And she said, ‘Well Erik, he died. He was having sex with a door’. And that really concerned me. It made me very worried about, just, basically entering the house or leaving the house. I wasn’t certain which way he was going.  

Nic: [Laughter] And you were concerned for the door.  

Erik: I was worried for everyone. Look, that book was a stupid idea. And it was going to be a biography of the album ‘Kick’. And I don’t even like the album ‘Kick’. I don’t know what I was doing. I think I just wanted to get through the Michael Hutchence door story. There are Australians whose lives I would like to write. 

Nic: And his would have been as equally fascinating, I suspect. 

Erik: Yeah. Well, I think the problem with that book is that I realised I’d have to probably spend time talking to Kirk Pengilly.  

Nic: [Laughter] 

Erik: I couldn’t. 

Nic: On that note, I’d like to thank you for your time today, Erik. And particularly your thoughts about writing and journalism, which I know will be of immense enjoyment to our listeners as well. So keep up the good work. I enjoy every Saturday morning with The Saturday Paper and look forward to your next biography on whomever it may be. Thank you, Erik. 

Erik: Thanks very much.