Jason Steger is a British-born Australian journalist. He began his career in 1980 as a sports reporter, before moving into business journalism and then joining the Financial Times. Jason moved to Melbourne in 1987 and worked on the now defunct Melbourne Herald. He joined the Sunday Age as business editor in 1990 before moving into arts and books journalism. He became literary editor of The Age in 2000, and he remains literary editor of Fairfax Media to this day.
Between 2006 and 2017 Jason co-hosted ABC TV's beloved The Book Club alongside Marieke Hardy and Jennifer Byrne.
- Benjamin Law was a regular guest on The Book Club. In our interview with Benjamin, he discussed his own experience as a journalist and reflected on the first time he was published in a newspaper.
Morry Schwartz also refers to Peter Craven and discusses the vibrancy of the Australian publishing and book selling scene.
Nic Brasch: Jason Steger is the literary editor of Fairfax Media, and was, until its recent axing, a regular on the ABC's Book Club. Few people are as well-placed as Jason to provide an objective overview of the Australian publishing industry, as well as perhaps more subjectively, the art of reviewing. Jason, welcome to The Garret.
Jason: Thank you very much.
Nic: Do you consider yourself belonging to the world of journalism or the world of literature?
Jason: The world of journalism, I think. I feel that my responsibility is to the readers of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. Consequently… yeah. Obviously, we play a role in the literary culture, possibly a role that some publishers don't particularly like. We run critical reviews. But no, the primary responsibility, I think, is to our readers. I would hope that a reader who might open the paper on a Saturday, and turn to the books pages, will read something that is entertaining, informative, and if they go out and buy the book afterwards, that's great. I mean, that's a bonus. But I would like them to get to the end of the review or the feature and think, ‘Well, that was interesting. I enjoyed that. I've learned something. Maybe I'll go and get the book’.
Nic: Did you come from a family of either journalists or literature lovers?
Jason: Not journalists. My mother was a big reader. She used to get The Times Literary Supplement every week. Was it published every week? I can't even remember. But she would get that and read that. She was a big reader. I have always been encouraged to read, I think, as a child. I've always enjoyed it. Mostly enjoyed it.
Nic: [Laughter] Which authors of books do you have the earliest reading memories of?
Jason: Well, the earliest one that I can remember, and I have actually talked about this before, and it got me into trouble. But I remember being given a book called – a reader, it was designed to teach you to read – Janet and John. Janet and John books was in London. On the very first episode of the ABC Book Club, it was a question that was asked, ‘What was your first book?’ Or something like that. I referred to this Janet and John book, and I made some crack about – because it was 11 years ago – so I made some crack that it was Janet and John do something, and I said, ‘It wasn't Janet and John invade Iraq’. A play on John Howard's name, and his wife, Janette. Well, one senator with clearly, clearly too much time on her hands raised this in Senate estimates when she was talking to the head of ABC at the time.
Nic: [Laughter] Another example of ABC bias, isn't it?
Jason: Oh, that was what she was suggesting. That was a serious suggestion. I just couldn't believe that.
Nic: Wow. Wow. Comic? Did you get any comics?
Jason: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Nic: Those were huge back then, particularly in England.
Jason: Yeah. We used to get The Lion. My brother would get The Lion, and I would get The Tiger. They were great.
Nic: A jungle cover between the two of you.
Jason: Yeah, that's right. That's right. Then there was a problem, though, because the comic, those two comic merged. So there was only one, and that was a bit of a problem.
Nic: Oh, the Liger.
Jason: That's right. And things like The Beano, and…
Nic: Of course. Roy of the Rovers.
Jason: Yeah, Roy of the Rovers was in Tiger, so that was great for me.
Nic: As you would go through your teens, then, who did you start discovering in terms of writers, or maybe perhaps a genre?
Jason: I didn't read Tolkien, for example. I can remember my first really serious adult book was a novel called Resurrection, a late novel by Tolstoy. God knows why I read that. I can remember, it was in... there was a bookshelf in the lavatory. I'm not quite sure, but anyway, I picked it up, and it seemed worth reading, and I read it. I'm pretty sure I finished it. I think that was the first really example of serious literature that I read.
Nic: Right. Right.
Jason: And I love Tolstoy. I'm not quite sure that that's his best novel. And I've never read it again.
Nic: I just was going to ask you, have you gone back to it?
Jason: [Laughter] No, I haven't. I probably should, actually. It will be interesting to try it.
Nic: You went on to study at university, and you studied literature. Was the spark there before you went to university and said, ‘I've got to do this’, or did you go and study, and it was while you were studying that you developed this interest?
Jason: Actually, I was going to study history and philosophy. I got there, and this was in Canterbury, the University of Kent. I got there, and the first book I had to read was about the welfare state in Britain. I'd had a year in between school and university, working and mucking about, and things like that. I just couldn't face reading this book about the welfare state. It did actually seem a rather dull book. So, I changed courses. It was difficult to change courses because it was English and American literature that I changed to, and it was a very, very popular course. I sort of pleaded with them and said, ‘Oh, well, I've been away for a year, and working, and I changed my mind’. Anyway, got into it, and it was good. It was good. It was very different from university today, I think. I mean, I have a couple of kids who've been through, or are at university, and they seem to do an awful lot of work.
Jason: Whereas, my recollection is that we did very little.
Nic: Yes, that's my recollection, too. [Laughter] While you were studying, then, was journalism the path that you expected to take?
Nic: Or did you fall into that? Did you fall into that, then? How did that happen?
Jason: Well, I had a place to do a teaching, a post-graduate teaching thing at Cambridge. It was a year thing. But I think my motives for that weren't the right ones. It was basically because my girlfriend was at the university there. But then, I didn't go. Then, I don't know, I think I was painting and decorating, then teaching English as a foreign language. And then I happened to see – honestly, it was as accidental as this – in those days in The Guardian they had a media guide, and they had all the jobs in media in there. It was a bit of a myth, actually, because nobody I knew had ever got a job through it. And there was a job for a sports reporter in a local paper. And I thought, ‘Oh, well, I'll try for that’. And much to my surprise, I got it eventually. The only reason, as far as I can see, that I got it was because the guy said, ‘Oh, well, we only had one other person and he had a biology degree. You've got an English degree, and we figured you'd be able to write’. I think that bloke who had the biology, he's probably running the BBC or something like that now.
Nic: [Laughter] Doesn't matter how you get them, though, does it?
Jason: No, that's right.
Nic: Okay. So tell me your career path as a journalist, because when you start in journalism, most journalists I know have covered just about everything. Did you cover the lot, or just…
Jason: No, no, no. I've been very... I've missed out on an awful lot. In the same way that there are gigantic gaps in my reading, like virtually the entire 18th century. So there are huge gaps in my journalistic experience. I've never done courts, for example.
Jason: Never done police reporting... I started as a sports reporter, and did that for a couple of years. Then I thought, ‘Well, I'm starting not to enjoy football, soccer’. And I thought, ‘I value my enjoyment of soccer more than I value my journalistic career’.
Nic: Yes, yes.
Jason: So I left that job and I became – it still makes me laugh to think about it – I worked for what's called a part-word, which is one of those things that's published for a limited length of time, say 90 weeks, and you collect it.
Nic: Oh, yes. The weekly... Geez, I used to love of those.
Jason: It was a DIY one.
Nic: Ok. [Laughter]
Jason: And I started as the electrics editor. And that involved writing stuff about wiring houses, and things like that. So no doubt, there are houses across Britain that have blown up because of my inept abilities there. And then I went and moved into, I worked on a marketing magazine after that, and then I moved to The Financial Times, which was a bit of a step-up, I think.
Nic: Looks good on the CV.
Jason: Yeah, yeah.
Nic: It looks great.
Jason: I worked there at The Financial Times for a few years and then came to Australia.
Jason: And I started work at the Melbourne Herald, the old afternoon paper, on the business desk, and then moved onto the sports desk, and then got approached. The Sunday Age had just started, and they offered me a job as business editor, so I went to The Sunday Age as business editor. In those days, The Sunday Age was very much a separate paper. It was a broadsheet paper, and the business section, which was a separate pull-out, was pretty... it was great. So mainly features, eight pages a week. It was good. It was good. I've been with The Sunday Age ever since doing a variety of things.
Nic: Yeah, you have, you have. Can I just go back? Just one thing's always intrigued me. The sports in England, a young sports journalist. Is the ultimate aim to be one of those people that writes the pun headlines for when England gets beaten by Sweden or something like that?
Jason: The Swedes.
Nic: They are just classics. ‘Swede one, turnips nil’. They must have sit around all day just...
Jason: Probably. I don't know. I think the best headlines just come to you, you know?
Jason: The best one ever was in The Scottish Sun, when a team called Caledonian beat Celtic, and the headline was Supercaligoballisticcelticareatrocious. That's just pure genius.
Jason: Yes, absolutely. I would love to be the person who write that.
Nic: You put down your pen, you go home, and you don't come back to work in two weeks. You just rest on your laurels, don't you?
Jason: No, because I supposed if you're doing that, you're a sub and you're sitting in the office. I suppose if you want to write, then you've got to get out and cover matches, interview, that sort of thing. Subbing is a great skill. I think that possibly with the developments in papers and everything, not so much import is placed on it now, which is very sad.
Nic: Yeah, yeah.
Jason: It was a genuine skill, but there've been so many redundancies and outsourcings and so on and so forth, that I don't think it's deemed to be as important as it once was.
Nic: Since being literary editor of The Age and then Fairfax Media, what have been some of the more exiting, most exciting finds? You know, young writers where a book comes to you, or you go after an interview where you just go, ‘Wow, this person's got it’, you know?
Jason: Well, most recently, I think perhaps a couple of short story writers. I mean, Nam Le's book was fantastic when that came out, and Heat. Obviously, I didn't discover him, but I was... and then a couple of years ago, Abigail Ulman's Hot Little Hands. I thought that was really, really impressive.
Sometimes I don't get the opportunity to read everything.
Jason: There is so many books. So I do rely a lot on people who tell me about things. But those two stand out recently. Jennifer Downs, I think, is impressive. Her short stories, and that first novel.
Nic: You just mentioned you get so many books. You must get so many sent to you. What's the decision-making process in determining what you do review? Because you can't review everything.
Jason: No, no, no.
Nic: Quite generous with pages, but page space has shrunk over the years, but the Fairfax Media still does well, reasonably well.
Jason: Reasonably well.
Nic: Reasonably well. Not as well as it has. So you've got to make decisions, and that can't be easy. How does that...
Jason: Well, there are the books that you sort of have..
Nic: Have to.
Jason: … to review. For example, a new novel by Tim Winton or Richard Flanagan…
Nic: Or Helen Garner.
Jason: Oh yeah, that's right. That's right. You don't not review them. Then there are books that catch my eye. There are books that publishers lobby me about, and then I think, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds interesting’. Occasionally, I indulge my own tastes. Not very often, perhaps. That used to happen more frequently when we had more space. People pitch reviews, and sometimes I take notice of what they're pitching to review, and other times not. Particularly, if they are reviewers that I know, and who I trust, then I'll take more interest, obviously.
Nic: I've noticed sometimes I get reviews of three, or two, three, or perhaps even four books on a similar topic. Is it sort of advantageous, perhaps, that your book comes at the same time as two or three others on the same topic? Is that a way of including more books in the same…
Jason: Absolutely. Because we are limited for space. So, if there does happen to be three books coming out about, I don't know, how to die well, or something like that. Yeah, if I'm conscious of those books, and they are coming out reasonably close to each other, then that would make sense, if we're going to review them, sure.
Nic: And how do you go matching a particular book to a particular reviewer?
Jason: Well, that can take a lot of time. Sometimes, it's easier than others. Sometimes, it's obvious. For example, when Ray Gaita's Romulus, My Father came out, I asked... Richard Flanagan's book The Sound of One Hand Clapping had come out not that long before. It seemed such a, not an identical experience that was being written about, but similar themes and such like. So, I prevailed upon Richard to review that, and that was a really good pairing.
Sometimes it's accidental. Sometimes I look for experts at universities. I'm always slightly worried then, because they don't necessarily know how to write a good review.
Nic: Sure. No, that's right.
Jason: And they would write a good piece for an academic audience, but not necessarily a newspaper readership. We like things to be accessible, not necessarily in academic language. And so, that can be tricky. Recently, the past few weeks, I've managed to find a couple of really good reviewers, both of whom are at the University of Sydney, a guy called Bradley Garrett who reviewed Vanessa Berry's book Mirror Sydney a couple of weeks ago. He's a sort of psycho-geographer. That was great. It was a really good review, and really interesting.
And then a guy called Shane White who writes about race reviewed a book by Toni Morrison that is in this... well, it was in a November edition of the paper. He's doing another one for me. And both of them are very good writers as well, so that was terrific.
Nic: Have you ever given a book to someone who had very close connection with that particular book or author? Who appeared in the book? Just for a different perspective? Or would you not?
Jason: No. Somebody who's actually been in the book?
Nic: Yeah, or has a close connection to the book? I mean, I'm just trying to think of an example of if somebody... I mean, I guess if it's a memoir, whether it's someone who's close to that.
Jason: No. So that you could get that inside knowledge?
Nic: Yeah. Obviously…
Jason: And maybe... I haven't actually. Maybe I have inadvertently, I don't know. But I have certainly had the occasion when somebody's had an axe to grind.
Nic: Okay, that's probably more what I'm thinking. So for instance, if Malcolm Turnbull reviewed Tony Abbott's memoir, or something along those lines.
Nic: Have you ever... In the Labor Party, there must be a million, you know, Kim Beasley doing Mark Latham, or something like that.
Jason: I’ve never had that. Not politically. I did once... a poet reviewed another poet's collection, and gave it a caning, actually. And I subsequently found out that he had a bit of an axe to grind, which I didn't know about that. I really wasn't best pleased about that. I didn't say anything, but I haven't got him to review anything since.
Nic: Well, on that topic, do you obviously... well, you obviously don't adhere to the adage, ‘If you've got nothing nice to say, don't say it at all’. But how much store do you place in the fact that even if you get a reviewer to review something, it's not a great review. Do you take into account the blood, sweat, tears, and passion that has gone into that work by the author? Do you feel... you talked about responsibility to the reader, but do you feel any responsibility to the author, or to the publisher, particularly if it's a small publisher? Reviews are very powerful…
Jason: Reviews are powerful…
Nic: … Particularly with less and less media covering books now. In some ways, it's the only channel or conduit in which people meet minds...
Jason: Look, I'm conscious of it, but given that my responsibility is to the reader and that writers know what the score is, they know that their book is going to be reviewed. I can't send a book out and say, ‘Give this a good review’.
Nic: No. No, no, of course.
Jason: ‘Give this a favourable review’. That's impossible. No, I feel uncomfortable when a book gets a critical review. And particularly uncomfortable if it's by a writer who I know, and that does happen. A writer rang me up only a couple of weeks ago and was pretty cross with me about a review that we ran. I don't mind that. But as I said to that particular writer, the books are sent out in good faith. I give no instruction, and if the reviewer writes a critical review, as long as he or she makes the point well, then that's ok.
In that particular – I'm not going to name names, but in that particular case – I think I made a slight error in the editing in that there was one phrase in there that wasn't quite clear as to whom the reviewer was referring, whether a character or the author. I think that I should have been a bit sharper with attention. But the only instruction that I even say to a reviewer is, if it's with a first-time novelist or a first-time book, I say, ‘If you are going to err on either side, err on the side of kindness’.
Jason: That's the only instruction I've ever given. And I haven't given that for a long time.
Nic: Okay, I've certainly read a review that speaks to mind recently where I read it, and I think they were just trying to find the kind, good bits in it, but they obviously didn't think a hell of a lot of it. I was reading in between the lines.
Jason: Was this in a Fairfax review?
Nic: Yeah, yeah.
Nic: Yes, it was very interesting. [Laughter] Does it happen often that writers will write to you and complain? I know in the theatre world, David Williamson's famously wrote of some of his critics or reviews. Is there a literary equivalent of David Williamson?
Jason: No, I don't think so. It doesn't happen very often, and I don't mind if people do that, actually. I am conscious of the fact that it takes a lot of work. People put…
Nic: Yeah, absolutely.
Jason: The thing is, would it be boring for our readers if we only ever ran reviews that were glowing?
Nic: Yeah, sure.
Jason: Would that be dishonest? I think it probably would be. If a reviewer has trouble with a book, doesn't like something about it, think there's something wrong with it, I think they should be free to say that. That doesn't mean that they have to go overboard, though. Some reviewers, Peter Craven, who's a very well-known reviewer, he always says to me, ‘Well, if I can praise something to the heavens, then surely I can damn it as well’.
Nic: Yes, yes.
Jason: Or I can damn something else. There's logic in that, I think.
Jason: But I think if something is going to be damned, then it has to be done very, very carefully.
Nic: Do you ever review self-published works?
Jason: No, never. No. The reason for that is, well firstly, it's very difficult to tell the wheat from the chaff. Secondly, there's a question of distribution, because in a sense, we're still a little bit old-fashioned in that I think if somebody reads – and I sort of think about the paper, and I think if somebody's reading The Age or the Sydney Morning Herald on a Saturday morning, and they think, ‘Oh, I'd really like to buy Richard Flanagan's new novel. I'll walk down to the book shop and get it’.
Nic: Yes, indeed.
Jason: I think it's better that they should be able to get the book that day. Yeah, of course, if they've got a Kindle or whatever, they can just download it. But I do think that...
Jason: I have had... when we have reviewed the odd self-published book, I've had people complain to me, saying, ‘Oh, we can't get it. We can't...’ So, no, basically.
Nic: And do you…
Jason: And sorry, the other thing of course, is that sometimes self-published books, the quality isn't great. The quality of the writing isn't great. The quality of the actual book is not great. I think that's something to be considered.
Nic: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Jason: And then you wonder also, you wonder about the editing process the book would have gone through.
Nic: Do you believe those writers who say they don't read their reviews? Have you ever really met one?
Jason: I don't know. I do believe them when they tell me that. But writers have, in my experience, writers often say they don't and they do, and they're very conscious of it. Writers do have egos. And some have bigger egos than others, obviously. Often, it's the ones who say they don't, who are more sensitive to them in fact.
Nic: Which Australian authors' latest releases do you most anticipate?
Jason: You mean specifically, in the next few months?
Nic: Yeah, specific authors... well, just whenever. ‘Oh, I can't wait...’ You know, when the publishers send their next year's releases, do you get a sense of excitement, ‘Oh, good’. Some established, some may be new ones.
Jason: Okay. Well, established ones, I think Peter Carey is a very very interesting writer. I think he always has fascinating ideas. The books don't always work, I think. But they always sort of fizz with something. I've read – his new one was published, I've only read four or five chapters of it, and I've had to put it aside for a number of reasons, but I'm looking forward to getting back to that.
Jason: I am looking forward to reading Richard Flanagan's book.
Nic: Of course.
Jason: The story, the back story of that is fascinating. I suppose the big ones, you know, Winton. Again, he's always interesting. Sometimes they don't always... I don't know, his endings aren't always great, but as an actual writer, the words are fantastic. The same applies to Peter Carey, I suppose.
Nic: What is the state of the Australian publishing industry at the moment? Is it healthy? What are some of the changes you've seen over the years?
Jason: Publishers do say it's tough, but I'm always amazed at the number of books that they publish. I'm also amazed at some of the terrible books that get published. I'm not talking about literary stuff, but... I think obviously, everybody strives for perfection, but it's very hard to actually get there. I mean, Peter, I've spoken to him, interviewed him several times, and I remember him saying that every book is an exercise in failure. Once you've got... it's a huge distance from your head to your fingers when you're tapping away at the keyboards.
Just from the sort of stuff that I write in the paper, you know, which is tomorrow's fish and chip wrappers, as they say, I know how I envisage a piece in my head when I'm thinking about it, before I come to write it, it's never as good when it's written, even though I try.
Nic: [Laughter] Of course.
Jason: God knows, it must be awful for novelists and such like.
Nic: Have you ever tried writing a book, whether fiction or non-fiction?
Jason: No. I've had an idea of a novel once.
Nic: Not tempted?
Jason: I don't think I'd be a good enough writer, actually.
Jason: Yeah. It's very different writing journalism and writing a novel. I read some people's novels and I think, ‘This is fantastic. How did they manage to string those sentences together?’ And then there are writers who are have an incredibly distinctive style, and I think about somebody like say, Sonya Hartnett, who I think is a really, really good writer. Incredibly distinctive style, and I think unique. I just sort of look at the way she writes, or I don't know, somebody like Richard, and I just think, well, there’s not even any point.
Nic: Exactly. It's quite dispiriting, isn't it?
Jason: Quite often, I did have an idea for a novel. I had the first word, which was ‘you’, a second-person narrative. And then I thought, ‘No, I'm going to change it to the first person’. So it's now ‘I’. That's as far as I've got.
Nic: [Laughter] I look forward, but I won't hold my breath.
Jason: Yeah, I wouldn't.
Nic: Is there something that you think the Australian publishing industry does particularly well? Is there a particular genre? Or is there an Australian sensibility in writing that you can identify? Is there a distinctive Australian narrative anymore?
Jason: I don't know. That traditional, it was always bush narratives.
Nic: Exactly. It doesn’t‘ take exist…
Jason: No. I mean, look, I really do think that the Australian publishing scene is very vibrant. I mean it's tough. It's really tough, I think. But it seems to me very vibrant. There are a lot of good, small publishing houses, and not-so-small publishing houses. I think they are blessed with a very good, strong, independent book-selling sector.
And I was talking to a British publisher yesterday who was here, who was incredibly impressed with the independent book shops here. They really work hard at hand selling books. I've never got that similar impression going into smaller book shops in Britain, in London anyway, recently. The stock seems much more extensive here as well, in those bookshops.
But in terms of publishing, there are a lot of smaller companies like Giramondo, Scribe, Affirm Press, Black Inc, Text, that are really, really, I think, very, very exciting. They do mostly fantastic books. You know, if I could just not work and read all their books, it'd be great.
Nic: Sure. It would be wonderful.
Jason: Then, the multinationals here seem pretty good. Penguin and Random House have merged, and they seem to be doing some pretty good stuff. Obviously, they produce stuff that they have to... from the point of view of literary publishing, they produce a lot of the commercial stuff that will actually support that. And they've always done that.
Nic: Sure. Sure. Exactly. Exactly.
Jason: I think I'm sort of quite encouraged by the publishing scene at the moment.
Nic: Have you ever walked into one of those small bookstores, and read one of the staff reviews, and gone, ‘Ah. I like the cut of his… I'm going to get them to review for Fairfax Media’.
Jason: I haven't, actually, no. No, but we do have reviewers who work in bookshops.
Nic: Of course, of course. Yeah.
Jason: But no, I haven't.
Nic: You haven't done it the other way around?
Jason: I should…
Nic: You should do that one day. You'd make their day. You'd make their life, I think.
Jason: Can you recommend anybody?
Nic: No, I wouldn't do that.
Jason: Any particular book shop I should go to?
Nic: Well, Readings is an obvious one, isn't it?
Jason: But it's great the way book... I think for example, the Sun Bookshop in Yarraville has a lot of those. I mean, they use a lot of newspaper, the pocket reviews, but I think they have staff reviews as well.
Nic: They do. They do. You've had the pleasure of interviewing many, many writers, Australian and international writers over the years. Who have been the most fun? Because I mean, writers are not necessarily fun people. They write, and they get it all out that way. Who would be the most fun ones to interview?
Jason: Fun in terms of...
Nic: You enjoyed their company.
Jason: Well, I always enjoy talking to Richard Flanagan. We've had a few big nights that... one time I interviewed him when the novel Wanting came out, which I thought was a really good novel. We went out in the evening, and sort of starting talking sort of seriously and everything. But of course, ended up having a lot to drink, and I couldn't remember anything about it the next day. We had arranged for a formal interview the next day. But I wish I'd had a tape recorder or something the previous night because I think there was good stuff there.
I've always been very lucky in that I don't think there are writers with whom I haven't got on particularly. Some are more guarded, and that's a bit of a drag, and some make me... not necessarily consciously, make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I sometimes think that they think I'm asking stupid questions. Maybe I am asking stupid questions, I don't know. Or maybe they get to be asked the same questions so often that they... Sometimes, you can feel more uncomfortable with some than others. But mostly, it's always a delight, actually, and it's particularly nice if you like a writer's work, and then you like them as a person.
Jason: That's really nice. Just in November, I interviewed a children's writer and illustrator called Bob Graham, whose books I think are fantastic. My kids had them when they were young. I've always really, really liked the feel of his books, and the way he illustrates them, and his sorts of characters and everything. So it was great to go and eventually meet him and talk to him, and found that he was just almost like his characters, but just very, very engaging and warm. So that was lovely, lovely.
Nic: What is your take on writers festivals? Do you enjoy them? Are they a chore? Are there too many of them?
Jason: There are an awful lot. There are an awful lot.
Jason: I think that, well they're very popular, so why not? If it helps people sell their books, and if readers like it and like the chance to see, and hear, and meet the writers that they like, then I think that's a good thing. I realised the other day that I did my first on-stage interview for the Melbourne Writers Festival 22 years ago.
Jason: So, I suspect I've done, I must've done it for 20... I must've missed a couple. It's still incredibly popular. That way, I have met some sort of interesting writers that way. International writers who come, like the first person I talked to was a writer from Northern Ireland called Brian Moore, who was just fantastic. I really over-prepared because he had a new book out called The Statement, which was about, it was set in France and it was about a former Vichy official who'd then been exposed in France, something like that. So obviously, I read that book. But I think I read 13 other novels.
Nic: That's excessive preparation!
Jason: I had about 40 minutes to talk to him, and that was completely absurd. Completely absurd. But I was so nervous.
Nic: And you wanted him to know that you'd read every single one of them in that 40 minutes?
Jason: No, I didn't mention it. I didn't even mention it. Then a few years later, Michel Faber came and he'd just published The Crimson Petal and the White. That was really interesting to me, too, because he's a fascinating writer, and quite a weird guy as well. His wife was with him, and she was a very forceful personality. He was steered by her in a lot of things that he did. I remember before we went on stage, she sort of grabbed his t-shirt and sniffed under his arm, and said, ‘Ugh. You got to change that t-shirt. Go and change’. She actually took the t-shirt off him as we were standing there, and gave him another one.
Jason: Another time, Zadie Smith. White Teeth had just come out. I think it had literally come out two or three months before, and somehow she was coming to the Melbourne Writers Festival. It was still at the Malthouse then. She was incredibly nervous.
Nic: She always looks nervous when she…
Jason: Yeah, she does. She always looks nervous. Well, she peeked out from behind the curtain and saw that the main... I can't remember what it was called. Anyway, the main auditorium at the Malthouse was full, so there was probably about 500 people. How are you with the odd obscenity?
Nic: Yeah, no. No problem.
Jason: Okay. She looked out, and she went, ‘Oh, fuck!’ And immediately rushed out and had a cigarette outside.
Jason: She was travelling and her mom was with her. Eventually, we got on stage to talk about White Teeth. I think it was about 20 minutes into the conversation before she actually lifted her eyes off the floor and looked at the audience. Extraordinary.
Nic: Yes. Yes.
Jason: But she was great, and I dare say that wouldn't happen now.
Nic: I'm not so sure. When I've seen her, she does have that eye down thing about her.
Jason: Right. Right. Yeah.
Nic: Jason, it's been a pleasure chatting with you.
Jason: Thank you very much for having me.
Nic: It’s been exciting looking into the art, and craft, and life of reviewing and literature from your perspective. It's been a pleasure, so thank you.
Jason: Thanks Nic, thanks. It was lovely.