Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and broadcaster. He is part of the Breakfasters on 3RRR and is also an Honorary Fellow at Victoria University. His 2017 work, No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson, was shortlisted for the 2018 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. His other works include Killing: Misadventures in Violence (2013), Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn (2012) and Communism: A Love Story (2007).

He is also the former editor of Overland, and co-authored Radical Melbourne: A Secret History (2001) and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within (2004) (both with Jill Sparrow) and Left Turn: Essays for the New Left (2012) (with Antony Loewenstein).

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Show notes

  • Like quite a few of the writers we have previously intervened, Jeff read science fiction (and specifically Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov) as a teenager.
  • Paul Robeson, the subject of Jeff’s latest book, gave a seminal performance on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, which you can watch here.
  • Both John Safran (in Murder in Mississippi) and Geoff Dyer write in a similar travelogue style as Jeff in No Way But This: In search of Paul Robeson.


Nic Brasch: Welcome to the Garret. The Garret podcast is a series of interviews with the best writers writing today. And Jeff Sparrow is one of those writers. His collection of books combines his passions and interests in a series of compelling stories that cover everything from communism, political activism, the pornography industry, and the extraordinary life of Paul Robeson. Jeff will share his story in a moment.

Thank you to everyone who has listened to The Garret podcast. I’d love to know some of the things you’ve learned from the writers featured in Seasons 1 and 2, so share your story with me at Twitter at @GarretPodcast and let me know who you think we should include in Season 3. We have some great writers lined up for Season 3 but there is always room for one or two more at The Garret.

This episode features Jeff Sparrow. He is the former editor for Overland, and in a few minutes he’ll share with you a tip that could help you get your writing published.

Nic: Welcome to the Garret.

Jeff Sparrow: Thanks for having me.

Nic: Let’s start by finding out what you were reading when you were 10 years old. Do you remember?

Jeff: I used to read an awful lot of science fiction. I still do read an awful lot of science fiction.

Nic: Who were your favourites back then?

Jeff: Well, when I was a kid I was working my way through all that Golden Age stuff, you know, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov and all of those people.

And I’d like to think the older I got, the more my taste has improved, so I like the New Wave stuff, the New Weird. I don’t know, when you’re a kid one of the things you do is you’re much more eclectic about what you read. My brother and I were obsessed for a long time with the Biggles books, the collection of books by W. E. Johns, that I suspect almost nobody reads today, but we used to collect them.

Nic: Did you go out in the backyard and pretend you were flying World War planes? Other than science fiction, as you were going through your teens, did you keep with science fiction? Did you start branching out into other areas?

Jeff: Yeah, when I was at university I was studying literature, so I engaged with… I was always a kid who read, you know, the typical bookish nerd. I’d like to think that I’ve read widely, but not very well. So, you know, great patches of ignorance.

Nic: Sure, well, look, I don’t think there could be anybody that couldn’t say that about themselves, because there is so much to read. And it just becomes… the more you read the more frustrating it becomes because you’ve got so much more to read.

Jeff: Exactly.

Nic: In your most recent book you talk about, in the Introduction, you talk about – and this has nothing to do with Paul Robeson but – you talk about your work in the past, picking up people’s book collections after they’ve died, and you describe book collections as documenting the evolution of an individual’s soul. If you were to walk under the proverbial bus, and someone was to come and pick up your book collection, what would they learn about you? What’s in it and what would they learn about you?

Jeff: The first thing that they would learn is I’ve worked for a long time in publishing in various capacities, and if you work in publishing you don’t ever earn much money, but you do acquire a huge number of books.

So, I have a lot of books, I have a lot of books about Australian history and politics, because that’s an area that I’ve researched in quite a bit. I have a big collection of science fiction, and a pretty good collection of Australian writing from – I think you mentioned in your introduction I was the editor for Overland for a long time – so, as part of that, I was very fortunate to work with a large number of Australian writers at various stages of their career, and I think my bookshelves probably represent that as well.

Nic: Have you culled books over the years, and if so how do you make the choice?

Jeff: No, but I did think, my most recent move was to an apartment in the city on the 11th floor, and as I carted endless cartons of books up there I did think that it would be a good thing if the ebook revolution rolled on a little bit faster!

Nic: At what stage did you decide you wanted to write professionally and to consider yourself a writer? Or even do you consider yourself a writer?

Jeff: I was really wary of saying that I am a writer… I guess it’s a claim that is freighted with such a load of pretentiousness, I guess, and all the mystique that comes around with creativity. That being said, I have been someone who writes for a long time, which is I think is maybe a little bit of a different claim to claiming the status of being a writer. You know, I was always someone who read a lot, and I was always someone who liked words.

I was a political activist for a long period of time when I was young, in that if you’re involved in politics you do a lot of incidental writing, and it always occurred to me that this might be something I’d like to pursue later on. And so, my first attempt at writing books came more or less directly out of that with a book called Radical Melbourne that I wrote with my sister. And then I think after that I started to pursue more seriously actually professional work.

But one of the reasons why the claim to be a writer is so problematic in Australia is that the industry is so small, and the monetary rewards are so low, they’re very few people in this country who can say that they survive solely by writing.

Nic: Sure. As the editor of Overland, you’ve got a great insight into the role of literary journals in Australia. How important are they, and particularly for emerging writers?

Jeff: Yeah, I think they are very important in that writing can seem a very solitary business if you’re starting off, and obviously some aspects of it are solitary. At the end of the day you have to sit down at a keyboard by yourself and you have to write. But books are never written in isolation. Books, like most other art forms are collective productions. There is always lots of people involved in various capacities and one of the things that a literary magazine does, is puts you in contact with a community of people. So most obviously, I guess you’re dealing with editors, people who can help make your writing better, but you begin to meet other people who have similar ideas, and you can bounce ideas off them, and you can argue with them, and you can engage with them. And I think that’s really important.

If you’re serious about books and the ideas that they contain, then you need to engage with other people who are also serious in the same way as, you know, someone who’s a musician who didn’t ever go and see bands – well, you know, there’s something a bit problematic about that – but same with writing.

Nic: Absolutely. So, as an editor of a literary journal, how do you make decisions as to what to include and what not to include? I mean, there’s a lot of emerging writers out there that send stuff to literary journals and they get rejection slips and occasionally they might get accepted. What sort of things are you looking for, or were you looking for?

Jeff: Well, Overland had, and has, a particular project, and I think of all the longstanding Australian magazines it probably has the clearest identity. It’s a magazine of new writing, but it’s also political project that’s dedicated to progressive culture and has been since 1954.

So that’s a very obvious point for people who are submitting things for literature. It’s the first thing, you just make sure you read the literature. Partly because you want to know what sort of things they’re accepting, but it also goes back to that idea of the journal being a community. If you don’t think the journal’s interesting enough to read, or important enough to read, why would you want your stuff in there?

Nic: Sure. Well, it’s like publishers always advise emerging writers, don’t send something to us until you know what it is that we publish and what we want. So, it is a matter of doing your research and making sure you’re a good fit.

Jeff: Yes see, but that’s often presented as simply a practical tip for getting published, that you should make sure you know what the publishers are putting out so you can make sure you send them the right thing. But I would say more than that, it goes to the heart of why you’re a writer and what you’re trying to do. Writing is by definition a form of communication. I know this sounds obvious, but writing is about transferring ideas between various people, and so if you want to be involved in political journals and you want to be involved with a particular literary culture, it stands to reason, for me anyway, that you should be engaging with them, you should be reading them, so you can… so that communication can go both ways, not just a question of you sitting there as a great genius and casting out your pearls of wisdom for everyone else to absorb.

Nic: That’s a great tip to help your writing. Read the publications that you intend to send your writing to. So simple, and so right. More Jeff in a few moments.


Nic: Have you ever written, or do you write, for money rather than for love?

Jeff: Yeah, writing is a substantial proportion of my income now, and so that means that you write things whether you feel like writing them or not. And if you’re writing regularly for magazines and you have commitments to do, sometimes you may not have the greatest idea in the world but you still have a deadline. I did do a year or a little bit more of surviving solely as a freelancer, and that was very much a process of writing all the time whether you liked it or not. And it can be a little bit soul destroying, but at the same time there is a nice discipline to it. In the same way that if you’re a plumber, you fix the sink whether you feel like fixing it or not. You don’t say, oh, wait around until some inspiration strikes me about whether I can fix this sink.

Nic: Are you a naturally disciplined person or did you learn it because you had to learn it to be a writer?

Jeff: I think I’m quite disciplined now, I’m not quite sure that I always was. I mean, at least when I began I was quite a slow writer, and so the only way I could complete projects was to force myself to stay at the task. You know, if you’re working on a big project, as long as you achieve a small amount of it regularly, you will make progress eventually. And I always say that working on a book in particular is a little bit like pushing a very heavy load that, as long as it has some momentum, you’ll eventually get to where you’re going. It’s when it stops that you realise how heavy and difficult it is, so, I’m a big fan of discipline.

Nic: There are times when you’re writing a book that it all seems so overwhelming, so, I agree, it’s better to think of it in terms of small progress rather than looking at it as a whole, because you would just get so dispirited about what needs to be done.

Jeff: Exactly. And I think the ideas of writer’s block and creativity are a peculiar fetishism that’s developed in the world of writing, it’s to do with nineteenth century romanticism, not anything to do with the process itself. I mean, you talk to working journalists and they don’t have writer’s block.

Nic: I agree with you 100 per cent, I agree with you 100 per cent. In fact, I read somewhere someone said it was made up in California some time by a screenwriter who couldn’t be bothered doing any work.

Jeff: Yeah, and obviously it’s like any other kind of job. Some days it’s easier, some days it’s harder. But it is quite striking, and also quite depressing, how easily we adapt to the discipline of wage labour, in a way that we don’t adapt to doing something that many of us say that we love doing. So, we all accept that we go to work five days a week whether we want to go or not. We don’t say, ‘Oh, I’m not feeling up to it today’. Or maybe you do, but you can’t do that for very long. Whereas when we’re talking about our writing projects, it’s very easy to think of reasons why there’s something else you should be doing instead.

Nic: Absolutely, and that’s why for emerging writers, once you start getting paid, that money aspect is not as important because you can pay the bills. But it is that impetus to finish something, and if you don’t finish it, you don’t get the money.

Jeff: Yeah, I guess what I’m trying to say is, it depresses me a little bit that that should be the case, particularly given, as you say, the money is never very significant – well, money is always significant, we all need money – but it’s never great in Australia, and it’d be nice to think that as writers we can build a kind of community where we encourage each other to write and to produce things of value because that’s a good thing to do in and of itself.

Think about poetry for instance. I mean, what money is there in poetry? What money is there ever going to be in poetry? There’s never going to be any money, so you do it because you think it’s something that’s worth doing.

Nic: Sure, but I guess it also comes down to the fact that the term ‘professional’ is always applied to earning money; that you’re not considered a professional unless you’re getting paid for it. So, I guess there’s that satisfaction of being able to consider yourself in that way because you have got money, no matter what the value of it is, I guess.

Jeff: Yeah, I reckon you have to be a little bit careful about that argument. In one sense it’s simply true as a matter of definition, being a professional means earning money. That’s what being professional means, but, I don’t know.

I mean, in terms of validation, from writing out of money, the difficulty is I think, that there is so little money in Australia, and you have to work so hard to get that money, particularly if you’re writing books, that if that’s the valourisation you’re getting for doing the writing, you won’t continue to do it for very long.

In fact, I’ve always thought it’d be a very interesting study for someone to do in Australia, looking at Australian writers on their second books. Because there’s so much support and interest for people to write their first book, to be an emerging writer. And people can do it when they’re studying, they can do it as part of their degrees and so on, and they get this first book published, and there’s a big hoopla about it. Then of course, what strikes them is that, you know, you write a novel in Australia and it sells a few thousand copies if you’re lucky, you might get a few thousand dollars for doing that, it’s probably taken three or four years to do it. And people suddenly realise well, they’re in their late 20s or their early 30s, all of their friends have got jobs that are starting to pay money, perhaps they want to settle down, perhaps they want to have kids, perhaps they want to get a mortgage. And they realise that if you’re going to keep writing books on that basis, this is a waste of time.

Nic: How long do – and I guess I’m talking more about here your books rather than your articles, think about the books you’ve written – how long do the ideas brew in your mind before you embark on the writing process? And how do you determine which ones get written, because I can imagine a lot of ideas going on in your mind all the time, some will see the light of day and some won’t. How do you make that choice?

Jeff: I think it varies a little bit. I’d like to think that there’s – it might be too pretentious, but – this dialect between your idea and the execution of it. So that you have some sort of idea you begin work on, or the process of beginning work on it forces you to re-think or re-shape the idea. You then go back to work on it again.

I mean, the Paul Robeson book that I’ve just finished was an idea that was kicking around for a long time, and I could not find a particular way to do it.

Paul Robeson is someone who’d been written about an immense number of times. In terms of original research, there’s really not that much new to uncover. But I wanted to make a particular argument about the significance of Robeson’s career and it took me a long time to think of a way into that.

Radical Melbourne, the very first book I did, that really just began, because it was based on short chapters. My sister and I just began doing short chapters of a thousand words; and then we did five of those, then there was 5,000 words; we did 10 of them, there were 10000 words… And suddenly you had this book progressing. So, I think it depends a little bit on the project. And sometimes too there can be just commercial imperatives: someone will say if you want to do a book on this we’ll publish it.

Nic: We’ll talk about the Robeson book in a minute, because I’m very interested in the process of it. You must have known before you started writing it, that this was going to take a long time to write – you know what it takes to write a book. Therefore, I’ve got to put aside this, this, this and this. And also brewing in my mind, I may never get to do them. Why the Robeson one above some of the other ones, perhaps?

Jeff: The Robeson thing, as I said, it had been an idea that had been kicking around for a while, and then I received a Myer Fellowship which funds major projects, and I thought then, well, you’ll probably never going to get a chance to do a book that requires as much travel as this does, and this would be a good one to do it.

And also, I thought, Robeson is a world historical figure, and so, if you’re going to spend that much time and effort and money researching a book like that, to try and do something big rather than something small. And so that was the impetus for that book.

Nic: Well you’ve answered my question about how on earth you afforded to do all the travel, because it’s quite astonishing. And when I started reading it, I expected, foolishly, to be reading a straight biography about Robeson, who is one of the most inspiring figures of the twentieth century, no question. But your book turned out to be so much more, it’s a book about race and class and political system and history of many different countries, and even a modern travelogue you make it. At what point – and was it because there was so much already written about him – did you make your decision about the book structure? Did you do it before, was it still taking shape as you were travelling and researching? And was it ever going to be a straight biography?

Jeff: No, it was never going to be a straight biography. I always thought I’d probably try and do it as a kind of narrative non-fiction, partly because I wanted to try and link Robeson’s life and career in the 30s, 40s, 50s with political debates that were happening today. And I thought that that trail format of going to particular places that was significant to his life and to the issues that he faced might be a way of doing that. I wasn’t… The way that it developed as it went along was, I was never sure that I was going to bring it together until I’d been to the various places. Because you can have some sort of notion as to what you might find when you go to these places, but the trouble with that kind of book – and I’ve done a few books based around that kind of approach – is that you can do the historical research but then you have to create a narrative out of your travels, and sometimes you go places and nothing very interesting happens!

Nic: Ok, can you give me an example from the book? Because, I mean, as I was reading it, there were things happening everywhere and you were meeting fascinating people with various connections either to Robeson or certainly to political ideals and systems. So, you obviously left out the ones where nothing happened, I mean, do you travel for thousands of miles and then you get nothing?

Jeff: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I probably interviewed, I don’t know, another three people for all the interviews that appeared in that book. And there were a lot of… I mean, I write about visiting the South and North Carolina and South Carolina in the book, but I travelled far more extensively throughout particularly the south of America. I had an idea about how I might write about the history of slavery, but it just basically didn’t pan out. I mean, I had some interesting experiences but sometimes you would just get home and you would just think, ‘I just don’t know what to do with that’. That’s the problem with that kind of book I think, is that it takes a long time. Also, it’s the difficulty I think with being an Australian writer, just that travel is so expensive from Australia. I think I have the misfortune to – no, some of the early part of the book was done when the Australian dollar was still reasonably stronger – you are a little bit hostage to those sorts of things.

Nic: So, you’re travelling along, you’re travelling the world, you’re learning all about Paul Robeson, you’ve got to write a book. Were you writing as you were travelling or were you just taking notes? Or did you start writing the actual manuscript? Or when did you start writing, how did that work for you?

Jeff: Well, I did a series of different trips to the different continents that I visited, and then while I was saving up for the next one, I would try and write up the consequence of that.

Nic: That section, yeah.

Jeff: While I was travelling I would try and record as much as I could, both in terms of audio, through photos or video, and then I would jot down little phrases or little descriptions that would fit around. I didn’t try to write lengthy sections of prose in particular. But every now and then I would, a particular idea would occur to me and I would try to record that. I mean, it was something that I’d learnt through a process of failures in other projects, that it’s very, very easy to forget these things, which is why recording them is so important. You would do an interview and then you’ll be writing it up later, and maybe you want to describe the person that you’re speaking with, and then you suddenly can’t remember, was he wearing a blue shirt or was he wearing a red shirt?

Nic: Sure.

Jeff: And without those kind of details – they’re sort of trivial in one sense, but without those kind of details – you lose any immediacy.

Nic: Yeah, yeah, ok.

Jeff: So, trying to record it and the invention of the mobile phone, or the smart phone, has been a great asset.

Nic: It’s great for everything isn’t it? Paul Robeson had obviously been with you for a long time in your mind and what have you, and then you started researching and reading lots and lots. What was maybe one of the most surprising things you found out through your research or talking to people? Was there a moment when, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that’, or, either about something he did, or something about him? Because you do get deep into his psyche.

Jeff: When I started the book, in the very early phases of it I read an article in gosh, what was it… An American literary publication that described Robeson as ‘the most talented man of the twentieth century’. Which is a pretty big claim.

Nic: Sure, there’s been a few.

Jeff: But the thing about Robeson that, you know, stayed with me the whole way through researching that book was just the breadth of his talents: that he was an actor – both a Hollywood actor and a Shakespearean actor; that he was obviously a beautiful singer; but he was also one of the greatest athletes of his day, which is something I didn’t really know very much about, but…

Nic: Yeah, the descriptions of him playing American football were fantastic, when he was just getting belted and belted simply because he was black, and then he became fantastic but he wasn’t allowed to eat with the team.

Jeff: Yes, that’s right.

Nic: They’ll accept him on the football field but then…

Jeff: But so, he gets into Rutgers on a scholarship. Not only is he a star, one of the greatest footballers of his era, but he’s also playing professional basketball, he represents Rutgers on the track team, baseball, he’s an orator, he can speak an astonishing number of languages…

Nic: It’s like 20 or something languages, he can sing, he can…

Jeff: He’s incredibly good-looking, he’s a model…

Nic: Lovers everywhere, my goodness me!

Jeff: Anyway, that sort of thing, you’d be researching various aspects of his life and you would find another indication of his various talents. And I guess the other thing, when you’re writing a biography, you either have a particular idea about the person, and I think by the end of the book you either come to like them a lot more or to like them a lot less. Because you know, what’s that quote? ‘No man is a hero to his biographer or his valet’. I think that’s true.

You get to know all of these things.

Nic: Sure, sure.

Jeff: And I think after doing all that research, Paul Robeson is a very likeable person.

Nic: Certainly getting to the end of it, despite his fallibilities as a human – we all have them – you certainly come away feeling as if you like him a lot. You come away with ‘I wish I’d met him’.

Jeff: Yeah?

Nic: Certainly, yeah. How long did it take you to write?

Jeff: About three years.

Nic: There’s no subject for which there is natural end point to do in research, and certainly Robeson is one of them. You can go on researching a topic forever. I mean I once stopped researching a book I was writing only because my publisher rang me up reminding me that the manuscript was due in three weeks time. I mean, so at what point did you stop, or why did you stop? When do you stop researching? And let’s face it, from my perspective, researching is the most fun part about writing non-fiction books much more, I would just research forever if I could without having to write a word. So, at what point do you stop researching?

Jeff: Yeah, well, because I don’t have an academic background in many of the subjects that I write about, I often approach them with a degree of insecurity, particularly when I’m aware that there is this great body of knowledge about this subject.

Nic: Sure.

Jeff: So, the way I compensate for that is, I tend to over-research it, and that can often be a problem because partly you just spend way too long doing it, but partly if you’ve got a huge mountain of recently acquired knowledge, you tend to just throw it at the page. So, you don’t synthesise it, you don’t draw out the most interesting things. What you just do is dump a whole heap of info on the basis that it’s all relevant, it’s all fascinating. With the Robeson book I was particularly conscious of that because there’s a series of fairly definitive biographies of Robeson already existing, there was no way that I was going to become more conversant with the corpus of Robeson’s studies than the people who had previously written about it. Then I just resolved that’s not the kind of book that I’m trying to write, I’m trying to write a different kind of book. And you know… I mean, there are questions in that book, there are political issues in that book, where I’ve oversimplified things to a great degree, but that’s the kind of book it is.

Nic: Do you think you would’ve been able to write it, or maybe have it published in Australia, if Robeson had not come to Australia that time and performed to the workers at the Sydney Opera House? For which a lot of people had seen a vision of him performing to the workers there. Do you think an Australian publisher… And you open with that, or at least you introduced it very early as a concept. Without that, there’s no link to Australia. Would you have got a fellowship or would you have been able to have it published without that?

Jeff: Well, the fellowship wasn’t connected to the book, that was a different process. But my publisher Scribe was tremendously supportive of the project from the beginning. But I think you have touched on a real issue for Australian writers who are interested in history and politics, which are the two things that I’m interested in, that you face this problem that if you write about Australian material, there’s no readership outside Australia.

Nic: That’s right.

Jeff: Nobody much else is interested in Australian politics or Australian history, and the Australian readership is very small. So, there’s that. If you write about international politics, then by and large you’re writing about it as an outsider –and in particular Americans are very sensitive about that – particularly if you’re touching on an issue like racism or whatever. So, it is a difficult thing to address. With this book, I don’t know, I mean, I had to write from the point of view, I had to write acknowledging that I was an Australian because it was sort of a travel narrative…

Nic: I was going to say, embedding yourself within the story, I guess helps with that: you’re an Australian, you’re doing it, you’re embedding yourself, your voice is in there, so I guess that…

Jeff: How that will play out – it is being published in Britain and America – how that will play out there, I have no idea as to whether, you know, this will be an interesting thing that someone from a different perspective is writing about our country, or whether this will be something that sticks in people’s craw, but what are you going to do? You live where you live.

Nic: That’s right, exactly right. And certainly reading it, there’s no other Australian perspective to it, and you don’t harp on about the fact that you’re an Australian travelling. You are there with a mission, a purpose and a focus on the places you go to and the people you talk to. There’s no question about that. What’s your view on taking liberties in non-fiction? What happens when you can’t find what you’re looking for? Do you include assumptions in your writing, or do you just have to leave them out? ‘Damn, I wish I had found that out!’… you know.

Jeff: Well, narrative non-fiction is one way around that issue, because you can focus on your perceptions. You can bring yourself into the book as a character. You can make your failures part of the narrative as much as your successes, so you can write about going to look for a particular thing and not finding that thing. I mean, within limits of course. Nobody wants to read a book in which you don’t manage to do anything successfully.

Nic: Well, John Safran did it very well in Murder in Mississippi. There were a lot of dead-ends in his travelogue, if you like.

Jeff: Yeah.

Nic: In travelogues there are a lot of dead-ends that, if you’re writing as a fiction or whatever, you wouldn’t put in. I guess, if you’re doing a straight biography there’s a lot you wouldn’t have been able to put in. But being part of the story, you were able to.

Jeff: Yeah, and Geoff Dyer does a lot of that as well. That being said, I mean I think part of the covenant you have as a writer of non-fiction is that you don’t make things up, that you…

Nic: Of course, no that’s right. That’s where the line is: don’t make it up. You can assume but don’t make it up. Is that the line?

Jeff: So, long as you make it clear to the reader what it is you’re doing, and how you’re doing it. If you say, ‘Well, I don’t know what happened here but here is my assumption’, I think that’s fine. I mean, with politics I think there is some importance to the question of honesty as well, that we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we want it to be. So, changing the story to make things better – and in that book in particular I had to deal with the parts of the Robeson story that don’t necessarily put him in a very good light, in particular his support for the Russian dictatorships.

Nic: Yeah absolutely, which eventually as you say, really got to him. As both a political activist and a writer, is the pen mightier than the sword?

Jeff: I don’t think anyone who has ever been confronted by a real sword is going to say that. But no, I think that there are things that writing can do because it’s a form of communication, and communication is important to, you know, political change to a certain extent. But at the same time, I think writers do have a tendency to see themselves as more significant or more important than they are…

Nic: [Laughter]

Jeff: And I think that’s something to guard against. There’s nothing worse than someone prefacing a statement about some facile political point by saying ‘As a writer, I think this…’ I mean, who cares, you know? So, I think there are things you can do with writing but at the end of the day, questions of politics are questions of power, and a book is not a form of power.

Nic: It’s been great chatting to you. I’m just going to end with a question, which I ask everyone at the end. Do you have a favourite joke?

Jeff: [Laughs] So, my day job is, I work on breakfast radio on Triple R, and one of the women I work with, Geraldine Hickey, is a local stand-up comedian. So, you mentioned that you were going to ask this…

Nic: I did mention this as an example, yes.

Jeff: And she was giving me various suggestions for jokes, and unfortunately none of them are actually clean enough for friendly podcasts like this. Hang on, I’ll try to remember.

Ok, there are two snakes. I can’t believe I’m doing this! [

There are two snakes and they’re wriggling along in the grass, as snakes do. And one of them says to the other, ‘Hey, what kind of snakes are we? Are we the constricting type or are we the poisonous type?’

The other snake says, ‘Gee, I don’t know, why?’

And the first snake says, ‘I just bit my tongue.’

Nic: [Laughs] Ok. Thank you!

Jeff: And don’t give up your day job!

Nic: No, no, thank you for that. I want to hear the others too. Thank you very much for joining us, it’s been an absolute pleasure, thank you.

Jeff: Thanks for having me.