Jess Hill and Sarah Krasnostein on writing Quarterly Essays

Jess Hill and Sarah Krasnostein are the two most recent authors of Quarterly Essays. Jess released The Reckoning: How #MeToo Is Changing Australia in late 2021, and Sarah released Not Waving, Drowning: Mental illness and Vulnerability in Australia in early 2022. Quarterly Essays are prestigious, but they are notoriously difficult and always come with intense time pressure. In this interview, Jess and Sarah discuss how they did it and why they signed up for it.

Jess is an investigative journalist and the author of See What You Made Me Do. She has been a producer for ABC Radio and journalist for Background Briefing, and Middle East correspondent for The Global Mail. Her reporting on domestic abuse has won two Walkley awards, an Amnesty International award and three Our Watch awards. See What You Made Me Do won the 2020 Stella Prize and the ABA Booksellers’ Choice Adult Non-Fiction Book of the Year.

Sarah is the multi-award-winning author of The Trauma Cleaner and The Believer. Her writing has appeared in magazines and journals in Australia, the United Kingdom and America. She holds a doctorate in criminal law.

Jess Hill and Sarah Krasnostein on writing Quarterly Essays


ASTRID: Welcome Jess Hill and Sarah Krasnostein. I can't believe the two of you are appearing together on The Garret.

JESS: Here we are.

SARAH: Today.

JESS: Thank you both for joining us. And today I want to be really nerdy, which works for The Garrett and The Garret's audience. I want to talk about the Quarterly Essays now.

Jess Hill, you wrote your first Quarterly Essay last year, published at the end of 2021, about #MeToo. And Sarah, you have just released your first Quarterly Essay about mental illness and vulnerability. I'd like to ask both of you, what does a Quarterly Essay represent? And why have you both put yourself through the sheer horror and pain and suffering of writing one?

Jess, yours was published first, so we'll start with you.

JESS: Oh, I've already gone through part of the amnesia process, because it's been several months since I finished it. Look, I've always been a fan of the Quarterly Essay format, partly because it's substantial enough to be a thorough investigation of a topic, but it doesn't carry the pressure of a book because it's only around for a few months. Well, unless you write a classic.

And to be honest, Chris Feik from Schwartz had been asking me to write a Quarterly for a while and I sort of had been resisting because there's just a lot going on. And then, then he said, ‘Well. Like, okay, what about #MeToo? Write about #MeToo’. And I'm like, ‘Okay’.

So as usual, like my life just kind of carries me along this drift. Because people asked me to do things. It wasn't burning inside me to write a Quarterly Essay about the #MeToo movement. And much like when I wrote about domestic abuse for the first time, I actually was a bit like, ‘Oh, what am I going to spend 20 to 40,000 words writing about #MeToo? Hasn't it all been written? It's something that's been flogged to death, this subject’. And sure enough, within days, you realise, well actually, as usual, it has been written about a lot, but certain narratives have solidified that really need messing with and reinterrogating. Of course you could actually write that much just on the last 12 months in Australia, let alone the developing weather system that exploded into me too. So I wish I could say, ‘Oh, this has been formulating in my mind for months and finally I got the opportunity to put it on paper’. I wish I was like a more meaningful person sometimes like that, when really a lot of the time I'm just a hack who's been asked to write something.

SARAH: You have to refer to that as negative capability, Jess. You are a meaningful person, you're just waiting to use it.

JESS: That's right. I think my internalised self-critic stops me being a deeply meaningful person on that level of driving forward. It's just like, ‘Oh, they think I'm good enough to write about that. Okay. I guess I will’.

ASTRID: Look Jess, being thought of as good enough to write a Quarterly Essay is a compliment. But also Sarah, and I are both going to make you leave behind or put aside for now your self-deprecating way and really embrace the fact that you are one of the authors of a Quarterly Essay that has written a classic, right? No, one's going to forget the Quarterly Essay on #MeToo.

JESS: Oh, thanks Astrid.

ASTRID: And Sarah, you now have also written a Quarterly Essay. It just has hit the shelves. You went in knowing this was a tough gig. Why and how?

SARAH: I wrongly, as it would turn out, thought this would be refreshing sorbet between books. I thought, ‘Oh, like that's not book long. That's fine. You can't really go past 40,000 words. And it's an essay. I love an essay. So I'll do that between my last book and disappearing into the next one’. And I was a 100 per cent wrong about the refreshing palette cleansing character of what this is. But at the same time, everything about it is quirky.

So the style notes that you get from Chris are a word discursive document about... [Laughter] A very loose dos and don'ts. And I am such a nerd that when I read these notes, I teared up because it is the ideal form for me to take. It's noteworthy in its lack of prescription on the format. Apart from that there shouldn't be too strident a policy analysis, which is the reason why I left my legal work. And it should be the largest possible view of a current issue. You have the freedom to do that in a formally inventive way or not, or whatever, as long as you're coming at it originally in the substance, and the form is flexible enough to allow you to do that.

Wonderful, very touching, poignant, lovely. And then there's the horror of that degree of freedom when you're just trying to come up with something original. And it's a lot.

ASTRID: I've previously spoken to others who have written Quarterly Essays, including Ben Law. And everybody seems a little bit shell shocked afterwards because of the intense time period that all the research has to happen. A Quarterly Essay is of course published four times a year, and you can't push the deadline back in any significant manner.

You both are writing about nuanced and complicated areas of life. You are also writing about them two years into a global pandemic that has directly impacted the subject matter that you are writing about. How does that change your approach? So for example, rates of domestic abuse. Potentially terrifying when we think about lockdowns in Australia, Jess, and I don't know a single person whose mental health is as good as it once was, particularly in Melbourne that experienced the very long lockdowns. So when you are putting out such a document, how do you even place it in the context of a global pandemic?

JESS: It's been interesting the way that #MeToo had such a resurgence in Australia right in the middle of COVID. We were so stuck within our four walls, and even when we weren't in technical lockdown, everything was pretty much lockdown. There was so little interaction. And yet there was, in terms of the so-called women's movement or women's issues, this massive public reckoning. And very public. On the streets and are coming together and are dividing apart. And all these things was going on at a time when we weren't even really seeing each other in person, which flavours it in a way, because it's easier to objectify people, even from within your own movement or on your own side, for want of a better word, when you don't see them in person for a couple of years. So, you can start to get very heady about things and not drop into the humanity of it.

When it came to writing about it, I don't think I was really conscious of placing it within the conditions that we were in. Because I think with the Quarterly, even though it is transient in its format, I also think you're writing a historical record. So that was really, for me, the most important thing was to write a clear... And as Sarah's saying, like do it from the broadest possible view... Record how #MeToo came about, or my personal view on that, because there will be a million different interpretations of that, and then how it bounced through Australia to what it became in 2021 and how it exploded in Parliament. And so that for me was more important.

I have to say also is that as personally, just coming off the back of a lot of work. The SBS series had just finished earlier in the year, then I did a podcast series and there was no break in between at all. And I was pretty burnt out. And poor Chris and everybody at Black Inc, I feel like I owe just unrelenting gifts because from the time that I started writing, I had seven weeks until print. I submitted the last chapter the night before we went to print! So in a way, that rushed, very rushed, very quick period of writing and editing meant that I couldn't get too carried away with even placing it in any context. It had to roar out of me, and I had to not make any mistakes.

I'm sure Sarah had this too, that thing of being so responsible for people's not just individual stories, but the stories that unite so many stories. You have a lot of responsibility to get that right. You have a lot of responsibility for your sources. A lot of my focus was just on how can I make sure that I am doing the best by the people who are named in this essay, and that I am representing the people who are not, and who have not been platformed. And the rest was just like cross fingers and hope.

ASTRID: Your topic is slightly different, Sarah, and you do draw the linkage between mental health and Jess's essay. For example, instances of mental ill health turn up in the system, first and foremost, through instances of violence in the home. What do the two of you think – and I know you didn't pre-plan this, Jess, I don't think you would've known whose essay was coming after you – but what is the statement of two Quarterly Essays coming out that are about not traditional policy issues, not traditional men's business, if I can be so broad as to label it like that? We're talking about women, we're talking about #Metoo, we're talking about mental health, which affects everybody but is so often stigmatised and not admitted to. What is the cumulative impact of two Quarterly Essays?

SARAH: Well, I've been thinking about not this exact question, but these issues for something else I'm working on, which is much more creative writing, but I think the point transposed as well onto that question.

One of my many bug bears is a focus on the discourse, national history, or the sections of a newspaper along entirely arbitrary, and now canonical lines, so there is such a thing as ‘economics’ or ‘economic history’ or ‘political history’ or ‘military history’, when it's all social history. And it is all inexorably co-created, relationally sourced issues manifesting in different parts of our institutional collective life. So I think it's not inevitable in the sense that nothing's really inevitable, but it makes sense to me that there would be two gal writers having a go at examining our collective life through the prisms that Jess and I have chosen to look at a very complex – I'm trying to phrase this without swearing –

ASTRID: You're allowed to swear.

SARAH: – clusterfuck of national policies through our chosen lenses… That I think the significance. Rather than writing more abstractly about politics as a separate entity or international patterns or relations separately, we are looking quite clearly at what we value and the gaps between our national rhetoric and our enduring collective behavioural patterns, whether they manifest as seemingly intractable patterns of interpersonal violence in the home or the workplace (where the overwhelming majority, but certainly not all victims are female), or whether it manifests also in the home, but in our public life and in our criminal justice system, in our educational system, in our healthcare system, as this kind of compulsively repeated pattern of caring about fixing these problems only so much and no further.

So that's a very long way of not answering the question, I apologise.

JESS: Oh, that's really made me think a lot just when you were talking there, Sarah, about Martha Gellhorn, who was one of my sort of original journalistic heroes. And for those who haven't heard of Martha, one of the first female war correspondence, very much of her own making, known for instead of reporting the ‘game of war’ and what's going through the minds of the strategists and the high profile commanders, she got like right down onto the street and with the people. And particularly the story about the invasion of Finland where she's like... It was really a different way of doing war reporting. And I think that through the prism of what people might see as the softer – not softer in terms of their impact, but the sort of like more touchy feeling of feminine issues like mental illness or domestic abuse, or #MeToo, is that actually, as you say, you are talking about very serious political and policy issues, but you're coming through the prism of human experience rather than keeping it in this sort of unreachable cerebral level. But there is still very much a contest of ideas, but making sure that it doesn't get separate from the grassroots, from the actual experience of the living people who are subject to the whims and fancies of all these great thinkers and strategic masterminds and politicians.

Sometimes I think the more feminine issues, what they do is actually just bring us back to Earth and give us a better chance at finding better solutions than just talking at the policy level.

SARAH: And I think it's also a way of short circuiting a lot of the debate about issues on which we have too much empirical data for this to be a debate. It goes straight to the human heart of the matter. It's the so what of these potentially rarefied debates about what it looks like to do institutional reform in late stage capitalism, blah, blah blah. So what? How does it impact us on a daily basis in the home, all of us together? That makes a something much more pressing.

JESS: When we continually relate it back to the grassroots, it also takes those academic ideas about reform or about smashing systems or about... I think when you are really reporting from that level of the personal, you have to take those ideas through to their end point. Like okay, if we were to do this really interesting reform, how would it affect X, Y, ?. Or if we were to just forget reforming the system, because the system is so entirely buggered, what is the actual effect of that? Because I think we can get stuck – I mean, everywhere in the world, but we can get really stuck in these academic sort of niches and new sort of normal niche comes along that academics and thinkers want to explore, but can so often be disconnected from. Well, how would that actually work in reality? Instead of just like, how does it make us feel or how interesting is it to explore?

SARAH: Yeah.

ASTRID: I don't think I would be able to find a reader of either of your Quarterly Essays who didn't feel and understand and empathise with what you're writing about. But the Quarterly Essay is a niche audience, Quarterly Essays aren't read by everyone. And so a question for both of you. Who is the audience of the Quarterly Essay?

JESS: There is the subscriber base. So there's the rusted ons, about 9,000 or 10,000 people. And then it's really, I think, a matter of who do you reach with it? There are obviously people who are going to be more inclined to buy a journal of this kind, just exploring ideas. They're probably more likely to be the Radio National audience, for example. God bless the a Radio National audience. But what I found really interesting is – especially going to events in the last few weeks, and one in particular at the Adelaide Writers Festival, where I appeared with Grace Tame – is that when it came to the signing line, these were not just standard Quarterly Essay readers. And in fact, many said they'd never bought a Quarterly Essay and were now really interested in finding out more about it. I had high school girls buying the Quarterly Essay. Teachers. So sometimes, I think the Quarterly Essay audience is to an extent what you can make it and to an extent related to the topic. So when Alan Finkel writes about are getting to zero emissions, he's going to get a different audience to the audience that me and Sarah are going to get for our essays. And fortunately, writers festivals and other institutions are quite keen to promote Quarterly Essays, like they've got a reasonable amount of status. So yeah, sometimes it's just about what can you generate and what audience can you generate?

Sarah: The thing that's always struck me about it is how it punches above its weight, not just with the leadership, but with the potential influence, if it resonates in a certain way. It can set an agenda in more daily newspapers, for or against, whatever. It gets topics ventilated outside a rarefied circle. So, I mean, I like a rarefied circle very much, don't get me wrong. But if you want to do this professionally, you can't just live there. So it is the best of both worlds in that sense. It first has to pass through a very considered, particularly literary, I want to say, or engaged audience before it gets into the discourse more generally (if it's going to do so).

JESS: That's, that's a really good point. I think because there are some journals that do tend to remain much more within the readership, like sometimes the Griffith Review and other journals. It'll be very rare for them to go outside of their known audiences, but because the Quarterly Essay is topical, it becomes news just by being a quarterly. And yeah, like I mean, extracts go in the paper. And I think if we look at these things as a system, that even if people don't actually read the whole essay, that they'll probably engage with some of the ideas that were presented in it, through all of these other... Through your podcast, and through the ways in which it's promoted.

ASTRID: This is a podcast for writers, and I often speak to writers about how they represent the viewpoints and the voices of others. I want to ask you that, but before we get there, I want to just stay on the Quarterly Essay topic. Because the Quarterly Essay is a thing, sometimes rarefied, sometimes breaking out to a whole lot of a wider audience. What does it take to get selected to be the writer of a Quarterly Essay? Because I feel like that's a rarefied list. And if I can insert myself with an opinion here, it is changing over time, the list of who gets to write a Quarterly Essay. So my question to you both is, who gets to write a Quarterly Essay, and why do you think you were picked?

Jess, you're laughing at me. I know there's thorny things in there.

JESS: No, no, nothing. Nothing particularly thorny. Who gets picked? There's a very large conversation about who gets chosen to represent the intellectual side of Australia. And this is not to cast shade on Schwartz, but more just how that landscape gets created in general. The list is still pretty overwhelmingly white. That needs work. You know, when I was a producer at the ABC, you needed to really consciously... I actually needed to consciously when I was putting panels together, make sure that they were 50 per cent women represented because 10 years ago that was actually the work that needed to be done. And now there is much more work to be done that is close to the surface.

I think that the Quarterly Essay, it strikes me that it is a pretty rare person that writes long form in Australia and long form journalism. You do have to have the experience, and I guess some runs on the board to be able to write something like this in such a short period of time. I couldn't have written this before I wrote my book, I think that was a really great sort of staging ground. I know other writers of Quarterly Essays who maybe haven't written a book before have been really shocked at how hardcore it is. And I guess to an extent, there needs to be some name recognition, I think, because the Quarterly Essay does, as Sarah saying, try to set a bit of an agenda. So some expertise in the area that you're writing about or some name recognition. But yeah, aside from that, I don't know.

SARAH: I would second all that. And I think that observation just about kind of the dearth of spaces to write at length factually and creatively is not something that we really have a lot of. And if it's the length that you are... My background was academic immediately before I wrote my first book, and I would get more scared by 1,200 words than 40,000 words, which is my length. And I enjoy having the space to do that. And even in the compressed kind of deadline, it's still time to let the issues aerate and marinate, and it's a really unique space. So, I think it does select people that have that experience and are sufficiently masochistic that they are enthusiastic about doing it.

But I agree also, Astrid, that it is changing over time. I mean, when I think back to my favourite ones before it even occurred to me that I too might throw my hat in the ring for it, it was Anna Krien – both of her’s, but particularly the live export market, Jess's now, and the observations from Rebecca Huntley. And I'm not looking for the gal writers specifically, I'm looking at these topics and also the way in which most of them were written. So I have other ones that I really enjoyed as well, but what I can tell you off the top of my head, these were the ones that made me think that I too would be good at doing that, or at least capable of asking, of pitching without having a laugh come back. They are the female ones. But yes, I agree. The diversity issue does need to be addressed.

JESS: I think also there's obviously a crossover with Black Inc authors and the Quarterly Essay, although after what I put the team through with See What You Made Me Do around deadline, they should have known it would be probably repeated.

It was interesting seeing Lech Blaine's essay that came before mine. That's not a diversity on a cultural level, but on a class level, it represents something very different for the Quarterly Essay. Having come from writing memoir –  memoir that obviously is doing a lot more heavy lifting than just telling a story with car crash, talking about masculinity and so many other things, and trauma – his style of writing the Quarterly Essay was very unlike almost any Quarterly Essay that came before it.

You know, he wrote quite consciously on and off in ‘Boganese’. It was very much writing... Almost like Gonzo writing on lyricism. The whole writing style is lyricism. And I was really inspired by what he did with the form, which was very different. Coming from a very working class background brought a totally different sensibility. I think that was really... I would love to see more chances taken on people who don't come out of the mould. I don't think myself or Sarah come out of a mould per se, but I think that Lech was the furthest outside what you would expect as an author of a Quarterly Essay.

SARAH: That is such a good point, Jess. I think that it also speaks to a new way of looking at Australian history that is the thread that the last... Well, I think like you can trace in the last two, two or three years worth of Quarterly Essays. It's a new way of looking at what in the world are the enduring persisting patterns that takes it out of where... To whom those traditional modes of history and historical debate have been assigned. As, you know, ‘This is the way of looking at credible academic or scholarly history’.

Lech is a perfect example of that, seeing these continuities, these patterns, these values, their expression, how it falls on the ear, how we are meant to understand things said and things meant. He brings all of his particular background characteristics to understanding that and illuminating that terrain. So I think that's another kind of subtle trend.

ASTRID: Another thing about the Quarterly Essay is the correspondence at the end and the right of reply. So Sarah, this hasn't happened to you yet, but it will in about three months.

JESS: You wait.

ASTRID: In your essay, Sarah, there are letters published in response to Jess's previous essay. And of course your right of reply, Jess. So, two questions. Firstly, how does that feel personally, because this is not something common in widely available non-fiction published in Australia, the fact that you reprint the supporting or opposing views? And what is the role of that correspondence in the Quarterly Essay?

JESS:  You know, I was having a chat to Anthony Lowenstein about something kind of corollary to this yesterday. And it was about sort of the dearth of intellectual disagreement amongst Australian writers, particularly at writers festivals, which is both, I think, a symptom of how Australia has become quite anti-intellectual, and also of the fact that many on the Right who get platformed fall into a pretty narrow band of culture warriors. I think the so-called Right or conservative media has become pretty bad at platforming its intellectuals, because that wasn't what was getting bang for their buck.  So there's a paucity there. And of course, writers festivals, they're a bit of a circuit and getting writers to come across for $300 a session, coming interstate, I guess maybe some writers would be turned off if they were heading into a sparring match. But there is that sort of... As you say, there's not a lot of space for disagreement. And even in reviews it can be that you find that person writing the review of that other person's book, they're friends, they're mates. It's a very small writing community. So what's great about the Quarterly Essay correspondence. It's not that you have some sparring match at the back, but it's that it is encouraged. This is not going to risk your connection with that person, that we are supposed to be interrogating the ideas. It's not personal. It'd be great if there was more of it.

Now, when it came to the correspondence to mine, most of it was just lovely. I was really lucky. I was really wondering like, ‘Oh, what's this going to be like?’ And some of it was... Certainly some of it interrogated things I hadn't managed to interrogate, and added new things that I hadn't even thought of.

The only real challenge came from Janet Albrechtsen. And I really wanted that challenge to be nuanced and sophisticated. I wanted that even against my own better knowledge. And look, there were parts. But again, it was just in that culture warrior frame where it felt like to engage with it critically was being sucked into that vortex. And even points that she made that just, given a bit more thought, would've had more meat on their bones just came across quite shallow. Such as, ‘If I'd been a more curious writer, I would've looked at how certain people, read women, have taken advantage of the #MeToo movement for their own ends’. There's a point to be made there about how #MeToo can be used in all different ways, but the inference there is really clear that it would be women who are trying to corner men. I think we've seen from both sides various types of ways that me too has been weaponized. But not really so much in terms of false allegations – in fact, that was more heralded as a likelihood by people like Janet and her ilk, and didn't come to fruition, not in any high profile way that we've seen. So there was just things like that where I thought, ‘A bit more thinking in this response would make this a really interesting sort of debate’. But instead I feel like I didn't really even give what you are saying that much attention because you're coming at it from a warrior perspective and it's really boring.

So there's a bit... I think what the correspondence does, even when it's not disagreeing or trying to spar, is it does bring out your blind spots. And I thought it was a great response to Lech's essay before mine from Allison Pennington, really talking about his focus on male larrikin figures and where were the female larrikin? Where was the Julia Gillards, those sorts of figures? And that was a blind spot in Lech's approach, or perhaps just it wasn't a narrative he was exploring. It's great just to open up that whole concept to other eyes because you can't, in that short amount of time (even if you do use up all of your words as Lech and Sarah and I have), you're just not going to get everything. You've got your own path that you're treading.

SARAH: And we're not unfamiliar when you publish... The exception isn't hearing back from readers, the exception is having a right of reply. We mostly have to tolerate definite legitimate criticism which improves our endeavours, and equally many criticisms that are ideologically driven and factually lacking. We just have to suck that up 99 per cent of the time, because it doesn't behoove the position to get into a shit slinging match with readers that just don't like your work. That's part of the job. You develop a scab or a bruise or techniques of taking it on and forgetting or what have you. So to have that dialogue format is really rare and, I think, precious.

Because like Jess said, when you write about life, it is in ineluctably partial and selective. And we have our own focus areas for our own reasons and to be able to speak and disagree in a respectful environment – or, if it's not respectful, at least in an environment where people are equally heard. I mean, that is really a beautiful thing… So I'm telling myself this now and I'm going to play it back when the bile is rising, I'm sure, in three month’s time.

JESS: Oh, what you have to look forward to, Sarah.

ASTRID: Sarah and Jess, I would like to thank you both for speaking to me, but I would also like to say as an avid fan of the Quarterly Essay series, with all its ups and downs, I do think that you have both written classics. Jess, your work on me too, Sarah, your work on mental ill health are exceptional.

My favourite ever Quarterly Essay was Karen Hitchcock's from 2015, I believe, Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly. And I cried the first time I read that, and she identified everything that went wrong with the aged care system through the pandemic, and we all found out the hard way, the brutal way. That's how important I think Quarterly Essays are – they give us the understanding of what we should have about what matters.

Thank you so very much and may everybody start to read the Quarterly Essays.

JESS: Thank you, Astrid. Thank you, Sarah.

SARAH: Thanks.