Jonathan Pearlman

Posted on Posted in Interview, Jonathan Pearlman, Journalism, Non-fiction, Writer

Jonathan Pearlman is the founding editor of Australian Foreign Affairs, the new print journal founded in Australia in 2018. He is also a correspondent for The Telegraph (United Kingdom) and The Straits Times (Singapore).

He previously worked as a correspondent in the Middle East, and has covered other international stories including the 2008 US election and the violence in eastern Congo. Jonathan's work has appeared in numerous publications, including The DiplomatGood Weekend and Australian Book Review. He was a finalist in the Walkley Awards.

Jonathan Pearlman

TRANSCRIPT

ASTRID: Jonathan Pearlman is the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs, the new print journal launched in Australia in 2018. He is also a correspondent for The Telegraph in the United Kingdom and the Straits Times in Singapore. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, Good Weekend and Australian Book Review.

Jonathan, welcome to The Garret.

JONATHAN: Thanks for having me on.

ASTRID: First question. Give me the elevator pitch for Australian Foreign Affairs.

JONATHAN: So, Australian Foreign Affairs will tell you everything that you need to know about what is going on in the region and what Australia needs to do about it, but it will do it in a way that is engaging, compelling, interesting, and you certainly don't need to have a Ph.D to be able to read it and appreciate it.

ASTRID: This is a new journal. How did you identify the need, the gap in the market?

JONATHAN: So, the this was the brainchild of Morry Schwartz from Schwartz Media, which publishes Quarterly Essay, The Monthly, Saturday Paper and Black Inc Books and others. So it was Morry's idea, it was not my idea. I know that Morry has been a long time reader of the American Journal of Foreign Affairs and so that did in some ways inspire this one. Foreign Affairs, their covers are blue, our covers are yellow, so we're completely different.

ASTRID: They're not just yellow, they are fluorescent highlighter yellow.

JONATHAN: They are a shiny yellow. Yes, it's hard to miss. So... but I think, I think the time really is right for a publication like this, because I think Australians are increasingly aware of how much their everyday lives and the future of the country is involved in what's going on in... around the world particularly in this region. I mean obvious examples include China's rise, which is just having a profound and dramatic effect on Australia, and we're currently planning a future issue around it. And you know, just to give one little example you know more than a third of Australian exports now go to China. I mean we've never been as tied up in one country like that as we are now. But then our security has always been tied to the US, and the US role in the region is changing. So there's a lot going on in the region and around and around the world which is which is affecting Australia and affecting the future of the country and affecting our futures, and this is a publication that aims to engage with that and look at that and look at some of those changes.

ASTRID: So who do you think your audience is?

JONATHAN: Ideally the reader is anyone who is curious about Australia's place in the world. Obviously it's... the readers would have some interest in long form pieces, our essays, the main pieces are usually about four to five thousand words, so it's you know... the audience is... readers who are interested in sitting down and engaging. It is print and digital, but I think most of our readers are print readers. So, it's people who are curious and interested in Australia's outlook on the world, but also people who want to read strong compelling pieces about that.

ASTRID: Listeners of The Garret, they know that I'm a massive fan of the Quarterly Essay and I was jumping for joy in 2018 when I realised that a new journal from the Schwartz stable was coming. It seems counterintuitive in 2018, 2019 to launch a new journal, particularly one in print. But you've just said Jonathan that you know most of your readers are in print. That is fascinating to me in a time when the media is in ongoing upheaval. How do you launch a new journal and make it work?

JONATHAN: Well again you know... Morry Schwartz seems to be seems to be good at it. It's certainly helped that we know... I came into this with all the support that was there for the Quarterly Essay. So, brilliant design layout people, brilliant sub editors, you know, Marry Schwartz, Chris Feik and I all sort of an editorial team on the publication. So, there were people and structures in place to be able to produce this publication.

So I think it would be much harder for someone coming out of the blue just to launch a new print publication. But you know, I think Quarterly Essay has shown that there are people who want to read, you know sit down and read often in print, longer pieces that engage with ideas about Australia, and in this case about about Australia's foreign outlook, as opposed to Quarterly Essay, which has a more domestic focus.

ASTRID: So why did Morry pick you to be the founding editor?

JONATHAN: It was an arduous process.

ASTRID: No doubt.

JONATHAN: Look you would have to ask Morry. I can't tell you.

ASTRID: You look very abashed right now.

JONATHAN: It's a very embarrassing question. I'll just say... I was very drawn to the position. And the advertisement when it came out, because I think they didn't want to say that they were launching this publication, they wanted to keep it under wraps, did not say that this was actually a job as editor of a new foreign affairs publication, but it did ask for someone with foreign affairs and journalism experience. And that's that's my background, and it's been really exciting for me because it sort of melds my various interests really well. I studied literature for a long long time and am very interested in long form writing in literary, in non-fiction, different forms of non-fiction, and then... But my career has mainly involved journalism, mainly daily journalism, and with a focus on foreign affairs. So I just felt this was personally a really good sort of combination for me.

ASTRID: Oh completely. Now the tone of Australian Foreign Affairs is certainly serious but in no way is it academic or stuffy. It's very accessible. How do you carve out a place in what, if I can presume the general public thinks it's quite a stuffy field, foreign affairs?

JONATHAN: So I think a lot of it is about trying to find the right writers. So, the writers they don't have to be academics, they can journalists, novelists, you know in this latest issue we've got Christos Tsiolkas...

ASTRID: I have a question about that!

JONATHAN: So certainly there's no... we don't expect the readers to be experts, and actually the writers don't have to be trained academic experts. But.. So, the ability to write well and convey information well is very important. We try to mix up the essays actually, and try to have different types of writers. So, we may have pieces that are more just straightforward, no particular style to the prose but it should be clean and readable. And we have those type of pieces and then pieces with more of a voice, you know, and they tend to be written by non-academics. So, we try to have a range of voices and styles, but there are some academics who can write beautifully and clearly. Hugh White is an obvious example, he actually very early in his career worked in journalism, you know, but he can... He spends a lot of time thinking about difficult complicated ideas and then can just express them very clearly.

ASTRID: Now back to that review that you mentioned about by Christos Tsiolkas Christos reviewed Francis Fukuyama's latest book...

JONATHAN: Identity.

ASTRID: Identity, on identity politics. That is not something I expected to find in Australian Foreign Affairs and I loved it. I love Christos' views on identity politics, he does think publicly about that area a great deal. Did you place that review?

JONATHAN: Yes. I hadn't worked with Christos before. He's worked with various sections of Schwartz Media before, so it wasn't hard to track down an email address for him. But yes, I thought that he might be a good person to write about that. He has talked about identity politics before. He touched on a great piece in The Monthly a little while ago, so it seemed like a potential subject area that he might be interested in. He was immediately very keen to do it. He was in France, I think, when I contacted him, and he'd just been seeing the recent riots they had there, and immediately just wrote back some initial thoughts about the topic, which made me think that this was going to be a great piece. It's something that he thinks about a lot. He actually sent back a much... Our book reviews, which is what we'd asked him to contribute, are usually a thousand to twelve hundred words. We're fairly flexible on length throughout. He sent back a piece that was close to double that, and it was so good that we decided to more or less keep it over two thousand words, and when we called it a feature review.

ASTRID: Now, in the same issue, and we're talking about Issue 5 which came out in February 2019, there is plenty of reference to other literature not just in the review section - everything from Henry Lawson to Clive Hamilton's 2018 book Silent Invasion. Again, that's not what one would expect necessarily throughout a journal of foreign affairs. This is part of the tone you're going for, it's accessible, it's part of Australian life.

JONATHAN: Absolutely. The aim is really that anyone should be able to read this. Obviously you're going to have some sort of interest in Australian foreign affairs, but the aim is not to be a stuffy, academic or sort of think tank style writing, which I think is a problem I have with some... American Foreign Affairs tends to be more I think in that realm. Foreign affairs is really crucial to to the life of the country. We are in island but, we engage both politically and culturally with other countries, other other cultures, and so the writing in the publication I think should reflect that. So, I suppose there's sort of a stylistic level that we want the pieces to be engaging, and to do that they should... they should engage with contemporary culture. But I think there's also an additional element, which is that Australian Foreign Affairs, we felt should not just be limited to kind of high level, think tank, wonkish style discussion, but should be a discussion that sort of encompasses a really broad range of topics - not just politics and geopolitics and strategy but culture, economics, environment, history - because that is really all tied up in Australian foreign affairs.

ASTRID: How do you,, as the editor pick which writers want to work with?

JONATHAN: So Chris Feik from Black Inc and Quarterly Essay, Morry Schwartz and I, sit down regularly to discuss both the upcoming topics and then the essays that we think will try to sort of answer some of the questions we're raising with the topic and writers who might fit. Alan Gyngell is a consulting editor and also also gives some great input. Julia Carlomagno is our deputy editor and also gives great input. So, we float various ideas for pieces and the writers that might suit. Obviously with any publication you don't always get every writer that you want for every issue.

ASTRID: Do you find that as an editor you want to go back to writers that you've worked with before?

JONATHAN: Yes. I suppose I see that in different terms. It's more that the fact that someone has written already shouldn't preclude them from from writing again. So we've had Michael Wesley write twice, Hugh White is writing again for the upcoming issue, George Megalogenis has written twice, I am very keen for Linda Jaivin to write again for us soon.

ASTRID: So what makes them good to work with? I mean, from an editor's point of view obviously their great writers, but what makes them great writers? And what's the to and fro between you as editor and their piece that they deliver to you?

JONATHAN: They're all very different. So it's hard... so I could group Hugh and Michael a little bit together. I think that both of them are really great big picture thinkers about Australia and where it sits in the world, and also have the ability to really convey that clearly and to break up big ideas into components and to and to also... Michael has a lovely introduction to his piece in Issue 4 in Defending Australia where he talks about Australia's geography and how that has affected its relationship to various powers and great power rivalry and how we really sort of see it outside most of the global competition that's existed. And then he talks about Indigenous Australia and how the original people here really had the run of the planet for thousands of years, partly because of Australia's strategic geography. So, I think writers like that who can synthesise different ideas are rare and worth keeping for different issues.

But different writers have different styles. George Megalogenis is a great thinker and writer about Australian social and domestic affairs. We very much wanted in Australian Foreign Affairs to look at the demographics of Australia, how that's changing and how that's going to affect both Australian identity and Australian foreign policy. And George is an ideal person to look at that because he's fascinated by numbers, but he can sort of absorb them all and then spit them out in sensible logical ways that tie back to politics and to social affairs. And you know, there aren't that many people in Australia that can do that.

ASTRID: So tell me about the process of pulling an issue together. So you've mentioned that you know, you and Chris Feik and Morry Schwartz kind of determine the broad theme, if I can express it that way, and you think about writers who might be able to speak to strands within that.

JONATHAN: Yes.

ASTRID: You then approach the writers, I guess they say yes or no. You know, explain to me you know the editing process but also the timeline, the turnaround, what you do if something crazy happens and you want to put something else in the issue.

JONATHAN: So we're usually thinking an issue or two ahead. There is a clue to that, because at the top of each cover we do say what's going to be in the next issue, and we usually will have a couple of writers commissioned in advance for each issue. So we're thinking one or two topics ahead, but we don't want to think too far ahead because, for instance, we discussed whether we should do something around trade and the trade wars that are going on, but because that's some moving topic and because our lead times are so long we have to commission pieces quite well in advance. It's just... it's an issue that's going to move too much for us to be able to really commission an issue now on it. So, we think a couple of issues ahead, w e then try to just think about the different questions that we want asked in the issue, and formulate them into a number of essay topics. And along the way think about writers who might fit.

Then I will usually just approach them out of the blue, usually with an e-mail. Some of them I've worked before with before and we'll will quickly start chatting. They're often all around Australia and even around the world, so it's not always a meeting in person, but we will usually talk through the essay, discuss some idea of how the person plans to approach it, and then usually... I mean usually we commissioning so two or three months in advance, and then there might be some back and forth, then then it really comes down a little bit to the writer. Some writers like a lot of engagement, and like to to tell me where they're at and what what they're thinking and how they're thinking. That's great. Other writers just, you know, the day before or the day after deadline the piece pops in. And I mean I'm comfortable with either. I suppose we give ourselves enough lead time when the piece comes in to be able to edit, you know, and go back to the writer with with... it's not usually... Well it can be rewriting, it can be adding a lot in, there can be that can be a lot of changes to get made to pieces, so we give us plenty of time to be able to do that.

ASTRID: This might be a rude question but I'll forge ahead anyway. Has anything come in that's not really workable?

JONATHAN: No I don't think anything's come in that's not workable. I'm not I'm not going to mention names.

ASTRID: Please don't!

JONATHAN: Some pieces have required a lot of rewriting. Some pieces took a while to find the through line for the piece, and that can be... that can take a lot of work. So, there have been no pieces that needed rejecting. We've been fortunate because one or two pieces we've ended up having to take in very late, and it's just worked out that those couple of pieces have ended up being in very good shape, because that's... That's really the risk. I would hope that with the calibre of writer that we're approaching, we wouldn't ever have to reject a piece, but it just might be that they need a lot of reworking. And that may not be the fault of the writer, it might just be because maybe I haven't done a good enough job of quite explaining how, you know, how we see the piece. So, you know, it may well have been my fault, not the writer's, but usually with calibre of writer that we're getting, it's something that we can kind of work through in editing.

ASTRID: I ask... I teach writing at RMIT University, and I think it's a really important point for all emerging writers to know, that, you know, editors may ask for more or changes to a work and that it's not necessarily a reflection on the writer, it's a reflection on the piece that continues to evolve. Just because you hit send doesn't mean it's perfect, and that it will appear in print magically the same.

JONATHAN: Yeah, I think that's really good advice. And I think the other advice - and I still work as a journalist and as an editor - is that the editors are really trying to make the piece the best piece it can be. That is really the aim of the editors. And so, the writers should definitely not just take on board everything that an editor suggests, but should also see it as part of a process towards turning this into a final piece. And so you know everybody's on the same side.

ASTRID: They are indeed. Now you mentioned through line before in reference to the essays that appear in each issue, but I'm also interested in the kind of editing the Editor's Note, the Forward note that you include, that you write, at the beginning of each issue. It's very short, but for me that, you know, provides an overview of the entire issue. Do you write that at the end?

JONATHAN: I do write that at the end. I... So, I don't like editors notes that just tell you... to summarise the various pieces that are in the issue. I just... I just find them a little bit pointless. You should be about to read the issue, and I don't quite see why you need a quick summary of everything that's in it. So, I prefer the approach that I'm trying to take, which is to really just set up the themes of the issue and why they're in there. I do write at the end. I mean, it's often... it often harks back to the original meetings that we will have had about the issue, where various ideas and thoughts popped up, and then those will come back into the editor's note. And that's that's how it should be. But yes, I do write them in the end. And I tailor them a little bit to, you know, to the different pieces and to the different themes that have ended up in the issue even if they weren't all so preordained.

ASTRID: Now we've talked about some of the contributors to the journal so far, including very well-known figures like Christos, but also former politicians. You've recently also put out a call for new voices. Can you talk to that and tell me why you did it?

JONATHAN: Yes. So, when we started the publication and we discussed that we really wanted to appeal to a broad range of readers but also a broad range of writers. We have been criticised because we did not. We've had a couple of issues where the gender diversity has been minimal or missing amongst the main road.

ASTRID: I have to say I did notice that.

JONATHAN: So, that's something that we were always very aware of and we were always, we have always approached a diverse range of writers. We, you know, it was a bit of a learning curve in a sense because part of it - and I don't think that we will have another issue where we just all have one gender, or all males really - but that has come down to just partly the way I go about commissioning, because I think it's important to... like I need to think about the way the order in which I commission pieces, really to make sure that that happens. But also, we want young writers, old writers, and writers of different cultural backgrounds as well. And so a lot of the writers we have have been tested, but they've been around a while. So, that's really where this this idea came from, a way to try to engage with with a much broader range of writers, particularly younger writers, but writers of different backgrounds that may not be finding their way into the publication at the moment.

ASTRID: And is an ongoing kind of call out per issue?

JONATHAN: It's going to be... it will probably be annual. We... It just just closed now. So, the pieces are all in. We've had a really good response. And now we have to start reading them.

ASTRID: I'm looking forward to meeting some of this new writing which leads me to my next question. You obviously edit the work of other writers, well-established and perhaps emerging, including through its own voices call out. What is the best advice you have for emerging non-fiction writers?

JONATHAN: I would say, firstly the advice to any writers is always to read a lot. I would say in terms of trying to get published, persist. I get a lot of unsolicited pieces coming in. I try to read them all and try to respond. The fact that I know we only come out three times a year and we have very limited space, but it's certainly worth approaching any publication, and being rejected does not mean that the piece is not good or worthy of publication, it just may not be the right fit or the right timing. So I think some level of persistence... and I think I think doing that in an intelligent way, thinking about who you're targeting with with the with the pitch and trying to, you know, tailoring the email on the pitch to that publication I think is really important. So, I think there are plenty of opportunities for publication still today, but I suppose you've just got to be smart about how you go about finding the right place for your piece.

ASTRID: It's good advice. Jonathan, my final question. What does being the founding editor of a new journal mean to your career? Surely that's been noticed overseas!

JONATHAN: Well I would say first it is exhausting starting something from scratch. I've never been particularly entrepreneurial, but I completely understand now people who start their own businesses and then just... There is something just personally, it makes you particularly invested in it, I think. So, it's incredibly rewarding but also draining and also you end up becoming completely tied up and bound in the thing that you've helped to start. But no, it's been it's been fantastic for me. We now do a lot of events all around the country, which has helped me just meet a whole lot of great writers and thinkers call around all around the place. The opportunity to work with such great writers is fantastic. And you know, I think that the debate around foreign affairs is something I feel very strongly about. So being involved in it has been really rewarding and exciting and challenging, but as has the opportunity to edit and work on trying to kind of broaden this conversation and in an interesting way.

ASTRID: Fantastic. Jonathan thank you so much for coming to The Garret.

JONATHAN: Thanks very much Astrid.