Justin Smith on writing with humour and kindness

Justin Smith is a Melbourne writer, journalist and broadcaster. He is a columnist with the Melbourne Herald Sun and a weekly guest on Channel Seven’s Sunrise. He has recently turned his hand to novel writing, publishing Cooper Not Out in 2022 and Babies of the Rose in 2020.

Justin has had a long career in radio as a presenter and executive producer. He has hosted national programs, he was embedded with Australian troops in Afghanistan, and was the Drive host on Sydney’s 2UE. He’s won multiple awards for journalism and broadcasting.

Justin Smith


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Justin Smith.

JUSTIN: Oh, Astrid Edwards. Lovely to chat here. Thank you.

ASTRID: Now you are a journalist and a broadcaster, and you have a long career in print, as well as on TV and radio. My first question, Justin, why the move to novel writing?

JUSTIN: Oh, gee, I just love it. I really do. I've always liked the novel. I've always believed in what a novel can do and what it can get across. I think if you're only ever writing facts, I don't think you'd get to the truth, if that makes sense. I've always kind of loved the novel and I've always liked the idea of writing creatively and I just... I don't know. I kind of just stuck with it until I could do it to a certain level. I don't think you never really do it to the level you want, but to do it to any level at all. I guess I just stuck with it. I just love it. I think that's all there is to it.

ASTRID: Writing is a beautiful, beautiful skill, and it's one of the few things in life where anyone can get better forever. You don't age out of these things. You get better and better, which is good for all of us.

Now, Justin, your first novel, Babies of the Rose, followed three intersecting storylines that all revolved around the Afghanistan War. You have been a journalist for many years. I know that some of your journalism and the interviews that you did and the things that you learned in the course of your public facing career really informed that book. Your second novel, Cooper Not Out, which has just hit the shelves, really takes a very different focus. You set this in a regional Victorian town in the 1980s and on the face of it, it looks like it's all about Australia's national obsession, cricket.

My first question is where did that story come from? For those listeners who are wondering, ‘Why has Astrid even mentioned the word cricket?’, I am well known for not liking sport, Justin. That is really just part of the content. It is not the storyline. This is very much a human-focused storyline. So, tell me why cricket, Justin, because I'm a little bit fascinated that you made me read a book with a cricketer on the cover.

JUSTIN: Look. I've always loved cricket. I do like it. You and I are polar opposites on this one, although I'm not much of a sport fan outside of cricket. It really is just a thing on its own. But I just love it. I've always wanted to write about it. I don't know. It all sort of came together because a dear friend of mine has got a lovely creative brain, called Wade Kingsley, implanted an idea into me about just a normal guy, little bit like Robert Redford in The Natural, the baseball film, which was just a normal kind of guy, bit past his prime, going on and doing great things in cricket. I loved that idea. Then I just thought of the period of 1984 and what Australia was going through at the time, but I didn't want it to just be a book about cricket.

It's a little bit like ... for me, I wanted to do a sort of a ... a little like Field of Dreams. It’s not about baseball. It's about relationships. It's about people. It's about fathers and sons, and this is a bit about fathers and daughters, but I also thought that cricket is an emotional game. Not for all of us, Astrid, not for all of us, but is an emotional game that can sort of really... I don't know, it sort of gets inside you a bit more than any other sport can. I like it and I thought I wanted to do it a bit fun. I wanted to write about something that... I wanted to have some meaning to it, but I also wanted it to be a bit of fun as well.

ASTRID: Let's start with the bath scene, Justin. This is no spoiler because we have no spoilers on The Garret, but by page five, we have two of your protagonists in the bath together, and this was delightful, this was fun, and this really got me invested in your novel and made me want to keep reading. To be honest, I wasn't expecting a beautiful scene like this with a caricature of cricket on the front. Tell us about this and why the relationship between Roy and Barry is at the height of this novel.

JUSTIN: I guess it's because, again, I didn't want it to be a one-dimensional thing, and everybody has complicated lives or different things about them. I want readers to be able to make up their own mind about what that actual relationship is and how deep it goes. You talk about spoiler alerts. I really don't want to spoil that for people as to... I want people walking away from the book and putting it down and just trying to figure out themselves what that relationship was, because lives are just complicated. I think sometimes when we go back anything further than five years ago, we tend to look at everybody having done the same thing for the one reason.

I remember Don Watson, the historian, talking about how we look at history and let's face it, 1984 is now history. It's not yesterday. We look at people in history as doing the same thing for the one reason and everyone just sort of being kind of flat. It's not like that. I wanted these lives to be a little bit complicated, not easy to explain. They couldn't explain their own lives to their friends easily, and that's how I wanted to do it. But I'm really glad you like that. I kind of like the bath scenes too. I'm really miss writing about them actually. It was just a great, lovely thing to do.

ASTRID: The bath scenes also involve fruitcake and somehow that addition of fruitcake, which my grandma used to make, really did take me back to my childhood, which I confess was the 1980s. When you are really setting a long form work like this, as you just said, it's not yesterday, it's in your lifetime, but it's certainly not recent. How do you recreate the feel of that decade?

JUSTIN: I think about how it felt for me. The smells at around my life were kind of cordial smells. It smelt like orange cordial and lime cordial, weak lime cordial at that too. Never had it strong like you would have now, and the smell of things like fruitcake and the way... because Roy lives in his parents' house, who now passed away. But the smell of that house that once belonged to an older person that now belongs to a younger person, I think you understand what I mean by that. I just tried to think about those things and what I remembered and that's how I did it.

I mean, you've got to bless YouTube for this. With the cricket parts, I was able to nearly watch the entire test, certainly all the highlights from that series. They had shots of the crowd and you'd go, ‘Yes, people used to go to the cricket in toweling hats, take their shirts off and drink tinnies out of an esky’. You could see that, and you see the advertising that was around the ground, and it is cigarette advertising. You look at that now and you go, ‘Oh, man. You would never...’ It's like a gazillion years ago, but it's not. It's really just 1984. I just tried to remember and stir up those feelings to write about it.

ASTRID: I think my favourite character is actually that of Donna Garrett. Now, Donna is Australia's best cricket writer and everybody who cares about cricket in the country is always hanging out each week for her article on cricket. Of course, it's 1980s and sexism and misogyny are ripe, and Donna Garrett actually publishes under the name Don Garrett, because everybody, of course, assumes that only a male would ever be good at writing about cricket. I enjoyed her character. You were in the newsrooms and you were a journalist back then, Justin. I guess I wanted to take a moment to reflect on how much of that was like that then.

JUSTIN: Look, it's more the attitude of it and I based Donna on a few people that spring to mind. Actually, I was being interviewed by the brother of one of the people, which is Rebecca Wilson. It was just a delight at what she did and a real... I hate this phrase, but she really was a trailblazer in sports journalism for women. I just had the picture of people like that in my mind that really had to struggle, because they went through that period of... it was a real novelty to have a woman talking about sport and it was a bit, ‘Good on you, girl. You go. Oh, that's terrific. Good for you, good for you’, and that kind of crap. Then they showed that not only were they equal, they were a real force. There are plenty of women who, when the pen starts to waggle, they scare the hell out of a lot of people in the way they write and the way they confront people. They do it so beautifully. I just sort wanted to get that across.

I loved her. Donna ... this sounds a little over the top, but I just miss her like crazy. I sort of think about her a lot and I think about her sort of sitting there at a kitchen table in Brunswick lighting up a cigarette and tapping away, standing up to write and those things that I put about her. I just absolutely adored her. I wish she was real, to be honest, so I could ring her up now and then talk to her.

ASTRID: That is such a good sign as the writer, loving your characters and knowing your characters in that way. Donna's boss is a guy called Patty and he's kind of... Look, I have to ask, Justin, and you could ignore me, but who was he based on?

JUSTIN: Oh, gee. Well, there were a couple of... Again, he's a bit of an amalgam of a few people that I know that aren't one dimensional either. They'd be very easily facing bullying claims in the year 2022 for the way they are. But they were also passionate about stories, getting stories told, that was the big driving force for them, but they also had that softer side. Patty loves Donna and they really had each other's back and they made each other in a lot of ways and have managed to keep each other's secrets. I sort of based ... it wasn't on one particular person, but there's a few of them. There's still a few of them floating around in a lot of ways. There's a little bit of me in Patty as well. I guess there's a lot of me and Donna or what I'd like to be, but there's a fair whack of me in Patty too.

ASTRID: You're not going to give me any names, are you?

JUSTIN: You know what? I really don't think I will, if that's all right. I really don't think I will.

ASTRID: Look, I had to try.

JUSTIN: Try if you want to give me some names, I wouldn't stop you from giving names, but I don't think I would necessarily give any.

ASTRID: No worries. Let's move on. Now about halfway through Cooper Not Out, Donna Garrett is writing an important article for the paper and it's actually... there's a paragraph on page 134 where you spend a lot of time describing Donna's process exactly. Is that your writing process?

JUSTIN: It is.

ASTRID: Can you read it for us?

JUSTIN: Yeah. Yeah. I'm really glad you picked that up because I liked that... I kind of liked that little passage. Yeah. That kind of is my writing process now, which is I sort of sketch out a chapter in just sort of single words and get the order right, and then I'll slide in a few lines that work and a few concepts that work and sort of write it, almost like you're sort of writing a poem. It's this line, line, line, line, line, and then you beef it out and then you just massage it, go to sleep, wake up the next day, go through it again. So yeah, that is my writing process.

I always remembered something. Stephen King's magnificent book, which I know you would've read, Astrid. I think we've talked about it many times, haven't we, just as friends, the book On Writing and there's one thing I've never forgotten that he put in his book. He said, ‘People love to hear about the way other people work’. So, if you are writing about a mechanic, talk about the size of the spanner that he's just picked up and just find a way of describing the way it works because people love to read about it. I was thinking about that a little bit as I wrote this. I thought, ‘Oh no, I won't leave it out. I'll make sure it actually is in there, the way she does things’.

ASTRID: Will you read it for us?

JUSTIN: Oh, sure. ‘At her typewriter, Donna wrote the words of Don Garrett for hours. She loved these days when she had a good story and there was nothing else to do but write. Usually, she did a first draft as quickly as possible, just trying to get the structure. She'd just let it come out. Then she'd write it again and put some more meat around it. She'd read it, checking she was telling the story and not just trying to be clever with words. Then she would do it again, more meat, and then again. Any weak sentences were flicked, any cliches or overused phrases were circled for demolition with a red pen, then she would sleep and polish again.’

ASTRID: I love that. When you say searching for weak words, in your role as a journalist, it's a very different skill with different timelines and imperatives and goals than writing a novel. But what has your experience as a journalist taught you about writing and taught you about keeping someone's attention?

JUSTIN: Look, I think one of the great mentors for me is Andrew Rule. Andrew is... let me just gush for a second, because Andrew Rule means a great deal to me. It was Andrew who I went to. I still remember the lunch. This is years ago, and I said, ‘Andrew, would you have lunch with me? I'm sort of interested in writing and I'd like to write some columns’. I'd sort of written a couple. I said to him, ‘Look, can we sort of sit down and talk?’ He didn't roll his eyes or anything like that. Andrew is incredibly generous with his time for people like me. We had lunch and I just started giving him my work and he was just brutal about getting people's attention and not using cliches and not using overused phrases and those kinds of things. He was just...

I still, as I sit down and I write now, Andrew's on my shoulder, just sort of saying, ‘What's that shit? What's that word about? You're just trying to show off, hey, to show that you know what that word means’. That kind of thing. Andrew taught me that for writing columns and the same thing sort of applies with writing a novel. For me, one of my mantras... Look, I try these things, by the way. When I say it's a mantra, it doesn't mean that I do it all the time and that I'm perfect at it. One of my mantras is, ‘Don't waste their time. Don't waste the reader's time’. What do you want to try to tell them? What's the story? Get in, get out, don't waste their time. I think there's a lot of that.

JUSTIN: Writing columns to me really got me started in being able to sell somebody a story, because that's what you're doing. They don't have to read your column. When you're writing an opinion column, it's not like writing a news story because the news story they're probably going to read it because they think they need to know... When I see they, I mean the reader. The reader thinks they need to know what the story is, but when you're writing a column, you got to sell them on it and say, ‘Hey, come on. This is important. It's important to me and I want it to be important to you’, so you've got to sell it to them, and that's the kind of thing I brought in.

One very quick story about Andrew Rule. The first column I wrote for The Herald Sun was about my daughter who needed neurosurgery. It was really tough. It was a really awful time and I wrote this piece and they ran it as a Royal Children's Hospital part for the appeal. I'd sent it to Andrew and he had a look at it and he just said, ‘Yeah, yeah. Yeah, great, great. Yeah. Terrific. Yeah. Everyone's going to go, ‘Yeah, poor Justin. His daughter was sick. Yeah, blah, blah’.’ This is how Andrew talks. He said, ‘Yeah, yeah’. And he said, ‘But here's the trick. Can you write like that about something you don't necessarily care about as much?’ I've never forgotten that. That was the moment. So, can you write about an ageing cricketer sitting in a bath and make it mean as much because it's not quite as personal to you? I think that's one of the tricks where I've never forgotten it. Incredible lesson.

ASTRID: That is an incredible lesson. Justin, I want to change tack a little bit and talk about the pitching and the marketing of a novel. It's a really hard thing to do. Now, the primary audience of The Garret is writers and you've now got two novels out there. I guess, can you talk to me about the difference releasing your first and second novel? What did you learn the first time that made the second time better?

JUSTIN: Look, the first one, and I'm really proud of the first one. I feel really close to it, just like the second one. The first one was with a smaller publisher, Wilkinson Publishing, who were terrific, terrific outfit and good people, but obviously much smaller with less of a... impact's not quite the right word, but they're not going to be able to get their books out there as much as, say a Penguin would, but they did a really good job with it. With Penguin, I think there was a real idea of when you're going to release it, how are you going to sell it to people? Some of those little messages that you want to give people to try and buy it.

So, I mean, I'm not sure if I'm answering the question particularly well, because it's all been a little bit of a whirlwind for me. Because it's only been out for a couple of weeks and I'm still trying to process how it happened. I mean, I got a brilliant email from the wonderful Ali Watts at Penguin and I haven't really told Ali this story, we're having lunch next week and I'm going to tell her, but the way she started her email, because anyone who knows Ali in the publishing world, she's just a doll, she's just lovely. She started off the email saying, ‘Oh, thank you for sending through the manuscript, Justin. I hope you're going well. I hope everything's all right’. And I thought, ‘Here it comes. Here it comes’. And next thing you know, the second paragraph went into how much she loved the book, and I thought, ‘Oh, here it comes here. It comes here, comes the but’. And then it came into the offer to buy the book.

That's one of those stand-in-your-kitchen-with-nobody-else-there-punching-the-air-jumping-up-and-down moments. It was just beautiful. So, to be honest, it's still so new to me. That feeling is still so new to me. I'm just like the guy who's... I'm a bit like Roy, I've been picked to play for Australia and I don't know what the hell to do about it, and it's lovely.

ASTRID: You mentioned Penguin thinks about when to release it. I have a question. You released your book in January. Now, even a non-sporting person that I am, I know that Summer is a really big time for cricket and January is not normally the time when novels are released. So, I wanted to kind of tease out that little bit and get an insight into that kind of strategy.

JUSTIN: Look, I'm really not sure why. I think December can be a little crowded sometimes and in a lot of ways being with a major publisher now, this is in a lot of ways my first novel, and certainly unknown as an author. So, I'm really not sure, but I put myself in their hands and I'm still in their hands and I love the way that Penguin have been doing it. I don't want to sort of give them too much of a plug here, but they're protectors of words and protectors of fiction and they love that stories are getting told and they're sort of excited about words. I'm just sort of a little bit along for the ride at the moment.

ASTRID: Moving to a new publisher, a bigger publisher as Penguin is, you obviously have a media profile and a long career of journalism behind you. When anyone is sells a book, part of the conversation is obviously about the editing and making the story itself the best version of it that it can be. But part of the conversation is also how to sell it, how to get public interest in it, how to make sure it appears front out in massive piles at bookstores. Did it come with obligations from you? I mean, did you have to sprook it on radio or anything? What did they ask from you?

JUSTIN: No, no. I want to sell the book as much as they want and when I say sell, I don't mean that in a cynical way. I just want people to read the book. No, there was no obligations apart from any other author is asked, that after it's released that they're part of promoting it. I was just lucky that I had friendships and connections and ways to be able to do it. But Penguin were obviously happy that I had those connections when we're able to open a few more doors. But for me, I just felt like I got treated on my merits as a writer and that's kind of lovely too. I'm sure the fact that you've got a profile doesn't hurt, but the feeling that I got all the way along from Penguin was if the words aren't good, it's not happening.

ASTRID: You mentioned sell not being a dirty word. I don't believe that selling a book is dirty at all. I wish all writers in Australia sold many, many books. Everywhere in Australia and around the world, I think that writers should make money and that happens because books are sold. I absolutely love the idea of figuring out what helps a book sell. I don't mean that in a bad way, Justin. I mean it in a way that I want books to sell because that's how we have better literature in this country and publish more. Now, tell me, are you working on another novel?

JUSTIN: I am. I've got another one with Penguin and I'm working on that right now. I'm about ... Well, when I say I'm halfway through, I don't think you know what halfway through means. I think until you're holding up the actual covered book, you have no idea what halfway through means. But I guess I feel like I'm sort of about halfway through it. But I love the story. I pitched the story to Penguin and said, ‘Look I've got this thing in mind that I'd like to try to do’, which is a similar flavour to Cooper Not Out, which is a bit of a rewriting of Australian history and something that I hope sort of makes people feel good. don't think there's anything wrong with feeling good.

The idea of somebody smiling while they're reading... I had a couple of people say to me that they were smiling while they were reading it, and I thought, ‘God, that's the greatest thing on the planet. That just doesn't get better than that’. Astrid, I know that you're a big reader and I know the kind of things that you're reading. Everyone listening to this knows the sort of things that you like. When you sort of catch yourself, you're halfway down a page and you're grinning like an idiot and you realise that you are, and that it's just brought your pile of joy. I'm sort of hoping that the next one's got that similar feel to it.

I like writing that way. I like having a bit of fun and then having a little bit of grit and a little bit of sting in there to make you think about things. Because as you know, in Cooper Not Out there, they're sort of dealing with homophobia. There's racism. There's a lot of sexism. I think if you can write about that and people are eating their vegetables while they're still getting a bit of meat is a nice way to sort of do it. I hope.

ASTRID: Well said. Justin, I am looking forward to you becoming known as the guy who rewrites parts of Australian history with humour and tenderness. Thank you so much.

JUSTIN: Just an absolute treat. Thanks, Astrid.