Leigh Sales is one of Australia’s most respected journalists. She has anchored the ABC’s current affairs program 7.30 since 2011 and previously hosted Lateline.
She has received two Walkley Awards, Australia's highest journalism honour. The first was for Best Radio Current Affairs reporting on Guantanamo Bay in 2005, and the second was for Broadcasting and Online Interviewing (for interviews with Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Christine Milne) in 2012.
Leigh has also published three books, Any Ordinary Day (2018), On Doubt (2009), and Detainee 002 (2007). Detainee 002 received the George Munster Award for Independent Journalism in 2007.
Astrid: Leigh Sales, welcome to The Garret.
Leigh: Thank you so much for having me.
Astrid: Leigh, you are one of Australia's most respected journalist and here I am interviewing you, I have to say I feel quite nervous.
Leigh: [Laughter] You will be completely fine because you've plied me with delicious cheese and a glass of wine.
Astrid: That does help, does it? [Laughter] Now, Leigh you have published three books, Detainee 002, On Doubt and Any Ordinary Day. What drives you to write longform non-fiction?
Leigh: I enjoy writing, and television is a different kind of writing. Television is trying to use as few words as possible, and it's completely driven by the pictures. So, what you write in your words is dictated by what is in the pictures. Whereas when you’re writing prose, it's entirely different. You can use your words as much as you like. And television by its nature, if you don't have pictures, then you can't tell the story. Or you can try to think creatively about how to tell it with graphics or different things. But with a book you can explore really complex ideas without the worry that you need to have pictures.
So, I think that is why I do my day job but then also feel quite compelled to write. Also, from childhood, I've always wanted to write books. I just feel I just want to do it and so yeah, I just feel compelled to do it.
Astrid: So, you said compelled twice now. What is that feeling? Is it for a particular story?
Leigh: No, not necessarily. I don't always act on it because I don't have time. So, often I will see things and think, ‘Oh, that would be a book or that would be an article’, but I don't always have the time to act on it, and then sometimes I do.
So for example, just thinking, I wrote a piece for The Monthly maybe five years ago which was… I was just sitting in a park, and something was clearly stuck in a tree. And a man was trying to get something out while his children watched him. And everyone in the park became interested in it even though we couldn't see what was up the tree. And just as I was watching it, I was thinking ‘This is the absolute perfect thousand word piece, slice of life piece for The Monthly’.
So, I just started taking notes and then that just happened.
Another thing I remember writing for The Monthly more recently was a review of a film called Weiner, about the New York Congressman Anthony Weiner. And it was because when I watched this documentary it just turned me up so much and I felt like I had things to say that I felt like I could not write. I wrote something before I even pitched it to The Monthly because I just felt like I have to write to understand how I feel about this film.
So, it's not necessarily... Look, I guess it's a combo of that stories come along that I'm interested in, but it's also just that I feel the need to exercise this writing bug.
Astrid: You work with words across platforms and mediums. How different is it for you personally writing, researching and editing a book?
Leigh: Well, it's harder for me because I have more experience working in television, and as I said, that's a totally different skill. Or even radio, where I have a fair bit of experience where you're dealing with audio, you’re sort of creating for radio and audio soundscape with, again, the words are just backing in the sound that you've collected. A book by its nature, just because you have so much material, I think is generally harder to structure, I've found, than even a reasonably long form television piece of work. Television structure as I say, is sometimes dictated by the pictures. Radio structure can be dictated by the audio. Whereas with a book you have completely just carte blanche to do whatever you like.
So that's the main difference to me I think is the freedom, although obviously on write non-fiction and so you do have a certain limitation which is the facts. That creates a boundary and some limits that you have to work within.
Astrid: I'd like to start with On Doubt, which is your shortest book, if we can put it that way. Louise Adler, the head of MUP recently spoke about this little series on The Garret, and she said it's the perfect length for both writers and readers. As a writer of one of the series, is that true?
Leigh: I think so for sure, because you have ideas all the time that there's not enough in it to make an entire book, but it feels like more than just a thousand words. So, being able to do 10,000 – or a think in the second edition of On Doubt it is about 12 or 13 – it's long enough that you can mount an argument but you're not feeling like you have to pad, if you know what I mean.
Sometimes I read books that people have written and I think, ‘Well that actually would have been a great 5,000 word article, but I feel like you're repeating yourself now’. Whereas in that little ‘On’ series, it's just long enough feel like, ‘You know what? I explored that comprehensively and I've got nothing more to say’.
Astrid: Well, so On Doubt that was first published in 2009 and as you just mentioned it was re-released with an update from you in 2017. What was it like for you to be confronted with something that you had put on the record eight years previously and had the chance to update?
Leigh: That was fun. The thing that was disturbing was at the time when I wrote On Doubt which was basically about the rise of opinion in place of fact based news, the reason I wanted to write about it was because I was disturbed by this trend. [Laughter] When I re-read it in 2017 to then updated, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can't believe I was worried about it then, that was the Golden Day’. Things have just become so much worse over time.
So, it was interesting to be able to update it and go, ‘Wow, this is what I wrote back then and now here's what we're seeing today’. It's quite privileged actually to have a chance to do that.
Astrid: It is privileged, and I wanted to ask you how did you make sure that you are providing something new for your audience?
Leigh: Well, I think just because so much time had elapse – nearly a decade had elapsed – that the content was just new. Because when On Doubt was first written, Facebook had only just started. So, all of that stuff, that was like a personal space, it wasn't a space yet that media was in and that news was in. Whereas things have now changed so drastically in the media space, but also I think in personal communication. So, some of the stuff I was talking about in On Doubt originally, say around spin or brand management, that has now leapt from advertising and politics into people's personal lives. So, your Instagram is spin and brand management, and so all of that stuff has now infected individual lives as well as broadcasting and public lives. And so yeah, that was something... Again, just because Weiner is fresh in my mind having just spoken about it, a lot of this stuff you would have previously thought of as narcissism whereas, is there any insult today to being called a narcissist? We think everything we put on Instagram about, ‘Oh, here's what I did today, here's what I ate, blah blah’. Ten, twenty, thirty years ago that would have been considered extreme narcissism, now it's just effective brand management.
Astrid: The world is a very different place.
Leigh: It is. [Laughter]
Astrid: Now, your third book, your most recent book, Any Ordinary Day was published in 2018, meaning there was about nine years between the first edition of On Doubt and Any Ordinary Day. Why the gap? And were you waiting for the right idea?
Leigh: I was waiting for the right idea, and also I had just a very busy professional and personal time. So, I finished On Doubt and then around the same time I started hosting Lateline, which I did for three years, and then I was offered the job to host 7:30, and that coincided with having my first child. There was literally no time to do anything.
And also when I wrote Detainee 002, that was the culmination of five years basically of reporting on Guantanamo Bay. And then I took three or four months of long service leave to break the back of the actual writing of the book. And I found that the writing of that book really, really challenging, the most intellectually challenging thing I've ever done, because it just the volume of material and the difficulty of structuring it and ordering it and so forth. It took a lot of effort. And so, fast forward then to when I'm hosting 7:30 and have a child and then rapidly have another child, I felt like, ‘Well I can never take a block of time off again and so, therefore I'm not going to be able to write a book’. And I felt quite glum about that because as I say, I feel quite compelled to I want to write. And I was actually with my friend Annabel Crabb one day and we were filming a little series that we did for the ABC called When I Get a Minute, and when the crew would be positioning lights or moving things around, she would pull out her laptop and start writing on whatever it was that she was working on at the time. And I said to her, ‘Oh, how are you doing this? How are you splitting your head from what we're shooting and then you writing for like 10 or 15 minutes at a time and then putting it away and then filming and then writing again?’ I said, ‘I could never do that. When I did my book I had to...’
And Crabb said, ‘Oh, get over yourself’. [Laughter] She said, ‘How do you think you'll ever write another book if you don't do it in tiny chunks, like I’m doing it right now? You've got two small children, you've got a massive job. If you ever want to write something again, this is how you'll have to do it.’
And it was really like a massive eye opener for me, and some of the themes in Any Ordinary Day I'd been thinking about a lot and thinking ‘I just don't have time to do it’. And I walked away from that conversation thinking, ‘Actually it's a question of how much I want to do it. Do I want to sit at home at 9:30 at night after work and binge watched 30 Rock, or do I want to spend half an hour writing or reading?’ And I felt like I wanted to spend that time writing, and so I just started doing it without any view it would actually becoming a book. I just thought I was going to research and write and see what happens. And I probably did that for about a year before I thought, ‘Oh my God, I think this actually will turn into a book’.
Astrid: And when did you first have the idea?
Leigh: In late 2014, there were some news stories that happened in rapid succession. One of them was that a cricketer called Phillip Hughes got struck in the head fatally with a cricket ball, and the whole nation was just completely rattled and shocked by it. And a few weeks later the Lindt Cafe siege happened, which had the same effect on people. And both of those stories just really unsettled me and made me feel just shocked by how suddenly normal life can change and the rug can be pulled out from under you.
And I couldn't stop thinking about it, and I actually wrote a piece for The Australian newspaper, just a thousand words on pretty much what I said just then. And it got a lot of reaction, a lot of people said to me, ‘Wow, that really made an impact on me’. And I just couldn't stop thinking about the themes and I kept feeling like I had more to say. So, then I just kept on like a bowerbird collecting little bits and pieces or I'd seen news stories and think, ‘Oh, that fits with that thing I feel about how suddenly things can change’. Then it was probably another... It would have been the conversation with Crabb that sparked me to properly having a stab at pulling something together was early 2016. So, it was percolating for 18 months or so before I then in earnest started looking at it, but it was definitely triggered by those two news stories.
And also I had personally in 2014 a fairly rough year where, I felt like my own life was a bit unstable as well, and so that play definitely into my thinking about how quickly life can change.
Astrid: Now, you open Any Ordinary Day explaining that in your career you've gravitated to covering the political tragedies because often they're easier to deal with then the personal tragedies, but in Any Ordinary Day you explore the personal, both your own stories and those are the people that you interview. What caused you to want to walk towards the personal?
Leigh: I think because this idea that life can suddenly change for the worst is something that is thrown up in my face every night on my television show. Every single night on seven 7:30 – and most of my 25-year career in journalism – dealing all the time with people that have been living a normal day that has just been completely upended and their life has been fundamentally changed. And seeing that night after night after night had made me feel a combination of anxious and depressed about ‘Wow, that's so scary that that's what life is like’. To the degree that sometimes I would say if I thought a story was going to be particularly hard for me to watch live on television, I'd say to the producers, ‘Can you turn the volume down? I can't watch it right now’, because I'd be worried that I wouldn't be able to then carry on presenting the program because it'll be so disturbing to me.
So, I felt like I was very rattled by it and that I kept turning away from it, and that in my whole career that I've chosen to be Washington Correspondent or doing a lot of politics because it meant that it was some more sterile reporting, where you weren't going to have to go and door knock somebody whose child had just been killed, you weren't going to have to be dealing with people's raw pain and grief. And so, I felt like I had ducked that as best I could and I felt like I couldn't duck it anymore. I felt like what would happen if I looked that right in the face and what would I learn from that?
And so, I was definitely scared to do that, because I felt maybe it will be absolutely crushing. But actually it was the opposite. And the reason in the book that I also... Because as a journalist and say in Detainee 002, I tried to keep myself out of it as much as possible because I want it to read as a straight piece of narrative non-fiction.
In this book, it's not a narrative, it's a number of different thoughts and stories that are woven together. The only way to really make it work as a whole was using first person as the device to hold the whole story together. And I felt also such a major part of the reason for exploring these issues with my own life that I felt that it would be dishonest almost to present this work without explaining that I was trying to find comfort for myself. And so that's why I also included my own personal details as well as looking at other people's stories.
Astrid: I have questions about both how much of yourself you put into the book and the structure, but before we go there, I just wanted to ask you about the emotional toll of writing the book and interviewing all of the people that you do in the book about looking back on the worst experience of their life.
Leigh: It was always hard, because you're talking to people sometimes about incredibly sad things that happened to them. In every case though, I was always prepared because I knew what had happened, so I wasn't getting shocked when they told me. And also, I bring 25 years of experience to it and so I was able to mostly distance myself.
I have wondered, actually, in hindsight, if I deliberately chose people – subconsciously I mean – where I felt I would be able to handle their stories, because I just wonder if you… Subconsciously ... When I looked at some of the scientific research in this book, what I realised is you're the time pulling stuff back to yourself and your brain's trying to understand things by relating it to your own experience. And so, I think say for example in this book, Stuart Diver, who's one of the people I interview who was the sole survivor of the Thredbo landslide, I when I spoke to Stuart, didn't find it that difficult to not cry, even though Stewart had terrible things happen to him. He lost his first wife right next to him in this landslide and his second wife died of breast cancer. I think somewhere in my subconscious it's going, ‘Well, that wouldn't happen to you because you don't go skiing. You wouldn't be in a place where there could be a snowy landslide’. Or, there's another person in the book, James Scott, who as a young medical student was lost for more than 40 days in the Himalayas. And again, I just wonder if I felt like, ‘Oh, well that wouldn't happen to me because I wouldn't go trekking in the Himalayas’.
Of all of the people in the book there was only one person that I started to cry in the interview, which was Michael Spence, who is the Vice Chancellor of Sydney University, who… He lost his wife really rapidly. She was completely healthy in her 40s. They had five children. The youngest of them was four and she was diagnosed with cancer and she died three weeks later. And when Michael was telling me about it, I was just so shocking just to hear him explain that. And just thinking of him being left with the children. Oh God. It was awful. And as he was speaking, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I'm going start crying’. And I felt embarrassed because it is his story, and as a journalist you try really hard to never cry because it's the other person's emotions and experience that should be on show. And I thought, I can't help it, I'm going to start crying. And I think it's because he's about my age and because of the young children, it felt very close to home.
And so that was one that I found really hard. Of course, all of all of the people I spoke to moved me enormously, but it's the ones that have some parallel to your own life that are harder to take.
Astrid: You do reveal in the book that you cried in that interview, but then later in the book you actually write that tears streamed down your face when you were writing up the chapter on Hannah Richell.
Leigh: Yeah, so Hannah Richell was a writer herself and novelist, and her husband Matt was the publisher at Hachette actually. And he used to go surfing all the time, and he went surfing this one morning. He's was very responsible guy and I check the conditions and the conditions changed while they were there, and he just got unfortunately swept into this terrible rough end of Bronte Beach – between Bronte and Tamarama in Sydney – and he was thrown against the rocks and he was killed. And she was actually writing and she arrived home and police where there to tell her that her husband had been killed. And again, she had very young children. Anyway, when Hannah was talking to me about what happened, she's really a lovely person, Hannah, I was sitting at their kitchen table, much like we are now, and photos of Matt all around, and Hannah was so unbelievably open and honest about everything.
And with everyone in this book, one of the things I wanted to do was ask people things that everyone wants to know about but that you would feel too awkward in real life to ask about.
So, for example, when you get home and there's two police officers waiting there to tell you that your husband has been killed, how do they actually tell you that? And once they've told you, then what happens? Do they hang around or do they go? And then what happens?
And I wanted all of that minute detail about what occurs. And Hannah just talk to us so amazingly, and she talked about the unreality of it and feeling… She said she felt almost embarrassed and she didn't want to ring anyone because she just felt shame that this thing had happened to their family. Anyway, she wanted to go the following day and see Matt's body at the morgue, and she talked through that and why and all the rest of it. Anyway, she was telling me when she got there, she went in and she described what that was like and she saw Matt lying there. And she said it was weird because it looks like Matt but it also didn't look like Matt, and then she reached out to hold his hand and when she held his hand, it was still full of sand from the beach. And the way she told it, it was all I could do sitting at her kitchen table to not just collapse to the ground and just cry my eyes out because it was so moving and so personal.
And it was when I was writing it that I just felt like at liberty to just bawl my eyes out about that. I felt like everything about their life and the unfairness of his death was just contained in the impermanence of the sand. Sand on a beach of felt like that symbolised everything about what had happened to them and just the unfairness of it and the just absolute tragedy of it. It was just so, so sad.
Astrid: Many of the stories that you tell are quite confronting in Any Ordinary Day. I thoroughly enjoyed the nuance and the layers of your research and your contemplation on other people's lives. I have to say, Leigh, I felt really confronted by Chapter One where you tell the story of Louisa Hope, who is a survivor of the Lindt Café siege, an extraordinary event in her life and in the life of Sydney, but you also write that in the context of the fact that she has multiple sclerosis and full disclosure, so do I, and I found the comparison between the Lindt Siege and multiple sclerosis difficult to deal with.
Leigh: It was really interesting hearing her talk about the unfolding of her life and how various things had been prepared her. So, Louisa says that she felt like having had multiple sclerosis prepared her to be a hostage in the Lindt Cafe siege. And this came out because I asked her when the initial moments of shock pass – because they're in the siege for hours and hours and hours – did you at any point think ‘Are you effing kidding me? I've got MS and now I have to be a hostage and the terrorist siege’? It just struck me as surely having MS, that's the one thing in life that you've got to deal with, how is it fair that you then get to be a hostage in a terrorist drama? And of course, life doesn't work like that. Just because one bad thing happens to you it doesn't give you magical immunity from other bad things happening to you.
And Louisa said she felt like... And she was badly injured in the Lindt Siege because she was there right at the end when the police came in, she spent three months in hospital. She said she felt having MS had taught her how to prepare to be in hospital and waiting for things to heal, and just accepting that ‘My body's not really working very well at the moment and I have to just go with that’. And even in the siege, other experiences in her life, she said she felt like she'd been around men who were erratic like Monis the gunman was. And so, she felt like, ‘Oh, I know what you need. You need me to be as a woman submissive to you, and not backchatting and being difficult’, and so she felt like other experiences in her life had taught her how to act around him. She was quite remarkable in the way that she had been able to positively take all these challenges in their life and see that, ‘Okay, well that prepared me for this and this prepared me for that and this prepared me for that’.
Astrid: And that is really the central question of Any Ordinary Day. How can a person go on?
Leigh: Yeah. Bizarrely even I started writing that book fearful and thinking ‘I'll be crushed under the weight of all these terrible things that happened to people’, the exact opposite happened, which is it is god damn amazing what people go on from. And the things that you think that you would not cope with, you probably would because you're not... It's very easy to say, ‘Oh well if my whole family was killed… Well, that's okay for, Walter Mikac or James or Matt Golinski or whoever, they can cope with it but I wouldn't be able to’. You probably would. I'm not saying it would be easy and I'm not saying it wouldn't be the most painful difficult thing you've ever done, but you probably would go on because you have to. And not everybody does, of course, but there's a lot of people walking around – most of us actually because it's fundamental to the human experience – who have had suffering and tragedy and grief and ongoing challenges and you would wish that you didn't have them, but you do and you carry on.
Astrid: There aren't many non-fiction works that explore the nature of grief and what it means to continue that are done with such compassion, Leigh.
Leigh: Oh, that's really nice thing to say, thank you.
Astrid: I'm quite struck by the absence of work that we have on that. So of course, you draw from all disciplines. You look at religion and you look at maths, you look at science and law and philosophy to try to tease out different answers and different ways humans do find to go on.
Leigh: Yeah, because I myself was looking for answers, and these questions are really difficult. Once you accept that you are as vulnerable as the next person to your life suddenly changing, then I think it makes you just a far more empathetic character. Because say, if you look at one of the people in the book, Walter Mikac, who his whole family was killed in the Port Arthur Massacre, his wife, his six year old, and his three year old were all shot at point blank range by Martin Bryant. I don't know what it's like to be Walter Mikac, but empathy is about imagination and I can imagine what it must be like to be him. I don't know it, but the understanding that ‘Why would that not be me? That could so easily be me’, that gives me empathy. Because I think, ‘Well imagine if that was me. Or imagine if I were Stuart Diver. Or imagine I were Louisa Hope’. So, when I was trying to find answers to the questions around, well, how do we live? Knowing that the central truth that life is wonderful and terrible at the same time, which is we don't know what's going to come next. Once you understand that and you understand that what comes next might be good or bad… I wanted to try to figure out how to come to terms with that, because it's a painful thing. And so, I just looked in a tonne of different disciplines, and it is amazing the research that's out there.
I must say though, now I think I’ve developed a reasonably good understanding of say, the psychology of how our brain works and how our brain processes blindsides in trauma and grief… My father died only a couple of months ago right as this book was about to come out. He had a sudden heart attack. And while I was able to understand what my brain was doing, it didn't stop it from doing it, if you know what I mean. It still had to be shocked and in pain and suffering and all of that stuff, and I knew that, ‘Okay, this is why it's doing this because it's trying to make meaning of X, Y, Z’. But you can't stop it, if you know what I mean. But I think the way it helped me is in knowing that this is not the rest of my life, feeling discombobulated and unsettled like this. It's awful, but it will pass. You don't know if it'll be tomorrow or next year or in ten years, and of course when you've had grief and pain in your life, it never goes away entirely, but it has helped me knowing why you feel the way that you do.
Astrid: In Any Ordinary Day you actually reflect on what it's like to be a Stuart Diver or anyone else and how they dealt with by other people, and you reflect on their experience of looking after others who can't handle their own grief.
Leigh: Yeah, and that was something that again, it just seems so unfair that when you're the person who is dealt the terrible hand by life, the sad reality – and many people in the book said this – is that a lot of people don't know how to cope with that, because they're so rattled by what's happened to you and they feel pain because they feel bad for you. But of course, they also think, ‘Imagine if that happened to me. Imagine if that was my family. Imagine if that was my wife’, and as we all relate to, there's an awkwardness. You worry you’re going to say the wrong thing, what are you going to do? You don't know how to help.
And a number of people said that what happened was after this terrible thing happened to them, so they experienced a great loss, it would be compounded by further loss because they would then lose people that they thought were their friends. And hearing even say Michael Spence, who I spoke about before, he went to see a priest and the priest said to him, ‘When you go back to work, you will have to be the person to raise that your wife died because you will have to be the person to make everyone feel okay and to diffuse the awkwardness’. And Michael was like, ‘What? I'm the one whose wife died’. And the priest said, ‘That's just the reality’. And so, Michael would start every meeting that he had to run by saying, ‘I just want to say thank you very much everybody for the lovely messages I have received about Beth and I really appreciate it blah, blah blah’. And then that way everyone felt all good, the elephant in the room's been handled. And that was a constant repeated by people, just how much it hurt them when people avoided them or didn't acknowledge that something terrible had happened to them.
Walter Mikac, the Port Arthur man, told this incredibly sad story about this guy who was friends with Doug, who – Walter used to play golf with him all the time and his daughter worked in Walter's pharmacy – and after the Port Arthur massacre, a few weeks later, he hadn't spoken to Doug and he was walking down the street and he saw Doug walking towards him from the opposite direction. And they met eyes and then Doug turned around and started walking the other way. And Walter thought, ‘If I don't go after him, we will never speak ever again’. And so he thought I'm going to go after him. And so, he started walking and then Doug picked up spade and Walt pick up spade and then Doug broke into a run, and so Walter ran after him, and finally grabbed him and turned him around and Doug just had tears pouring down his face. And Walter said, ‘It's okay. You can talk to me’. And just hearing Walter say that, I mean, you just think really? You had to be the one to... It was so unfair but so emotionally mature of him to understand. And for Michael Spence as well to understand they had to do it.
And it changed the way that I now deal with people having hard times or had terrible things happen to. I just barrel in now, actually, because Walton Mikac said, ‘People will always worry that or they'll say something to make it worse. My wife and my two daughters just got killed, what do you think you could say that could be worse than that? There's nothing you can say that can be worse, that can make that worse.’ And so now I'll just say to people, ‘I'm really sorry you Dad died’, or ‘That's awful. Can I do anything to help?’ I just try to be there because I've realised from what all these people have said to me that the most important thing. In the words of a priest that I interviewed, to accompany and to just be alongside people, whether you say or do the right thing or not.
Astrid: That was a particularly powerful piece in Any Ordinary Day. I'm aware of the tension you just did all this research and writing about people facing grief and as you mentioned, Leigh, your father passed away before the book was published. Have you thought about how people will reflect on your writing of experiencing grief now that you've recently experienced it?
Leigh: I felt like I almost invited that to happen via writing a book about getting blindsided. And I do worry about just now having to talk about that all the time. But, I think that when people read the book there's enough about also other things that have happened in my life that you would bring that context to it as well. That it's not like I had no experience of pain and grief…
Astrid: Not at all.
Leigh: … Before my father died. But it's also, it's all relative too, isn't it? You think God, pretty much anything I've gone through in my life is just nothing compared to what people like Walter Mikac have gone through. Even the death of a parent – as awful as that is and it's a universal experience – it's not the worst thing that happens to you in life, because it's the natural order of life and you expect on some level for your entire life, you expect the death of your parents. Doesn't mean it's any easier when it happens, but it's not the same as if you are sitting in a cafe having a coffee and you become the victim of a terrorist attack. There's grief, and then there's trauma and grief and it's different thing.
Astrid: That is true. Leigh, did you pitch this idea?
Leigh: No, I did not pitch this idea. I basically had a complete draft before I pitched it to anybody because as I said, when I started the writing of it, I wasn't sure if it would make a book, and I had a lot of personal things to do. I have my normal job, which is massive, and I had my children. And I didn't want the pressure of, ‘Well, this has to be in by a certain date’. And I also felt like I have a lot of deadline pressure in my everyday life, and I wanted to be writing this because I enjoyed it and because I was learning something and because it was useful, almost like therapeutic to me and I felt like having any publishing deal or deadline would be counterproductive to that. And also – not to sound up myself or like a wanker – but I knew that because I have a profile that I would probably not struggle to find someone to publish it, so I wasn't doing a tonne of work that then maybe wouldn't come to fruition. And of course a lot of writers do have that thing, and also I had the complaint luxury that I had a job so I had an income, and so this was my side thing, not my primary source of income.
Astrid: Tell me about your writing routine.
Leigh: So, for this work it was...
Astrid: You smile as soon as I asked the question.
Leigh: [Laughter] Well, there was really no routine because I had to fit it in around all my other commitments and so I would have... Sometimes I get home from doing 7:30 Report at about 8:30 at night or maybe 8:00, sometimes I’d noodle around, the kids would be in bed and then maybe I'd write for half an hour. Sometimes I'd be absorbed in it and I might write for an hour and a half. Sometimes if I couldn't sleep – I'm a bad sleeper – I would be up at 4:00 and I'd write a little bit. I'm separated from my children's dad, so on weekends when they're with him every second weekend, then I would just hunker down and write. Sometimes if I went away for a holiday for a week, I'd go somewhere where there would literally nothing to do but write, because it's one of those activities where, if you can scrub the bathroom floor, you probably will rather than actually sit at the computer and write, which is so weird. [Laughter] I always think that feeling of having written is more pleasurable than the feeling of writing. So, it completely varied, but I would always find... I'm a big believer in the Nike slogan ‘Just do it’, because I do find that it's the starting of an activity that's the hardest thing. Once you're in the groove, whether it's exercise or writing, then it's actually enjoyable, it's just the sitting down and doing it.
I'm also a massive list writer, so I think ‘I have to do this’. The other thing is, someone gave me advice years ago which I’ve found really useful – and I do it not just for these books but for what I do at 7:30 – is don't save all of the writing until you've done all of the research, because the act of the writing exposes where the holes are in the research. And I would find if I wrote a block, it would also give me a sense of that I was making progress. Sometimes with research you can just keep going endlessly and it can be a little bit unfocused, and particularly with this book, because the subjects quite nebulous, you could have literally spent an entire lifetime reading on these questions about the meaning of life really. And so, I tried to write and then that helped me work out the structure and helped me work out where to research.
Astrid: So, tell me about the structure and how you left some of the research out.
Leigh: So, the structure… Basically I read really widely first of all and I hired a professional researcher to help me find things, because I wanted medical journal articles and psychology general articles and mathematical journals, I wanted information about ‘What are the chances of you being caught in a siege like the Lindt Café’, so that is probability and statistics and coincidence and all that stuff. And then I wanted research about when a life changing thing happens to how do you adapt. And so there was a lot of reading that was done early on. And then if I found a stream in the research that was particularly interesting to me, like say about adaptation, I would be then thinking back over news stories I'd covered or things I'd seen in the paper or clippings that I'd kept about, ‘Oh, that strikes me as somebody who had to adapt to a significantly changed circumstances’, and then I would go and find an actual case study that illustrated some of the research.
So, I ended up really with a whole lot of disparate stories and pieces of research. The real challenge for this book, because it's not a narrative, it's not one story, was to find a cohesive way to make it stick together. And really the only thing that I felt could do that was to include the first person, that was like the spine of the book, and this is my exploration of these questions, starting not knowing the answers and by the end having some understanding. And so that was the way, and so there's a bit of first person weaved the entire way through.
And then every chapter is a certain aspect of this question that I explore where there'll be one person whose story helps illustrate it. Often that person will raise someone that they met along the way who helped them or seem to have a unique understanding, and then I've gone and tracked down that person as well and spoken to them and brought their story into it as well.
So, that was pretty much the way that I worked out the structure. And it was also… the book I guess is split into two halves, although it's not formally, in my head it is. There's the internal way that we process what happens to us, and there's the external way that we react to when we see things happen to other people.
In terms of the research that I left out, I always feel like whether it's a seven minute interview on 7:30 or a twenty minute interview with the Prime Minister or a 60,000 word book – this sounds a bit wanky – but I feel like ‘What is the yes here?’, because that will help me know what to say no to.
And so I feel like any book, any interview, you need to be able to say in one or two sentences what it is about. So, say for example, Scott Morrison was recently on 7:30, his first interview was Prime Minister, and I'm thinking, ‘Well, what other principles that are going to drive you as Prime Minister?’ So, any question that doesn't help illustrate that point is gone. It doesn't matter if it's the greatest, most interesting question ever, if it's not backing the theme, it's out. And so with Any Ordinary Day in Chapter One, it establishes these other questions I'm trying to answer. And so any bit of research, no matter how fascinating it was, if it didn't help answer those questions or any interview – there was people I interviewed that didn't make the final book – it's out and I feel like that helps. Once you know the answer to those questions about what something's about, it's not very easy, but it's much easier to determine what's in and out.
Astrid: You tell me about the interviews that didn't make it to the final cut. What is the ethics there? Do you tell them why or do?
Leigh: Yeah. And I tried very hard with the people who had gone through something horrendous, all of them made it because I didn't want to ask somebody to tell me something like that and not have them make the book. I didn't want to put them through that. Also, I did something that journalists never do, which is every person who had told me about a terrible experience in their life, I let them read their section of the book, because I felt like they'd been through enough that I didn't want to add to it by having on the record something that upset them or that they felt was unfair or that I hadn't really understood where they were coming from.
Astrid: Does... Sorry to interrupt. Does that go back to the freedom of writing a longform non-fiction piece because you can not necessarily follow every single journalistic rule because you are creating a different story, a more in depth story?
Leigh: I think so. But I did struggle with it because as a journalist, I'm used to... Because people often will… How you perceive yourself is not how I as an outsider will perceive you, and so you might not like how I write you on the page even though I perceived that as the truth. But fortunately for me in this book, people made slight tweaks like ‘That date is wrong’, or ‘Actually, would you mind if I said that differently because it seems a bit clumsy’, but mostly everyone just went, ‘Yep, that's completely fine and that's okay’. And so, I was really glad that I did it. But the risk is that people want to wind back their quotes if they've said something controversial. This wasn't that sort of book, and so I felt more that I could live with myself by violating that journalistic principle than I could with the risk that I would hurt somebody who's already been deeply hurt.
Astrid: And that leads us to possibly what I found most fascinating about Any Ordinary Day. There is obviously the interviews that you've done with people. There is the academic research that you explore to try to answer how do we go on? But then, there is that element of you questioning – including questioning your own interview history, the entire profession of journalism. And that is not how the book is advertised, and it is I think quite unique. I was fascinated by it. Can you tell me why you chose to include it?
Leigh: Well, I just think you can't look at something like the way people individually or communities respond to events like the Lindt Cafe Siege or put the Port Arthur Massacre or Thredbo or any of those big events, without looking at the role of the media in helping us understand those events. Because for most of us, we don't know Phillip Hughes, we don't know Katrina Dawson, we don't know the people who've been personally involved in these things.
Our understanding of them is influenced by the media and the way the media reports on them. And so I didn't feel like I could not look at that. And then in the context of looking at that, now I am a very well-known journalist, and so I can't really critique the media and not look at my own performance as a journalist. And I think that anyone that spent a career in journalism would look back over it and go, ‘I could've done that better. I was under deadline pressure and I put a bit too much pressure on that person to give me a grab or I really heavied them to participate, or I cut some corners there because I was under time pressure’.
I think it's important to acknowledge that and it's not always... You don't as a journalist always make mistakes because you intend to hurt people or you intend to mislead. You sometimes just make them because you're a human being and you're in a rush or whatever. And so, I wanted to think back over my own career to times where I felt like I don't really think that I covered myself with glory with how I acted, in that particular circumstance. So, I wanted to look at that as deeply and as unflinchingly as I looked at everything else.
Astrid: You are, as you say, Leigh, a public figure. I was surprised and humbled by your reflections on how you covered Hurricane Katrina, for which you did win a Walkley, one of Australia's highest journalistic accolades. And you aren't proud?
Leigh: Yeah, I thought back to... I remember going to the New Orleans airport and I was, had, I was under time pressure, I needed to get a story, it was several days after the hurricane and I needed an interview to make for AM, for ABC Radio that morning. And there was this woman there, a grandmother. She had five kids with her and I walked up to her and started interviewing and straight away you could say she was amazing talent. She was emotional but she was articulate, and she had lost family members, and she's telling me what's happened and she's getting more and more upset as she's talking and I'm thinking, ‘Okay, we shouldn't go for about two minutes, I just needed to go a bit longer’. Anyway, she had some of her grandkids with her, and a little boy who looked like he was about 10 said after a while, fairly quietly, ‘That's enough’. And I pretended like I hadn't heard him, because for me it wasn't enough because I didn't have enough material on tape yet. And so I kept going, and the grandmother was very upset. And then the kid popped up in a louder voice and said, ‘That's enough’. And then I stopped and that was enough. And I just think my God like that is shameful, a 10 year old had to show me that that was enough. But I guarantee you, I would not be the only journalist who has pushed the boundaries of people's personal comfort level in order to get a story over the line because the fear of, like anyone's job, the fear of, ‘If I go back without a story, if I don't get something good’. You're under pressure, and so you act in ways that aren't necessarily how you would view your best self.
Now, I think that was 14 years ago, now I think I’m more experienced now, but how do you know? I think I'm a nice person. I think if you're in a disaster and I knocked on your door and 1 is the worst reptile in the media and 10 is the most ethical person I'd go, ‘Well I’m bloody 9.5. You'd be lucky if I knocked on your door’. But apparently not, for that anecdote that I just shared.
Astrid: I recently interviewed Rachel Brown, and she said you can be a nice person and a journalist, but you being a journalist doesn't make you a nice person.
Leigh: [Laughter] Yeah, for sure.
Astrid: Going back to On Doubt, you actually recount an interview did with Wayne Swan where he actually expresses a degree of doubt in public life, and you point out in On Doubt that's relatively rare. And I'm not sure if anyone has pointed this out to you so explicitly, but by reflecting on your own experience covering Hurricane Katrina and reflecting on both your career and the wider media landscape in Australia, you are expressing doubt and that's healthy. I feel like you're walking the talk.
Leigh: Yeah. Well, I think you have to dive in. That's what...
Astrid: Public figures don't sometimes, Leigh.
Leigh: That's what disturbs me, frankly, this certainty. And I feel like I see it all the time on the Left and the Right, this certainty that our idea is right and that anyone who doesn't agree with it needs to shut up or be hounded out of speaking. The failure to want to engage with people who think differently about things and that the idea that if we don't engage with, it'll just go away. I find disturbing. And I don't know, I just, to me it seems dishonest as well.
Astrid: And why don't you pick your brain a little bit about interviews, not necessarily the ones you do for TV – where I suppose it's not really in your interest or the interest of the public to make the interviewee comfortable – but when you are interviewing for these books for Any Ordinary Day, how do you as the interviewer make your interviewee comfortable and willing to share?
Leigh: The main thing is to legitimately care, and to also be more concerned with listening than speaking and to give people a lot of space to speak. So, with these stories, I would just basically try to give the person the gentlest steer, and so I'll be asking a lot of questions like, ‘And then what happened? And what happened next?’ And if I was going to ask something incredibly personal, I would say ‘I really hope that this question doesn't offend you, but please don’t feel you have to answer it’.
One of the hardest questions I asked in this was Walter Mikac was talking about how after his wife and children died… He was a pharmacist, and his car would sometimes be spotted outside the pharmacy late at night. And he didn't use the word suicide, but he said people would speculate what I was doing, and he was intimating that people would think, is he going to kill himself? Because he was a pharmacist and it's one of those things that again, I think everyone would want to know, but no one would ever want to ask you, which is, well, nobody has more means or knowledge about how to kill themself than a pharmacist. So why didn't you? What stopped you in this incredibly horrendous circumstance from killing yourself?
And as I heard him say it and I knew that that was what I was going to ask him, all this all happens in a tiny split second, I was thinking, ‘Are you really going to ask this man why he didn't kill himself?’ But you don't ask it like that, of course, you ask it in a much more gentle way, and you give the person the space that they don't have to answer it.
So I tried really hard with all of the interviews to just be as unobtrusive as possible, in the exact opposite to how I interview on 7:30, which is at 7:30 they're accountability interviews, and so you're pulling up the person all the time. With these interviews, you're exploring and you're wanting to just hear the person's life experience and so you're wanting yourself to be out of it as much as possible, and you're also using without this sounding manipulative, you are using all of your human body language and personal charm and empathy and in every tool that you've got at your disposal to help that person feel that you're putting them at ease.
Astrid: So, do you record those interviews or just take notes?
Leigh: I did record the audio of all of them and then I had them transcribed, just because I wanted to be in these particular interviews not breaking eye contact, so I was trying also to not read from notes because anything that reminds the person that it's an interview and not just a conversation is likely to pull them out of the space. With all of them, I tried to know their story incredibly well before I met them so that I didn't need any prompts. So, I was recording, so I wouldn't have to be taking notes and jotting things down.
And also for a book… For television, I don't need to take any notes about how things look because it's on camera. For a book you might want to be recording what they look like, what their face looks like, your observations of their appearance or what they're eating or whatever. So, if I'm going to take notes, I don't want the notes to be what they're saying, I want the notes to be all my other observations about the environment.
Astrid: Leigh, many of the people who listened to The Garret writing non-fiction but also memoir and therefore they are interviewing and telling the stories of other people. What advice can you give writers who were taking that responsibility on like you have?
Leigh: If you're writing someone else's story, I think you have to be absolutely meticulous about the accuracy of it. And not just accurately what they're saying, but if you're going to say that they were feeling a certain way or whatever, you have to know that that is how they felt and that you've interpreted their words correctly. So, you have to have… All of the people in this book,
I've had multiple conversations and emails and follow up with to make sure that I have actually understood where they're coming from. And in some cases if I've worried that my interpretation of what they've said is something that they might find confronting, I have gone to them with that to say, ‘Hey listen, you said you thought the media acted horribly, I actually think it was sort of justifiable and I'm going to say that in the book and I don't want you to have your feelings hurt by that, that I disagree with your conclusions, but this is what I'm going to say’.
Or, say the chapter about Stuart Diver, one of the things too at Stuart Diver said to me was –
because he'd lost two wives and he's in his mid to late forties – he said, ‘You know, nobody says this to my face, but I know everyone says it behind my back, they all say, “Geez, who'd sign up to be the third Mrs Diver?”’. And I felt really terrible for Stuart about that, and I'm sure it's true. And this idea that Stuart Diver is jinxed… I wanted to disprove that because I think it's bullshit. Stuart Diver is not jinxed. He's just had two really unfortunate things happen to him. So, I rang up the Australian Bureau of Statistics and had them help me crunch all the numbers around Stuart Diver’s odds of being widowed for a third time. And when I had written all of that, I feel that I just want to run that past Stuart, because that is pretty confronting stuff, to have to see numerically all these odds around your life. And the ultimate conclusion is that the next most likely person to die in the Diver household is Stuart himself. So, it's not that comforting a conclusion.
So, I just wanted to be honest with him about what I was doing. And so, I think if you are writing someone else's story, then you have to be completely honest with them about what you're doing.
Astrid: Are you happy without Any Ordinary Day turned out?
Leigh: I think that in any creative endeavour you always think, ‘I could have done this differently, I could have done that’, or ‘I hope I've done these okay’ or whatever. I think also say by the end of anything, you become really close to it. It's hard to judge yourself if it works. So, I feel happy with it but look, who knows if it's good or not. [Laughter] Plenty of people have felt happy with stuff that's been dreadful, and plenty of people have done stuff probably thought it was okay and it's turned out to be genius. I said to a friend the other day, we were talking about the band Radiohead and I said, ‘I wonder if when they did The Bends’ – which I think is one of the great rock albums of all time – ‘did they sit back in the studio when finally every last bit of the mixing was done, did they sit back and listen to it once through and at the end go “Guys, we have fucking nailed it, this is one of the great rock albums of all time”. Or did they go, “Oh geez, track three is okay”’.
It's fascinating to wonder when whoever in the BeeGees wrote at the riff of Staying Alive, the second that it came out, did they go, ‘This is going to be one of the great riffs of all time?’ So that's a long way of saying, look, I think it's all right, I don't really know.
Astrid: So, have you already got an idea for the next one?
Leigh: I would like to do something just completely stupid and fun for my next thing, like a spy thriller, because this is such a serious work of journalism that I feel like I just want to have some fun. So, I keep hassling Annabel Crabb with this sitcom idea that I've got. I've got this stupid spy thriller that I want to do. And I would really like to have a stab at writing fiction.
Astrid: Which genre?
Leigh: Probably sort of literary fiction, but I suspect that… Well I know it, because I've lived for 45 years, that just because you like reading a certain thing doesn't mean you can execute it.
Astrid: But it doesn't mean you shouldn't try it.
Leigh: It doesn't mean you shouldn't try, exactly because as this book has taught me, you life can change suddenly and so if you want to have a stab at something, who gives a stuff if you can't do it, if you want to have a stab at it, have a stab at it. So, I probably will at some stage have a go at doing something like that. But look, I do I have enough on my plate frankly with 7:30 and my family. Maybe I'll just noodle around in the background and who knows what will come out.
Astrid: Well, Leigh if you ever looking for a beta reader for your first fiction work, I volunteer.
Leigh: Thank you very much. [Laughter]
Astrid: Leigh, thank you very much for coming on The Garret.
Leigh: Thank you.