Rick Morton on editing anthologies and switching to fiction

Rick Morton is a senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, a regular guest on ABC’s The Drum and an award-winning author of three non-fiction books: 100 Years of Dirt, On Money and My Year of Living Vulnerably. In 2022 he edited the anthology Growing Up in Country Australia.

He has appeared on The Garret before, and you can listen to that interview from 2021 here.

Rick Morton on editing anthologies and switching to writing fiction


ASTRID: Rick Morton, welcome back to The Garret.

RICK: Oh, my, God. Thank you so much for having me.

ASTRID: Now we are sitting together in the same room. I could reach over and touch you.

RICK: Yes, I can almost touch you.

ASTRID: And we are in Woodend Library in the Macedon Ranges in regional Victoria. The events that led us here are very, very exciting. Firstly, congratulations on being the new editor in the Growing Up series with Black Inc, Growing Up in Country Australia.

RICK: I'm stoked. I've joined a pretty good line of people who've edited these collections, and so I'm very happy to be amongst that company.

ASTRID: Yeah. Look, I wrote the list. I literally have this here. There is Alice Pung, Anita Heiss, Benjamin Law, Maxine Beneba Clark, and Carly Findlay, and now Rick Morton.

RICK: It's like a who's who of Australian writing.

ASTRID: Yeah. How did you get on that list?

RICK: I mean, I guess, I'd written about my country upbringing before, and of course, I didn't know they were planning to do this book, but I got a call out from Sophie, the publisher at Black Inc, and they just said, ‘Would you be willing to edit this collection?’ And I didn't even think about it twice. I said yes, straight away. So I was in, I guess, the right place, the right time. Right pedigree, I guess. I grew up in Outback Queensland, which I think counts.

ASTRID: It does count.

RICK: Yeah. I got very... Yeah, I was very lucky, I think.

ASTRID: Now I have just attended a library talk that you've done at the Woodend Library, and I feel that it came up in the live discussion, then. And I feel I should put my cards on the table before we have a talk about country Australia. Two months ago I moved to Kyneton in regional Victoria. I am the walking cliche of a city person who got sick of being in the city during COVID and has moved to the country.

RICK: And have you always been a city person?

ASTRID: Always.

RICK: Yeah.

ASTRID: I don't know what I'm doing.

RICK: Yeah, this is amazing to me. I love... What's going on in your head right now?

ASTRID: I'm excited. I am amazingly, emotionally unburdened. I feel alive for the first time in several years. I also have no idea what I'm doing and I'm pretty sure that everybody around me can see me stuffing up, but they don't know me well enough yet to tell me.

RICK: Yep. Yep. Usually it doesn't take too long for them to start intervening being like, this is how we do things around here.

ASTRID: Yeah. I think I'm making mistakes. And I guess this is my introduction, my way of saying, Rick, you've just edited an entire collection from the other side, from people who do have a way more profound experience of not being in the city, in Australia, being in country, regional, remote Australia. I've asked the other editors of this series, what was it like? Why did you do it? What responsibility did you feel? And I want to ask the same question from you.

RICK: Yes. I really like that question because I did feel an enormous responsibility to pull together a collection from people whose lives were not like mine. My life was stereotypical in almost every way. If you think of the original myths about the Australian Bush, literally my family lived them all. We were in the Outback, we ran a cattle station. The men were withered and cruel and violent in their own ways. The landscape was harsh and could have killed you at any given moment. I mean, that's what we all think of when we think of the Australian Bush, but it's so much richer than that.

I wanted particularly to make sure that we had experiences in this collection about migrants who moved directly from their country of birth straight into somewhere in rural Australia, because imagine the whiplash, the cultural whiplash of that. But also, to make sure that First Nations writers – Dr. Melinda Mann has got an amazing piece that we end the collection with precisely because I want that to be the note that people leave after reading this, thinking about what country means to First Nations people. It's everything. I wanted to update it, I guess. I don't think we've had a real country Australia collection that is honest about the good and the bad and the diversity of views.

ASTRID: Putting together a collection is so nuanced, right?

RICK: Yeah.

ASTRID: How many submissions did you get approximately?

RICK: There were 250 submissions. There are about 40 in the book, the published book. It's a a lot of reading.

ASTRID: There's a lot of reading in there and also there's a lot of people who didn't get in. Now, I think the obvious question is probably what made you choose those 40, but I think I'd like to flip it because a lot of writers listen to this podcast, particularly emerging writers. And I guess, what are some of the common things that were in those other 210, what means you don't get in?

RICK: God, that's a great question. And so useful for writers. It's like, we want to know what to do, right? It's so hard to explain because so much of it is about feeling. When I read a piece of writing, I generally know straight away whether it's good or not. And sometimes it's great and sometimes it's good and can be great with a little bit of polishing, but there were so many good submissions. There were tens and tens and tens of submissions that didn't make it into the book that could have. And partly it was because I wanted to make sure we represented all the different voices that we could. We had every state and territory represented, but that didn't mean that I was going through saying, ‘Oh, we've had too many from Tasmania, so this one's not in’. If it was good, it was good.

But I do think, I think there has to be magic that comes through the prose. Sometimes things can feel overwritten, and when you're writing these stories you just want the language to be sharp and clear and the words to be chosen for the right reasons. And I think that's the stuff that really matters. It's not so much about using the biggest words, but about the rhythm and the flow of the writing itself. And when you read that, it's not like you're sitting there going, oh, yes, the rhythm and the flow is very nice, but it feels nice to read.

ASTRID: It leaves you with a good feeling.

RICK: Yeah, there's no friction.

ASTRID: There are some well-known contributors – Annabel Crabb, Tony Armstrong. They help sell books, right? They're recognisable names.

RICK: Totally.

ASTRID: But the first book in the series was, Growing Up Asian, edited by Alice Pung many, many years before the series got going. It was the original, and Ben Law had pieces in there. And he has said in public that, being a contributor to that anthology well over a decade now really helped kick off his serious writing career. Have you found a new Ben Law in here?

RICK: Oh yeah. There's definitely some new Ben Laws in here. In fact, I've been speaking to the publisher about those people because there are just some breathtakingly good and original pieces in here. I have no doubt that there are people in this collection who will go on to have long careers in publishing. And I hope it's as many as possible. I won't name names because I'm being cheeky, but yes, no. I have had these discussions with the publisher.

ASTRID: Oh, that is such a wonderful thing to hear. We mentioned the editors before Anita Heiss, Carly Findlay, Ben Law, obviously, do you have a little editor's club? Did you get advice on this series from the others?

RICK: Do you know what? I've been in a few group, private messages with a few of them, actually. Not because I was seeking advice, but because we were being sounded out for our own advice, I guess. And I was just listening with an eager ear because I hadn't published this yet. I was in the process of doing it, but it feels like, I mean, in a way I feel like Australian writing is quite supportive anyway. So it's not like there's an editor's club. It's just that I could reach out to any one of these editors and they would... And particularly recently, I've spoken to Anita Heiss and Ben Law about other stuff. And it's just so helpful, I think. And I think Australian writing, it can be clubby sometimes, I guess, but it's not been my experience. My experience has been of nothing but support and goodwill from people who are just trying to make art.

ASTRID: I also have not had the experience of it being clubby, but I suspect that for someone trying to publish their first piece…

RICK: Oh, yeah.

ASTRID: ... it will look clubby, or it will look elitist, or it will just look impenetrable and completely unfathomable, how everything works. And that is one of the values of anthologies, because it is a way in. As someone who, you work across mediums, you've written two autobiographies, which are wonderful.

RICK: It feels weird saying two memoirs, essentially because yeah, but I know what you mean.

ASTRID: You have written many, many individual, and long-form pieces of journalism. You've written long-published essays, like On Money. What do you think of contemporary Australian publishing? And I guess now I'm talking about just non-fiction, and I am talking about in this unstable and uncomfortable world that we find ourselves in, what do you think the value of words is now?

RICK: God, that's a good question. I mean, it's hard because there is so much stuff being published. And more and more own voices narratives that are coming through. And I think the value, there's a tendency among the more high brow literati to be like, ‘Oh God, there's so much. Well, does everyone have a story?’ I'm like, well, yeah. They do. That's the point of this stuff. And it's like, why are we policing, who gets to tell a story? And it's like, I guess, there's that snooty element, which is awful. I don't come across it personally very often, but I have seen it in the industry. And yeah, I just think there's this lack of awareness about why it is that we're telling stories in the first place and it's because we need to be connected.

And there's this historical gate keeping in publishing anyway, which is still there. It's still very hard to crack into. It is impenetrable. I didn't think I ever would get into it myself. And I've been very lucky that I did and that it has sustained me this long, but that is not the norm. I think the value of the words that have been written is that people can see that, A, it's possible. You just need to keep having a crack and that you can see yourself on the page, which I think is one of the most beautiful gifts you can give anyone when you're a writer.

ASTRID: You operate in journalism.

RICK: Yeah. Unfortunately, yes.

ASTRID: Nevertheless, you are good at it. Rick, you obviously grew up in remote Australia and you now live in the city; not all journalism, not all the public debate that we have in Australia represents the regions terribly well or represents areas of life. For example, disability or climate justice, et cetera, right? When you look at journalism in Australia, how do you rate it in terms of regional Australia?

RICK: Yeah. Look, full disclosure. I'm having the crisis of faith in general with journalism right now. I don't want to do it anymore. I'm tired. I think I'm a little bit broken by it and I've lost my confidence. I try to be a good journalist. I've also fucked up recently in a way that was quite, it wasn't fun. It didn't hurt anyone, but it was also like, well, I'm trying to tell the truth and sometimes stuff gets wrong and it's like, fuck, well, what am I doing? And I feel like there's not a lot of self-reflection in journalism. And I used to be the same as a lot of people still operating today, where I was like, my job's just to report. I'm just here to relay what happened. And it's like, well, I think that's less valuable in this world.

In fact, more than anything, we need context. And we certainly don't get, in the cities, we don't get a lot of penetration from regional content. There is a lot of amazing regional journalism. And it's done by local operators who are on the ground and working incredible hours, particularly during natural disasters and things like that, to report the news and tell the local communities what they need to hear.

But I don't think, there's a tendency in the metropolitan markets to just be like, oh, okay, do we need to know about carrot farming or any of this stuff? Landline has its own show. I love Landline. It's one of my favourite TV shows, legitimately. And occasionally you'll see a piece on ABC’s 7:30, and The Australian used to have a role of Regional Affairs Editor. I'm not sure they even have that role anymore. It's just disappearing a little bit, and we get that news now filtered through the lens of where it is through business. What's the agricultural index doing and all these things. And it's just not quite doing the job of talking to and about regional communities.

ASTRID: You said crisis of faith in journalism. I find that immediately confronting sitting in front of you because you are my favourite journalist in Australia. I think that you are one…

RICK: That's so nice, thank you.

ASTRID: You are the only reporter who doesn't make me want to scream abuse when you report on disability. So thank you for that personally.

RICK: Well, thank you for that. I mean, I try.

ASTRID: You try, you do very well. You do more than try, Rick. Also, I have interviewed many people and most journalists can't admit that they've ever made a mistake. So there's that too.

RICK: It's very hard. We've all got very thin skins, myself included, but it's never served me well in the past to be, I didn't do anything wrong because more than anything else it's embarrassing because people can see that you do get things wrong.

ASTRID: I do want to explore this a little bit further if you don't mind. You are a journalist. I imagine that's how you get your paycheck. There is news every day, gosh, we are in an election year. So, the news just unfortunately keeps on coming. You spoke about context. Is there a way that you are trying to figure out how you personally, within the bounds of the profession, can provide that context whilst not driving yourself over the edge?

Well, that's precisely the problem, I think. Because I'm pretty lucky, even as it is, to have three, four days every week, to work on a 2,000-word news feature. I've automatically got more time than most journalists have to do my work, which is a luxury. But even so I feel like every week I do a million other things outside of journalism as well, but also just for the job. Even when I'm not working, if I'm working on one piece, I'm still fielding calls and tips and messages and long emails about other things that might be a story that I need to start developing. And my mind is fragmented over all of these things, and to do a good job on any one piece is increasingly quite difficult. And when I say good job, I mean actually trying to understand what it is that is influencing the people's views, that you're quoting, to understand where they're coming from, whether they might be being truthful or honest, or even just, if you're dealing with a human interest story or someone who's been affected by policy to do it in a way that doesn't traumatise them.

That you actually follow-up with them, rather than do a one-and-done, I've interviewed you. I don't need to talk to you anymore because that's not my jam. The more stories you do, the more people you collect, who you're constantly in conversation with. And I like that part of the job, but it is increasingly hard to do it properly because I'm one person and I have the same hours in the day as everyone else. To be honest, I'm tired and I don't know how much longer I can do it for, but also it is what pays my bills, which is a pretty pickle.

ASTRID: I really enjoy reading what you write. I am very self-interested in you staying in the writing, publishing, literary area, but being happy while you're there.

RICK: Yeah. I mean, I want to keep writing. It's just, this grind of journalism; it's not necessarily writing. I mean, it is, but it's not the writing I want to do. And it's more consuming in that sense that you've got to have your brain across all these different things. It's not slow, it's fast.

ASTRID: So what is the writing that you want to do?

RICK: I want to write fiction.

ASTRID: You want to write fiction?

RICK: Yes.

ASTRID: Tell me.

RICK: That's all I've ever wanted to write. I wanted to write my first book, One Hundred Years of Dirt, and I knew I had to do that one first, because I couldn't write anything without getting that out of me. It was like a bone stuck in the back of the throat. But I've had this idea for a fiction book for 12 years and it won't leave me alone and I can't leave it alone, but I just, I find it hard to switch gears, which is why I can write non-fiction books around my work, because I find it easier to do, but still I do it pretty quickly. And if not, I feel like I've written books quickly and I don't want to do that. But at the same time, I'm very impatient.

So yeah, fiction is what I want to do. But God, it's hard.

ASTRID: For those listening, every physical aspect of Rick has just changed. The physical demeanour is obviously very much invested in writing fiction. Now, you haven't published fiction before. Obviously, writing a novel is a huge undertaking. I don't want to ask you specifics in terms of plot or characters or whatever that is personal to you, but can you tell us anything about this idea you've had for more than a decade? I mean, genre.

RICK: Yeah. Well, so the genre is one of the things that has stopped me really pursuing it early on because I didn't know what it was. It's got elements of science fiction to it, but I didn't want to write a science fiction book. I wanted to write, and this is so pretentious, I wanted to write a book that stood on its own in terms of its literary merits, but it has this science fiction quality to it. But it's really a book about curiosity. That's my jam.

ASTRID: I'm so excited. Science fiction is so underrated in this country.

RICK: Oh, God, it's so good. I actually don't read a lot of science fiction. I watch a lot of science fiction, but Kurt Vonnegut is one of my faves, and he does science fiction in a way that's really, it's about humanity, like good science fiction is.

ASTRID: Absolutely, science fiction, speculative fiction, dystopian fiction, fantasy. You can define everything slightly differently, but it's looked down upon in Australia. It's put in the genre section of bookshops. It's often kept out of the literary awards. And yet when you think about the classics, when you think about Kurt Vonnegut, when you think about The Handmaid's Tale and 1984, they're all speculative fiction, and War of the Worlds. It's just a never-ending genre that gives, and it can be very, very powerful talking about politics and making-

RICK: Correct, which is one of the things that attracts me to it because you get to use it as a foil for sending up, not necessarily in a satirical way, but examining political biases. Douglas Adams did it so well, but essentially, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a piss take about the bureaucracy, among other things. I've always been drawn to those elements. But also, it's a great way to, I guess, add a certain glow to your characters in your book and show them in a way that forces them to come to terms with their own humanity, I guess.

ASTRID: These are my favourite genres. Claire Coleman's third science fiction book is coming out. Omar Sakr is currently writing his first work of speculative fiction.

RICK: Oh, my God. I didn't know that.


RICK: That's amazing.

ASTRID: You need to join this list, Rick.

RICK: Yes, I would love to. I just need to find the time to write it. And I mean, fiction was always hard. I've tried, I've written 30,000 words of this in the past and thrown it out every time I've gone back to it. I wrote 3000 words since September last year and thought I was enjoying it. And then I was like, this is terrible. My problem is that with non-fiction I can keep going because that's how I was trained. But with fiction, I stop if it's not good enough for me. I'm like, I just need to get that out of my head somehow.

ASTRID: You mentioned Kurt Vonnegut, who are some of the other authors that wrote science fiction that stick with you or might end up influencing you?

RICK: Yeah, I mean, Isaac Asimov is a big one, obviously, but I haven't read a lot of Isaac Asimov. I've read one short story of his, which is one of the best short stories I've ever read. And I've forgotten the name of it now, but it's like the computers, they build big thought. They are built to answer the ultimate question about how to power humanity, and how we can live for long as we can. And it's like this matryoshka doll set of nested spheres where the story just keeps going out and out and out and then comes back in and around on itself.

And it's like, I like being able to talk about big ideas. Kurt Vonnegut is my favourite. Sirens of Titan is one of my favourite books ever. And I think it's gorgeous. But also Ishiguro, who's phenomenal, I think, and has managed to do these things in a literary frame. It's like, I'm not obsessed with being literary, but I am obsessed, I guess, with not being pigeonholed. I don't want to be a genre writer. I want to write a good book that has beautiful writing and scope and scale and all of these things. So, I mean, they're the main ones in my life. There's a million. I'm sure if I can start thinking about it, but Sirens of Titan has been very formative in my life because the writing is just so good.

ASTRID: You have made my day as a reader, Rick. I'm going to be lining up to buy your first fiction book.

RICK: Let me finish it first. I hope I write it. Do you know why? I did have one idea, which is like, it started out completely as a joke, but I kind of want to write it. And it's a dystopian climate story in Australia about this cattle station, gay cattle station son who inherits this station in 2072 Australia from his homophobic father. It's gone to shit, obviously, because the world's burning, and there's this government-funded climate scientist who's sent out to work with these people to figure out if they can stay on the land. And this cattle station son falls in love with the climate scientist. I should have added, he's a climate denying cattle station. He still doesn't believe, he's got the blinkers on. And it's a romance story in this climate dystopia.

ASTRID: That is another book that I would read. I find myself…

RICK: I would read it.

ASTRID: ... obsessed. I would line up, Rick. We have wildly gone off the topic.

RICK: Always.

ASTRID: Always. This has been such a pleasant surprise. Do I have one more question for you about Growing Up in Country Australia, are you proud?

RICK: Yeah, I am. It's weird to think of being country as an identity, right? Because there are so many more important identities, but I do feel that it has marked me in a way that I am proud of. There's a pragmatism and a tough love aspect to being a country person. I still have my connection to the country, through my Mum. I still love going home. And I just think, I don't know. I think life is better for it for me, despite everything. And I've realised it's not the case for everyone, and I'm not here to be a prescriptivist about it, but for me, I wouldn't have done it the other way around, even with the benefit of hindsight.

ASTRID: That is so well said. Rick, it has been an absolute pleasure to meet you in person.

RICK: I love you, Astrid.

ASTRID: I love you too, Rick. Thank you.

RICK: Thank you for having me every time. It's such a pleasure.