Describe your first impressions of Kampot?
Oh what a lovely little funky riverside town! I mean even Phnom Penh is pretty laid-back, especially compared to Sydney or Saigon, but Kampot is down-home and I love it. I love the steamy heat and the way that time seems to move so slow, like the river.
You’ve made two trips to Cambodia, has this inspired you to write?
Yes it has, but nothing terribly substantial as yet. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be an overnight expert after all! But I have written some blog entries and of course some liner notes for the new Cambodian Space Project album, but I just have to let my impressions and feelings stew in the back of my mind until whatever it is I want to exactly do bubbles up to the surface. Which is how it usually works.
What are you working on right now?
Three books all at different stages, mainly. The one closest to completion, in that its design is just about finished and it’s almost ready to go to the printer, is Deadly Woman Blues, the sort of sister/sequel to Buried Country that’s a graphic history of black women in Australian music. I’m really excited about it because it’s my first book built on my artwork, which is where I really started out, wanting to be a painter long before I fell into writing. Deadly Woman Blues will be out early next year, through New South Press. The next book is just about to go into production. Called The Suburban Songlines, it tells the story of Australian songwriting, and it should be out, through Starman Books, next year too. The third book I am in the throes of writing a first draft of. It is a dual biography-cum-cultural history of Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever, and right now it’s quite a difficult process trying to wrestle it into some sort of decent shape. It will be out, through PanMacmillan, in 2019. I’m also working piecemeal on a documentary film called Lowest of the Low, doing gigs with the Buried Country roadshow whenever we get one, and working on the preliminary stages of two new musicals.
How do you prioritise the projects you work on?
I go first where there’s a demand! where I can get the support you need to do a project. That said, however, sometimes you just have to leap in and push it as hard as you can lest you get gazumped. Like on my current project on Robert Stigwood. It took me so long to get my head around the story that other writers saw what a good story it was too, and published books – but happily for me none of them very good! That’s why I’m not saying much about either of the two musicals I’m developing, because they’re both based on such incredible, true Australian stories that no-one seems to know about, that if I let the cats out of the bag at this stage they could just get lost to me.
What is the value of participating in writers’ festivals?
Not much if they’re not the right festival or a good festival. And most of them I find pretty snooty. But certainly for me in coming to Kampot it was great, and it had nothing to do with selling copies of my books or really promoting myself. What was great about it was so much new experience, meeting so many nice people and interesting writers, and learning so much about this part of the world and its people, and getting turned on to some good books and music. I do hope I gave a bit back too.
In what way must the Writer have ‘courage’ and how has this applied to you?
By not listening to half the crap people try to tell you. I mean, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere, in terms of publishing stories that perhaps hadn’t been told but should have, if I’d paid any heed to so much of the stupid shit that mediocre people try to press upon you. Maybe that seems a bit narky or bitter, or suggests that I never got much encouragement, or had any mentors, and it’s true, I didn’t and haven’t, most of what I’ve achieved has been despite opposition. Some may see some of my projects as brave, but for me, my drive is personal and almost selfish in that it’s just a desperate need I’ve got to not go over all the same old usual same-old ground because it’d bore me to death if I did. So where the courage comes in is probably moreso in refusing to court success or money!
Tell us about a literary figure that intrigues you most
Umm, gee, that’s hard, I’ll have to think about it…
At what point did you transition from journalist to author?
When I realised they were trying to turn me into a hack. I’d spent a good while building a good reputation as a freelance journalist but as I climbed the ladder I found they didn’t want me for what I’d built my reputation on, they wanted me to do what they wanted, which was pap. It was a case of we love you, you’re perfect, now change. So I turned my back on that safe, mediocre career and went into the even more parlous world of writing books and for TV.
As a biographer who has been your most challenging subject and why?
Robert Stigwood, because I can’t get anyone to talk to me about him. I encountered a similar problem doing my Bon Scott biography, but that was only from the on-going members of AC/DC and their on-going record company. But otherwise all Bon’s old bandmates and his family and friends were really keen to help and helped me a lot. But with Stigwood, I don’t think it’s so much a conspiracy, to protect something, as I think it’s because he was so private when he was alive, all his friends and colleagues are continuing to respect his desire for privacy even after he’s dead. But it certainly makes for a hurdle I have to somehow get over.
What kind of writer were you at 21?
Awful. Stiff, didactic, proselytising. No drama, dynamics, colour, or resonance. I had no wisdom but who does at 21? Not very knowledgeable either, and certainly not funny. Fortunately I learned on my feet and by now I’m pretty comfortable with whatever voice I’ve got. But it took a while to find.
Who would you most like to interview?
Robert Stigwood! But sadly he’s dead.
Who is your favourite Australian author and why?
Umm, gee, that’s hard too because it’s along the same lines as Question 7, which I still haven’t come up with an answer for have I? Perhaps I could firstly say I don’t like the term ‘literary’ because it implies a superiority to writing that’s apparently not capital-L literary. ‘Author’ is good but writers generally, especially songwriters and writers of music, mean just as much to me. And visual artists too. So, can I come up with one figure, ideally Australian, who inspires me? Well, it’s not going to be Patrick White or Brett Whiteley. Okay, I’m going to say Bobby McLeod, just because he just popped into my head. Bobby was one of the artists portrayed in the original Buried Country, he was an Aboriginal singer-songwriter who somehow managed to combine politics and the sensual, and that’s a hard mix to pull off! He’s dead now, a talent cut down too early, as too many Aboriginal people tend to be. And can I add (because I’m entitled because I didn’t put an answer in Q.7) to make it completely contemporary? The painter Vincent Namatjira, as Australians can likely tell he’s a grandson of Albert Namatjira – and I’m not going to tell you any more other than he paints nothing like his grandfather, so look him up, it’s my little token tip that might brighten up your day if you do Google him.