Wordsmith Interviews

Interview: Julian Leatherdale

  1. How did the idea for Palace of Tears come about? 

    I have lived in the Blue Mountains for over 25 years and often wondered why more novels are not set in this beautiful part of the world. Not long after reading Kate Morton’s Secret Keeper, it occurred to me what a great setting the Blue Mountains would make for a family saga and mystery thriller. Its eerie and wild landscape appealed to me as the perfect backdrop to a Gothic story of secrets and tragedy. But I realised craggy cliffs and rising mist were not enough; such a story also needed an imposing building at its heart, a family inheritance haunted by memories.Like many locals I have long been fascinated by the magnificent and unique Hydro Majestic hotel built by successful department store magnate Mark Foy at Medlow Bath. I was soon convinced by my early research that here was a fantastic source of inspiration for my own fictional creation, a story of the secret and troubled relations between the wealthy Fox family, owners of the elegant Palace hotel, and their neighbours, the Woods from the cottage next door.  

  2. Palace of Tears is rich in detail, and spans a significant time in 20th century Australia. How much research was involved, and how did you go about it? To be honest, there was a huge amount of research involved as I tried to take nothing for granted. As a result, I worked on this book solidly, seven days a week for over two years. My research into the Hydro Majestic included a back-of-house tour of the property in 2013 while the hotel was being refurbished by its new owners. I explored the local archives discovering great photos of the Hydro’s fancy dress parties in the 1920s as well as a long, very informative and funny interview with Mary Shaw, Mark Foy’s grand-daughter and self-appointed family historian.I read books, blogs and journal articles on local history and Australia’s homefront experience in both wars as well as biographies of famous guests Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dame Nellie Melba. I dug into the National Film and Sound Archives for publicity shots and interviews about a (now lost) film shot at the Hydro in 1921. The National Library’s digitalised newspaper archive on TROVE was a brilliant resource. I downloaded hundreds of articles, interviews and photos on topics as diverse as hydropathy, 1920s dinner menus and the treatment of single mothers in the 1950s.    

    Once I had sketched out my story arc, I researched whatever the next chapter demanded but always stayed open to new possibilities and surprises to influence my writing. The hardest part was knowing when to stop and what to include and exclude. I was always guided by what the story needed in the end and was willing to let lots of my research go when it came down to the final editing process. I accepted that my research had served its purpose to help bring the novel into being.

  3. What were your reasons for fictionalising real places – like the Hydro Majestic – and real people – like Mark Foy?  

    It was simply to give myself the freedom to write my own dramatic story rather than be tied down to a rigorous, detailed historical fiction account of the Hydro and its founder. Palace of Tears is a fictional drama in its own right with a plot and characters that are entirely my creation. Adam Fox shares a few personal qualities with Mark Foy – ambition, showmanship, risk-taking – but he is by no means a fictionalised portrait of the historic person. In the same way, I think of the Palace as a fictional half-sister to the Hydro, her story drawing on colourful episodes in the Hydro’s history without being a slavish copy of the actual hotel. 

  4. What were some of the difficulties you encountered when writing the novel and how did you rectify them? Did you rely on any tools, mentors, groups or writers centres/courses for help? The ‘difficulties’ included some of the usual logistical ones for writing a novel. I am still a scribbler in black notebooks which piled up higgledy-piggledy in my study and meant that I relied on my memory to find what I needed. My wife, who is also a novelist, has told me she has been using a tool called Scrivener to organise her research notes and I am seriously intending to look into that for my second book. I still find working on paper the best way to visualise and massage a sketch of the storyline; it is fascinating and instructive to go back and see all the circles and arrows that led to revealing linkages and new story directions.Because the story involves three major plot twists, I had to play around with the structure in later drafts. I had to make sure each chapter was clearly signposted in time and place to help the reader keep track. In later drafts, I made a decision to keep all chapters under a certain length. I was thrilled when I cut several in half and rearranged them to find I had created even more dramatic tension. I also tried to be scrupulously fair in my storytelling so if you reread the book, clues to all my plot twists are there for you to find.  

    My closest person to a mentor is my own wife who read the first draft of the novel and provided critical feedback at both sentence and structural level. I trust her judgement completely as she does mine. We are very lucky to have each other as our first readers.

  5. What is the biggest lesson you have learnt on your author journey? Persistence and acceptance. Like all writers, I have several manuscripts in the bottom drawer and I had to learn the hardest lesson: how to persist as a writer in the face of rejection but also have the discipline and maturity to know when to move on to another project. Writing takes a great deal of courage and risk but then all worthwhile things in life are like that.
  6. What gets you inspired? Often it is an image. I was a photo editor in my early career so I love the expressiveness and mystery of old photos that suggest the beginning or middle of a story or a scene. Historic research turns up the most unexpected details and incidents that challenge the writer’s imagination to fully inhabit those moments. Or sometimes the point of inspiration is a simple scene in my own life. My first chapter in Palace of Tears started with me looking out my study window and watching my daughter playing inside our hedge.
  7. What’s next on your goals list? A second novel. I have started researching and have some elements in mind for a story.
  8. What’s your typical day like? I’m not sure I have a typical day any more. But here goes. After getting my kids off to school and having coffee with my wife who is also a novelist, I try to deal with the ‘administrivia’ (emails, phonecalls, bills) and buckle down for a day’s research or writing, hopefully no later than 10.00 am. I always dress for work – nothing formal but no PJs or track pants. Habit of a lifetime.Somewhere in the day I try to fit in some exercise, usually a brisk walk, a great time for generating new ideas – and writing is so bad for your back! Making cups of tea ensures I get up from my chair every now and then. I find I need at least two or three hours to really get into the flow of writing which can peak around mid to late afternoon.

    I usually write until about 5.30 or 6.00pm. If there have been interruptions I will often work late into the night until the inspiration dries up for that day. During the research phase, I will have a pile of books to read and take notes as my night-time reading. But at the moment I am enjoying reading novels for pleasure in the evening – after watching Dr Who with my daughter!

    On other days, I do some bread-and-butter freelance journalism in which I may have to research a topic, interview one or two experts by phone, and deliver a finished article to my editor on short deadlines, typically a week or less. And for the last two months, I have been writing blog posts and author talks for Palace of Tears which has been most enjoyable!

  9. What advice can you offer to people who aspire to become authors?  

    Read. Read widely. Support your fellow Australian writers by buying and reading their books as you presumably hope that people will do the same for you one day. Be content to get something down on the page to get you writing each day – you can always fix it later. A first draft will usually contain what I call ‘the scaffolding’ – the text that helped you build the story but must now go.


The Speedy Six

  1. Describe yourself in one word: Curious.
  2. You wish you wrote: The Cat in the Hat
  3. Can’t leave home without: Notebook.
  4. First thing you wrote: A short ‘novel’ inspired by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield when I was 10.  
  5. If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: The Cat in the Hat!
  6. The best thing about being a wordsmith: Freedom.

Interview: Amanda Holohan

  1. Tell us, in a nutshell, how you got your start in the industry. I was working as Editorial Coordinator at The Sun-Herald and mentioned to one of my colleagues that I was writing a book. She passed it on to her agent who really liked it. The book got picked up by ABC Books. My latest novel, Unwanted, has just been published by Penguin Books.
  2. What were some of the difficulties you encountered when trying to establish yourself as a writer? Did you rely on any tools, mentors, groups or writers centres/courses for help? I’d been writing fiction since I was a child, but when my mother died I went through a stage where I simply couldn’t write. I was 22 years old and she’d been the one to encourage my writing most. Finding my voice again was a matter of willpower – I went overseas, I explored new things, I constantly compiled notes and ideas for novels.
    To strengthen my skills and renew my confidence, I enrolled in a creative writing course at UTS and attended seminars at the NSW Writer’s Centre. I also started writing travel pieces for The Sun-Herald. The strict word counts and deadlines forced me to be very disciplined. I had to juggle the writing around other tasks and constant distractions. Once I knew I could do that, I realised I could write anything, anywhere.
  3. What has been your biggest career highlight so far? And the biggest lesson you have learnt? The biggest highlight for me was when my first book, The King’s Fool, made the shortlist for the Aurealis Awards. As a newly published author I was thrilled. It was included with some terrific books by authors I admire.Biggest lesson? Not to take criticism too seriously: everyone has his or her own perspective and some criticism can come from an ugly place. Learn to differentiate the negative criticism from the constructive kind – that which can help you improve your skills.
  4. What gets you inspired? Oh, so many things: people and how they relate, new advances in science and technology, history, current affairs. The things that inspire me sometimes turn into themes in the writing. Everywhere I look I see a new idea.
  5. What’s next on your goals list? I’m currently working on a follow up book to Unwanted for Penguin. After that I have a whole swag of book ideas.
  6. What’s your typical day like?  I’m usually up around 6.00am, but writing doesn’t start straightaway. As I like to write in uninterrupted blocks, I tie up as much of my other work as possible then I head for the gym. Exercise puts me in the perfect frame of mind for writing. I usually spend some time on the treadmill going over my book in my head, often reaching for my smart phone to type in notes. When I’m back home I settle down at my desk and get stuck in. I never wait for the mood to hit – I aim to get the story down, as I know it will change in the second draft. I actually love the revisions phase, as that’s when I really get to craft the story and perfect the characters. Unwanted has quite a complex plot so I revised it over and over until everything clicked. Time is precious so I always aim to be as productive as possible. I stay at my desk for as long as I can – at least five hours on a typical day. I break again in the late afternoon to run errands or make dinner. If I’m on a roll I return to my desk after the table has been cleared. Most times though, as night rolls on, I like to settle down with my family and find out about their day.
  7. What advice can you offer to those who aspire for a similar role? Persevere. It’s great to have talent, but it won’t take you very far without perseverance. Strive to improve your skills constantly. Don’t listen to the naysayers – they’re everywhere and they’re boring. Have faith in yourself and your writing.

The Speedy Six:

  1. Describe yourself in one word: Passionate.
  2. You wish you wrote: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, but if I’d written it I wouldn’t have had the joy of reading it.
  3. Can’t leave home without: A pen and notebook.
  4. First thing you wrote: Supercat, at age five. It was a comic and I wrote a whole series.
  5. If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: Holly Short (I wish!) of the LEPrecon unit from Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books. She’s funny, smart and knows how to kick ass!
  6. The best thing about being a wordsmith: Building worlds out of words.

Interview: Kylie Fornasier

  1. Tell us, in a nutshell, how you got your start in the industry. As you can guess from the last question, I relied largely on my writers’ group who I love oh-so-much, but I also did many other things that I believe were instrumental in establishing myself as a writer. I attended lots of writing festivals and events to network with people in the writing community/industry, such as other aspiring authors, published authors, editors, publishers. People, especially all-important editors, will begin to remember you if they see you out and about enough. I also entered lots of competitions for unpublished manuscripts, which helped demonstrate my writing ability in my submissions. I also made sure I was very familiar with the market by reading widely and having industry contacts.My greatest difficulty, initially, was sifting through all the information out there for writers, knowing which of the competitions were worth entering and which events worth attending. Knowing the right stuff comes from experience and having other writers you can draw on, which I was lucky enough to have.
  2. What were some of the difficulties you encountered when trying to establish yourself as a writer? Did you rely on any tools, mentors, groups or writers centres/courses for help? I credit my start in the industry to my writers’ group who I love oh-so-much. I first joined the picture book writing group at the NSW Writers’ Centre in 2010 and at the time I really knew nothing about writing picture books. At that point I hadn’t done much writing either; I had really only decided that I wanted to write. The members of the group were so open and supportive, and I learnt so much from them. Not only that but they were very proactive in seeking publishing opportunities and in 2011 invited an editor from Koala Books to attend one of our meetings to read and critique our work. She liked my story The Prince who Shrank so much she took it back to the office with her. A few months later, I had a publishing contract. The Prince who Shrank will be finally released in February. My next two books, a children’s chapter book, The Ugg Boot War with Omnibus Books and my young adult novel, Masquerade with Penguin Books Australia are two different stories again. You can hear me talk about how I got these contracts on my video blog, if you are interested. But without my writers’ group, I truly believe that I would not be here four and a half years later with three books published.
  3. What has been your biggest career highlight so far? And the biggest lesson you have learnt? Definitely the release of my young adult novel, Masquerade last July has been my biggest career highlight so far. I’ve been so lucky to have so many wonderful readers and bloggers who share their experiences of reading Masquerade with me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. I love chatting with them both as a writer and a fangirl myself. Writers don’t receive a lot of income from their books but when you see the impact your book has on people, it makes it all worth it.
    The biggest lesson I learnt during this time was just how tirelessly authors work to promote their own books and how important it is to the success of a book. It’s fun and amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for an army of miniature publicists but it is a lot of work.
  1. What gets you inspired? As much as I fantasise about having a writing tower – think: comfy castle tower – and locking myself away in it sometimes, it’s when I’m out in the world, not writing that I get inspired. It could be the idea for a new book or an idea for a book that I’m working on already. I could be out sailing in Sydney Harbour, see Luna Park and suddenly know where my characters will meet next. Or I could be at St James Station and a friend points out the arched ceiling between the two platforms and tells me that there is multiple train unused tunnels beneath the city and I’m inspired with an idea for a new book. Both these things happened recently. It’s great because “inspiration” is a great excuse to see and do lots.Reading also inspires me. One author, I can’t remember who, said that writers should read everything that’s better than what they write. So I read A LOT. The great books I read inspire me to be a better author.
  2. What’s next on your goals list? I need to finish the first draft of my work in process before anything else! Somehow, everything else is getting in the way at the moment – holidaying, namely! After that, I’m probably going to look for a US agent, learn basic German (for the next stage of my work in progress) and perfect my pasta dough, because pasta gives you energy for writing, right?
  3. What’s your typical day like? Since writing is not my day job (yet!), I mostly write in the afternoons, on the weekends and during school holidays (I’m a primary school teacher). I work on a laptop or iPad, so I write pretty much anywhere and everywhere – the lounge, my bed, the kitchen table. Not so good for my posture, I’m guessing! If I start writing in the morning, it will take me a while to get out of my PJs but eventually I will. I tend to skip meals when I’m in the writing zone and snack on chocolate and cake. Not so good for my waistline! I do try to fit in exercise if I’ve been sitting down all day, usually in the form of exercise DVDs or a walk. I get easily sidetracked by other writing-related jobs I have to do, such as interviews, emails, social media accounts, video blog. At the end of the day, I lay back with a book or watch The Big Bang Theory.
  4. What advice can you offer to people who aspire to get into a similar role/field? I tell, and ever-so-lightly order, aspiring writers to join a writers’ group. They will give you invaluable support and encouragement, as well as being there to give feedback on your manuscript, brainstorm, to help with difficult decisions and to celebrate your success. Most importantly, they don’t let you give up. You can find writers’ groups through your local writers centre or a quick internet search. It’s also useful to attend writing festivals and events to network with people in the writing community, sorry to be repetitive. It definitely gives you a leg up when trying to get your work published. Australia has such a wonderful, open writing community and even before I was a published author, I felt like I was a part of it.

The Speedy Six:  

  1. Describe yourself in one word: ?Creative
  2. You wish you wrote:  The Harry Potter series, not for the money but for the story. Although the money would be nice…
  3. Can’t leave home without: My moblie
  4. First thing you wrote: A rip-off of The Secret Garden when I was in year three.
  5. If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: Karou from The Daughter of Smoke. Who wouldn’t want naturally blue hair?
  6. The best thing about being a wordsmith: Being able to create things – characters, moments, places, relationships – that didn’t exist before.


Interview: Sharon Green

1. Tell us, in a nutshell, how you got your start in the industry.

It all began with a journalism internship in 2007 at Fairfax Media which evolved into a paid contract role. I wrote for several weekly publications that covered inner Melbourne suburbs. It was here that I realised I had a talent for writing and wanted to pursue a career in journalism. After that, I completed several other writing/journalism internships while fulfilling freelance commissions to build up my portfolio and experience. I eventually landed a full time role with a newspaper and have continued from there.

2. What were some of the difficulties you encountered when trying to establish yourself as a writer? Did you rely on any tools, mentors, groups or writers centres/courses for help?
One of the biggest challenges I faced, particularly when starting out, was proving my worth and ability as a journalist. Accumulating experience was key but selling myself and my skills was even more important. I also struggled with finding publications that were willing to pay me for my work. Being confident and believing in the value of my skills helped me get past this. I didn’t rely on tools, mentors or groups to get me through this but I have, over the years, maintained a presence on social media (especially Twitter) and been to several journalism conferences to keep up to date with changes and advances in the industry.

3. What has been your biggest career highlight so far? And the biggest lesson you have learnt?
For me, working in London as a journalist was a highlight. I worked for an online daily news organisation where I got to write a range of stories including breaking news and lifestyle features. I also wrote scripts and presented video reports for their online news channel. The life experience I gained living and working abroad was also incredibly valuable.

4. What gets you inspired?
Meeting like-minded people who can engage in a thought-provoking discussion, reading a well-written feature or book, and thinking about or planning my next creative project.

5. What’s next on your goals list?
I’ve got a couple of projects in the pipeline which I can’t reveal just yet. But I’m always eager to keep in touch with the way things are developing in the online/digital sphere.  In the coming year I hope to get a better grasp on how social media and SEO can support my writing, either via training courses or workshopping with others active in these fields.

6. What’s your typical day like?
I’m usually out the door by 7am and on my way to work. The first thing I do is check major news sites around the country to see if anything interesting has developed overnight, I check social media to see what people are chatting about and then I start planning out my day. My to-do list is my best friend. Because I work primarily in online news it is important to be flexible – I have a lot of ad-hoc tasks that come up each day on top of my normal work load so managing my time is crucial. I’ll edit several stories a day to publish on the web while simultaneously monitoring social media feeds for breaking news or other story ideas. Some days I’ll have an editorial meeting scheduled in where we discuss story ideas for the week ahead. My input, from an online/digital perspective, is to get my team members thinking about how we can maximise stories for the online experience – identifying opportunities for video, photo galleries or interactive media. My day usually finishes up about 5pm or 6pm and I head home for dinner. I try to squeeze in some evening exercise if possible, like a yoga class or a brisk walk. I find it really important to de-stress at the end of the day and to maintain good health.

7. What advice can you offer to people who aspire to get into a similar role/field?
Accumulate as much experience as you can, as quickly as you can. Intern at newspapers or magazine offices, pitch your writing to publications and build up a decent portfolio of writing that shows you are capable of a range of writing styles. Networking is also important – both online and face to face – as a lot of opportunities in the media industry come about through people you know. Make contacts and don’t be afraid to approach publications for work. Tenacity is a trait needed in this field so demonstrate it wherever you can.

The Speedy Six:

  1. Describe yourself in one word: Diligent.
  2. You wish you wrote: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.
  3. Can’t leave home without: My iPhone.
  4. First thing you wrote: A music festival review which was published in my high school’s magazine.
  5. If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: Andrea Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada.
  6. The best thing about being a wordsmith: Creating something from nothing. I love starting with a blank page and building a story from there. I always feel a sense of accomplishment on completing a story.

Interview: Dilvin Yasa

1. Tell us, in a nutshell, how you got your start in the industry.

I actually started my career by working in the “mens division” of a large publishing house writing porn for a number of years! Not exactly what I wanted to do be doing for a living, but by applying for the one job in publishing no one else wanted, I got my foot in the door and eventually made the move across to the food titles. While I was there, I began freelancing for various magazines within the building and eventually I was offered a job at Cosmo Brand Extensions. I was their features director when I left to go freelance in 2013 (actually we were all made redundant but that’s another story).

2. What were some of the difficulties you encountered when trying to establish yourself as a writer? Did you rely on any tools, mentors, groups or writers centres/courses for help?

My problem was unique in that after a couple of years in the industry I had nothing but a CV full of porn to show for myself. With that kind of background, no one wanted to give me the time of day. I distinctly remember having a meeting with one Chanel-clad magazine heavyweight and the way her eyes bulged when she looked over my portfolio. She couldn’t get me out of there fast enough! The only way out of it was to keep freelancing until I could create a whole new portfolio (sans penises) and start all over again.

I was fortunate enough to work with great people like Mark Dapin (then the editor of Ralph) who always took the time to sit with me and go over my copy with a red pen until it looked like I’d used that paper to mop up road kill. It felt brutal at the time, but it made me a much better writer.

3. What has been your biggest career highlight so far? And the biggest lesson you have learnt?

The biggest highlight for me was the moment I was offered a publishing deal. I had only sent in a few pages of something I was working on to Pan Macmillan’s slush pile and hadn’t really expected to hear back from them but only a few days later I was a signed author. I screamed like a teenage girl at a One Direction concert for a solid week.

Biggest lesson learnt? Get everything in writing and hoard the emails like precious jewels. Whether it’s the details of a commission, a detailed brief, talk of pay rates, permission or a request to do something, whatever – you never know when you’ll need the emails as proof should there be a disagreement or change in your work conditions.

4. What gets you inspired?

People. I’m endlessly interested in people’s stories and I spend a lot of time mulling over what makes a person tick and why they’ve made the choices they have. Fact truly is always stranger than fiction.

5. What’s next on your goals list?

I’ve started work on my third book and it’s quite a departure from my first two so we’ll see how that goes. I also have a couple of other projects I’m working on but sadly, they’re a bit secret squirrel at the moment.

6. What’s your typical day like?

I’m the mother of a one year old and a six year old so at the moment I work full-time from a shared office space three days a week and the rest of the time in the evenings after the girls go down for the night. IF it’s a school day, I’ll do the school run and then I’ll race to the office where I’m hot-desking to spend the day working which can mean anything from writing and editing stories, interviewing experts, emailing editors and pitching stories, researching and chasing down and locking in people to talk to.

I freelanced from home for the first year and I got tired of wearing jeans and t-shirts every day so I like to get dressed up. Also, I find I work better in a space where there’s a buzz and constant chatter (probably because I spent so long working in women’s lifestyle). I pick my six year old up from after school care at 6 (my husband does the childcare run) and then it’s the whole dinner/bath/bed routine before the laptop comes out and I continue either on my freelance work or my next book.

7. What advice can you offer to people who aspire to get into a similar role/field?

Work experience is essential (you knew I’d say that, right?). Not only will it give you some insight as to how the publishing industry works, you’ll make contacts and you’ll need plenty of those should you ever wish to go out on your own. Also, it’s obvious to be successful one needs to write well, but just as important is being reliable, likeable, flexible and professional. You may well write like Hunter S Thompson but if you behave like an asshole, everyone’s going to find out (the industry is surprisingly small) and eventually it will just be you and your increasingly silent phone.

The Speedy Six:

  1. Describe yourself in one word: Happy
  2. You wish you wrote: The Rosie Project (seriously brilliant)
  3. Can’t leave home without: Forgetting at least one important item (keys, wallet, phone)
  4. First thing you wrote: A series of rubbish poems in primary school. I probably rhymed love with dove. Sigh…
  5. If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. His business cards were far superior to the others’.
  6. The best thing about being a wordsmith: It doesn’t actually feel like a job.

Interview: Niki Aken

1.Tell us, in a nutshell, how you got your start as a screen-writing wordsmith.

I’ve been writing my whole life but it wasn’t until late in university that I decided I wanted to do it for a living. I was torn between behavioural science and filmmaking so I enrolled in a psych/arts degree to explore both. Psychology is endlessly fascinating, and I was pretty absorbed there for three years, but when I took my first screenwriting class in fourth year, I knew. It was like I finally understood how I best fit in the filmmaking/TV business. I got my first TV job as a Script Assistant, which is the entry-level position in a Script Department. I’ve been fortunate to jump from job to job since then.

2.What are some projects you have worked on in the past?

As Script Assistant on Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities I took notes in meetings and was basically married to the photocopier. I also did a bit of research and legal coordination, and this led to me becoming the Researcher (and legal coordinator) on Underbelly: The Golden Mile. I moved up to Head Researcher on Underbelly: Razor. Underbelly: Badness was my fourth TV job and I was offered two scripts on it. At first I was offered one script, but because I was so familiar with the story I managed to convince the Script Producer to give me one more. The finale, at that! So I definitely cut my teeth on true crime.

3.Career highlight so far?

Winning the Television Mini-Series – Original AWGIE Award for my first broadcast screenplay for Underbelly: Badness, along with my stellar co-writers Peter Gawler, Felicity Packard and Jeffrey Truman. The Australian Writers’ Guild Awards (AWGIES) are judged by other writers, and they’re judged on the script itself and not the finished product (ie. the writer’s intention, not the broadcast episode). It was an incredible feeling to get that peer recognition; you spend so much time slaving away on your own, and a show can rate well but that’s not the full picture when it comes to whether it’s actually good quality.

On a related note, it was also an incredible feeling to watch my first screenplay broadcast on television to over a million Australians.

4.What are the biggest misconceptions about screen writing? Do you think it differs from print, and in what way? 

The biggest misconception is that all the screenwriters do is the dialogue and the director and actors make everything else up. The screenwriter writes everything you see happen on screen. They have figuratively built the world you’re watching.

Screenwriting is definitely a different beast to print.  It’s extremely different from print journalism in that you’re dramatising a story, not simply telling it. It’s also different to novels, and this is also to do with the ‘show, don’t tell’ factor. ‘Thinking’ verbs have no place in a script but you find them frequently in books. We can’t simply say that a character is stressed about something; we have to see them chew their nails or rip their IKEA assembly manual to pieces. It will never do to declare that a character ‘knows’ something. If you called “Action!” on a character ‘knowing’ something you’d have a spectacularly boring scene of a person just standing there. It’s all about action. Everything has to be actable and shootable.

I think the other big misconception is that somehow it’s not real writing. Or it’s not challenging writing. It’s not uncommon to get the “So when are you going to write a book?” question after you tell someone you’re a screenwriter.

5.What’s your favourite part of the job? 

I love the camaraderie of the Writers’ Room. I get that “I have the best job in the world” feeling as we swap pertinent anecdotes to the story. It’s free therapy. You get the odd (okay, frequent) moments of frustration when you can’t find the right way forward, but if it were easy everyone would be doing it.

I also love it when the show hits pre-production. Pre-production is when (ideally) all the scripts for the series are in good shape and the Heads of Department and their teams come on board: the Director/s, Production Designer, Art Director, Casting Director, Location Manager, Costume Designer, Make-up Designer, etc. Obviously the goal is to have your vision and intent clearly expressed on the page, but every time I find myself chatting with a Production Designer or Director about where the inspiration for a scene came from, you see their face light up and the gears ticking over – maybe it’s a new idea, or maybe they’re just chuffed that you’re on the same page. Great work comes from open collaboration.

Of course, excitement levels hit fever pitch the moment you step on-set. It’s like you’re taking a walk through your imagination. In case you hadn’t noticed, I find it hard nailing down my favourite part of my job.

6.You’ve worked on shows like Underbelly, and the WW1 mini-series ‘Anzac Girls’. Is it hard writing for shows set in the past? What are some of the things you have to look out for?

It can take a little longer to find the right tone, and you have to stop the creative process fairly often to check the history. The research process is more involved – there’s often a few trips to the archives and it can take a while to find the right people to interview. But technology is often on your side. If you stumble on something research-related as you’re plotting or writing – say, when was the telegram invented? – you can usually find the answer very quickly with savvy internetting. Trove is a veritable time machine. The amount of times I’ve been able to win a “They didn’t say >insert contemporary sounding word here< in 1915” only to find proof that they did, a few clicks later, via a digitised newspaper article.

You have to be wary of taking your cues about the past from secondary sources. When I was Head Researcher on Underbelly: Razor, one of the scripts had a character getting a shoeshine on the street. To me, this seemed like something out of an old American film, so I did some research and as I suspected, this wasn’t the done thing in the 1920s in Australia. In fact, I found a great newspaper article written by a woman who travelled to America in the 1920s, who remarked that the Americans had “an obsession with displaying their toilet.” To her (and presumably her contemporary Australians) it was completely bizarre that people would get their hair washed or their stubble shaved in full view of passers-by.

The other trap that’s easy to fall into is assuming that people didn’t swear back then just because it’s not in print. Again, this can come from people’s conceptions of a bygone era that’s solely informed from fictional films and television. Or it can happen when people form their opinions based on one source only; they didn’t print swear words in the newspaper but that doesn’t mean they didn’t swear.

7.Writing books and feature articles is – more often than not – solitary, but I imagine script writing to be the kind of work that can either be done individually or as part of a team. What’s it like working on a writing project when you’re not the only one holding the reigns? 

There’s nothing’s stopping anyone from downloading scriptwriting software and smashing out a feature in their own time. But you’re right, most of the time there’s a lot of collaboration in screenwriting.

I can only speak for hour-long series (as opposed to serials) where you’re building the story from the ground up with your co-writers. You don’t get sent a Scene Breakdown to turn into a script with no face-to-face meeting. You read/watch the relevant research or source material. Then there’s your “Plot” or Story Conference with your co-writers, Script Producer (and often a Script Editor and Researcher) to break the plot. And if there isn’t a Script Editor on board for the series, you’ll handle all the production re-writes – the blue amendments, pink amendments, green, yellow, lilac, etc – meaning further collaboration down the line, usually with your Script Producer and Director but sometimes with other Heads of Department.

“Breaking the plot” is basically building the story. You’re starting with a blank slate so it’s a process of throwing ideas around and discussing their merits in terms of story progression and character development. You want the story to be original, engaging and entertaining – it’s hard work.

Personally I love plotting with other writers. You isolate weaknesses quickly when you talk your story through out loud, and this very act can trigger even better ideas; perhaps something you say sparks something for someone else in the room – they might pitch you an idea for a sequence that was even better than your original one.

Once the story has been broken the writers go away to write their allocated episodes. The communication from this point is usually via emails and phone calls. You may be canvassing continuity issues – “How many months pregnant is Sarah in my ep again?” – or perhaps you simply need an informed and sympathetic ear to bounce an idea off because you’re stuck.

8.Tell us about POPPY, your own project. How did it come about and what did it involve for you? Was it hard because it was a more personal investment? 

Poppy started as a seven minute script for a uni assignment. I was working as a projectionist at the time and was itching to tell a story set in the projection room – it’s a unique environment that not many people are familiar with.

As Executive Producer I secured funding through artsACT and later Pozible, but it was still a very tight budget. My producer role became pretty hands-on in post – I’ve always loved post-producing – and this came about due to practicality more than anything. Anna Jeffries (director) and Ariel Waymouth (producer) are both based in Melbourne, but I was in Sydney where some of our suppliers were (ie. Digital Pictures and our composer, Joel Woolf) so it made sense for me to be a go-to person in that respect. Given that I was the only one of the core creative team that had ever worked as a projectionist, I was also able to give advice when it came to how the machines worked, what noise you’d hear when, etc.

Poppy is set entirely in a cinema and predominately in the projection room. It was incredibly hard to find a cinema to film in for five full days – it took almost a year of scouting. But we lucked out with The George cinema in St Kilda; they let us film just after they’d renovated and before they reopened to the public. In a way, the fact that is was a personal investment is partly why it got made. It could’ve so easily fallen over in pre-production, but I was determined to capture a 35mm projection room before they all the cinemas transitioned to digital.

9.What’s the biggest lesson you have learnt as scriptwriter? 

Evaluating and implementing feedback. Knowing which script notes to take on board and which to ignore. Basically in television screenwriting you have a few stages of notes; first your co-writers/Script Producer will give you feedback, then the network, then the director. (I think in the US there’s an additional set of notes – the studio.) That’s a lot of voices and perspectives, and you need to make sure that you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, that the integrity of the story doesn’t fall by the wayside.

You can’t be too precious, either. You have to realise that if a director or actor or network exec has tripped over something in the script, even if you don’t agree with their note, it’s still a sign that it’s not quite working. What you’re really butting heads over is the solution. Your collaborator’s solution might be A, whereas instead of crossing your arms and refusing to change a thing, you should be coming up with solution B.

I’m usually the least experienced writer in the room, so it can be hard to disagree with people who’ve won a stack of awards and whose work you respect and admire. You need to listen to your gut, but you also need to be able to validate or articulate that gut feeling.

10.What advice can you offer to those who are interested in a similar career path?

Read a buttload of scripts. [https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/us-drama/show-collections] Inhale quality television and films. If you’re trying to break into the Australian industry then that means Aussie content too.  Practice “seeing” action. You’ll be slow at this if you’re an inexperienced writer so hone it as much as you can. When I started out I used to narrate the action of any show I was watching in my head, this way you can practice writing without picking up a pen.

Try and get a job in the industry, a script department is ideal, but writers have all sorts of backgrounds. You could start as an observer or trainee on Neighbours and Home and Away – serials are generally pretty open to new writers and they’re excellent training grounds. Write a short and get it made – it’s incredibly important to see your work produced. And if no-one’s hiring, just keep working on your writing samples.

The Speedy Six:

  1. Describe yourself in one word: Earnest.
  2. You wish you wrote: Fargo.
  3. Can’t leave home without: Water bottle.
  4. First thing you wrote: The first thing I remember writing for fun was a song about marbles. I think I was probably 5 or 6.
  5. If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: A cross between Peggy Olsen from Mad Men and Saga Norén from The Bridge (the Swedish version). I realise this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
  6. The best thing about being a wordsmith: You get to build whole worlds. You move people, shift attitudes, make people laugh, cry, ponder. And hopefully, hopefully, send shivers down spines.

Interview: Jessica Montague

I first met Jessica Montague when I was an intern at madison, and even after I left I followed her career as she progressed from editorial coordinator, to production, features writer, and finally the Features Associate, which saw her oversee plenty of the magazine’s editorial content. I was devastated when the magazine closed, but was glad to watch Jessica resurrect her writing career and transition into freelancing. Read about how she did it below.

After spending the majority of your magazine feature-writing career working on a title, how does it feel now to freelance?
I’m optimistic. It’s been two months and I’ve already done so much – and more importantly, enjoyed myself so much. Naturally, I was devastated when madison closed, but I consider myself a bit of an optimist so started my freelance career the Monday after we wrapped up. I’m really glad I did this instead of giving myself a forced holiday. I just kinda thought, “If you’re going to give it a crack, give it your best go.” Initially I said I’d give myself two months working freelance as a “trial”, but I’m loving it so much I think I’ll be sticking with it for a while.

Do you feel like you have to work a little harder to get your work out there to editors who you’re not liaising with in a working environment every day? That is, is it more of a struggle to sell a story because you’re not in a features meeting?
I don’t think it’s harder, but I definitely think you have to be more savvy and selective. Quality definitely rules over quantity. There is absolutely no point sending through five story ideas when deep down you know only one has legs. Features editors are time poor – whether you’re emailing them or speaking to them in person. I also think you have to have the confidence to back yourself. In terms of features meetings, when I used to hold them at madison, it didn’t matter if my team brought 10 ideas to the table or just one – as long they were passionate and believed in what they wanted to write. So I guess in a roundabout what I’m trying to say is a story has potential it’s going to get published either way (but writing a good pitch definitely helps).

What are you loving and loathing about freelancing?
I love the flexibility and the balance that working from home allows me. I’m a morning person, so I start my day off at 7am and finish about 4pm – and possibly head to yoga in the middle of the day. I am also pleasantly surprised how productive I am. When you don’t have people interrupting you every five minutes, it’s amazing how much work you can get done. There’s nothing I really loathe (except perhaps that my all my high heels are sitting in boxes in my laundry). The thing that has been a challenge though is not having people around to constantly bounce ideas off. For this reason, my colleague from madison (Fiona MacDonald) comes over every Thursday and we work together – sometimes collaboratively editing each other’s work or brainstorming ideas. We loved working side-by-side at madison so we decided to continue the dynamic.

You left mags a little bit for a stint in PR. What were the similarities and differences on ‘the other side’?
I did. I left mags when I was 26 because I was so burnt out. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep writing so thought I’d give PR a shot for a while. PR and mags are like yin and yang; I think it should be compulsory for everyone to do a year in the others’ shoes! While they’re not the same, there are elements that apply to both – like knowing strong news values, good talent etc. The differences, on the flip side are more varied (mainly when it delves into the marketing side of things). But in saying that, the skills I developed in PR have put me in good stead for current projects. Especially when I’m next to girls who’ve only ever worked in editorial and never dealt with clients or people on a corporate level.

What ended up making you want to return to magazines?
I missed writing. After 12 months in PR, I learned I was good at it, but didn’t enjoy it as much as tapping away at my keyboard. I found myself wanting to write some freelance and the passion flooded back from there.

You’ve spent the majority of your writing career at madison. While plenty of Australian readers like me were devastated at the announcement to close it, you would no doubt have felt it a little more, having started out as the editorial coordinator and working your way up to Features Associate. What do you miss most about madison?
Two things: the team and the content. Unlike many other magazines, the madison team was very close and extremely supportive. Those last six months were hell in terms of what we had to produce on such little budget, so in that time we all just stuck together and soldiered on. I don’t think anyone outside those walls knew what we were up against and we became so much closer in the face of it. In regards to the content, that last issue made me so proud because of the quality of stories in there. I was so lucky to have two award-winning journalists on my team (Clair Weaver and Fiona MacDonald), and their stories in the last issue were just amazing. They were local and they were relevant. I hope I had something to do with encouraging them to push the boundaries and “aim high”*

*That was our features motto. It later became “Aim high and get excited” because Fiona always gushed how excited she was about stories, so it kinda stuck.

I’m loving your gorgeous new website. Do you think it’s important for writers these days to have a web presence or portfolio?
I think so. If anything it’s just easier to have all your pdfs in one place. Gone are the days of lugging round a portfolio. You also have to think as yourself as a “business” and your website has to naturally reflect the values of your company.

What has been the biggest adjustment to working from home? Do you have a routine? Are you easily distracted? Do you work in your PJs or ‘dress for work’?
I’m a control-freak so I’m very structured. I’m currently working on a contract at News Life Media for two months, but when I’m at home I love routine. I work best in the mornings, so I try and churn as much as I can before the afternoon when I suffer a slump. I currently vary my outfit between sports clothes or the glamorous ensemble of track pants and a polar fleece top (can’t believe I’m confessing this!). One time Fiona and I were so cold on a Thursday, we got up on our matching polar fleece tops and did some on-the-spot aerobics. It’s a glamorous biz this freelancing.

What are some of your writing goals? Or projects that you now have more time to turn your attention to?
Probably my current project – I’m editing my first magazine: Pink. It’s the official magazine for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. This year it’s going to be a 68-page online doozie (with interactive features) linked to body+soul. I really want my first mag to be beautiful to look at but more importantly, inspiring to read.

Ten in the Hot Seat:

  1. Describe yourself in one word: Tenacious. I am not the most talented writer but I’ll always give something a go and try my best.
  2. Biggest accomplishment to date: Project managing this year’s 100 Inspiring Australian Women feature story for the 100th (and final) issue of madison.
  3. You wish you wrote: Half the stuff I read on Daily Life.
  4. Can’t leave home without: My iPhone – but purely for music. I’m the person who bops while they’re waiting for the lights to change.
  5. One thing you are currently writing: An update on online dating trends, comparing where Australian were five years ago to now.
  6. First thing you wrote: A real-life piece for Dolly when I was at uni (naturally, it was for free).
  7. Addicted to reading: Anna Karenina, but that’s only because it’s been on my bedside table for six months and I’ve still got 200 pages to go. Otherwise, anything by Anna Funder.
  8. Top spot on your goals list: To become a strong, intelligent editorial leader for either a print or online publication.
  9. If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: I’d like to think I have a little Julia Flyte in me…and that if I had lived in that era I’d have a bit of her gumption.
  10. The best thing about being a wordsmith: It’s challenging but at the same time makes me so incredibly happy. There’s never a day I don’t want to go to work.