Ben Eltham is national affairs correspondent of New Matilda and an industry columnist at ArtsHub. He has written about Australian culture and politics for a range of publications, including Crikey, the ABC, Meanjin and Overland, and he is a research fellow at Deakin University.
We spoke to Ben about running out of ways to write about asylum seeker policy, why political journalists love Game of Thrones, the Rudd/Gillard saga, and why what really counts is writing, not publishing.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
For a working writer that’s actually a difficult question to answer. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid and I’ve ‘published’ in student newspapers and zines all the way through my school and university years. I actually tried to do a Factiva search for my first newspaper article, which was for the Courier-Mail sometime in 2001, but I couldn’t find it. But that was six years after I won my first (and only) writing prize in 1995, for a short story by a young writer in Queensland. I guess it all goes to show that what really counts is writing, not publishing. Some of the writing I’m most proud of has never seen the light of day.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Another tough question! I absolutely love my job in nearly all respects - I feel lucky to have it (especially in the current environment), so it’s hard to pinpoint a downside. But I will, of course.
I mean, there is the quotidian dilemma of waking up in the morning and knowing you have to write a column, and being so sick of politics, and feeling super jaded, and you get onto Google chat and you and your editor metaphorically scratch your heads and wonder what the hell there is to write about. That’s never fun. But that’s basically just writing, isn’t it, and not particularly interesting.
There are some deeper disappointments. Probably the worst part is moral and intellectual, rather than literary. I’m referring to the depressing nature of politics, which, when encountered close up, can seem particularly petty and brutal. The recent events in the Australian Labor Party are a good example. They’re not happening to me, obviously, but even observing them as a relatively disinterested bystander is quite disillusioning. These are real people who really are trying pretty hard to make the country a better place, in their opinions, and yet here you have this Machievellian game where there’s another team trying to destroy your every achievement, and then you have a whole faction of your own team trying to do the same, and feeding off it all are these characters in the media who get paid to convey rumours and distort the facts for reasons that have nothing to do with the good of the country. No wonder half the front bench walked away.
So anyway that’s the politicians. For a writer covering them, I think you’ve got to be on guard against that constant exposure to the brutality and mendacity of it all. It can make you jaded and that can hurt your writing. I’ve just about run out of ways to write about asylum seeker policy. It’s a ‘wicked problem’ where the politics of xenophobia and political expediency seem to continually trump ethical behaviour and human responsibility. A lot of political journalists love George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and I wonder if the reason is because they identify with the brutality and the naked atavism of Martin’s worldview. The constant insecurity of Martin’s universe seems very realistic to people observing politics, I think.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and journalism career so far?
I think personally my most significant moment was my first ‘break’ in the business as a freelancer. This was back in 2001. I was given a shot by an editor, Rosemary Sorensen, who at the time was the arts and books editor at the Courier-Mail, and she was brave enough and perhaps foolish enough to back me, keep backing me, and give me a series of commissions. I think every writer – most artists working across many artforms, really – would understand the felicity of that wonderful feeling of having a gatekeeper let you inside the tent. I’ve never forgotten that and I always acknowledge Rosemary as the person who gave me that chance to begin a career.
Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to work with a series of brilliant editors, like Marni Cordell, Jonathan Green, Sophie Black, Jason Whitakker and Sophie Cunningham, just to name a few, all of whom have backed me in turn to go out and write for them, be a part of their publication. That’s what it’s all about, I think. That editorial relationship really is critical for a working writer like me. Every time you can win the trust of an editor and begin a working relationship with her, that’s a significant moment. Honour it with your best work.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Best advice: a tie between:
‘Writing is mainly bum glue’ – Bryce Courtenay, via my sister
‘A certain attention to plot mechanisms is valuable’ – Marcel Dorney
‘Show, not tell’ – every writing course ever
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
I was recently called a ‘Gillard follower’ by a leftist in an online forum and it really threw me. We’re all used to being called heartless right-wingers or latte-sipping lefties, but I hadn’t consciously adopted a position on the Rudd-Gillard split and was a bit surprised to be described as such. I think it reflects the increasingly personalised and partisan nature of contemporary politics, as well as the depth of the ALP’s divisions. As a commentator, I was originally very disappointed at the Rudd overthrow, but was then very encouraged by the tenacity of Gillard as a policy-maker – so does that mean I have a position on the ALP’s leadership? It’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? And yet when push came to shove it wasn’t; it was all about who was more popular and who could win an election and therefore who had the numbers in the party room. That dismayed me as someone who believes in democracy, and in good public policy.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
The romantic in me says: running a music festival. The realist says: PR.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Of course it can be. We teach musicians, we teach dancers, we teach visual artists. We should let go of this silly superstition that simply because we can all read and write, therefore we won’t benefit from writing lessons. Which is not to say you can’t teach yourself, of course. You can. At least I hope you can, because I am essentially self-taught.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Tell, don’t show.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both. I prefer printed books, but there’s something pretty seductive about lying in bed and being able to dial up a book right away.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
The Duchesse de Guermantes.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Balzac, Illusions perdues
You know how writers have these books that they always return to? Those ones that they end up re-reading every year, page after page, over and over again? This is that book. I am obsessed with it. It is the very greatest ‘coming to the city’ book ever, it is the greatest ‘portrait of a young artist’ book ever, one of the finest expositions of high modernity, the subtlest explorations of money, and the most trenchant condemnations of the business of art. There are weeks in which Lost Illusions literally dominates my waking thoughts. It’s a bit of a problem, actually. I think I need some counselling.
Ben Eltham is the national affairs correspondent of independent news website New Matilda.