Working with Words: Alex McKinnon

Alex McKinnon is a Sydney-based writer and journalist. He spoke with us about the importance of curiosity, refusing to write for free and how snark and sarcasm can become hollow.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Alex McKinnon

It's very Kel Day-Knight of me, but The Power of One blew my mind when I was a kid. I still remember where I was when I finished it, which is something only the books that really stick with you can do.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

In a Year Nine exam, I wrote a short story about Anzac Day that made my English teacher cry. It was published in the Port Macquarie Catholic Church newsletter, and won a writing award that referred to me as 'she' in the abstract. It happens a lot.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

When I moved to Sydney, I got a job as a charity mugger. I lasted two days. Someone tried to break my hand, and a homeless man quoted John Lennon at me before taking off his pants. I worked retail jobs through university, which involved scrubbing lots of toilets.

Being curious, even in what seem like dull situations, is a good way to look at the world.

I learned that being curious, even in what seem like dull situations, is a good way to look at the world. Looking for the weird little details in everyday situations is one of my favourite parts of writing now, and standing behind a front desk for hours on end taught me that.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I honestly can't think of what else I'm good enough at to make a career out of. There's nothing else I've ever wanted to do.  

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Eleanor Robertson, who writes for the Weekly, said somewhere that the best way to tell if you're writing well is by reading it aloud. That, and never write for free, or for places that expect you to.

Never write for free, or for places that expect you to.

Which classic book/play/film do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

It always made me angry that the Pants on Fire series of kids' short stories by Paul Stafford never got Paul Jennings levels of success. They were so funny and filthy. One of them was a thinly-veiled analogy for Australian politics that ended with John Howard and Pauline Hanson getting crushed by a bulldozer. It should be compulsory reading in every school.

Have you written anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

Working at Junkee, a lot of my political coverage went overboard on the snark and the sarcasm. It's very easy and very fun, but it gets hollow after a while. There are more effective ways to hold bad people to account.

I stand by my guide to covering Christopher Pyne in bees, though.

Portrait of Alex McKinnon

Alex McKinnon is a Sydney-based writer and journalist. He is the editor of The Briefing, Schwartz Media's daily morning newsletter, and a former editor of Junkee and the Star Observer. He has written for the New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian, Quartz and the Monthly.

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