Working with Words: Zoe Daniel

Zoe Daniel is the ABC’s South-East Asia correspondent, based in Bangkok with her husband and young family. She reports on nine countries across South-East Asia filing copy and stories for TV, radio, online and social media. She was the Africa correspondent from 2005 until 2007 and spent 2009 covering the Khmer Rouge war crimes trials from Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Zoe’s new memoir, Storyteller (ABC Books), documents how she has managed to work as a foreign correspondent, settle her family into a new country, and be a mother to her two children - and provides a fascinating insight into the politics and history of South East Asia.

We spoke to her about her life in journalism.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I honestly can’t remember, probably two poems that I wrote for a competition in high school that were then published in the local paper as part of the prize. I was always writing as a kid, mostly short stories, and articles and poems for the pony club newsletter.

What’s the best part of your job?

Being able to travel to interesting places and to speak to and develop an understanding of people and situations by actually being with them and witnessing what’s going on.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Being on call 24/7 and having to travel away from my family at very short notice, often into very difficult situations.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and journalism career so far?

There’ve been a range of highs. Being appointed as a foreign correspondent (both times) brought me great satisfaction because it realised some lifelong aims. The opening up of Burma/Myanmar and being able to report on and spend time in that country during such an eye-opening transition has been a career and life highlight.

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

It’s good to be tough. Don’t ever be intimidated by those in positions of authority.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

That I’m a supremely confident person.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

As a kid I always wanted to be a vet. I’m not brilliant at maths or science though so it’s probably a good thing that I played to my strengths instead.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

My Nan was a great oral storyteller, she used to lie beside me in bed at night when I was little telling me all sorts of wild tales about her own childhood. She gave me a true love of stories. I think if you have that, a love of books and reading and a reasonable grasp of language, you can write.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or journalist?

You’ll be better at it once you’ve experienced things. Exposure to different people and situations will give your writing and your journalism depth, and make you realise that stories aren’t just stories. Empathy is a strength, not a weakness.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I love physical books and I still buy them sometimes, but when I’m travelling I read e-books to save carrying heavy volumes around.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Pippi Longstocking — one of my own childhood favourites — zany, adventurous and totally wild. I’d like my daughter to meet her. I wish there were more strong female characters for little girls.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. I read it around the time I started work as the ABC’s Africa correspondent. It gave me great insight into South Africa as a country. Mandela was far from perfect as a person, but he showed what determination and sheer tenacity can achieve against great odds. Inspiring.

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