Working with Words: Helen Trinca

Helen Trinca is managing editor at the Australian and the author of three books, including the award-winning literary biography, Madeleine, about the life of author Madeleine St John. She spoke with us about botched bylines, biographies and Sally Baxter.

Photograph of Helen Trinca

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I think the first piece I had published as a cadet journalist was a report of a local council meeting. It was in my paper, the West Australian, in Perth, and the excitement was mitigated by the fact that my name was spelt incorrectly in the byline!

What’s the best part of your job?

Being part of a big and excellent paper, the Australian, and seeing every day the energy of colleagues who, like me, are lucky enough to have a job in the most exciting industry you can imagine. There’s the adrenaline of being at the centre of events, but there’s also the joy of being a small part of a product that – sometimes – can make a difference.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst part in recent years has been managing the restructuring that has followed the disruption of media by the internet. It’s been awful to see the loss of huge talent across the sector through redundancies.

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

The work I did as a European correspondent for the Australian when I was based in London in the 1990s. That was a fabulous writing experience. And then writing the biography of Madeleine St John, Madeleine, published in 2013. I was lucky enough to be named as a co-winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Non-fiction for that book, and that was a huge thrill.

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

There’s a general acceptance that not everyone can be a catwalk model, but there’s a sense that anyone can write if they just try hard enough.

The best was from a former editor-in-chief of mine, who once said to me, 'Write the headline first'. Sounds crazy but it’s a great trick to help you focus. Other good advice has been to show, not tell – show the idea or emotion via a story, rather than tell the reader in an abstract way.

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

Years ago I said to a friend that I had finally realised that I could write, and she said, 'Well, you can also think!' I thought that was nice.

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

I think I would be teaching school, or maybe if I had been really lucky, I would be farming.

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

I am not a big fan of creative writing courses, but then a lot of people are not fans of the way journalists are trained! I fear that courses can smooth the edges and you can end up with competent but unsurprising writing.

Cover image of the book 'Madeleine: the life of Madeleine St John' by Helen Trinca

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

You need to practise, but you also need to be honest about whether you are any good at it. There’s a general acceptance that not everyone can be a catwalk model, but there’s a sense that anyone can write if they just try hard enough. It’s also a good idea to make sure you have something to say.

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


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

I would love to go to dinner with any of the characters in any of the books by Richard Yates, because he was so good at making them real people with real problems. I think we would talk about the hazards of mid-century American life.

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

There are many, including the Richard Yates books, and going back to the Sally Baxter, Girl Reporter books I read as a kid. But I guess in more recent times, the book by Gitta Sereny on Hitler’s architect called Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, had a big impact when I read it more than 20 years ago. She was forensic in her investigation of his actions and motivations and I was struck but the complexity of the man. To me, the detail was compelling and yet I usually prefer a more minimalist style.

Another big influence was Madeleine St John’s novel, A Pure Clear Light. I read it almost by accident and was so gripped that I decided almost immediately that I wanted to write her biography. I loved her dialogue and the confident way she wrote about love, betrayal and belief.






Portrait of Helen Trinca

Helen Trinca is the author of Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John, which explored the troubled life of the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It won the 2013 Prime Minister's Literary Award for Non-Fiction. She has co-written two previous books: Waterfront: The Battle that Changed Australia and Better than Sex: How a Whole Generation Got Hooked on Work

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