Turning fact into fiction

Monday, June 30, 2014
Melinda Houston interviewed by Brendan Paholski

headshot of Melinda Houston
Melinda Houston

Feature writer and TV critic turned novelist Melinda Houston shares her thoughts on articles, research and the state of the television industry with Brendan Paholski.

You have 20 years’ experience in feature writing. What qualities make the best feature articles?

It has to be well-written, regardless of the subject matter. Written in a style that engages the reader and carries them through the story. You need to construct a narrative and have interesting characters in a magazine feature just as you would be in a piece of fiction. Ideally it also tells the reader something they didn’t know – either a fresh perspective on a person or an issue, or genuinely new facts.

Television is at the heart of your review-writing and the protagonist of your novel, ‘Kat Jumps the Shark’, works as a location scout for TV production company. Given what could be seen as the paucity of ideas in TV, where do you think it is headed?

First of all, I don’t agree that there’s a paucity of ideas in TV! There is certainly a tendency on the part of the networks to go with something they know works, rather than take a big risk. That’s just part of running a business. There are also trends in television just as there are in literature – the same issues and ideas tend to capture the imaginations of the people creating television just as they do those writing books, and you often get a spate of stories around similar subjects. There have been a few really encouraging developments in TV over the last five or 10 years.

One is the success of what we broadly refer to as “cable dramas” – starting with ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ and continuing on through ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Mad Men’ etc etc. The pay TV networks in the US have discovered that there is an audience for well-made, thoughtful, challenging television. That’s encouraged our local pay channels to invest in similar products: shows that are niche, but have their place – like ‘Tangle’, ‘Wentworth’, ‘Spirited’. Our local free-to-air networks have also discovered that if they invest the money in local production, audiences will follow. There’s a huge interest in local drama and scripted comedy and we’re producing some wonderful stuff these days that’s not only popular at home but is selling really well overseas. (All three of Chris Lilley’s most recent series, for instance, have been co-produced by the ABC, the BBC and HBO.)

The other recent trend is to actually use great Australian novels as the basis for TV shows – Jack Irish, Phryne Fisher, Murray Whelan – and now the ABC is adapting ‘The Secret River’.

If “paucity of ideas” is a veiled reference to reality television, I think it’s actually been a wonderful thing for Australian television. We make some of the best – if not THE best – reality television in the world, and local audiences respond to that. The best of it has extremely high production values. I love the interactive nature of it, along with the water-cooler nature of it – audiences really get involved and feel ownership of these shows. I think that engagement is crucial to the future health of the industry generally. You can’t get a reality show on DVD. It’s very profitable, which means funds are then available to finance dramas and comedies. I think one of the things I enjoy about reality television most is that – unlike our dramas, which still tend to be very white and middle class – most reality shows are much more representative of what Australian society is actually like.

So – where is television headed? I’d like to think that across the western world the pay TV channels will continue to create really fascinating, challenging high quality dramas – that will in turn encourage the regular commercial networks to take a few more risks with their own productions. That Australian networks and Australian audiences will continue to have a huge appetite for Australian stories. And that the circus of reality television will continue to roll on!

How do you make Melbourne, a place many readers would be familiar with, an interesting setting for fiction?

For readers from Melbourne, the response has generally been really positive – they’ve loved reading about places they know and recognise – and it’s such a character-filled city it wasn’t at all difficult to make it interesting. I’m not sure how well I’ve succeeded in bringing the place alive to people who don’t live in Melbourne. That is, I just don’t know if I have or not. What I did do is write honestly and affectionately about places I love, drawing on my personal observations of the detail that make Coburg, Fitzroy, Footscray and the CBD such fascinating places – and then just hoped for the best!

How much research was necessary for ‘Kat Jumps the Shark’, given how well you know the world of television?

I actually had to do quite a lot of research. One of the things that keeps me fascinated by television is how complex it is. No matter how much I learn, there’s still so much MORE to learn. So I had a basic understanding of how reality TV is made, and I had a rough idea of what a location scout did. But I had to research both those things quite extensively. I started by writing a magazine feature about location scouts in Melbourne, which involved interviews and also spending some time on the job with them. Then I continued to talk with the people who featured in that story to gather more detail. I also organised some set visits to some reality shows, and talked with some producers to get more detail about how it all worked in practice. And I watched a lot of episodes of ‘Survivor’!

Television programs and characters are, by nature, transient. How easy was it to judge when comparing characters in the novel with those on television (say, Bev with Betty White)?

I really just took a punt on this. Betty White is actually a pretty easy one, because she’s been around for a long time. Others are more obscure. But because all those comparisons are happening inside Kat’s head – it’s her very personal take on the world – I wasn’t too worried about it. Most Australians would be familiar with John Waters or Rebecca Gibney so that clues them into the process, as it were – pretty much all readers would realise Kat’s comparing real people to people from TV. After that, if I’ve mentioned someone less familiar or well-known, readers still understand Kat’s making that mental link between a real person and an actor or TV personality – hopefully that’s all that matters. If you get the reference, great – but if you don’t, at least you understand what’s happening.

About Melinda Houston

Melinda Houston has been a feature writer and critic for 20 years, and is currently the TV critic for ‘The Sunday Age’ and the ‘Sun Herald’. She taught magazine writing at RMIT for five years and has just published her first novel, ‘Kat Jumps The Shark’.

About Brendan Paholski

Brendan is currently completing a BA in Media and Communications. He is a long-time volunteer and recent Access and Inclusion Intern at Writers Victoria. He’s written theatre reviews, short stories and the occasional CD/DVD review.