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Sonya Voumard on writing ‘Skin in the Game: the pleasure and pain of telling true stories’

‘Skin in the game’ is a passionate and personal exploration of your years as a journalist and the integrity of the personal interview. Your critically acclaimed ‘The Media and the Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016’ was longlisted for the Stella Prize in 2017.  What made you turn your journalistic gaze to the profession you trained in and worked in for so long?

Journalism has always been one of my favourite subjects. But my love for it is complex and never unconditional. Something about the power of journalists – enjoyable and tempting to wield though that power is – became problematic to me. Especially when you see it being misused, which it frequently can be. We are so used to objectifying other people, extracting their stories and having our way with them, sometimes to their detriment and suffering. The idea of turning the gaze on myself and trying to do it fairly critically thrilled me. I’ve never believed objectivity is possible in journalism. Acknowledging myself inside the frame of every story I’ve ever written seemed an exciting and controversial admission. That we all come to stories with our own preconceptions and prejudices was never discussed when I started my career.  It was as though there was one objective truth to every story no matter which journalist turned up to cover it.

You began your journalism cadetship in 1980, and left journalism in 1995 to work as a freelance writer. What made you take this step?

I felt jaded and burnt out. By then, I’d worked in four states for three newspapers. There was something about the culture of daily journalism in Sydney where I was living at the time that, to me, felt overly cynical and cut-throat. More so than I’d ever felt it to be in Melbourne or Canberra. I was exhausted by the constant pressure to work long hours and weekends and to give up everything for the job. I had also just met and begun a relationship with the woman who became my life partner. For the first time in a long time, my job took second place in my life. I wanted to explore freelancing to learn to write better through longer form magazine stories, to choose what I wanted to write about and how. It was the most poorly paid period of my life. But it got me off the treadmill and, later, into a job as one of the first online journalists in Australia working for what became ninemsn. At that time many major news organisations had barely heard of the internet. And, if they had, many thought it was a fad.

‘Skin in the game’ is part memoir, part investigation. Was it difficult balancing these two aspects of the book?

I think all stories, whose ever they may be, involve memoir and investigation. The book wasn’t written in a linear way at all. Many of the pieces were written at different times. But I felt there was a common theme to them that was simultaneously discernible and hard to locate. With the help of my great editor Nadine Davidoff, we wrangled them into a shape that feels right. It was during the editing process that the balance came and the stories really started speaking to each other.

You say that “Writing from life is vexed. But I’m compelled to do it despite the risks”. What do you think are the risks of writing from life?

First and foremost, there is the risk of exposing intimate details about yourself and those close to you. What will people think of me/my family if they know x? What if x reads it? There is also the risk that people who feature in it (or who think they feature in it), named or otherwise, may feel upset or misrepresented. This memoir can only be my truth. Others who were present during the times I write about would undoubtedly have their own versions of them.

‘Skin in the Game’ is a frank and funny exploration of the dynamics of the personal interview. You describe it as a “tug of war between the subject and the writer”. Was it a tug of war you always won?

I don’t think any journalist can ever completely win the tug of war of the interview. But they are certainly the ones in the power position most of the time. They are the ones who get to walk away with a notebook/recorder full of quotes with which to do what they will once freed from the confines of what may have been a very friendly encounter with their subject. An intelligent and powerful interview subject can be adept at pulling intellectual strings to ensure they are presented in the most favourable light. But, as Helen Garner says, if no one loses any skin in an interview, nothing happened. It’s the very tension of the interview that makes it exciting and dangerous.

As a journalism student you interviewed Helen Garner for an assignment. It didn’t go well. Thirty years later you and Garner wrote a piece for ‘Meanjin’ reflecting on that first interview. What made you revisit this moment in your writing life?

My 1980 interview with Helen Garner when I was an 18-year-old journalism student was hugely formative. Unwittingly, and very early in my career, I had thrown myself off the deep end and into the complexities of this very interesting and highly sensitive person’s life. The consequences shocked me and stayed with me always. Decades later, conscious that Garner had herself developed a fascination with the dynamics of the interview, I decided it would be great to sit down with her again and see where a second interview might take us. Luckily, it went extremely well.

What advice would you give to writers seeking to master the art of the personal essay?

Keep it gritty. And be your toughest critic.

Sonya Voumard is a Sydney-based journalist and  author whose work has been widely published in major Australian newspapers, magazines and literary journals. She has lectured part-time in creative non-fiction and journalism at UTS. Her first novel, ‘Political Animals’ was inspired by her time as a political correspondent for the Age in Canberra. Her critically acclaimed book ‘The Media and the Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016’ was longlisted for the prestigious Stella Prize in 2017.

‘Skin in the Game’ is published by Transit Lounge

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