The case for slow non-fiction

Friday, July 7, 2017
Michael Green

Michael Green standing outside
Michael Green

With the pace of journalism increasing, it can be tempting to rush the writing process. But for tutor Michael Green, the most compelling stories come from taking a careful, considered approach to interviewing and writing, empowering your subjects and putting ethics at the heart of your work. We caught up with Michael ahead of his Winter School workshop to find out more.

What is the difference between journalism and oral history?

Some oral history experts might disagree, but there is a wide scope of material that describes itself as oral history, from straight transcripts through to something more like literary non-fiction. I’ve always tried to work closely and respectfully with people I’ve written about in my long form non-fiction, but in this project about immigration detention, with Behind the Wire, we’ve taken that even further. We worked very slowly and carefully, to empower narrators so they’re in charge of the conversation, and to make sure they are comfortable and confident about what they want to say, and to know that they have the final say of what is published. I believe that it can sometimes be appropriate and beneficial for a feature writer to treat interviewees in that way – even though very writers few do. But, of course, if a journalist is writing a corruption exposé, it’s prudent not to hand over that kind of power to their subject... 

Behind the Wire works across many different media, from 'The Messenger' podcast, to exhibitions and online. Why is it important to lift the stories of others off the page?

One key reason is that not everyone wants to read a six-thousand word story – unfortunately! We want to reach a wide audience, so we’ve sought out opportunities on various platforms, and with institutions like the Immigration Museum who have visitors from different demographics, like high school students. When we began the project, we intended to work with our narrators to make long form literary stories. And we did that, and compiled them into our book, They Cannot Take the Sky. But as we were working on the project, other opportunities came up. I heard the warmth and enthusiasm in Aziz’s voice, when I received his voice messages from Manus Island. It was immediately clear that a podcast would be the best way for people to get to know him – so we set about work on The Messenger  with The Wheeler Centre.  

Your workshop will look at how good ethics can enhance, rather than detract, from good storytelling. For you, what is it that makes a good story?

Good stories go beyond stereotypes. They are rich and complex and surprising. As a non-fiction writer, you need to work long and hard for those kinds of insights, especially if you’re working on an issue about which you don’t have direct experience. Good ethics and good stories go together, because if you treat people respectfully and conduct yourself with integrity, people will return your trust with openness and honesty.  

About Michael Green

Michael Green is an award winning journalist in Melbourne, and the co-editor of the book, 'They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention'. He is one of the producers of The Messenger podcast, about Abdul Aziz Muhamat and his life in immigration detention on Manus Island. As a feature writer, Michael has covered environmental and social issues for The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Nature, Nautilus, Smith Journal, Right Now and Overland, among others.