How to interview like a maestro

Sarah Kanowski is a presenter for ABC Radio National’s very popular Conversations. This was in the Review section of The Australian, May 11-12 2019. It sums up beautifully how to interview somebody.

“Find someone who has an interesting story to tell. This will be almost everybody. Greet your guest warmly, offer them a cup of tea and make sure they are sitting comfortably. When they are ready you may begin. To ask a question, make it a question – not your own opinion. It works best if the questions are short and open-ended: Why? What happened next? What did you see? What could you hear?  Have a sense of where you want the conversation to head but keep an ear out for the unexpected. Don’t worry about what you are going to ask next, listen instead to what you are being told. Listen also to what your guest is perhaps not saying in the answers they give. Ask about that. Look for stories, zoom in on the details that shine, but don’t get stuck on the trivial. Notice when your enthusiasm sparks. Let curiosity and empathy be your guides. Prodding is OK, pushing is not. Don’t approach  your guest like a boxer in the ring; don’t try to make them trip on their shoelace. If they sit back in their chair and gaze out the window while talking, this is a good sign, They are turning away from you and walking back into their memories. If they find themselves hit with grief, don’t interrupt. Give that sadness space. Join them in the joy. Without leaving your seat, stand next to them as they look (with wonder, curiosity, regret) at this thing that is their life.”

(Not) Remembering Bob Hawke

I didn’t live in Australia during the Hawke years. I knew nothing about Australian politics; I was caught up in the turmoil of my own country, South Africa.

But I went to the memorial service for Bob Hawke. It was by chance, really. I was in Sydney and the morning news reminded me that this was the day. I was catching the ferry to Circular Quay anyway, so I strolled over to the Opera House for a bit of a stickybeak.

After an hour or so of celebrity spotting, chatting to friendly strangers and snapping politicians alighting from their official vehicles, I felt compelled to stay for the ceremony.

I left feeling rather emotional, and with some unexpected reflections on my adopted country.

After Tiananmen

I can’t claim to be as deeply affected by Hawke’s legacy as the 40,000 Chinese students he allowed to stay in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre. One of these told me, tears welling in his eyes, how he owed his life to Hawke. Another was there with his wife and daughter. They each carried a bouquet, his daughter’s made up of natives and wildflowers; his with orchids. He showed me the condolence card which read: ‘Always in my heart. As many Chinese students, my life changed forever when Mr Hawke offered us to stay in 1989.’

Xuesu Dai with his bouquet for Bob Hawke

My homeland, South Africa, owes a debt of gratitude to the former PM for his support of economic sanctions against the apartheid regime. I was ambushed by a rush of emotion when he and Nelson Mandela, who was beloved to us as Hawke was to Australia, appeared on the big screen in front of the Opera House steps. Back in the 80s, sanctions were one of the prongs of attack that that led to Apartheid’s downfall. Trade unionist Bill Kelty told the crowd how Nelson Mandela had been buoyed by Hawke’s support. I was a hopeful twenty-something in South Africa at the time. A woman who had travelled from Hobart specifically for the memorial service confided that Hawke had shaped her and her generation. Across the Indian Ocean, he had also played a part in shaping mine.

I had many conversations outside the venue. We agreed: Penny Wong for President, we missed Malcolm Turnbull in the light of subsequent events, and didn’t Quentin Bryce present as the epitome of elegance. The easy friendliness, the lack of pomp and ceremony and relaxed, happy atmosphere was striking. Those who had come to pay our respects and to spot a politician or two mingled with MPs, actors, media personalities and past politicians. Security was undoubtedly there, in the form of police patrols, a helicopter circling overhead and security details for many of the guests. But there were none of the machine guns and flak jackets we have come to see as normal in a post-9/11 world. I reflected on how lucky were to live in  a country where you could walk up to an MP or an ex-party leader and shake their hand and say hi, love your work.

Australia before Hawke

I hadn’t been aware of just how significant the changes Hawke brought were. Before him, Australia didn’t sound much like a place anybody would want to come to. It was shut off from the Asia-Pacific region and in ways to the rest of the world, far away and insular and with a government that wielded more power than is comfortable. Hawke’s granddaughter Sophie Taylor-Price reminded us that Antarctica could have been a mining site were it not for her grandfather. One of her first memories is of sitting by her Pop’s side as he pleaded for rejecting the destruction of one of Earth’s last wild places. The four-year-old with a coloured pencil in her hand credits this moment as the start of her journey to being an environmental protector.

As we sat on the steps, around us life went on as usual. People jogged by on their lunchtime runs, groups of schoolkids made their way to the ferries and trains at Circular Quay, looking mildly curious about the crowd of mostly grey-haired citizens on the steps; not concerned enough to stop. Bob Hawke understood that we owe it to these kids, the young office workers out for their midday runs, the baffled tourists, to do better.

‘I don’t exude morality’

Most of the audience would remember a kinder time when politicians were not crucified for their imperfections. Anthony Albanese remembered Hawke saying: ‘I have credibility because I don’t exude morality’. Hawke could be a bit of a boozer, loved a punt on the horses and could lose his temper with people in his office – including Paul Keating – without being excoriated on Twitter. I don’t think Scott Morrison would get away with synchronising parliamentary adjournments with the races, as Hawke did with the Arbitration Commission according to Bill Kelty.

Blanche d’Alpuget, Bob Hawke’s widow, asked that we make his death a turning point in the history of Australia. Everybody who spoke pleaded for us to listen to the young, to take a long view on our children’s future, and to remember that the reforms of the eighties, tough as they may have seemed, made Australia a better nation.

The First Time


I wrote this from a prompt – The first time – at a class on Writing the Real with Mark Tredinnick.

The first time I went into the black part of Pretoria, I was fourteen. My friend and I were bored by the boys we hung out with, tired of their talk of 50cc Hondas and Deep Purple and the Northern Transvaal rugby team. We wanted an adventure. So we decided to go to Marabastad, a kilometre or so from the city’s cold heart, Church Square.

We took the whites-only bus to our usual stop and walked the rest of the way. Department stores and record bars gave way to a street of little shops selling shiny two-tone shoes, colourful saris and rough grey blankets. Indian shopkeepers tempted us with cheap Levi’s and novelty tee-shirts, but we weren’t there to buy. We were exploring. As we walked down Boom Street, the dead air began to carry the tang of masala and coriander. Soon these gave way to the herbal smells for which we had no names that drifted from the stalls where traditional healers bought their muti.

Gone were the empty, silent streets we knew. Marabastad was full of people who looked like our maids and gardeners, but weren’t. Women strolled past with babies in blankets tied to their backs. Old men called out to one another across the street. I knew the sound of their words, but I didn’t know their language.

Here, nobody adjusted themselves to the expectations of white girls. Teenage boys kept on slouching down to the takeaway. Children giggled in surprise at seeing us there, then mock-shimmied and jived to the kwela music bubbling from a narrow doorway. That afternoon, for the first time, I understood that I was the minority.

The Soweto uprising was still a year away. Apartheid would endure another twenty. Visiting a black township would become fraught and often dangerous. But on that afternoon in 1975, I saw life, real and throbbing and fragrant and unconcerned that I was an ignorant fourteen-year-old white girl from the suburbs.

I couldn’t stop reading these two novels. Here’s why


Do you sometimes read a book and want it to never end? Sometimes I fear that I’ll never find a novel as keep-me-up-all-night good as the one I’m currently reading. It feels like nothing I pick off the shelf will be as absorbing, as transporting. In the last few weeks I’ve had that feeling twice, in one novel after another. The first one was The Rip by Mark Brandi. The second was The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. I tried to work out why.

What these two magnificent novels have in common (besides being Australian and about characters pushed to extremes) is a first person narrator – the voice of the story is ‘I’. This isn’t uncommon in literature, but both of these novels do it so well.

So how did they keep me hooked?

Neither has a complex plot or a huge cast of characters, but both were irresistible. If I wrote a novel, I thought, this is what I would want to do. So how? How could I possibly draw the reader in so intensely, keep them there, right inside the head of a complex and damaged main character?

It’s all about narrative point of view

In The Rip, the protagonist and narrator is a homeless, drug-addicted young woman, name unknown, living in the parks and streets of inner-city Melbourne. Mark Brandi has used the present tense as well as the first person, making the reading experience both immediate and personal. The Shepherd’s Hut is narrated by Jaxie Clackton, the ‘hardarse the kids run clear of all over the shire’. Tim Winton writes the young man’s voice absolutely authentically, bad grammar and all. So we see the world and hear the story totally from their point of view. They are the main character as well as the narrator. Logically, it may seem that a first-person narrator would be the least engaging, and an omniscient or third-person narrator would add more nuance to the story. In the hands of these first-class writers, the first-person point of view puts us inside the world and the mind of the main character but leaves room for us to wonder how reliable they are. We see what they see, experience their world with them, but also bring to the story our doubts about if the world really is as the character experiences it. Our own imaginations fill in some of the shadows, and foresee where the character is going to end up. Until we don’t.

In the hands of lesser writers first-person narration can be limited and self-indulgent. Both these recent Australian novels are well worth examining for lessons in first-person point of view. But read them first as wonderful stories, masterfully told.

Read more about Mark Brandi in 8 things an award-winning author can teach you about being a writer.

Day 22: Oxford Guide to Plain English

By Martin Cutts

Workplace and official writing suffers from way too much unclear language, officialese and legalese. Bureaucrats use language in a way that obscures meaning and confuses the reader. Often these kinds of documents are written using language that avoids taking responsibility. So using plain English clears up a lot of this confusion.

Readers feel that not understanding an insurance policy or a product guarantee makes us stupid or ignorant. We believe that not ‘getting it’ when we read a report means we’re not part of the club at work, and asking our manager to please explain is taboo. But in truth, avoiding what Martin Cutts calls ‘verbal confusion’ by using plain language, saves time and money, avoids confusion and empowers the reader.

The Plain Language Association International (PLAIN)‘s definition of plain English: A written communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand it and use it.

The Oxford Guide to Plain English begins by describing what plain English is and how the movement is developing worldwide. There are 25 guidelines, covering:

  • style and grammar
  • preparing and planning
  • organizing the information
  • management of writing
  • plain English for specific purposes (email, instructions, the web, legal documents, and low-literacy readers)
  • layout
  • proofreading

The Oxford Guide to Plain English is an wonderful example of the craft: reader-friendly, well structured and easy to understand. It’s based on evidence and is full of examples and straightforward explanations. Read it from cover to cover or dip into it to it as you need to. It’s an absolute must for anybody who writes business reports, instructions, papers and the like.

Day 20: Writing True Stories

The complete guide to writing autobiography, memoir, personal essay, biography, travel and creative nonfiction

By Patti Miller

Great cover design!

This book was recommended to me more than once by people who have attended Patti Miller’s highly rated memoir-writing workshops. I’ll admit to not having read it cover to cover yet. I want to approach it like a course in creative nonfiction writing and work through it systematically.

Writing True Stories grew out of writing workshops the author ran at Varuna, the Writer’s House in Katoomba. This shows in its practical approach, as it is written as a series of workshops, covering sources, voice, structure, narrative and style and editing.

Part Two consists of masterclasses that extend the skills in the first part, and deals with genre: memoir, creative nonfiction, essay and more. The last (brief) chapter is about publishing. Miller writes about commercial publication and self-publishing and how to present your work to agents and publishers. Although there’s a lot more that could be said about publishing, that’s best left to a another book.

Writing True Stories is rounded out by a reading list and a page of useful contacts. I can’t wait to get started on honing my skills before I get my project, now at the research stage, underway.

Why no Day 14? I was listening to ‘Truth, bullsh*t and weasel words’


It has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with the fact that I can’t stand corporate speak.

Anybody who loves clear writing knows – and loves – Don Watson. I took the opportunity to hear him speak as part of Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s public events program last week. His books on language include Weasel Words, Bendable Learnings and Death Sentence: The decay of public language.

This question-and-answer session focused on language in political discourse, about which there is plenty to lament. We’ve seen a profound change in news media in the last while, Watson argued, which has changed news into a combat between talking heads. And while there has always been lies and trickery in politics, we are now less able to judge truth and lies as politics has become so tribal. The suggestibility of the public has risen at the same rate as the lies.

And along came Trump

Trump, of course, had to be discussed. Watson pointed out that he ‘didn’t drop from the sky’: Bannon et al figured out that what we saw on our screens was what was important. All he had to do was make sure Trump was the centre of the story. And we can agree that Trump has been pretty good at keeping himself there, front and centre day after frustrating day.

So what’s the answer?

The refreshing thing about hearing this witty, accomplished and intelligent speaker and writer is that he didn’t pretend to have the answers. Is it education? That’s part of it. Better journalism? It would help, and it would go a long way if journalists bothered to consult academics when writing their stories. Are independent candidates making things better? At least they save us from the party operatives who are presently running the show, and make us begin to think again.

And those weasel words?

I discovered that a book is to be referred to as a ‘cultural externality’. When he was asked what his (least) favourite weasel words were. Watson listed:

  • impact, and more particularly impactful learnings
  • window of opportunity
  • appropriate and/or inappropriate

You can contribute your own to Don Watson’s website. The next day I noticed this one in Sydney’s Hyde Park:

‘For your safety we advise you not to visit the park during or just after heavy rain and strong winds because of the risk of tree failure.’

If I’m not wrong, that’s a piece of tree falling on your head, whether anybody’s there to hear it or not.

Day 18: New Oxford Style Manual


I bought this book to add to my collection of style manuals that now take up an entire shelf in my office. I edited a manuscript for submission to a UK publisher and so it had to follow UK style. And it worked! John Hockney’s memoir is to be published later this year by Legend Press in the UK, who are also publishing Mark Brandi‘s new novel, and have just released Into the River (Wimmera in Australia.)

Why would an editor want more than one style manual? Surely good style is just that? Not really. There are so many variations that are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather are choices. Your publisher and your reader want to see consistency. When it comes to word endings, for example, -ise and -ize are both correct, and both are used in UK English (although generally not in Australia). The Australian Style Manual will direct you use -ise;  Oxford stipulates -ize.

Two guides in one

You get two guides in this lovely chunky book: a style guide and a dictionary. The Oxford Style Manual is based on Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford, first published in 1893. New Hart’s Rules makes up the first half of the book, and is aimed at writers, editors, self-publishers, digital publishers and anybody who has to present professional-looking papers, reports, essays and the like. Want to know how to handle footnotes and endnotes? There’s an entire chapter to guide you to getting it absolutely right. Wondering how the US and UK spellings differ and which you should use? Your answer is in the first section of this easy-to use reference.

Part II

Part II of the book is the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. It’s specifically designed for those who work with words and generally guides you on anything tricky. ‘Driftwood’ is one word, but ‘drift ice’ and ‘drift net’ are preferred. Per cent or percent, or just %: which to use? I can check this in the dictionary in seconds.

The Appendices are a useful bonus, covering the Greek alphabet, mathematical symbols, diacritics and accents and chemical elements, as well as Presidents of the USA and Prime Ministers of Great Britain and of the UK.

Find it online

There’s even an online version of New Hart’s Rules that you can access for free, along with a thesaurus and bilingual dictionaries, writing help, grammar tips and a whole lot more.

Day 16: Maths in Minutes

200 Key concepts explained in an instant

By Paul Glendinning


I don’t think I’m unique among writers and editors in being pretty average when it comes to numbers and all things mathematical. I like this chunky little book because it has entries on Monstrous Moonshine (surely a terrible drink from the prohibition era?) and the barber paradox (which exposes the flaws in elementary set theory). Also because for the first time I have an inkling what trigonometry is.

This is a handy reference for brushing up on the basics and checking that mathematical terms in anything I’m editing are correct. It’s arranged starting from the basics (numbers, sets, geometry) and moves on to the more mind-blowing (matrices, topology). So a systematic working through would allow you to nod knowingly at a mathematicians’ convention morning tea.

The author pours cold water on my sense of enlightenment. ‘Only a lunatic would pretend that all mathematics could be presented in 200 bite-sized chunks’, he says. Be that as it may, Maths in Minutes is enough for most of us.

Day 13: Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?

A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon

By Steven Poole

We hate it, we laugh about it, and then sometimes we hear it come from our own mouths. The horrible jargon that was once confined to office life slowly ekes its way into everyday language. So ‘leverage’ started in high finance, and now it’s everywhere. The first time I heard somebody say they’d ‘reached out’ to a colleague, I was alarmed; now I think I might have said it in a meeting, once. I’ve created a list of alternatives for some of the worst words.

I bought this book because I do find office jargon unbearable. I also love a good laugh, and this provides an A to Z of amusing entries. Here’s one of my favourites.

Going forward helpfully implies a kind of thrustingly strategic process, and moving forward perhaps even more so – even though none is likely to be made as long as the work-day is made up of funereal meetings where people say things like ‘going forward’.

Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower, p. 91

The alternatives to ‘going forward’, ‘in future’ or ‘from now on’, don’t have the implication that the slate is being wiped clean. Using them might sound rather like owning up to a mistake. ‘We won’t charge dead customers in future’ has a different ring to it.

If you write in your job, get your hands on this book. Every time you want to use a tired office cliche, such as bandwidth, leverage or deliverables. You’ll find an alternative. Or if you work in an office and want to know what a brown-bag session is, or what they really meant by saying they would ‘open the kimono’, look it up.

Then circle back to me with your favourites.