Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in the UK, living there as a pre-schooler in Yorkshire and around Dumfries in Scotland. Then my family moved to New Zealand and I lived in the dairy farming country around Wanganui, where I also went to boarding school. I did a law degree at Wellington’s Victoria University and then moved to Australia in 1985 after adventures OS.
I always wanted to be a journalist/writer from a very young age, voraciously reading war and spy histories instead of sports pages like my rugby-mad mates. My dad subscribed to a huge number of great overseas papers and magazines, including the airmail edition of the UK Sunday Times. I revered the Insight investigations team in that amazing paper when it was at its peak – they broke the scoop stories about the dangers of thalidomide, the Kim Philby MI6/KGB spy scandal, the scandal of the faulty DC10 door that caused a terrible aviation disaster; and the reports of intrepid foreign correspondents like David Blundy (whom I later befriended before he was tragically killed in El Salvador). I’ve always been fascinated by the rawness of frontline reportage and the thrill of a great scoop story. It’s a privilege to be a witness to history.
I don’t think there is any belief I held strongly at eighteen that I’ve actually lost since. What probably has changed is that I’ve learned to listen more to the alternative arguments and explanations. I am probably readier now to accept that there are some things worth conserving – that, for all its faults, our system of democracy and the accountability controls actually work pretty well, rather than needing to be completely changed – as I used to believe should happen. I can remember being an angry young man at 18 about the law I studied as a uni student, how the rules of precedent and conservative bias and privileged world-view of judges constrained the kind of freedoms of expression and speech that countries with constitutional guarantees enjoy. Now I see the flaws and the benefits of such a system.
Firstly, what motivated me most as a young man to chase the dream of being a journalist was the crushing monotonous boredom of life in 1970s New Zealand – back then a very institutionally conservative and mind-numbingly dull place, obsessed with rugby, and with none of the rich cultural and ethnic diversity I’ve learned to love in Sydney. Secondly, one true gift I came away with from my time there though was also my legal qualifications – as well demystifying the law, it also taught me a mental self-discipline because many of the lessons were run on a brutally terrifying socratic teaching method, where if you didn’t know how to speak on your feet and explain yourself you were vilified in front of your peers. Finally, coming to Australia is the best thing I ever did because I learned the craft of journalism and of writing under pressure from true master journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC’s Four Corners. Australian media has given me all the opportunities and taught me how to use them – and the tragedy is that so many of the great institutional media organisations that I have worked for are now suffering the ravages of cutbacks and sackings. We lose them at our peril.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete?
This is my third book but writing The Lost Diggers has been by far the most satisfying author experience I’ve ever had, and it’s underlined to me that there is a real hunger out there for the right stories, well told and presented. We have the same debates in TV and newspapers as journalists about whether people still want to read and watch stories but the truth is the right book will always sell. I think what’s happening in media across the board at the moment is what happened with the railways in the old wild west… a lot of people went broke building what they thought would be the next big thing. But, eventually, those who adapted survived and those who didn’t died. It is the same with books and media. It will always be part of being human to enjoy a good yarn. It is the delivery mechanism that is changing so rapidly.
The Lost Diggers is a part detective story/part adventure mystery/and part history book. It came about as a result of a discovery we made on the SUNDAY NIGHT TV program, in cooperation with French and AWM historians, of 4000+ glass photographic glass plate negatives which had lain in a French farmhouse attic for nearly 100 years since the First World War. These images of allied troops, who came to the small village of Vignacourt to rest and carouse away from the nearby frontlines, were taken by a local husband and wife couple, Louis and Antoinette Thuillier. Using Facebook to post the images online, we were able to begin the daunting process of trying to identify these men and to tell their stories. Searches of family diaries, personal service records, letters and battalion records showed that not all of them survived the war and many of the stories offer an insight into the suffering and loss that so many families suffered during ‘The Great War’. The power of the book, I believe, comes from being able to stare into the extraordinarily clear and high quality images of individual men’s faces and empathise with what they experienced. What also makes the pictures special is that they’re not formal posed images – they show Aussies being larrikins, with a girl on their lap and bottle of wine and and a fag in their mouth.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
I hate it when young people tell me they find history boring or irrelevant to their lives. I’ve loved going to book signings in the last few weeks and seeing the excitement in the eyes of an audience, especially of young people who come along with a copy of the book and want to talk about the men in it. I am very concerned about the dumbing down and anti-intellectualism that is so in vogue in modern popular culture, and the destructive suspicion and open cynicism about media. I roll my eyes when some Uni communications student starts bleating a Noam Chomskyian critique of corporate media and why we shouldn’t be trusted. It’s almost fashionable now to be disdainful of politics and of ideas about society/culture and history. I genuinely hope that my books make people more comfortable about enjoying a passion for history and ideas.
I’m a member, along with a few other Australian journalists, of a group called ICIJ – the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – based out of Washington DC’s Center for Public Integrity. Every now and then we have a conference and I find myself sitting next to Australian spy story scoop author Philip Knightley or American Seymour Hersh (who broke the Pentagon Papers story) or Woodward and Bernstein (Watergate). They are awe-inspiring. But what is most humbling is to meet the journalists who have come from countries with repressive regimes and who risk their lives to break stories which they think are important. Many have been beaten or been the target of murder attempts because they’ve got too close to the truth in their investigations. They are the true heroes of journalism – risking their lives to write the first draft of history.
I like to think I’m getting more humble as I get older because the more people I meet as a journalist, the more impressed I am with what other people are doing and achieving in their lives. All I ask is that when I’m gone people say I was a lovely bloke, who adored his wife and children, that I was a decent chap, who loved spinning a good yarn and did it pretty well.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Don’t be shy about asking for advice from other authors! Get an agent because a good agent who believes in your project can get you in the door. Be disciplined about when and how long you write. There is no point in writing a book that no-one will want to read so make sure your ideas interest other people. Take time out also to stretch and smell the roses… and hug your kids often.
Ross, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.
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