Paul Daley: Journalist, Columnist and Author (Q&A)

Today’s Publishing Insider interview is an edited transcript of a conversation I had with author and journalist Paul Daley between sessions at the Word for Word, National Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong

I nabbed Daley after an appearance in the session 'Journalism is Dead: Long Live Journalism' because he's been in the publishing game for over 20 years. He writes in so many formats, including articles, essays, columns, non-fiction and fiction.

I knew you would want to know what makes him tick as much as I did.  

RRP $29.99, MUP

RRP $29.99, MUP

Daley's official blurb is as follows: he has been a political journalist, a foreign affairs and defence correspondent, London correspondent for Fairfax, and national affairs editor for The Bulletin. He is the winner of the Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism and the Paul Lyneham Award for Press Gallery journalism. Currently he writes essays and short stories, and a regular column, Postcolonial, about history and national identity for The Guardian

In addition to his journalism and columns, Daley is a regular essayist in Australian Lit journals and a prolific non-fiction author.

Daley's non-fiction titles—Canberra, Collingwood: A Love Story, Beersheeba and Armaggedon—have been finalists in major literary awards, including the Nib, the Manning Clark House Cultural Awards and the Prime Minister's History Prize. He lives in Canberra with his wife, Lenore Taylor, and their children. 

RRP $27.99, MUP

RRP $27.99, MUP

Just to top it all off, Daley has a  'political  thriller — Challenge — about to released by MUP in October and another in the pipeline. 


I wanted to know what he thought of the state of Australian journalism, his gig at The Guardian and how he manages to balance his day job with writing all these books? 

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation ...

At the moment, you are working for The Guardian … as well as freelancing?

Look I, primarily I'm a columnist for The Guardian and I do other stuff for them too. So basically I don't really freelance much for anyone anymore. I'll still write the odd piece for the Lit Journals but ...

RRP $34.99, MUP

RRP $34.99, MUP

I've got my own opinions on The Guardian. You're actually the first paper I read everyday. What is making them stand out? ... Is it the investment in stories? What is making them different? I'm enjoying the articles as a reader but ... is there a difference working for them from an insider's view?

RRP $29.99, NewSouth

RRP $29.99, NewSouth

Yeah there is. I think, just in terms of the content, I think it's great that Australia has The Guardian brand here now. That also displays to them its wealth of international stories. Which is collected and written largely by its own journalists. So that and the amazing comment writers in Australia, the UK and America. It's all there at the moment and it's free at the moment too. I think it's working in Australia because its invested really wisely in the right writers in Australia straight up. That's not necessarily inexpensive but it's really important to brand yourself as serious about somethings like ...

Did they come to you? How does that work? 

Did they come to me? No I went to Katharine Viner, the last editor and said, "Look, this is what I can do. This is what I've written books about."

What did you say to your editor?

I said, "I really what to write for you about Australia history and my interest in Australian history. The frontier and Indigenous Australia." She said, "Fantastic, because The Guardian is really interested in articles about that sort of thing." Whenever they run they get enormous interest. It was Katharine who said, "OK. Let's try it out. See if we like each other." She thought up the name of the column Postcolonial, which I though was a brilliant name for the sort of stuff I was doing.

I guess the idea of it would be that it was counter-factual in a way. It would challenge the chivalrous nature of Australian history …The pervasiveness of ANZAC, for a start. Then channel down into other things that we don't always think about that much, like the flag. Why do we have the British flag on our flag? Did we fight under the Australian flag? No.

This sort of stuff. Then it led really to thinking about Indigenous stuff. Now, on the Indigenous thing I did a big piece in Meanjin on repatriation for the Indigenous remains. It was a massive investigative piece. The Guardian bought the rights to that and ran the edited version of it. Meanwhile Katharine Viner had gone off to the US to be The Guardian's US editor.

The new editor, Emily Wilson, has come on board. Fortuitously for me, just as The Guardian's run that piece in the UK and on the magazine and on the site in Australia and the UK. She goes, "Wow. I just want to do more of this. I just want to do Aboriginal stuff and history."

So, the stars aligned. May it continue!

Yeah I was very lucky. So she said, "Let's shake on this. Let's make a deal and you can do as much as you want or as little as you want." So the column and whatever else. That's where I'm at.

The other thing I do is I'm constantly working on a book. So if you call it fifty, fifty roughly you'd be about right.

Fifty, fifty?  Just at a practical level, how do you do that split? How do you do your work on your book and how do you work your column?

At the moment I file the column on Tuesdays. Sometimes it's supposed to be every second Tuesday but it's, as it's turning out it's most weeks.

Lucky you!

Then I'm using another day or so to research another longer form piece. Sometimes it doesn't work out that neatly. So, for example, I'm away all next week in the North researching ...

Researching for your newspaper?

Well, I've just finished a book so literally its just being printed at the moment. I'm in that space where I'm thinking, "Well this is kind of nice because I've done it." I have to think about the next one but-

Have you got one cooking? What are you researching?

The most recent one is fiction so they want a second.

It's been an interesting thing. They knew that I was looking at writing some fiction. Foong Ling Kong, the editor (at MUP). She said to them, "Look his non-fiction sold pretty well so let's keep him in the house." Rather than go to Penguin or Text. So that's the way that's worked out. They've done a great job on this first novel.

How did you find the process for writing? Switching from non-fiction to fiction?

OK because I've written short stories so it was entirely new to me. This first novel grew out of a short story that was published. Yeah, not difficult I must say. The first novel's sort of around a space I know, which is politics.

… It's not a potboiler, by any means. It's got elements of a thriller but its more literary.

So what do you wish, in an ideal world, what do you want to see more of in the newspapers and in print to Australia? More stories?

I don't know what to say. I want to see more evidence that journalists aren't just churning. Saying repeating the last thing that someone told them. I want to see more. I want to see more good writing again.

How do you define good writing? Good storytelling?

Good storytelling, active voice, minimal use of adjectives and just evidence that stories are being really thought about ... This is not a criticism of journalists because I think it's really hard for journalists to do that in this environment. I think journalists, themselves, are missing out on the joy of doing that. Readers are missing out on the joy of reading good stuff.

I would like to see far less race calling on politics. The coverage of politics in Australia is echoing ...

Lowest common denominator?

Yeah and it's echoing the absence of meaning in politics, itself. You have people frequently say, "Hey they're all the same." They're all the same. Both parties are the same. Why should I vote? Part of the problem they're racing though social media to have the news organisations have the latest "Well they did it too." Or, "He did it too." Or, "He said it first".

Leading the debate, but it also leads the newspaper. If you know what I mean. I'm not articulating that very well but I have a real problem with just the race calling nature of it.

Rather than any investigation of the policies?

Yeah. There's not a lot of policy work being done … It's really frustrating. I guess I would really like to see a focus on reporting indigenous issues that just doesn't focus on the gotcha shock horror, train smash, social issues, social problems that we know about. I think if we're going to report that stuff we shouldn't do it in a prurient way we should do it in a way that leads to a discussion of the problem. The roots of the problem and how we're going to fix it. That's it. I think The Australian does a good job

Indigenous Affairs … It's like ‘woman's affairs’ used to be. You know? It's kind of segmented. It's not done as part of the mainstream.

I think the journalist Nicholas Rockwell does a really great job writing about the issues in the Top End. He's an incredible writer.

Yes, he has a really ... really excellent understanding … He's a beautiful writer too.

What about in books? Would you like to see more of it in books too? Perhaps just a regional outlook?

Yeah. It's really interesting. I've been talking to MUP about writing something myself. The idea is still too formative for me. I just don't know. In a way it's so big too. I don't know where to start but because I've been thinking in the Indigenous remains space it leads me to Frontier War. Then that now leads me to social dysfunction as a consequence of colonisation. So where do I start? I just finished reading The Songlines again. This amazing book by Bruce Chatwin.

It's an incredible ... It's a wonderful book and it's amazing that it took an Englishman to write it!

Well it's incredible. I live in Canberra. I drive around Canberra and over here. Not far from my house is this place where there's a collection of rocks. This was a meeting place. Beyond being a meeting a place it's probably a kangaroo's tale in the Songline. I don't know. It's just made me look at the whole Aboriginal thing completely differently.

So before I write about it I need to travel more.

Nobody's writing it.

They're not. They're not. You know everywhere I go. I was in Cairns last week researching Aboriginal stories. These guys are talking of ... they took me to a massacre spot in central Cairns. So, everywhere I go there's that ... It's everywhere around the ACT where I walk my dogs.

What else are you reading at the moment?

I'm actually reviewing a book, a novel by a guy called Steve Sailah, S-A-I-L-A-H. It's sort of a thriller set on Gallipoli but it's got an Indigenous element to it ...

What else have I got there? I've got a stack of stuff piled up. I tend not to read when I'm writing my own stuff. A, because I'm exhausted but, B, because I don't want it to-

You know how many authors have said that to me over the years? They just can't have anyone else’s voice in their head except for their own. So that's the case for you too?

It is. It is. I've got the Patty Smith memoir sitting there. I've got Richard Flanagan's book. I've got Roger McDonald's book. The most recent one. God what else is there?

What do you read on your holidays? Thrillers?

No. I actually, the other thing I've got is a manuscript by my mate Chris Hammer. Chris is an MUP author whose writing fiction now. He's just written what he calls and unashamed potboiler, thriller. But it will be better than that because he's a good writer. So I've got the MS of that sitting there.

This what I always want to know. What people read on their holidays?

You know I read a lot of mags. I read New Yorker. I subscribe to it on the iPad. So I get everyone. There's always back reading for that. I get a magazine, my favourite magazine in the world is called Intelligent Life. Have you seen it? 


You should get it. It’s free. It's The Economist's general interest Bi-monthly mag. Its a beautiful thing. It’s really lovely. I read Atlantic. I get New York Times in preference to most Australian media.

Quick book picks?

At the beach: Ian Rankin, Saints of the Shadow Bible; Words from the White House by Paul Dickson and Just Kids by Patti Smith. A little later Andrew O'Hagan's amazing essay on Julian Assange in the London Review of Books, and very recently Omar Musa's excellent Here Come the Dogs. I went to the launch in Canberra a fortnight ago; coolest launch ever – he rapped his reading. Also Leonard Mann's Flesh in Armour.


Click here for a link to all Paul Daley's articles for The Guardian

Interview and broadcast with Margaret Throsby

Meanjin Papers Vol 73, No.1, Restless Indigenous Remains