|Photo credit: Jesse Marlow|
What’s your book about?
Into the Woods is about getting past the stereotypes, slogans and spin-doctoring that tend to swarm around most environmental stories. Specifically - my book is about the forests and the people of Tasmania. I wanted to investigate if it is reasonable – not just economically but also environmentally and socially – to be harvesting native forests for woodchips, and also why Tasmanians in particular, seem so entrenched in a vitriolic battle over 'their' trees. What was initially meant to be a story about activists versus loggers soon became a book about one woodchipping company's influence not just on the Tasmanian state government, but on the entire island.
What first made you interested in the forest debate in Tasmania?
Actually it was this footage that first drew me to Tasmania's forest issues. A warning – it makes for some ugly viewing.
The video (filmed by a forest activist hiding in a tree) shows Tasmanian logging contractors smashing a gutted car that is blocking a forest access road in the Florentine valley with sledge hammers. There are two young activists are inside the car. The loggers are yelling and grabbing them through the broken glass, trying to pull them out of the car.
An activist friend of mine working on the island sent me the footage and I booked a ticket within an hour of watching the video. I had intended on staying in Tasmania for five days, and was still there a month later.
What made you decide to write a book about this issue?
My dad is a newspaper editor and one of his favourite pearls of wisdom that he likes to share with me, is his response to journalists when they ask how many words he wants them to file on a story. What's the story worth? he likes to reply cryptically. This came to mind when I found the story of Tasmania's forests to be much larger than I'd expected. Initially I had gone down to the island and thought – 2000, 3000 words maximum – only to end up writing quadruple that without even touching the core of the issue. And unfortunately for me, once I've waded into a story, there is no going back, I'm mentally stuck in the story until it's finished. So, in a sense, the ongoing nature of the issues in Tasmania, the sausage string of political decisions and free kicks to forestry, the entrenched hate and division between the two sides, gave me little choice but to write a book about what I discovered there.
Who are some of the main people you interviewed for your book?
I spoke to so many people – there were the usual suspects such as 'Big Red' – also known as Paul Lennon, a former Labor premier and union boss, and Bob Brown, political leader of the Greens party. But as I often find in reportage, the known names don't give much away – and it was the ordinary Tasmanians – loggers, scientists, activists, foresters, police, vets, small business owners – who spent time with me and patiently explained the issues to me. Of note, I met with Bill Manning, a forester with Forest Practices Authority until he blew the whistle on what he saw as a completely negligent forestry agency in 2002. There were many people who didn't make it into the book but their help was crucial to the writing of it – such as Lindsay Tuffin – editor and founder of the online news site Tasmanian Times (which Paul Lennon described as 'fucking useless' after the site broke the story of renovations the then premier had done on his house by woodchipping company Gunns.)
What’s the most memorable moment from the interviews you conducted for the book?
Possibly meeting a baby wombat rescued by Kevin Perkins, a well-known furniture designer. He had to use a chisel to pry open a dead mother wombat's pouch to free the baby and he and his wife took turns nursing the wombat throughout the night for three months.
What was the most surprising thing you learnt from writing and publishing a book?
I have learnt many things during the course of writing this book. I discovered the 'mess' thresholds of my partner and housemates. I learnt how many dishes I can use before being forced to wash up. I've had the unfortunate pleasure of learning about the ailments of my elderly neighbours – blood pressure, a shonky ticker, one eye isn't working, and sore calves. And finally I also have to acknowledge that my cat is obsessed with me and she is probably organising another book contract just so we can spend more time together on the couch, her purring and trying to crawl on top of my laptop.
What advice would you give to other aspiring, non-fiction writers?
I was asked this same question a few years ago at a student media conference and had replied 'Be Original' only to watch as 100 heads looked at their notepads and scribbled this down. I'm not against note-taking – but something felt amiss. The idea that originality is something that can be prescribed was naive of me. So today's advice? Maybe it's more a plea than advice but if you want to write non-fiction, then please actually write something that hasn't yet been published. The amount of content in newspapers that has simply been copied and pasted from other news sources, then tweaked so it appears relevant to a local audience, is obscene. The internet has invented the 'hyperlink
Oh no, have I just written a long-winded version of 'Be Original'? I have, haven't I? My apologies!