I saw this tweet from my colleague Kumi and like many of you, I connected with the sentiment she expressed.
A few years I was doing a Q&A with Rosie Batty at a conference. One of the things that stuck with me was something along the lines of how she had always feared losing her only son, Luke. And then the unimaginable happened; Luke was killed by his father.
The Kelly family, like Rosie has been through the unimaginable.
Hearing about the attack on Thomas Kelly in July 2012 felt sickening.
That his younger brother Stuart would take his own life in 2016 was another incredibly cruel low for the Kelly family. How could such loss strike twice?
At the time I hadn’t followed the events between Thomas’ death and Stuart’s suicide too closely, but I know about these events intimately now, having read Too Late Too Soon, Kathy and Ralph Kelly’s blistering, heart-breaking book which has just been launched.
Two weeks ago I interviewed Kathy for One Plus One which airs this Friday on ABCTV.
When I heard my show had been offered the interview with Kathy, a part of me froze.
How was I supposed to face a woman who had been through the unimaginable. Twice.
First I had to deal with my own dread. What if something like that happened to my family? How would we survive? What would it be like emersing myself into Kathy’s world? How does anyone move on?
I read the book from cover to cover. The first chapter ends with Thomas’ death. It had a pace that puts you right in the scene. And it was utterly harrowing. I put the manuscript down and cried.
But as I progressed through the story, scribbling my thoughts down in the margins, the sense of dread receded. I searched for anchors. There are many experiences in the nearly 500 interviews I've done and the places I've travelled to. I've had friends and family who have stories of great suffering and great restoration. As I crafted my questions, I read poetry (mainly Mary Oliver) about loss and meaning. I read up on resilience, and noted how Kathy said she and her husband Ralph dealt with grief in different ways.
I now had a pathway. I tidied the questions into a neatish road with a beginning, middle and end.
I’ll never be ready, I thought. But then I never think I am.
I’m usually thinking up questions to the last possible moment.
Before I knew it, interview day had arrived and Kathy appeared in the studio. We chatted briefly. She was cheerful and seemed to be in a good place. I liked her instantly.
Did I hit the mark with the interview?
I’m never the best judge. But now when I think of Kathy I don’t think of her as a sad person with incomprehensible loss weighing her down. She is someone with multiple dimensions. I think of her walking the dogs in the park. I think of a partnership she's held together, of nurturing her daughter Madeleine. I imagine her having dark moments as well as times of clarity and lightness and joy.
For me that feels better than the cocoon of sympathy we sometimes wrap people in.
This question came up during a panel at the Wheeler Centre a few years ago and I messed up! Enthusiastically, and thinking of my own style of biographical interview, I exclaimed, Yes! it is a privilege to interview people.
Then up spoke fellow panellist investigate journalist, Gold Walkley winner and Monash University Professor Phil Chubb (who sadly died last year). Without glancing at me he replied that interviewing was a right and part of the process of accountability that we undertake as journalists.
“I think we have a right to ask questions of people who set themselves up as public figures. We have a right to anticipate that they'll give us answers which are truthful,” he said.
I felt foolish and small as I listened to him wax passionately about the valuable programs he’d made (ie Labor in Power) and the politicians and kingmakers he’d held to account. I realised that our interviews were the polar opposite. Thankfully the third panellist, Ramona Koval weighed in.
“I think when you're interviewing public figures it's a right. It's a privilege when you're interviewing people who aren't necessarily public figures, people whose lives have come to public attention…they just might be opening their hearts and minds and lives to you. That is a privilege, I think.”
I've been thinking about the right/privilege question since Sarah Ferguson's recent Steve Bannon interview. I didn't find the interview particularly satisfying (I don't imagine it was much fun either), but Bannon is absolutely newsworthy and there's no question that 4C's should have pursued and put to air that interview.
We need hard-hitting investigative interviews; those which hold individuals to account (when they choose to be interviewed). And, according to Ramona Koval:
There are a whole range of interviews which make us ponder what’s meaningful in life and how people navigate fortune or misfortune or hold a light to the shadows.
Unearthing gems like this is certainly a privilege. But next time, I'll opt to go last on the panel :)
The interview set-up, which can be anywhere (in someone's home, on a stage, in the centre of a crowd) needs to be a coccoon where you first set the mood by some light but focused conversation.
Sometimes you may just need to make the guest laugh. Breathing is always good.
These days unless I'm at festivals or special events, it's rare for me to have an audience during my interviews.
On One Plus One the cameras are automated so there's actually no-one else in the studio except for the guest and me, atlhough there are people in a control-room nearby. This is about as intimate a setting as you can get.
I have a few minutes to break the ice. I do this by chatting about the guest's new work or clearing up any missing holes in the research: What happened in those years when...Did you stop being a sex-worker? How would you feel if we spoke about the time when....
That's all. I try to keep it light. I look at people to try to read their mood. Sometimes they'll tell me things like, "I'm really jet-lagged. I got off the plane from LA last night." Every now and then a guest tells me they find these sorts of interviews challenging.
I hope I manage to change that by the end.
And then as soon as the director informs that we are recording, I begin like a toboggan setting off down a snow-covered hill, peeling away the layers at a pace which seems comfortable and achievable for the guest.
This is the most frequently-asked FAQ. The answer is ... our editorial team chooses the guests.
FB follower, Alec Valcanis, adds: "is it by availability or by invite?"
It's by invitation, Alec. In a calender year we record approximately 45 interviews. When we record depends on the guest's availability and my research schedule (I'll talk about research in a separate post). The editorial team also decides the appropriate transmission dates.
Here's where we find potential guests:
I see an advert on the back of a disappearing bus.
Through news and feature articles.
Recommendations from colleagues.
Recommendations from guests.
Schedules of upcoming shows, books, conferences, events, speeches, festivals.
People write and offer themselves as interviewees.
Viewers offer suggestions via FB, Twitter and email.
Professional publicists representing authors, performers, academics, lawyers, and scientists (as a sample) pitch people or ideas to us.
Does everyone you approach say 'yes'?
Occassionally it's a no. We move on.
What do you base your decision on?
It boils down to two questions:
* Why is the audience likely to be interested in this person?
* Is the guest likely to deliver a fascinating, half-hour conversation on camera?