International Research II: ‘As long as I don’t die, this will be a great story.’

Long ago, when I returned from a year of working and backpacking overseas, I lived in a shared house. A few months into my tenancy, my birthday came up and I was chuffed that my five other housemates cooked me a simple meal to celebrate. In the chilly winter air we talked over candlelight and cask wine. That night, every conversation spun around travel. As I’d recently returned from overseas my new friends asked about my adventures, and listened eagerly to my answers. And then, bang on 11 o’clock, they all stopped talking, wished me a happy birthday and left the room. One paused at the door to explain: this had been my birthday present, ‘A chance to talk about your travels,’ she said.


It’s funny how travel itself is so often exciting - yet listening to other people’s adventures can send us into comas of boredom. Not so at the recent session, International Research, at the NonfictioNow conference. The four speakers, Mieke Eerkens, Benjamin Law (The Family Law, Gaysia) Stephanie Elizondo Griest (Around the Bloc, Mexican Enough) and Desmond Barry (Cressida’s Bed, Falkland Diaries) had the rapt attention of their audience. They shared a few of their travel tales and some great tips for writers considering international research.

You may think that you’re well organised but Eerkens warns us that some things (such as accessing archives) can take much longer than expected. She approached one institution eight weeks before her arrival only to discover that they needed four months’ notice. Once there, signing documents and making other commitments chewed into her research time.

Eerkens spoke the language in the country she was researching, but many of us won’t have bi- or multi-lingual abilities. Griest says it’s ‘profoundly important for writers to learn as much as possible of the language.’ Even speaking it poorly can be an asset – it infantilises you and can help to equalise any power imbalances when you’re in a country with less power than yours, she says. Still, some of us will need translators. If you’re on a budget, Law recommends approaching local universities, and using students of translation and linguistics.

Learning the basics of the language will take you some way into another country, but trying to understand those you are researching will take you further. One of Griest’s mantras is: the subject is always, always, always, always right. ‘If they’re not right, I haven’t done my job,’ she says. ‘They are acting in their own truth and it is up to us [as researchers] to find out what that truth is.’

To help us understand our subjects Griest advises writers to ‘live the lives’ of those we’re researching as much as possible. Rent a room in their neighbourhood. Eat their foods. Hang out at their haunts. And practice humility. ‘Understand and deeply appreciate that what we do [as writers] is the greatest possible privilege,’ she says. Her respect for her subjects is so strong that Griest shows her work to them before publication. 'It’s a partnership.' Plus, no matter how careful you are you will make mistakes. (And yes, she has had to make changes and cuts as a result of this approach).

Being open to change is pivotal to writing good stories Law says. Sometimes you may not be able to get access to a subject by virtue of who you are and the cultural biases associated with this (for example your gender, your race etc. may create or remove hurdles). Barry says we can, ‘overcome suspicion by talking and engaging with as many people as possible.’

Griest’s first book, Around the Bloc started with this principle. She simply approached strangers and asked them where the orphanage was (in Russian, of course). She did this for days, until she found an orphanage that led her deeper into the story. ‘There was literally no method to my madness,’ she says, ‘I would hit the street everyday, looking around, taking notes and being there for a very, very long time.’ Being there, being open, being flexible and talking to the locals are central to successful international research, ‘But in pursuing our research, we can [inadvertently] ignore our instincts,’ Eerkens says. The story is important, but so is our safety.

Eerkens once found herself seriously considering an invitation to enter a stranger’s house in order to access photos for her research. (Even though she would think twice about this in her home-country). ‘In my eagerness to get the information I was ignoring my gut feeling,’ she says. ‘It’s easy to go along in pursuit of what your goal is, but take care.’

Eerkens also flags the importance of having an emotional outlet when researching overseas (particularly when you’re on difficult subjects, such as war). For her it was the solitude of her apartment. For others it can be hanging out with friends. As Eerkens shares this advice her fellow speakers nod. Later Law cites an occasional thought he had while researching, ‘As long as I don’t die, this will be a great story.’

Travel in itself can be a churn of fun, frustration and fear. Adding research whips up a storm of technical, cultural, emotional and physical challenges. ‘An international research project needs an idea that you’re really in love with,’ says Barry.

Once you find a story you love, you’ll be all set to tell others of your adventures. And if you write it well, you may even get an opportunity to regale your readers far beyond my 11 o’clock birthday curfew.

An audio file of this panel on International Research will be available on the website in early 2013.

A journal that makes sense

On my first morning in Paris, I awoke to the sounds of suitcase zippers and rustling plastic bags. A couple of girls whispered to each other as they brushed their hair and sprayed their too-sweet deodorant about. My mouth tasted of yesterday’s airplane. At first I was disoriented. So I lay for a while, wrapped in my sleeping bag and taking stock. Once my fellow backpackers left I eased my feet down the bony metal bunk-bed ladder and onto the not-quite-sticky carpet. At the arched window, I drew the curtain. The room was on a pretty Parisian street. A few people passed on the pavement below. Pot plants filled with geraniums flowered on the balcony next door. I saw a Boulangerie a few doors over. Around me were classic white buildings, each – like mine – three or four stories high. In the one immediately opposite a young man appeared in the full-length window holding a mug in his hand. He was dark, and handsome. He was also completely naked. ‘I’m in Paris!’ I exclaimed to myself.


The truth is, there’s only one part of those paragraphs that I remember with any certainty (the naked man, of course). The rest is made up from my fading, unreliable memories and images of Paris I picked up over the years. I could never publish those pars as non-fiction – and even if I tried, I think I’d be called on it. There’s a certain authenticity missing from my descriptions.

Had I kept a better journal I may have been able to take you into that room. But (like most of my travel journals since) my notes were about what I did, ideas, events and occasionally frustrations. I’ve always known that I’m a bad travel-journaller but it wasn’t until Natalia Rachel Singer’s presentation at NonfictioNow that I realised where I was going wrong. Singer is the Craig Professor of English at St Lawrence University in the USA, Contributing Editor to The North American Review and writer of a memoir, Scraping by in the Big Eighties. She was presenting a paper in the session, Immersion Writing, and her advice was this: keep a journal of the senses.

‘A good journal… allows you to be alive in the moment, to experience it fully through your five senses, your mind and heart, and then to record it in such a way that you’ll be able to relive it again and again,’ she writes in a brief for her students (whom she takes to India and France). ‘What I’m asking you to record is not so much what you did…as to what your body experienced there: visual impressions, colours, textures, smells, sounds. What it meant to be alive there. How the place got under your skin…’ she tells them.

Sensory memories can call us back to a place for decades to come says Singer. For Marcel Proust it was a madeleine. For me, it’s the smell of freshly cut grass which, still reminds me of visiting Australia from my childhood home of Hong Kong (even though I’ve now lived in Australia for over 30 years).

Singer writes that, ‘when you take your body somewhere to learn something about the world it is your instrument, your compass, your astrolabe, your archive, library and memory palace… It all depends on being alert, being a good listener and recorder, being attentive, and finding the means, through language… to gather enough sensory material to make the piece you write feel authentic, vivid, lived in, true.’

I have so often eschewed journal-writing during travel for the promise of truly being in the moment. (I had all but given up on the idea of writing travel stories). But now I am starting to think that a journal of the senses will put structure to my travel notes. It will enable me to write lists rather than prose when I’m so inclined. This is how I research and take notes for my non-travel stories (I allow myself to be in those moments as a writer). Somehow up until now I’ve seen travel differently.

As Singer tells her students, this model of journaling has wide benefits, ‘Part of what a good piece of journal writing can do is capture, evocatively, a mood which can be just as fleeting as the passage of a cloud… If you’re really being attentive, your journal of the five senses will help you find an epiphany or central metaphor for a piece of writing.’

Over the years I have learned to document the facts of travel (things like addresses, telephone numbers, prices, times, dates, opening hours etc.). I kept paper artefacts in my journals for purely aesthetic reasons. They included ticket stubs, brochures, business cards, maps, coasters and wrappers. As Singer notes, keeping these things can save time detailing costs and basic facts. A glue-stick will go nicely with your journal of the senses.

I wonder how much better my description of Paris would be, had I documented my senses rather than the events. It’s the sensory details we forget over time. They’re the ones that journaling can rescue decades later. As Singer says, I should now consider my travel journal as a, ‘passport into time and place, a way of capturing moments as they shimmer past.’

Singer’s presentation was part of a panel on Immersion Writing that included Peter Doyle, Robin Hemley and Kate Rossmanith. An audio recording will be available on the website in early 2013.

International research: it’s enough to give you a nosebleed

When I was in Japan earlier this year I tried to interview a local friend of mine. I’d hoped to capture her story on audio for later use in some kind of podcast or radio documentary. She’d already spoken about her experience in English (her second language) with great depth and lucidity. When I asked her if I could record an interview she was pleased. And then she said, ‘Would it be OK if you gave me the questions first, so that I can write the answers and read them to you?’ She wasn’t prepared to go on the record without perfect English, yet  I wasn’t interested in a perfect answer. It was an awkward situation both practically and culturally.


As I pursued that ill-fated international story I frequently found myself in quagmires of cultural difference. I came to the conclusion that I’d best improve my processes before I visit the country again.

At NonfictioNow this Saturday, four writers (Benjamin Law, Desmond Barry, Mieke Eerkens and Stephanie Elizondo Griest with David Carlin) will front a session, International Research and the Nonfiction Writer. They’ll provide us with practical information and encouragement on writing and researching in lands far away.

Australian writer, Benjamin Law (The Family Law, Gaysia) is fast becoming an expert on researching and writing overseas. For his most recent book, Gaysia he traveled to seven different countries over 18 months, ‘I got used to writing the book in windowless hostel rooms in Malaysia, overnight train compartments in India and airports,’ he says.

Traveling in itself can be food for frustration. Add to that the desire to research a story and you need to develop a high level of flexibility. Language and cultural barriers can take you to the wrong place. Like the train Law accidentally took in India, ‘Think: kids in the luggage compartment, peanut shells all over the floor, human shit on the toilet walls (no joke) and such a density of people that grown men insisted on sitting on my lap.’

But frustration and inspiration often come hand-in-hand. ‘That sort of stuff was hilarious too, and I can remember laughing like a madman throughout it all, thinking it'd make for great material,’ says Law. (Indeed, in writing this post, I’ve just rehashed my own frustration in my first paragraph).

Those of us who are interested in international stories are also interested in being overseas. ‘Going to a country I've never been to before makes me feel 10-years-old over again. Everything is interesting and new and stimulating, and the people you meet are constantly surprising. It's enough to give you a nosebleed,’ Law says.

In a bid to ensure he understands the fundamentals before leaving home, Law reads up a lot. He organises a quota interviews including one close to his arrival, ‘with someone who could give me the lay of the land… [and] more stories and leads to follow,’ he says. When he knows he’s traveling a lot he buys a year of travel insurance.

Like me, Law has been frustrated by language. ‘Good interpreters and translators are expensive, and sometimes the subject matter calls for people who are sensitive to what you're writing about,’ he says. And then there’s budget. Even with an advance on his book Law, ‘also dug deep into my savings. By the time I'd filed the final edit, I was the poorest I'd ever been.’

Writing and researching overseas ‘is sort of humbling too… it was a good reminder that writers are supremely lucky… All I needed was my laptop, my notepad, pens, backpack, good plumbing and a lockable room every night,’ says Law.

This session could be a corker for anyone planning or writing stories away from home. (Speaking with Law has alone buoyed my plans for another Japanese story).

Researching internationally isn’t easy. But Law insists we must not be discouraged. A good story is a good story, no matter where it is. ‘I've got two ideas for follow-up books… that are driving me insane every time I think of the logistics, but screw it – they have to be written!’

Benjamin Law will be presenting in the session International Research and the Nonfiction Writer with Desmond Barry, Mieke Eerkens and Stephanie Elizondo Griest and David Carlin on Saturday 24 November at 10.00am.

Visit the NonfictioNow website for more detail.

Mini-magazines and long form distribution

There’s a session at the NonfictioNow conference that couldn’t be more appropriate for this blog: ‘Longform Nonfiction and Online Distribution’. Four emerging practitioners of the non-fiction form will, ‘explore the role that reading and writing online have [in influencing their] work, while engaging in a form of cultural activism, in which writers are found fighting for more space for longer works of nonfiction,’ (from the precis). As the words ‘activism’ and ‘fighting’ imply, there is a certain chutzpah involved in pursuing long form these days. Aggregate sites like and as well as initiatives such as Kindle Singles, The Atavist and Byliner have provided new US-based venues for writers. The presence of these and other digital-first publishing initiatives (like Editia in Australia) have given me cause for celebration. But, as writer Elmo Keep reminds me, things aren't ideal in the Australian context.


‘In terms of traditional mastheads where there’s a focus on extremely high-quality long form investigative-based journalism, we don’t really have many places to choose from in Australia. We’ve got a really rich and very alive literary journal tradition here. But that’s different to magazines. There are very few options to Australian non-fiction writers who want to write long, get published and get paid,’ Keep says.

Writers like Keep have successfully pursued overseas markets to publish their long form work. But pitching to overseas publications – such as those in the US – can be restrictive for Australians. ‘Unless it’s an exceptional Australian story that resonates universally [those stories getting published are] probably going to be something that appeals to American audiences,’ says Keep.

The US market is particularly strong (compared to Australia which can boast just a handful of print publications that publish long form work). ‘We do have places where our stories go but they’re niche places. We have nothing like a national magazine with the reach of The New Yorker for example,’ Keep says.

Keep values the opportunities overseas publications can give to Australian writers, but she is concerned about a trickle-down effect. There could be ‘a poverty of people writing Australian stories.’ The session at NonfictioNOW will consider the climate for publishing long form non-fiction in Australia. ‘We’ll be talking about that, about why our magazine culture is what it is or isn’t, and about how you can get your work out,’ says Keep.

These days, finding a publisher is just one challenge to establishing a career for new and emerging writers of long form non-fiction (this Venues and Resources page can be helpful). Another is in facing the call to ‘build’ an online ‘brand’ or ‘platform’ from which to promote our work (and/or determine how necessary this really is). To my mind, Keep has built her writerly brand relatively well. She has a strong online presence and over 3,000 Twitter followers.

Keep says acquiring this presence was organic. She’s a self-described nerd who has been online since 1995 (when the Internet was mostly about community). She was there, ‘before brands invaded the space. Before the idea of a personal brand was even a thing that someone would say.’

‘I just wanted to be someone on Twitter who you would want to follow because that person was always sharing things that were interesting or funny or hilarious... Just being like a miniature magazine,’ she says.

Having an online presence never hurts says Keep. ‘It can lead to great opportunities and it can lead to meeting great people.’ It’s useful for research, interviewing and being part of a community. But she warns that, ‘there can be a little bit of snake oil that goes around. The only thing that’s ever going to be good is [good writing. The writer’s ‘brand’] is always going to be auxiliary to everything else that goes into publicising a book. It’s not a replacement for being interviewed on Radio National or getting reviewed in The Australian,’ she says.

Using these platforms successfully is, ‘about catching a really wild tide on the Internet – which you can’t create. If you’re pouring all your time into that and not pouring that time into doing meaningful work then it’s completely self defeating.’

Elmo Keep will be presenting in the session Longform Nonfiction and Online Distribution with John Proctor, Ronnie Scott, Sam Twyford-Moore and Steve Grimwade on Friday 23 November at 3.00pm.

Visit the NonfictioNow website for more detail.

Picturing the essay

When I speak to Leila Philip, multi award winning non-fiction writer and Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the College of the Holy Cross in the USA, our conversation lilts over the work of many others. She talks about Wallace Stevens, Walker Evans and James Agee. I hear of Errol Morris, Merce Cunningham and John Cage. At the centre of all these references is the ongoing idea of collaboration, be that between photographer and writer, musician and dancer, photographer and viewer, or writer and reader. Collaboration is ostensibly the topic of Philip’s paper in the Picturing the Essay session at next week’s NonfictioNow conference in Melbourne. The precis describes the paper somewhat pragmatically ‘Leila Philip will discuss the process of working with an artist to put a book of text and image together.’ Reading this a few weeks ago my initial reaction was to envisage some kind of illustrated fiction-like book. But what Philip and her collaborator (husband, Sculptor Garth Evans) have undertaken does not involve a literal illustration of either words or pictures, and rather than being fiction-like, it sounds closer to a new perspective for the non-fiction genre.


‘We talked about doing a call-and-response type of process where I might write a poem and then he’d do a watercolour in response. Or I might write a poem after looking at some of his work. But we rejected that idea,’ Philip says. She’s talking about the planning for their soon-to-be-published book, ‘Water Under the Bridge’ (Argian Press, 2013). It’s a collaboration between her lyric essays and Evans’ watercolours.

Both felt that a ‘trap of illustration’ would be of no interest to anyone but themselves. Instead they agreed on a theme and then produced their work independently. Philip and Evans were keen that their contributions would stand up as independent pieces. Yet the very nature of collaboration is that their work must also stand together.

‘I want my writing to realise the full potential of what words have to offer. I want to make sure that they have their full power – and then I’m totally excited to have them go play with the image,’ Philip says. This word ‘play’ would probably be better than ‘process’ as is applied in the conference precis. It recognises the need for independence in a work, but it also shows the chance for unexpected ideas that conspire from collaboration.

Something new – specifically the idea of chance operations as Cage describes it – interested Philip and Evans. ‘We were both committed to this idea of letting chance happen,’ she says of their collaboration. To wit, the two of them tried to ‘rigorously shut down over thinking,’ to make room for the unexpected and spontaneous.

‘I think there is an aspect of listening that happens in the interplay as well. You can’t determine what someone’s taking away from your words just as you can’t determine what someone’s taking away from your image. But maybe that’s what’s exciting about it – a third thing will happen that you can’t anticipate. To me that’s really what art is about,’ Philip says.

The opportunity to draw on something less literal has fueled Philip’s personal engagement with this project. She appreciates lyric essays and the ‘gaps and associative leaps’ that the format can bring.

‘It’s in those silences and in those gaps that I’m finding a lot of meaning.’ She compares it to other non-fiction forms that aim to give the reader a sense of place. ‘There’s so much more movement [in the lyric essay] because there isn’t such an emphasis on [a] scenic, finite moment of time… it’s part of what makes it possible for the words to connect with the non-verbal image that is the world of the visual arts,’ she says.

These ideas of collaboration are not often discussed in the non-fiction worlds in which I engage, but they’re exciting to reflect on and talk about. Philip’s own interest is engaged with this new arena of discourse, ‘One of the reasons I’m excited to be coming to [NonfictioNow] is because a lot of the panels are about the new, and where we’re heading. It’s really trying to look at and establish a dialogue for these dynamics.’

Leila Philip will be discussing her collaborative project in the session Picturing the Essay with David Carlin, Ross Gibson and Kathryn Millard on Thursday 22 November at 10.30am.

She will also be presenting in Lyric Nonfiction: Memory, Image, Trauma with Elizabeth Kadetsky, Threasa Meads and Brandon Schrand on Thursday 22 November at 12.00pm.

Visit the NonfictioNow website for more detail.