Be brave, be honest: Q&A with journalist Jack Marx

Jack Marx is a journalist and author, well-known for his Walkley Award-winning story ‘I was Russell Crowe’s stooge‘, and a controversial biography of legendary muso Stevie Wright. Q&A by Dylan Berg.

What made you decide to be a writer?

I was always good at English at school (a failure at everything else) and was good at creative writing and essays. I honestly don’t know where that came from, because I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. But when I left school I shacked up with a girl who was going to university and was struggling with her literature component. I offered to read the books she was meant to read and do her assignments for her, an offer which she happily accepted. I remember what the books were – A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – and, to my surprise, I really enjoyed reading and writing about them. It was then that I discovered reading, really, and have never stopped. Incidentally, I got that girl great marks, and she is now a well-respected professional in her field.

What pathway did you take to get into journalism?

I got into journalism by accident. When I left school I didn’t know what I wanted to be – the only thing I was interested in was art and music (there was a strong live music scene in Sydney in the early 80s). I got cosy with the staff of a weekly music magazine called On The Street, and soon they employed me to work in the art room, helping the designer to put together the pages. This suited me because I was interested in design and music, and I got to meet a lot of musicians and people in the industry. I became pretty good at it and stayed there for a long time. Naturally, I read On The Street from cover to cover as I was laying it out, and in around 1989 I realised I could probably do better than half of the twerps that were passing themselves off as writers, so I started doing reviews – album reviews and a few live gigs as well – my only payment being CDs and free tickets. Soon I was doing interviews and proper stories.  In 1991 I got a call from the editor of the music section at Sydney Morning Herald, who’d been reading my stuff and liked it.So I started writing for him, too.Once my byline started appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald, offers of work started coming from all sorts of magazines. It was when I went in search of Stevie Wright from The Easybeats, for what was meant to be a story for Rolling Stone but ended up being a book, that I realised there was more to life – and writing – than just music. I’ve been writing about anything ever since.

What advice would you have for someone trying to break into the industry?

Firstly, read. You can’t become good at writing unless you read. Learning to write well is really just about noticing how the good writers do it. When you read, your brain soaks up such things as grammar, structure, drama, rhythm and style without you even realising it’s happening. If you’re constantly reading, then eventually your own style will become an amalgam of all the many things that have impressed you along the way. By the same token, if you’re constantly reading crap then that’s what you’ll become; crap. Avoid news, as in the type of news you find on – it teaches you nothing. If you must read news, read the New York Times or some similar heavyweight journal, just to see how they shape short news stories together. But try to find long-form investigative stories, essays and commentary as well as books. Don’t limit yourself to what’s available on the internet – magazines of the past, like Esquire and Playboy, can be found in second-hand bookstores and feature the best writing of the last century. Also, where possible, avoid television. The way everyone on TV talks – from the advertiser’s bark to the peak-and-trough drone of the newsreader – actually trains your brain to communicate like they do. If, by some terrible accident, I’ve happened in the past to catch the moronic Sunrise family in the morning, I’ve had noticeable trouble stringing my sentences together for the rest of the day. I no longer have a TV.

Aside from that, take work anywhere, but aim for the big three: Fairfax, News Corp and the ABC. Nobody cares about the bylines in Junkee or Buzzfeed. Having said that, here’s a good list of places where you can get published online – – which goes to show there’s no excuse for not making a living out of writing these days. Also, make contact with journalists and befriend them. It’s still very much a “who you know” sort of industry.

How do you think journalism has changed since you started your career?

It’s changed massively. Obviously, there was no internet when I started, so journalism was very much a closed profession. As soon as the net started filling with websites and blogs that mimicked the mainstream print media it seemed to everyone that the cat was out of the bag, that anyone could be a journalist after all. The inevitability of “fake news” – and the terrible state of online news generally – has revealed the folly of that thinking. But, aside from a momentary collapse in the value of journalism (if everyone’s writing for free, why pay a journalist?), the internet brought two major changes: a preference for brief, clickbait-style stories over more nourishing longform pieces; and a shift from what was good journalism to simply what was popular journalism. When I was first writing, there was no way of knowing what the readers thought of a piece. Some letters to the editor might come in, or a few sub editors or other journalists would say they liked it, but all the editors and myself had to guide us was whether we ourselves felt the story was good. With the internet, everything changed: for the first time publishers could actually see how many people had read the story, and that brought both good and bad insights for publishers. Gone were the days of trusting our own judgement about whether a story was good or not; the important thing, all of a sudden, was whether it was getting hits. Stories about important things – Indigenous issues, the aged – began to be shunned because they simply weren’t as popular as stories about celebrities and crime. Journalism has become almost entirely about what people want to read, rather than what journalists should be writing about. Even at the ABC, a media corporation traditionally unconcerned with what’s popular, journalists writing online today are judged by their superiors on how many ‘clicks’ their stories get (the current directive is that if your story doesn’t get 5000 hits then it’s a failure, and will go against you at performance review time). So that’s a bad change. A good change, I suppose, is that everybody’s had to lift their game. No matter how “worthy” your story might be, you’d better make it swing sweeter than Kim Kardashian’s butt or it’s not going to get a look in. That’s a challenge I don’t mind.

In your Russell Crowe story you mention another journalist saying good things about him so that she could get an exclusive interview and that her colleagues might think she was weak. Is it possible, or even necessary, to stay on good terms with people so you can get quotes or interviews with them yet still be critical?

It’s certainly a good idea to try to have “contacts” that might come in useful, and to keep people onside for some future purpose. But if that consideration is going to force you to write bullshit – or not write something that you feel you should – then it’s not worth it. I’m very suspicious of any journalist who becomes friends with the industry they’re working in, whether it be entertainment or politics. In any case, very rarely do people like what you write, if you’re any good. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve been thanked by someone for a story, and the list of people who’ve declared they will never speak to me again is endless, but I’m still working. You don’t need people to play with you in order to write a good story.

In the same article you say that you swore you would never write for anyone but the reader. Is that still your belief?  

Absolutely. Most people – and all entertainers and artists – are under the mistaken belief that journalists exist to provide them with publicity, which is why I very rarely write about such people anymore. They’re not necessary. The most popular story I’ve had published in the last 12 months was a piece about me burying a dog in the desert and spending the night on his grave. There wasn’t a single human, let alone a celebrity, in the story besides myself. It can be done.

How do you keep your cool when dealing with personalities or celebrities such as Russell Crowe?

Not sure whether you mean regarding nerves or temper. With nerves, I was pretty starstruck in the beginning, and in awe of powerful, popular or gifted people. But after you’ve interviewed a whole bunch of them you begin to realise they’re all made from the same cloud of atoms as yourself so it starts to wear off. The best thing is always to do your homework – read up a bit about them, read their book, listen to their music, watch their film or study their history before the interview – and you can’t go wrong. People like it when they see you’ve researched them, and they can spot it a mile away when you haven’t. With regard to temper – when a subject tries to bait you, anger you or intimidate you – it’s simple. I always have one eye of my mind on the story that’s going to be written. With that eye opened, I’ll allow anything to happen, ‘cos I know I’ll have the last word. Even a beating will look great on the page. When you think like that – almost like you’re an avatar whose real self will deal with things later once the game has ended – no situation can shake you, humiliate you or otherwise make you lose your cool.

How do you cope with criticisms? It seems like you may have annoyed a lot of people in your career, does it ever worry you, or is annoying people an essential part of being a journalist?

You hear a lot of people say things like: “If you’re a journalist and everyone hates you then you must be doing something right.” I don’t necessarily think that’s true. There are many journalists, writers and commentators who I can’t stand and I can assure you it’s not because they’re any good. Having said that, some of the best writing and journalism occurs when someone writes something someone believes they shouldn’t have, whether that someone is a politician, an artist or a million people who disagree. I think I used to court criticism and controversy early on – and it’s certainly a good way to make a name for yourself quickly – but once you mature a little bit you realise that being annoying isn’t particularly noble or clever. The important thing is to be brave and honest, and if you can make someone laugh or rage in the process then good for you. I was lucky – I was blogging for SMH very early in the online era, and that exposed me to the avalanche of comments I’d get, a good percentage of them critical or abusive. It was difficult at first – some days I got called a prick every five minutes – but after a while I became a bit numb to it. Today, I couldn’t give a frog’s fat arse what anyone else thinks about what I write, provided I’m confident in myself that it’s good.

Which writers inspire you?

For fiction: Jerzy Kosinski (The Painted BirdBeing ThereCockpit), Henry Miller (The Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy) William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy (Blood MeridianNo Country for Old MenAll The Pretty Horses, etc), Mark Twain (everything). Non-fiction: William Shirer (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich), Fawn Brodie (No Man Knows My History), James Elroy (My Dark Places), Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch), Shelby Foote (The Civil War: A Narrative), Carl Sagan (Cosmos). For reportage: Truman Capote, Joan Didion, H.L. Menchen, Norman Mailer,  Jimmy Breslin. For critique: Roger Ebert. For commentary: Brian O’Nolan, Helen Razer.

Featured photo courtesy Jack Marx

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