This article about The Making of Julia Gillard by Jacqueline Kent recently appeared in ACTWRITE: The Magazine of the ACT Writers’ Centre. Jacqueline Kent is teaching a course called Whose Life is It Anyway? at the NSW Writers’ Centre, beginning Saturday 21 April.
When Jacqueline Kent first considered writing a biography of one of Australia’s most high-profile public figures, Australia’s first female (then-Deputy) Prime Minister, she realised there was a lot about Julia Gillard that people didn’t know. For Jacqueline, two fundamental questions stood out: who is Julia Gillard and how did she get there?
In answering these questions, Jacqueline and her researcher Doug Hendrie interviewed countless people who know or knew Julia, from university, work and politics. Jacqueline even managed to get an audience with Julia herself, and several times at that.
I spoke to Jacqueline over the phone from her home in Sydney, and we discussed the ‘how tos’ of interviewing for a biography and the making of The Making of Julia Gillard.
Writing a biography is a labour of love. Before a single word is written, there is oodles of research to be done, people to get information from, and then more people after that to actually interview for the book.
Jacqueline explains: ‘Doug interviewed quite a few people before he got information for the people he interviewed, if you know what I mean. A lot of this involves finding out who you need to get stuff from. And that takes a while as well, you’ve got to interview people for that.’
There was the more enjoyable research, of the ‘what’s she like?’ variety. And then there was the less enjoyable research, such as understanding key pieces of legislation Julia was involved in, which required Jacqueline to trawl through Hansard and make the most of the Parliamentary library.
Enjoyable research for a biography sometimes includes gossip, which Jacqueline finds an incredibly useful tool.
‘My general rule has been if more than four or five people tell you the same thing, it’s very likely worth an investigation.’
Gossip can also tell you a lot about a person, including how they were or are perceived by the people they come in contact with, and the influence they had on the people around them. Jacqueline cites a previous biography she wrote, on a female former book editor for Angus and Robertson.
‘In another book I did, I heard a lot of rumours about Beatrice Davis who was regarded as being gay. And all those rumours were spread by men – need we say more?’
Just as Jacqueline and Doug didn’t immediately come upon the sources that would be most useful to them for the book, Jacqueline wasn’t immediately granted an interview with the now-Prime Minister either. By the time of her first meeting with Julia, it had been a long time since she first approached her. It came after Jacqueline and Doug were in the thick of things with researching for the book.
‘I started digging around, and Doug started digging around a bit in the Victorian ALP. He found a lot of people who knew her on the way up and were still in contact. They said to Doug and I, “Oh, I’ll have to check this with Julia”, and we both thought, ‘What the hell for?’ But enough people did check with her for her to realise the book was going to be done in good taste. Then her office rang me up and asked: would I like to talk to her?’
‘She gave me a lot of time, actually,’ Jacqueline says. ‘I had three long interviews with her, two long phone conversations and a lunch. Which isn’t bad, for a Deputy PM.’
The fact that Julia changed her mind about speaking to Jacqueline was a fortunate turn of events, although more often than not, there is very little one can do to persuade a potential interviewee to say yes.
‘If people say, “What do you want to ask me?”, that’s fine, that’s good. But if people say, “No, I don’t want to talk about that” – that’s it. It really is.’
Having secured an interview with an important source, there are a number of factors that come into the equation. For instance, there’s the matter of the approach an interviewer should take when dealing with a seasoned media performer versus Joe ordinary, who may be less comfortable with having his words recorded.
With less experienced interviewees, Jacqueline says that you have to put them at ease and let them know that the interview is no big deal.
‘A big part of that is saying, “I’ll let you see what I’m putting in before I publish anything”,’ Jacqueline says.
‘For most people, it’s a bit of a shock because they’re not used to seeing how their words are used and quoted. That’s why you have to show them and give them a chance to change what they’ve said.’
Although not a media novice by any stretch, Jacqueline says that she showed Julia the manuscript of her biography before going to print in what she describes as an honour exchange.
‘If she was going to give me her time, the way I figured it, I thought I should let her see what I was going to do with it,’ Jacqueline says. ‘I was terrified – it’s really quite a scary thing to do. She could have slapped a writ on me, she could’ve done anything.’
But, to Jacqueline’s relief, apart from a few corrections of fact concerning timing and her family, Julia left the biography well alone.
The interviewer and interviewee may also develop a relationship where one seduces the other: the interviewer may do this to elicit as much information from their source as they can; the interviewee – especially if they are experienced in dealing with journalists – may lull the interviewer into a false sense of security and influence the shape of the final product.
Jacqueline describes the relationship that develops as one of forced intimacy. More than
for a news story, the interviewer and the interviewee may be in contact over a long period of time. But the interviewee needs to always keep in mind that what they say may be used and put to print, and the interviewer should always be circumspect.
‘I think you avoid that by saying to yourself all the time, I like this person, I like what they’re telling me, but is it the whole story?’
Sometimes, though, there is no approach but to be direct, for the interviewer. In Jacqueline’s view, there is no easy way of asking a difficult question.
‘You can’t pretend you’re not asking them – people pick that up in a millisecond. And you don’t preface it with “This is going to be difficult”. You just ask the question.’
On the matter of how questions for a biography might differ from those asked for a news or features story, Jacqueline says that the answer is longevity.
‘If you’re interviewing for a book, it’s going to stick around for longer than a newspaper is going to. The questions you need to ask have got to go beyond :Where were you born?”, “What’s your favourite food?” and all that stuff. You are supposed to have more analytical content – and the questions you ask should reflect that.’
When Julia Gillard gave an unequivocal ‘no’ in response to Jacqueline’s first request for an interview, Jacqueline told Julia that she was going to go through with the book regardless. Given that Jacqueline did wind up speaking to Julia, I asked her what impact this had on the biography.
‘It enabled me to get much more of a feel of who she was personally. It enabled me to look at her body language, to see how she treated other people, how other people made contact with her.’
Jacqueline describes Julia as ‘one of the most patient people I think I have ever met’, adding that she ‘didn’t do the thing that Kevin Rudd was famous for doing; she didn’t check her emails, she didn’t have people running in with ideas – she didn’t do any of that.’
When all is said and done, no matter how much preparation an interviewer has done, they can still flub an interview through nervousness.
Having an uninterrupted hour and a half – with more meetings to follow – with Julia Gillard would faze less experienced interviewers, but Jacqueline wasn’t nervous at all. Instead, she had this to say: ‘I was curious. And I think curiosity gets you through a lot of nerves, I really do.’
Evana Ho is a public servant, presenter/producer for ArtSound FM, and writer. But not in that order. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Making of Julia Gillard by Jacqueline Kent is published by Scribe $32.95.