James Button is an award-winning journalist and author. He is the former Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, for which he was also deputy editor and opinion editor. He has won two Walkley Awards for feature writing.
In 2009 he worked as a speechwriter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, which is the basis for his memoir, Speechless: A Year In My Father’s Business, published by Melbourne University Publishing in 2012. His second book, Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong, also published by Melbourne University Press, was released in 2016.
He is a board member of the John Button Foundation, which was established in memory of his late father, the Industry Minister, Senator and writer. Each year the foundation awards the John Button Prize, a non-partisan award that seeks to increase awareness of the best writing and thinking on long-term issues facing Australia.
James Button lives in Melbourne.
Speechless is a memoir of many parts: your time as Kevin Rudd’s speechwriter, life in the public service, life in Canberra generally, it’s also about your father, who was a well-known federal politician, and your brother and his death. How did you arrive at the structure for a book with so many threads?
One of the things I tried to do was to intersperse policy discussions with the whole experience of being in Canberra. I wanted to weave big and small together, to combine the experience of the policy side, and trying to analyze what they were wrestling with as a government, and my own feelings and personal experiences.
The broad sweep of the book is chronological so it starts with getting the phone call being asked to take a job in Canberra as Kevin Rudd’s speechwriter, and ends with my leaving Canberra not really knowing what to do next. I had been a journalist, but then had gone into government and become intoxicated by that world and was interested in the Labor Party, and had had a father who was in it.
So that is the broad chronological sweep, which explains chapters one, two and three. Then there’s chapter four, which possibly sits a bit uneasily in the overall structure of the book. That chapter is about the Labor Party and starts with a reflection on my dad’s entry into the Labor Party and opens out to a broader discussion of where the ALP is going.
I always had this hope that I could integrate that chapter into the chronological structure of the book. The way I wanted to do that was through a dinner I had one night in Canberra with three or four Labor advisors and they were talking about why they did what they did. One of them said it’s easy to criticize Labor governments, but we’ve just spent six billion dollars on public housing and the other lot won’t do that and that’s why Labor still matters. I remember thinking this was a rare moment of principle being espoused here, one you don’t hear so much of it in Canberra nowadays or in the broader Labor environment. That sense of principle is much less spoken now than perhaps it once was.
But the problem in a structural sense was trying to build a house on a nail. The dinner just wasn’t big enough an event to pivot the structure of that whole chapter of my father’s experience and where Labor was going. I tried about 20 times to start the chapter with that dinner and then go back into my father’s history, and it was the most difficult and most unsuccessful structural attempt I made in the book. In the end I just threw the dinner out in terms of trying to make it a load-bearing wall and just made it a story near the end of that chapter.
Chapters five, six and seven follow roughly a chronological order. Chapter eight is about my brother, David, and came from a sense of being in Canberra and thinking about my dad and my brother. I thought that tied in okay. Chapter nine follows on my father’s personal story, and whether he might have been a writer as opposed to a politician. In chapter 10 I come back to the final bit of my narrative which is leaving Canberra, thinking about jumping back in, not getting a job, handing out how to vote cards for Labor, that sort of stuff. So that’s the kind of shaggy dog structure, I suppose.
Regarding the material for the memoir, did you keep a diary at the time?
I did. I always keep a diary. The only time I didn’t keep a diary in my life in a really consistent way was when I was correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald in London for three years from 2005-2008. I was writing so much that I didn’t keep a diary.
The reason for keeping a diary [in Canberra] was that I was trying to do two things: understand this world I had gone into, which was completely different from the journalism world I’d been in before, but also I was trying to get inside the head of Kevin Rudd to help write speeches for him. So I was noting down everything that was coming up in terms of policies, or if I heard him speak, or if I read something that was relevant, I would write it all down because I thought it could all be useful. So when I came to write the book a couple of years later I actually had quite a good basis of notes.
The thing to stress is that it was just the newness of that world that made me want to write things down. I was in my late 40s, but it all felt like I was 21 again because I was inside government and I had always been on the outside looking in. So the newness of it made me want to get it down.
On a general point about diaries; every day I wake up with a feeling that I should be writing more in my diary. Because it’s so valuable as a record. I look back at diaries I kept when I was 20 when I was a much more assiduous diary keeper and I thank God I’ve got that stuff because is really detailed. You can remember the big sweep of something, but it’s the detail that is magic.
Speechless is a memoir of many subjects. Did you have any problems with consistency of tone?
I’m very obsessive and fastidious about getting the thing to the point of what I want it to say. And I will fret away at that. In a way, tone is a byproduct of trying to put a sense of urgency into every paragraph. I’m not saying that every paragraph has that, but my goal is to get a sense of urgency into each paragraph so that it is matters. And I’m striving for a sense of good humour, but searching and slightly unsatisfied quality in my writing, like trying to solve a puzzle.
If you look at the conceptually difficult chapters, like the one around the public service, the challenge there was to make what is ostensibly a dry subject appealing to outsiders who have quite possibly never given the public service a moment’s thought in their lives. For chapter seven, for instance, that looks at the public service then goes into language and comes back to the idea as to what role the public services plays, I wanted to explain to people that some of the things government is wrestling with is really very difficult and sideline criticism is easy.
Even some of the issues about [public service] jargon – I mean, I loathe jargon – actually explains that there is a reason why there’s jargon which isn’t entirely stupid. Don Watson wrote those terrific books [Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language (2003), Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words: Contemporary Cliches, Cant and Management Jargon (2004)], but they really don’t go into the reason why there is jargon; it is a kind of demolition from outside, which is very effective and great to have, and as I said in my own book, those books were always on loan from the library.
But I wanted to explain how writing jargon might be an expression of powerlessness on the part of public servants. They are in this vast juggernaut of a bureaucracy, perhaps don’t really know what is going on, and are handed a document with complex language, tedious and technical language, and don’t have the confidence to say, I want to pull this sentence apart and find out what it really means. Because, perhaps, that person up the line who handed me the document knows more about it than I do. So it’s an anxiety thing that kicks in, and I wanted to try to explain that.
That’s what I mean by trying to solve a puzzle. My goal is always to try and pull those paragraphs back so that the meaning comes out, and I think when you can do that and you keep stripping it back so that you have the meaning and the bigger ramifications of this idea, then the tone starts to look after itself.
How long did it take you to write Speechless?
Two years. Six months fulltime, and then I started a job at the Grattan Institute as their media editor, so the last 18 months of the book was working three days and writing for two. And working on the side, weekends and stuff, if I could. The first six months was just trying to get some shape to it.
Your writing days, you started at a fixed time?
I would try to get to the computer by eight in the morning. Sometimes I would do a few five o’clocks, and I would like to be able to do that more. I’m most productive, my mind is most alert, between eight and midday after a cup of coffee. After lunch I’m less effective. So it’s best if I can get the best part of the work done between eight and twelve.
Did you work to a daily word count?
No. It’s funny, I have a friend, Tony Ayres, who makes films and writes scripts [The Slap] and he believes in working to a daily word count. I was talking about writing a novel and he said, “Write 500 words a day for 200 days and you’ll have 100,000 words. Don’t question those words, don’t go back over them. At the end of 200 days, which is not a long time in the life of a putting a novel together, and you’ve got something. It might be rubbish, but you’ll be a long way further down the road than just sitting there.” I think there’s a great piece of sense in that. The other thing Helen Garner said was, “It only works when it works on the computer”, and I think that’s really true as well.
What does that mean?
You can walk around the streets and have great ideas and construct great sentences and make great arguments, but it’s got to work on the computer. Walking is a wonderful thing for writing, but walking is most productive when you’ve written something first and you go for a walk and think, “This is what I want to say.”
The book is about 80,000 words long. Did you have that in mind as an end point? Or did you just write the words you needed to until you’d told the story in its completeness?
The first draft submitted to MUP [Melbourne University Publishing] was around 100,000 or 110,000 words. There were some sections which the editor said, “I don’t think we need this,” and I was happy for it to come down. I didn’t want a fat book at all. I wanted something people would find manageable. I think you have to be really special to write a longer book and get people to read it. I think the day of the 19th-century novel is gone. I’m reading Middlemarch at the moment, but those sorts of book were written for a different time.
How many drafts did you write?
Some chapters, not too many. The last chapter was written pretty quickly. For a time, I couldn’t work out the last chapter, but my wife said, just write the bits that happened after you left and finish it all off. That was very good advice because I was playing with chapter nine being the last chapter and she said, “No, don’t finish on your dad, finish on yourself; it’s an arc about your own experience.”
Then there were other chapters, like chapter five about the public service, which had many, many drafts. The working for Kevin Rudd parts just came straight out because that was pretty much one thing happened then another thing happened. Chapter four was the hardest chapter of all for the reasons I’ve explained. Chapter five was also complicated because it was a matter of what went in and what went out.
Did you write the chapters in order?
No. One, two and three in order. Then straight to eight, the chapter about my brother. On the family stuff there was a whole set of things I learned by writing the book. I didn’t start with the goal of writing about my brother and his death, or my father. That was the stuff that overtook the book, and in hindsight is the most important part of the book for me. It started with just being an account of this year I spent in Canberra and then a friend said, “You can’t really write about going to Canberra without any of your background, your father and the Labor Party, you’ve got to put all of that in.” And his advice was excellent. Once I started writing about that I had these series of thoughts. The first thought was my dad saying, “Don’t go into politics,” which then took me to my brother and then I realized this catastrophic event [my brother’s death] that had happened in my family’s life.
And actually I had been toying with another book before this that had nothing to do with politics at all. But I kept coming up against this event and didn’t want to write about it, it was just too painful and I had too many guilty feelings. And then when I started to write about it through the avenue of my father and the sense that he had carried this right throughout his political life and that he had a great deal of regret about politics and I hadn’t really thought that through until I wrote the book. This was the thing that was thrilling at one level because it was an insight, but very sad as well because he wasn’t around any more for me to be able to say, “Dad, I’ve worked this stuff out,” and I would have liked to have been able to talk to him about it. And that’s what writing does. I’m not sure who said it, but it’s “Life is lived forward, but understood backwards.” So the family stuff kind of insistently imposed itself upon me on the structure. And it took me to places it hadn’t expected me to.
That’s interesting, because a lot of writers would say, “Don’t talk to anyone about your book until you’ve finished it.” But with you it seems as if it was a very positive thing to have that feedback while the book was still a work in progress, even just as a thought in your head, because you actually incorporated that feedback into your decisions on what book and the sort of book you would write…
I have a close friend, Michael Gawenda, who used to be editor of The Age and I trust him and his judgment hugely and he was the person who said I had to put my dad and the family stuff in, and he said, “I don’t think you can walk away without writing about David.”
This is after you’d started writing it?
Yes, but I’d started writing it more as a straight account of my experience. My first impetus actually was to write about language in politics, about speeches and the weird relationship politics and the public service has to language. But then all this other stuff took over. And I’m glad it did. There’s a whole bunch of stuff in there that was not preplanned.
Where did you write the book? What was your working writing domain like?
I have a study at home. I would write there, or sometimes in the living room if I was at home by myself just because it’s very sunny there. Having been a journalist I’m quite good at writing in unfamiliar places. A few times I would get up really early and go to this fantastic café, Brunetti, in Carlton, which opens at four every morning. As the book was getting closer to finishing I would get up at four thirty and have three hours of quiet work; it got busier after seven o’clock. But as a journalist you learn to shut stuff out.
You found it fairly easy to stay focused?
Yeah. When I get obsessed with something, take chapter seven with the language stuff, that took a lot of thinking and working to get that right in terms of structure. I knew I had something interesting there and I just had to keep working it over and over, and I just won’t stop until I’m satisfied. I learned a lot from being a correspondent when I had to turn over a lot of stuff quickly. I learned that actually bashing out a draft first is a good thing to do. Don’t ever freeze, because it’s so much better to put out a piece of rubbish because then you start to see mountains starting to emerge from the clouds, you start to see how the piece is going to go structurally. Once I have the structure in place it goes easily. Structure is a nightmare for me. I think it’s because I find choices hard. But once I’m happy with the structure then I’m happy, and the writing starts to breathe as well.
As I’m going through a second or third draft I’ll write in brackets, “I need to add this,” but I won’t write it in yet because I’m still not sure that it has earned its place in that paragraph. When I was a young journalist I used to waste a lot of time on the first two or three paragraphs, like days. Sometimes those paragraphs wouldn’t even end up in the final draft because I’d chosen something else to begin with. So I’ve learned not to commit, but to be radically open to lots of possibilities in the writing until you have the shape that you want and then put it down.
It’s a bit like when you build a house. You don’t decorate the rooms until you’ve built the structure. It’s a structure that you’ll never see, but it’s the thing behind the house that holds it all up. And then once you’ve done that you start decorating the rooms.
Were you not tempted to go back through previous material and finesse it?
Sometimes I would do that. I think it’s better to plough through though. Because there’s a thing about writing stuff down that realizes the meaning of it. Say you have a quote from someone you want to use. You just need to vomit it out so you have a sense of how you might go. I’m such a believer in getting it down on paper. Someone said, “Most writing is rewriting” and there’s truth in that. I have bad habits, sometimes I still stop and stare. But having to write all the time as a journalist, I learned something there.
Did you ever doubt your own ability?
Of course. Absolutely. I felt in this case I was lucky with my material. There are not many books written with this perspective. And I was lucky I had a well-known father. It just meant I had a story that was recognisable to a wide range of people. That was simply my good luck.
Why did it take you so long in life to write your first book?
I wanted too much to write a book. I would overthink books. The great thing about producing this book for me is that I actually think I know it can be done now and it’s not as hard as it looks and it doesn’t even matter if the book doesn’t achieve everything you want it to achieve because the product is there, it’s a thing.
I remember in my early 30s I had a contract with a publisher to write a book. I had been working at Time Australia magazine and I had being doing quite a lot of work on where Australia was heading and I had the opportunity to travel around Australia quite a bit and went to some very interesting places. My publisher said, well why don’t you write a book about it, and I produced a plan for the book but it would have involved a massive amount of research and time spent in those places and then I would have to write on top of my existing job.
Similarly, when I got back from the UK, a bunch of publishers approached me to write a book about my experience in the UK. Now, I look back with great regret because I think I had a really good book to write then. But then I thought that no one in Australia would be interested in these experiences, I’ll have to connect them to Australia. But I didn’t know anything about Australia because I’d been overseas for three years and been out of touch with the debates. So I created this ridiculous hurdle for myself so that when the offer came to work for Kevin Rudd I was actually relieved that I wouldn’t have to write that book anymore! But I could have written that book and I think it would have been interesting if I had set my sights a bit lower. So the thing of wanting to write a book from the age of 12 or 13 was a crippling thing for me. And I hope the experience of writing this book, that I have learned this lesson late in life that it can be done.
What is next for you book-wise?
I have lots of ideas. I’m trying to getting funding for some of them. As you know books don’t pay. Or do I need to start getting up at five o’clock? I have plenty of plans…
Will it take as long for you to write your second book now that you have the first under your belt?
Yes. Books take time.
Are they better written on a fulltime basis?
The problem with writing fulltime is that all your energy and sense of self is bound up in the one project. I think it’s really useful to do something else; a bit like rotating fields in farming. It’s useful to let something lie fallow and then come back to it. Martin Amis once said, “Journalism is great, it gets you out of the house.” And I think getting out of the house is really useful for a writer.
Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2013