Interview with Jesse Fink

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The more you find out about Jesse Fink, the more you discover he’s got his shit together. From an outsiders point of view, the release of his 2013 The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC appears to have lifted his standing in the non-fiction genre, but in my discussion with him it becomes clear he’s been at it for a fair while.

James: When you were a teenager, were you writing? If not, what did you get up to?

Jesse: In all honesty, my major preoccupation as a teenager, like most teenagers, was getting laid. I did writing at UTS in Sydney, which was rubbish and a complete waste of time. Far too focused on the theoretical/academic side of writing rather than the practical – like, how to get published; how to write a story that people want to read, etc. The best writing education I ever had was simply from reading great writers – people like David Lodge, Richard Russo, Christopher Koch – and I was fortunate that one of my first jobs was working at Gleebooks’ secondhand bookshop in Sydney. I read a lot of books while working there and spent virtually my entire weekly pay on books. But it was good for my soul and my writing.

James: Were you interested in running and/or soccer at the time?

Jesse: I got interested in soccer when I became deputy editor of a magazine called TotalSPORT, which was published by Next Media, at the time (this was around 1997) the publisher of the Australian edition of Rolling Stone. The Socceroos weren’t mainstream by any stretch of the imagination and we did much work at that magazine in trying to build the profile of the Socceroos. The Iran game at the MCG was a watershed moment for a lot of people involved in Australian soccer, including me. We began working to bring about change and I was involved with a group of plotters that approached Frank Lowy to rescue the game and overthrow Soccer Australia. I knew Frank from being the editor of his biography.

That was back in 2001. From that point on I was heavily involved in Australian soccer and the politics of it. I worked at Inside Sport as one of the editors, then later for Fox Sports and SBS. My first book was about the Socceroos. Today I’m involved in other things, other interests. I haven’t watched a game in years and don’t miss it at all. When you spend as much time as I did investigating the other side of the game – the politics, the money – you realise soccer is a very grubby business and it’s best to steer clear of all of it. What happened at SBS during the Australian World Cup bid left a very bad taste in my mouth. Also the Socceroos ain’t what they used to be. Some of their spirit was lost between 2007 and now. What the ARU did to the Wallabies FFA have managed to do to the Socceroos: sucked the soul out of it by turning it into a “brand”.
As for running, I got into it seriously after my divorce from my first wife back in 2007. I was overweight, miserable, and not getting anywhere in exorcising my demons through casual sex and internet dating. So I started running and in the process I not only looked better and got fitter but my mental and emotional health improved. I don’t think enough emphasis is placed on physical health and its correlation to mental health. People think you can fix mental problems just through pills and talking. You can’t, in my opinion. You have to have a complete approach – and that includes improving your physical health.

James: What common elements can you identify in the writers David Lodge, Richard Russo and Christopher Koch? Can you say how those common elements influence your approach to writing, or are you going for something else?

Jesse: I guess the one thing they all have in common is they make you care about the people you’re reading about. They all do it in different ways and have different strengths as writers but their books stay with you after you’ve actually finished the process of reading. Not enough books do that, in my opinion, because they’re lacking an idea or don’t have anything interesting to say about being human.

James: Isn’t interesting writing also predicated on conflict and drama – not just empathy for the characters involved? Or are you saying too many writers focus only on conflict and not also how that changes the people?

Jesse: Interesting writing is predicated on all sorts of things: good vocabulary, characterisation, sense of place, description, dialogue, pacing. But you can be the most gifted wordsmith in the world and it all counts for shit unless you make the reader care for the people you’re writing about. People usually drive stories, not details. That applies both to fiction and non-fiction. Finding the human story in the bigger story is always the challenge.

James: Did you have a favourite book you helped work on at Harper Collins?

Jesse: Editors do most of the grunt work; I don’t think they are appreciated enough for the amount of work they do as well as the ideas they bring to a project. I worked on many books, some of which were quite successful, but a lot of them weren’t great books, what I would consider to be classic books. Boxing Day: The Fight That Changed The World by Jeff Wells was a book that sold very few copies but it’s a marvelous story, well told. I ran into Jeff a year or two ago and he said the film rights had been bought so I hope it becomes a movie. It’s the story of Jack Johnson fighting Tommy Burns in Sydney in 1908.

James: Ah yeah, boxing stories can be great. I found out about Kim Duk-koo and Ray Mancini through the songs of Mark Kozelek. In fact, I first started getting into Bon Scott through Mark Kozelek’s album What’s Next to the Moon, but I digress.

Did you work with any editors you’d like to mention who you feel are under-appreciated? Any that were like mentors to you?

Jesse: Well, Geoff Armstrong gave me my start in publishing and he’s gone on to become a very important sports-book publisher here in Australia after helming a ton of cricket books. Alison Urquhart, my publisher at Penguin Random House, is someone I’ve known for 20 years. She is one of those people who jumps at a good commercial idea and simply trusts you to deliver it the way you originally envisioned, which is great. She backed me 100 per cent on The Youngs. Rod Morrison at Xoum, ex HarperCollins and Pan Macmillan, is a well read, very intelligent publisher. Vanessa Radnidge at Hachette published Laid Bare, which was brave. Patrick Mangan at Penguin Random House is one the unsung guys. He’s been doing it for years, first with HarperCollins and now Penguin Random House, and is an author in his own right. Recently Bill Bryson read Patrick’s book about his life as an Arsenal fan and loved it, apparently. He’ll be a great publisher one day. So there’s a lot of talent out there in Australian publishing.

Also Anne Reilly, who I worked with at HarperCollins and Penguin Random House. Someone who flies under the radar but always does her best with a manuscript when juggling multiple projects. It’s not an easy job.

James: Did you already have an established research and writing process before The Youngs or was this a different kind of project?

Jesse: Obviously it was different to 15 Days in June and Laid Bare, which are two very different books. 15 Days involved me traveling to France and Germany for the World Cup as well as doing research and interviews at home in Sydney. I wrote most of it at home on a desktop. With Laid Bare I did it on a laptop sitting in a cafe and wrote it off the top of my head and from the heart. Both books took about 12 months.

The Youngs was probably the quickest book I’ve done – I wrote it in 10 months – but that’s because I worked extremely hard on it and had learned from the other books that setting out from page one, chapter one isn’t the best process. I find it’s better to just get something down very rough – it doesn’t matter where it’ll end up in the book. When inspiration strikes, just get it down and finesse it later. With The Youngs I did all my research, interviews and rough jottings first, then came back and structured it and polished it. I also made a point of staying fit during the writing of it, so when I went for a run in New York or Sydney or wherever I was during the writing of it, I found I got a lot of great ideas when I was sweating and listening to AC/DC’s music. Staying fit helps you as a writer.

James: When I was in year two, our school went to the Esplanade in Perth for the bi-centennial (Expo 88) tour. On display was Ned Kelly’s armour. The image of those plates are etched into my mind, planting the seed of interest from then on. Then I had the chance to see Bon Scott’s leather jacket at the Family Jewels AC/DC exhibit. For arguments’ sake, do you think Bon Scott’s myth is growing larger than Ned Kelly’s?

Jesse: Yes, I think a very elaborate myth has been constructed around Bon and it serves some people to perpetuate that myth.

James: I suppose it serves some people to bust myths too. Perhaps when myths get too out of hand the non-fiction writer can step in to bring balance back to the story?

Jesse: Well, that’s what I was trying to do with The Youngs. Do people want something closer to the truth or just the neatly packaged story they’re going to get in hagiographies or liner notes? It’s up to fans of the band and anyone who is interested in rock music history to decide what they want. It’s their prerogative.

James: Sure. However, some people think more critically than others. And then there’s some people who think critically in some areas and treat some subjects or artists/authors as entertainment, and not deserving of critical analysis. You mentioned Bill Bryson earlier – I think he’s one of those writers who writes to entertain, and is sometimes cruel to the characters in his books. A critic may point this out, but his fans will say ‘lighten up’ or ‘you can’t take a joke’. Sometimes the marketing of a band or personality is so successful that any criticism of those entertainers makes the critic appear as some sort of party pooper. Did this ring true with The Youngs? Does the humanism you touched on earlier rescue the critic from complete party-pooper-dom?

Jesse: I’ve made it clear I have no fondness for the voice of Brian Johnson, for instance. That pissed off some people – surprisingly a proportion of the AC/DC fan base actually prefers Brian to Bon, which for the life of me I simply can’t understand. Are they deaf? They’re poles apart. The AC/DC marketing/publicity/merchandising/branding juggernaut would have us believe the AC/DC of 1980–2015 is on a par with the AC/DC of 1975–79. There is no comparison to the AC/DC fronted by Bon. That was the real AC/DC. But I think a lot of fans know or acknowledge this anyway, which is why the book has traveled so well. They wanted a book that was going to say something different and not be afraid to say it. A real fan is someone who can handle some criticism of their heroes when the criticism is warranted. Not everything AC/DC has done has been good. Some of it has been awful. I still hold that Fly on the Wall is one of the worst albums ever made. A fanatic is someone who simply won’t brook any criticism. I’ve encountered a few people like that.

As for the humanism side of it, I dedicated the book to three guys I thought were under-appreciated or unacknowledged in the AC/DC story: Mark Evans, Tony Currenti and the late Michael Klenfner. How is it that Tony, the drummer on AC/DC’s first album, can’t even get to meet Angus or George Young after 40 years? Just to say hello? That stinks. It’s an injustice and an insult. He traveled to Italy in the hope of meeting them. He did it again in Sydney. He approached the people he had to approach and he got nothing in return. When the Vanda & Young night took place at the Enmore Theatre Tony didn’t even get an invitation. And he played on the songs that were being performed on stage! How does that happen? Why is a good, kind, selfless person – as Tony is, ask anyone who knows him – treated this way?
If that makes me a party pooper, so be it. I know I’ve made an old man happy by giving him the recognition he should have got from AC/DC a long time ago. And the great thing is the fans now know his story.

James: Thank you Jesse.