Where are you happiest?
In my tiny inner-suburban backyard garden, mooching around with compost and growing things. At dinner with my family. Or with my feet up and a good book in my favourite chair in the living room.
What’s your idea of hell?
Childhood sporting humiliations have left me with a dread of being in places where somebody might throw a ball towards me and expect me to do something with it. Other than that, venues where the noise is too loud for good conversation.
What do you consider the most specious virtue?
Self-effacement – when it is a cover for cowardice.
What is your favourite film?
Unforgiven (1992), directed by Clint Eastwood.
And your favourite book?
Impossible to choose; it depends on my mood and what I’m doing at the time. During times of stress I return to Jane Austen. The Great Gatsby is the most perfect handling of structure and theme. Joan Didion’s collections of journalism and essays – particularly After Henry – have inspired me and shown me it is possible to do journalism differently. Anything by Toni Morrison. I could go on …
Name the three people with whom you would most like to dine.
Vita Sackville-West (we would discuss gardening), Margaret Atwood, Walt Whitman (though he might disappoint). Can I have a fourth? William Shakespeare.
Which word do you most dislike, and which one would you like to see back in public usage?
Dislikes: ‘upcoming’ and ‘impactful’ and ‘stakeholder’. Back in common usage – not a term but a phrase to describe an important function of journalism ‘journal of record’.
Who is your favourite author?
He was a difficult and misogynistic old bastard, but nobody does sentences like Hemingway. For wit and structure – Austen. For meritorious courage in observation – Didion.
And your favourite literary hero or heroine?
I can’t think of a single one. Shakespeare’s Henry V through the three plays in which he is depicted. Such character progression! Elizabeth Bennet, of course – ditto. George Milton in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Which quality do you most admire in a writer?
Which book influenced you most in your youth?
My mother used to quote Shakespeare as part of everyday life. His wit and language were part of my landscape long before I was old enough to read him for myself. My mother’s other great love was Alexander Pope. I think these things influenced me almost without my noticing while I was busy reading the Narnia books and Biggles.
Name an early literary idol or influence whom you no longer admire – or vice versa.
W.E. Johns. I mean, really!
What, if anything, impedes your writing?
Like all writers – fear.
What do you think of the state of criticism?
I don’t think of it.
And writers’ festivals?
Very varied. Sometimes great fun and inspiring. Sometimes a sausage machine.
Do you read reviews of your own books?
Yes, but not immediately.
Are artists valued in our society?
Yes, but not always in obvious ways.
What are you working on now?
A Quarterly Essay about the Murray-Darling Basin, and a recent history of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – as well as a lot of jobbing journalism.
Margaret Simons is a freelance journalist and author. Her new book, Penny Wong: Passion and principle (2019), is reviewed by Angela Woollacott. She is an Associate Professor in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University.