Being In The Room: Duncan Greive

Being in the Room

12.05.2014

Being In The Room: Duncan Greive

Photo on 8-11-13 at 3.45 pm #7

The late Dominion Sunday Times editor Frank Haden told Warwick Roger that he wanted to “smell the varnish and hear the crunch of gravel” in feature stories.

It was a lesson well-learned by the young journalist. Later, as founding editor of Metro, Roger helped progress the craft of feature writing in New Zealand, both through his own award-winning pieces, and by nurturing other writers.

“The main characteristic of a feature is that it should contain a number of added dimensions that news writing does not have,” Roger wrote in his 1996 book The Other Side. “The chief among these is evidence that the writer has ‘been there’. A good feature story is like a long and detailed letter to a close friend in which you describe not only what happened, but why and how it affected you.”

What has become known as longform journalism has thrived across magazines and newspapers in this country since the 1980s. Writers including Steve Braunias, Carroll du Chateau, Cate Brett, Tony Wall, Mike White, and Diana Wichtel have excelled at telling New Zealand stories in compelling and insightful ways.

Over the last few years, a new wave of talented journalists has seized the feature writing baton. Largely inspired by North American narrative journalism, they are creating exceptional work - and they're now being recognised for it.

This week, we talk to five of those journalists, all of whom were finalists in feature categories in this month's Canon Media Awards.

We start with Auckland freelancer Duncan Greive, who won the Magazine Feature Writer: Sport award at the 2013 Canon Media Awards, and came away from this year's with both the Sports prize and the Magazine Feature Writer: Arts and Entertainment title. An ex-editor of Real Groove magazine, he has written for Metro, North and South, Sky Sport, and The Guardian. As full disclosure, he also contributed a piece on hip-hop to the Pantograph Punch last year.

What first drew you to journalism?

I’d always enjoyed it. As a kid my big treat was being allowed to stay up and watch the nine o’clock news in the UK. When we moved to New Zealand my parents had a subscription to the Guardian and the Herald, and I read both pretty religiously. My interests as a teenager were mountain-biking and pop music, and my instinct wasn’t just to buy albums and shiny things for my mountain bike, but also to buy magazines about them. Whenever I found a new thing to be obsessed with I always wanted to read a lot about it. That’s the foundation of it, and it’s never really changed. I think I’m quite an obsessive person and whatever I’m into I like to read smart, well-written journalist’s takes on the subject.

How has your career developed since?

My introduction to writing for publication happened in 2001. I’d been an obsessive reader of Real Groove magazine, which I thought was a magazine that was disproportionately good for the size of our country. It had a group of writers - including Kerry Buchanan, Troy Ferguson, Russell Brown, John Russell, Gary Steel - who had a really good knowledge of their genre, they were rigorous, and everyone had an intellect to what they were doing, and a passion. I was buying the NME and other English and American music magazines and I was just as excited for a new issue of Real Groove. Probably more so.

After a few years I hand wrote a letter to the editor John Russell, who I remain a big fan of, and six weeks later I got a phone call. One of the things I’d said in the letter was ‘I think it would be really cool if you guys had live reviews’ because I went to a lot of shows and thought there were some great bands around Auckland. John rang and asked if I wanted to do a live column, and that’s what I did for the next three years. Then when Sleater-Kinney came to town, and I was obsessed with that band, I asked if I could interview them, and that became my first feature. I started reviewing albums after a while, and eventually went for the editor’s job, missed out, went to journalism school so I could have a qualification, and then got the job not long after journalism school.

That was the music side of things, which I’m still interested in but not with that obsessional, all engulfing element that I once had. Right through then I was also really into sport, and eventually started a sports blog and also writing for Sky Sport on the side while I was at Real Groove. They’re really different but also quite similar disciplines. Now I can’t imagine writing about one of them all the time; I think I’d feel hemmed in by that. Those have been the two things I’ve largely written about over the last few years.

I quit Real Groove and went to work in marketing because I thought journalism was just going to fall over, but I guess I just couldn’t leave it alone. So I started writing a bit for Sunday magazine – I met the editor Rose Hoare and got on with her. I’d never really written for a mainstream audience before and I found that process really interesting and enjoyable. I pitched a story for Metro a couple of years after that and that published. I found the process of being edited by Simon Wilson really amazing; also really terrifying but fantastic for my development as a writer.

Was that first Metro story - about 95bFM – a landmark for you?

I think so. It was the first story that I wrote which involved a lot of interviewing. Because it was such a big topic and one you didn’t want to get wrong, I probably spoke to 15 or more people and found that I really liked the process of getting to grapple with a big unwieldy topic. I realised in the past I’d written about things based on one or two interviews, one scene kind of things, and that they were relatively glib, and how much could you really know about something based on one conversation?

It was really stressful writing the feature, having to meet with Metro’s lawyer and some behind the scenes stuff that was difficult, but I certainly got a taste for it. Watching it get discussed, I found that process really exciting, and it was definitely the first story that made me realise the value of working a lot harder on a subject and the reward of going that bit beyond what I was used to.

Clearly working with Simon Wilson on that story has informed your subsequent work?

I feel like Simon Wilson is probably the harshest copy editor that I’ve ever encountered. He’s got a particular standard and style, and I don’t always agree with his cuts, but I think he’s probably right on my stuff 90 per cent of the time. There were a lot of lazy things which I did which I enjoyed doing. They were enjoyable for me but they had no function for the reader and had a sort of negative function, making the reader bored or turned off or confused.

I think he helped me get some of that out of my system. He made my writing tighter. He reads stuff really hard and thinks hard about it.

I’ve learned a lot from all the editors who I have worked under: Virginia Larsen at North and South, Eric Young at Sky Sport was fantastic, John Russell, Scotty Stevenson at Sky Sport now is fantastic. It’s a horrible experience at the time to send something that you think is pretty good and have someone cut it to pieces, but it is always improved. And the greatest thing about that process is that it stays with you so that the next time you’re doing less of the bad, lazy, pointless things with your language than you were before. It actually feels easier and better to write I’ve found after the experience of having all those bloodbaths.

Do you think feature writing for magazines is fundamentally different to newspapers?

I think so. With magazines you are quite lucky in a way that you have the time and frequently the word count. I really do value the writing in newspapers, but the reason I’ve enjoyed writing for magazines is that I feel you have more of an ability to impose your own perspective on a subject. I really like writing features where you have a certain amount of length. If you’re writing for a newspaper I think it would be very hard to justify spending two or three months on and off with a subject, and you’d certainly never get the space to publish four, five, six thousand words. The end product is invariably different as a result of that time and that length.

I guess magazine writing isn’t so newsy; you can pick a topic that you know will make a great feature but isn’t particularly news worthy, but you know it will have the qualities that will work in that context. A lot of what I’ve written would look ridiculous in a newspaper I think.

I think with certain magazines in New Zealand there is a greater tolerance, and they actively encourage you to bring your own kind of style and to bring your thoughts. Not just what’s in front of you and what’s being said, but how you respond to those stimuli. I wrote a piece for the Guardian earlier this year, which was the first time I’d written a piece for a newspaper, and I wrote it the same way I’d write for Metro or North and South.

They really didn’t like the first draft I submitted, and the things they didn’t like were the things I liked best – the descriptive passages of the house. They wanted more of him, but to me the way he decorated his house absolutely exemplified what Kim Dotcom is. They wanted a lot more direct quotes from him, which to me were pretty tedious for the most part. He’s got a very well-rehearsed line and gives the same quotes to everybody. Having read those profiles and watched video features on him, I felt they’d missed some of the way that he lives, and how that illuminates his character.

Certain newspapers and magazines blur the line and there are plenty of feature writers at New Zealand newspapers who have a really distinctive style and who absolutely bring a lot of the qualities that make a good magazine feature writer into newspapers. It’s not like there’s a hard and fast demarcation, but there is definitely a different approach, and I think that’s healthy. There is a different temperament to their consumers and they’re looking for different things from a newspaper feature.

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Do you actively go looking for story ideas?

I never actively look for them, and I don’t really know how I’d do that. Once you’ve written a few features you start to develop a sense of what would make a good story. Whether it’s a person who’s interesting enough to warrant profiling, or a particular situation that has the component parts that you think would become interesting. To be honest, I’m still so green at this; I’ve written dozens of features but it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve written any that I think have any real substance.

The vast majority have been music features which were based on one conversation, so you can almost put them to one side. In terms of the major, multi-source features, maybe I’ve written 12 of them. In some ways I feel under-qualified to say how they come to me. But between a third and a half of features are pitched to me by various editors who think they’re good stories and I’d be a good person to tell them. And the rest are things I’ve become aware of and obsessed with or found intriguing and thought they could make a worthwhile story.

How do you develop them from there?

It depends on the story I guess. Some of them, it’s obvious how you attack it, and you can find yourself fairly deep into it quite quickly. Others I’m skirting around it, reading, trying to figure out how to approach it, and that process can take a little while. Each one is different. Sometimes if it’s a topical feature, like the stories I did last year for North and South about tax, and the state of the union movement, you feel like the first thing you have to do is to read and speak to some people who can give you enough of a grounding in the area so you’re not completely outside of it. Then you start to try and figure out which avenues and angles are worth pursuing. They kind of come together in different ways. If it’s a profile it’s a matter of becoming familiar with the subject and seeing what they’ll allow you to witness. And speaking to the people around them. There’s a fairly defined modus operandi.

At what point does some sense of a possible story structure emerge?

Occasionally you’ll be sitting somewhere and have a light bulb moment, like ‘that’d make a great intro or a concluding note’. But for the most part I find the structure only becomes apparent when I’ve got all my transcribing done and all my notes transferred to a master document. I try and read through that so I’ve got a sense of everything I have, and then I’ll try and plot the structure. Invariably it won’t end up like that, because in the writing I’ll meander somewhere else. I actually think I’m quite ill-disciplined in that sense, and occasionally the writing suffers for it. But I tend not to think at all about structure until I’m writing, and then I think about it a lot. Then I get really neurotic and think the feature’s terrible when all I’ve done is written it in the wrong order. The structure thing is crazy important, and something I feel I’ve got a huge amount to learn about still.

What sort of environment do you prefer for interviewing?

Ideally it’s just the two of you. I interviewed Dan Carter in a room with eight different people, all effectively listening to the interview. I was interviewing him about his underwear collection, which made it even more bizarre. It was in a hotel, so it wasn’t a great environment.

For the most part, if it’s you and them, in a restaurant or a studio or an office, I’m okay with that. The fewer distractions in the form of other people or time pressure are helpful. And if it’s somewhere really atmospheric, like if you can speak to someone at their workplace, or somewhere that has the ability to bleed into the story. That doesn’t necessarily change the interview, but it has the ability to have that sense of atmosphere around it when you come to writing.

John Krakauer said his interview technique was like ‘a pleasant, largely one-sided conversation’. Is it the same for you?

I kind of go back and forth on that. Sometimes when it gets too conversational you listen back and realise that you have cut them off or steered a conversation in a particular direction when they have been about to give you something that would have been really helpful. That can be frustrating. But also if you stick too rigidly to a sort of Q&A script then you can miss little detours which might have been really worthwhile.

I still don’t have a set routine, and I sometimes go in with reams of questions, and sometimes with none, and sometimes I’ll feel like I’ve got everything I need, and sometimes like I’ve completely screwed it up. I still feel like I’m figuring all that stuff out. Increasingly one thing I really like to do, and it’s hard to get both from an access and then them being comfortable point of view, but if you can get dialogue between two people who are involved in the creation of something, I feel like that is so much more atmospheric and can a be a lot more illuminating than asking people about what they do or what they’ve done.

There’s always a concern that they’re self conscious because you’re there, but I do think certain subjects have an ability - and I don’t know whether it’s a trust thing - but you do feel the conversation is un-staged and has an authenticity to it. Other times you feel like they’re doing their shop talk and they’re essentially going through the motions.

Do you find the actual writing an enjoyable experience?

Sometimes. When writing is good you don’t notice time passing and you can write thousands of words without being particularly troubled by it. That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing good writing, but that it’s coming easily. But when you’re still trying to figure out how you feel about something, or trying to write when you’re missing something, it can be completely excruciating.

Even when you have everything you need but you feel like it’s too much or that you’re not really confident about how to frame a particular issue, it can be pretty rough. I’ve never suffered from anything resembling writer’s block, and when I’m going I tend to write fairly quickly, but those sort of agonies of trying to figure out how to approach something, and then whether it’s remotely usable or of any consequence is pretty unpleasant.

One of the things I do really like with writing big features for magazines is that when I start writing I’m often a couple of weeks away from deadline, so the agonies don’t have that bearing down on me as I’m sure they do for newspaper feature writers. I tend to submit something a few days early knowing that it will need fixing. The pressure is less about time and more about how to approach something.

How many drafts might you go through?

It depends, but generally I’ll try and write the whole thing and finish it once I’ve got a sense of the finish line, even though I know I’m going to come back and drastically revise portions of it. I’ll just keep going and end up writing well into the night, and then come back the next morning and unpick it. Increasingly the first draft is quite a long way off what ends up going out, and I’m conscious of that while I’m writing. I’m getting better at not being bothered by ‘I don’t like the way that phrase is feeling’ or ‘I don’t think this section makes sense’ because I know I’ll come back and play around with things.

The more I write the more I allow myself, in the interests of maintaining momentum, to just keep going even if something isn’t feeling right. I’m really loving the editing process, and that’s something I enjoy the most, going back and playing with things and moving them around. Which is not to say I don’t often get my things returned to me requiring significant revision, but finishing the first draft and then going back and fine tuning and tinkering under the hood, that’s what I enjoy the most at this point about writing.

In 2013 you had an all access pass as Lorde’s international ascension unfolded. What was it like being at the centre of something like that?

It was only really after I’d essentially finished the reporting of it that it started to get properly big. Looking back it was this amazing access that you’d never get again. But at the time, as good as I thought Lorde was - which is why I wanted to do the story - during the actual reporting of it I don’t know if it had even charted yet, or been released. I felt really privileged mainly because I love pop music and I thought this was a great pop song and I thought she had the potential to be a really significant pop artist. I had no idea she’d be one of the biggest artists in the world as of right now.

Mainly it was cool to get in and watch the machine in action, not that it was some big machine, but more to see how the sausage was made. This was an artist making these decisions, and the publishing people flying down and taking her to endless fancy dinners. But ultimately this whole thing came together in this pretty nondescript studio in Morningside. It’s cool with any music story that you’re able to spend that much time, and then that it happened to become the biggest music story in New Zealand history and one of the big ones of the year. That was cool, but it was kind of something that happened mostly after it was out.

With the Lorde story I did have to ask and ask, and became a broken record on that. I didn’t know remotely how big it was going to be but I did know it was a more interesting story than I was likely to come across in a while. With the Coliseum Sports Media story I knew the constituents so there was a level of trust there. I’m pitching on a couple of things now which I guess will require them to make a judgement call one whether I can be trusted in a particular situation. I feel more confident now that I’ve done a few of those things, signed NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and stuff.

It’s funny, part of me thinks the people who I wrote about, that obviously there were things they liked and didn’t like in the story, but the fact that they didn’t hate any of them. The journalist is supposed to be the thorn in the side of things, and for whatever reason I was allowed to have the access, I’ve ended up really liking the people. So it’s hard to talk about how terrible they are within the story, which maybe makes me look like a sort of supplicant to them.

But the counter to that is apparently I’m banned from ever being on air or on the premises at bFM. It’s a neurotic profession, and I do sort of wonder about the line, but I think I’m someone who generally, if I spend enough time with someone, will like them and whether that means I’m letting down some sort of journalistic oath in the process, I don’t know. There was a comment on the Lorde excerpt (on Metro's website) that implied I was Universal’s lapdog. You could look at the Lorde story and the Sol3 Mio story  and say I was only given that access because they knew they’d get something good. I hope that’s not true.

There are some writers who kind of terrify people when they go into a situation, and who have a reputation for writing pretty provocative and blackly comic things about people and organisations. I adore those writers but it would be false for me to pretend that’s how I respond to watching people at work. It’s definitely something I wrestle with, the extent to which I’m concerned about their feelings when I’m writing. I won’t pretend that I find it easy dealing with that stuff, but I do really enjoy getting to be in the room and watching it happen. For whatever reasons people have let me in on those things recently, and hopefully they will continue to let that keep happening. I’ll just take the access where I can get it.

 


Being In The Room continues throughout the week. You can follow Duncan at @duncangreive, and view his previous work at duncangreive.com

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