Spotlight on: Helen Pitt
“When you say longform — it’s not just the writing of it, it can also mean how long it takes for people to trust you, and be willing to talk.” Our interview with the 2018 Walkley Book Award-winner.
Winner of the 2018 Walkley Book Award
Helen Pitt, The House, (Allen & Unwin)
From idea to opening, building the Sydney Opera House took nearly two decades, four premiers, $102 million, over 1 million tiles and more than 10,000 men from 90 different countries. It started with Danish architect Jørn Utzon, whose entry in the international design competition was chosen as winner in 1957. Many Australians know the tragedy of Utzon, who never saw his masterpiece completed. Fewer know the story of Peter Hall, the Australian architect who completed the building and died in obscurity. In The House, Helen Pitt constructs the saga with 10 years of research and interviews. As well as a tribute to an iconic building, Pitt’s book is a paean to newspaper reporting. She aimed to retell the story through the eyes of the many journalists who covered this story, speaking to former reporters to reconstruct The Sydney Morning Herald newsroom that broke the news to Utzon that he had won the competition.
How did you get started on this story?
A decade ago I was driving across the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, where I lived. The news came on the radio that Jørn Utzon had died. I felt an instant stab in my heart as a Sydneysider; I’d lived outside Australia for 16 years.
I think everyone knows the overarching narrative. This Dane dreamed up this masterpiece he never got to see complete. As I was driving across the bridge I had this sense of déjà vu, like when you drive over the Harbour Bridge. I glanced to the right, expecting to see the Opera House.
I was completely transported back to being an eight-year-old on the harbour for the opening of the Opera House, the excitement I felt around it. I just knew it was a great story. I pitched Richard Walsh, who had been my old boss at the Bulletin in Australia, as a narrative non-fiction book. He said yes I’d love that that and gave me Lin Utzon’s contacts (Jørn’s daughter). So contact with them began immediately.
What did it take to get this story together — ten years of research?
The 10 years… a lot of it was backdrop, then two years of writing. It took a long time to convince the Utzons to be involved and I knew they were crucial to the narrative. So it wasn’t 10 years of research, it was talking, cajoling, and that wasn’t just the Utzons. It took a rather odd introduction to talk to the Hall family, and it took some time for the Hall family to be convinced.
This is an important lesson for longform journalism. When you say longform — it’s not just the writing of it, it can also mean how long it takes for people to trust you, and be willing to talk, especially a family as scarred as the Utzons.
Utzon left Australia in a flurry in 1966. I guess you could say he resigned because he was backed into a corner, but there were several months when he was hounded like a Kardashian or a pop star might be today. And that was the first time that had happened in Australia. Yes, there were sport stars, and visiting performers, but this was the first real news story where a pack descended. TV was in its prime in 1966 and the Utzon family were hounded when they lived at Palm Beach. So they were very distrustful of the media.
So I thought it the best way to get that part of the story would be to talk to some of the journalists at the time. I tracked down the state roundsman for the Herald, John O’Hara, he was 91 at the time. He was there the night Jørn resigned in anger, and he was able to give the other side of the coin. I tracked down all the significant newspaper writers on the Opera House. Gavin Souter, a wonderful Walkley Award-winning colour writer. Tony Stephens, a mood piece writer. I never tracked down the person who made the phone call [to Utzon telling him he’d won the competition] but we pieced together the scene from discussing it with people who were there. Gavin was the first interview with Jørn when he arrived in Australia in 1957. Evan Williams at The Australian was there for the sod turning for the official start of building.
I collected lots of anecdotes over the years. And during that period my parents died, my husband died, I was raising a kid on my own — I had a lot of issues personally as well as working full time. The book had to take a backburner and Richard was very understanding. Richard was the perfect person to do this book with — it’s not really an architecture book, it’s almost a social history of Sydney. Even though I pitched the idea from abroad, I moved back and I knew I needed to be here to do it.
How important were newspaper archives to your research?
I started back at the Herald in 2010 and realised what a great resource our clippings files were. A lot gets lost in digital files, some of the greatest colour was in little clippings in these glorious old newspaper files. They’re old and dusty in their manila folders, with handwritten dates from the librarians. They’re absolute gold. I knew I needed access to them and the Sydney Opera House file is one of the largest files.
I knew the Mirror and the Telegraph must have had an equality good treasure trove — I had friends at News Limited try to get the old paper clippings. They had digital but not the originals. So I asked Richard Walsh if he knew what happened to the ACP files, because the Packer family had owned the Telegraph before it went to Murdoch. So he went on a search and in the bowels of the Bauer building we found two cardboard boxes of Opera House files and photos. I felt like I won the Sydney Opera House lottery when I got those boxes. They were beautifully kept.
One of the reasons the book took so long is because I read every story ever written about it. Not just the interviews. I guess that’s something I’d say to media organisations moving into a digital future: don’t forget your past, it’s so important. It’s been so important for me piecing things together.
The great thing about having access to physical files is that the flip side of the paper is often more interesting. So in the 1960s there were stories about Normie Rowe arriving back in town, a Jim Haley and the Comets concert, the weather, who won the horse race. Those details set the news in a social context that is way more interesting for readers.
What’s the best thing about winning this award?
I’m so glad it won the Walkley because it was a really mammoth undertaking — I was really glad when I read the judges’ statements, they got what I was doing. It was a labour of love, a passion project I did outside my work. I was really obsessed by the story, and when you’re telling a long story you have to be fascinated with every single detail.
Now I’m the go-to person on the Opera House. Which I’m thrilled with. It’s still Sydney’s biggest story as far as I’m concerned. It’s a remarkable story — it entails Aboriginal Australia, Europe, skullduggery of the NSW government, people of Sydney, of Australia, the high arts, even murder and kidnapping.
I’d never entered the Walkleys before. It’s ridiculous, I don’t know why. I’d been a judge. And as an editor I’ve done other people’s entries, chosen the things they should submit. I’ve been the wind beneath the wings of the other people’s entries. But I’d never done it myself!
I’m emboldened now! So I would say to every woman — I think it is a female thing — I know I’ve had Walkley-winning stuff in me before that I’ve written but I’ve downplayed it. It’s the classic thing, you’ve got to be in it to win it. I think a lot of female journalists spend more time on the work and less time trumpeting their work. It’s not just a female thing, but it is largely a female thing.
How does your approach to journalism change when you’re working in a longform format?
Longform narrative nonfiction is different to writing journalism. I’d written a couple of chapters and Richard Walsh would say this is good, but it’s journalism. I kept hitting a brick wall. I just suspended my writing for a bit. I went to Denmark, interviewed some people, went to the Utzon Centre and read everything in their extraordinary archive. I went to this godforsaken place where he’s from, it’s the Wollongong of Denmark. It’s an industrial city, it’s cold, it’s not as nice as Wollongong.
Later I was staying in this fancy hotel and in this old French magazine I found an interview with the author Michael Connelly. He said “I write every story as if it’s a movie scene. Visual descriptors — that’s what will make people read on”. And I got it. It’s not he-said she-said inverted pyramid journalism. I completely rewrote everything. And Richard could see that I got it.
What impact has the book had?
I get one or two letters a day from readers. Distant family have tracked me down, old school teachers telling me how much they love the book. People tell me their own Opera House love stories. They’ve been so lyrical and lovely, I’ve been moved. I try to respond to everyone who writes to me. I’ve got so much joy from knowing that a lot of people feel about the building the same way I do.
I’ve met so many characters in the course of the story that I’ve really connected with. The Denmark connection has been crucial. I connected with a well-known journo, the Tony Jones or maybe Ray Martin of Denmark. He was so helpful — whenever I needed to talk to people he opened doors for me.
Thanks to Alan Jones, really, the sales of my book doubled that week. That whole tale, the Louise Herron-Alan Jones stoush, proved to me what I already knew: that Sydneysiders and Australians love the Sydney Opera House. They see it as their own and feel very protective of it. Even though it was built with money from gambling, the Sydney Opera House Lottery, people owned a piece of it. That story was a great vehicle for promoting the book. It made page seven of the New York Times, and that helped me get a New York agent.
I’m taking a Collette tour to Denmark to show Utzon’s landmarks (in June). They’ve been enormously supportive and it’s wonderful bringing the book alive through travel.
A Dane picked it up in the Opera House gift store, read it on the plane on the way home, and he’s now discussing getting it published and translated into Danish. I’m still waiting for the big film deal! There is one in development, but…. I don’t know how far along. There’s a couple of pots on the boil.
What made you want to be a journalist?
I was editor of my high school newspaper, which in 1981 won the Sydney Morning Herald high school newspaper competition. On the basis of that I was offered a cadetship in journalism at the Herald. At school I really loved languages, French was my favourite, I wanted to study languages or arts law. My parents, neither of whom had been to university, really wanted me to go. I thought I’d go to Bathurst, it had a really good journalism program. That was the best three years of my life, the best fun.
When I came back and was a cadet at Fairfax I really felt I’d learned a lot editing my school newspaper. A tertiary degree can prepare you, it gives you lots of things and informs your journalism, but there’s nothing like an eight hour shift on the shipping detail to really teach you the mechanics of how the newspaper works. The mid 80s was the golden era of the newspaper. You worked at night, there were stacks and stacks of subeditors and compositors. It was an extraordinary exciting time to be a journalist.
From a very young age I was interested in stories. Journalism has been a great way to travel the world and hear other stories and get paid for doing them.
I lived in France for a while, which I’d always wanted to do. I worked in a TV station there. So I ended up doing what I wanted with my languages. The reason I wanted to be a journalist was I love stories and I love telling them. To have found a way to making a living from it, that’s just gold.
You started your career at the Sydney Morning Herald, you’ve come and gone from there a few times. And in the book, it’s the lens you view the story through.
It’s sort of like an extra layer. It helps knowing the social history through my time in the newsroom, and my parents’ stories. Sydney — it’s like a suncream, you try to wipe it off but wherever you go in the world, it’s always on you. I felt it profoundly hearing the Utzon obit. You only know that name if you lived in Australia.
One of the delights of coming home was knowing the shorthand of the city. I spent a decade dog-paddling in another country trying to work that stuff out. There’s something lovely about returning to your hometown and the paper, getting the place. I don’t want to work anywhere else now, because as frustrating and annoying as Sydney is, it’s enormously comforting to know how a place operates.
This book in a way was a paean to newspaper reporting. I really admired the professionalism of these people. Reading their work was remarkable. When you think how errorless most of the pieces were — they were typing on butchers paper on old Olympia typewriters, for four editions. And their pieces were perfectly structured.
What was it like to find and hear from the reporters who were in the newsroom then?
I found the camaraderie of that era remarkable. They’re all still friends, they all took such enormous pride in working for the Sydney Morning Herald. My mentor, Tony Stephens, was a cadet at the Mirror (he called it the miracle). He was my go-to man for questions like “how do you make a radio telephone call?” He would reconnect me with the past. It was enormously nostalgic and it really took me back to this golden era of my life and theirs too.
The first chapter is largely describing how it would be to be a reporter covering that news story. I know, I could do that in my sleep. The route you’d drive, the smell of the Kent brewery (which is Spice Alley now), the smell of beer and hops, the feeling of hearing the building shake when the presses roared. I can describe those scents and sounds because I’d lived them.
I set up a Former Fairfax Folk facebook group years ago — it was so helpful to check details and all those things are in the book. The brand of Olympia typewriters, the level the newsroom was on. It’s the really small details that bring a narrative alive. I’m really glad the judges saw this was a book about journalism in this era.
What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?
Because these are our stories. I’ve been at the Herald on and off over three decades. I’ve seen editors come and go. But for a story to endure — you can’t be subject to the whims of fashion. You must stick authentically to the truth. You can’t be worried about the consequences, just report the truth, without fear or favour or you end up with an oligarchy of mates running the country.
We really need for each paper, each news outlet, to have its own personality. That’s what will keep media going. It will not be the latest leadership spat in Canberra. That is not enduring journalism. That’s fast food. Quality journalism matters and it takes time.
I think there’s a bit of a revival in books. It’s kind of the last place you can speak truth to power. It’s unimpeded. Sure, there’s defamation laws, but you have so much more liberty in a book than you do sometimes writing a 400 word news story every day. Whatever the vehicle of publication — it’s just really important to be saying something authentically.
Writing a book is like oral history in a way. Why that’s important, and why quality journalism is important, is because we’re nothing without our stories. These stories define our city, our nation. Big stories always remain. I think of the leadership tussle — it’s huge news at the time but it’s the news of the day, digested quickly and deeply unsatisfying. But when you can sit down with a narrative, something that pulls it all together, it takes commitment from both the writer and reader.
And our archives — it still matters to have all that. That’s not just a company decision, that’s history that belongs to everyone. To me, that’s what quality journalism is. The backing of a well-resourced library, a commitment to giving you time to tell the story. A really good network too. It takes some time to build up, being able to use your contacts. I think back on my 20–30 years at Fairfax. I know who I can call with a question on anything. That’s collective memory.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to encourage women to enter everything! It’s often a time thing — as a single mum — how much can you get done in a day? But the most productive people in our newsroom are the mothers that have to race out and do something. The downside to that is a lack of confidence. Just have a go!
What I loved about Utzon — he was a little boy with learning difficulties. He didn’t read or write very well, he’s dyslexic. So many people these days look at that as a disability but look what he gave the world. He didn’t read books and he didn’t write down plans, perhaps that was part of his downfall. He had this extraordinary visual imagination that gave such a gift to the world. In his school growing up in Denmark he said he was considered as the second dumbest kid in class. Now he’s considered a genius. So never give up on those great dreams of grandeur. He inspired me in so many ways.
Helen Pitt began her career in 1986 at The Sydney Morning Herald, where she is currently a senior writer and has also been opinion and letters editor. She has worked as a feature writer for The Bulletin magazine, in California for New York Times Digital, and as a television reporter at Euronews in France. This is her first Walkley Award.