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A Bonza Susan Mitchell
13 / 12 / 2012
A Bonza Sheila is a regular Q&A section in which we pay tribute to a good woman. This month Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper asks commentator, journalist and author Susan Mitchell about her life. Thanks for being so Bonza, Susan!
1. You’ve worked across all mediums – radio, television, print media and online. What attracted you to writing and contributing to the public discourse?
As an only child who spent a great deal of time alone, I taught myself to read when I was four. Reading took me into other worlds where I could imagine having all kinds of adventures. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books were favourites because the main female character, George, considered herself to be capable of doing everything the boys did.
I was also very curious and interested in other people’s lives. When I was four, my father – before he went to work – would stand me on the gasbox so I could see over the fence and talk to the children on their way to school. We lived opposite the Primary school so there was a never-ending source of interview subjects, including some of the teachers.
Every night over the evening meal, I would regale my parents with all the stories I had heard. Once I went to school I began to write my own stories. When I was ten, I was chosen as junior announcer on the radio for the Coca Cola Bottlers Club. When I was in my early twenties, I was Australia’s first television critic. Writing, talking and communicating across all mediums came naturally to me. And I loved it. Still do.
2. You’ve written fourteen books – ranging from biographies, analysis of public life, novels, and covering current affairs. What sustains your interest as a writer?
I will continue to write in some form until I die. I have an endless curiosity about the lives of other people. I am always imagining them as characters in books I may write. When my writing is going well, I am at my happiest.
3. Many of your books explore the relationship between women and power. Do you think women’s relationship with power has changed over the years you’ve been covering this theme? If so, how, and if not, how has it largely stayed the same?
Ever since I read Simone de Beauvoir’s books in my early twenties, I have been interested in the unequal power relationship between men and women. Even when I was a young girl at family parties, I rebelled against the fact that my boy cousins could continue playing cricket while I was dragged inside to help with the washing up. The only explanation I was ever given was “it’s because you’re a girl”. It seemed so unfair. In my grade six report card, the teacher wrote, “ Susan gets very upset over real or imagined injustices”. This made me really angry because i knew I never imagined injustices. Of course women have achieved much more power in all aspects of their lives since then. But the struggle for true equality is far from over.
4. As the adjunct Professor of Creative writing at Flinders University, I’ve read a quote of yours which says the two basic rules of communication are to (1) tell the truth, and (2) don’t be boring.
You have to be able to keep the reader’s interest by telling a good story. Beautiful or clever writing is fine but without a good story it becomes boring. So every aspiring writer has to learn and practise all the techniques of good story telling.
5. Margaret Whitlam passed away earlier this year. You wrote her biography in 2006. What did you learn from writing about this remarkable Australian woman?
Her words and the way she lived her life guide me every day. She said that it takes more energy to drag yourself out of being negative than it does to maintain an optimistic outlook, so you might as well stick with optimism. Her motto was “en avant”… onward. Whatever happens to you in life, good or bad, you need to keep moving forward.
6. Your book on Opposition leader Tony Abbott entitled A Man’s Man was published by Scribe in 2011. What motivated you to write this book?
I had interviewed him for my ABC television program in the 1990s and couldn’t believe how deeply narrow and conservative his views were, particularly about women. When he came within a whisker of becoming PM, I thought it was time everyone was aware of the gap between his rhetoric and his real beliefs. He is not what he pretends to be.
7. A Man’s Man looks at Abbott’s relationship with women. A recent poll by Essential Research highlighted a gap between male and female voters in terms of their attitudes towards federal leaders Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard. What do you think it is about Abbott that women are hesitant about? (And should they remain so?)
We have all come across men like Mr Abbott in our private and professional lives. We sense that deep down they don’t view us as equals. They exude that sense of male entitlement and resent women who demand to be treated as equals. Even if we cannot always articulate what we feel about Abbott, we feel it in our bones. I urge all women, before they vote, to trust their instincts.
8. What did you think of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s parliamentary speech labelling the Opposition leader sexist and misogynist?
I saw it live on television and screamed aloud, “you go girl!” At last she forgot her lawyer’s training and just “let him have it”. Every woman who saw it knew the truth of what she was saying. She spoke for all women in her refusal to be denigrated. She was fighting mad and she just wasn’t going to take it any more.
9. What advice would you give to your 20 year-old-self?
Be bold. And then be bolder.
10. If you could host a dinner party with a group of women across the spectrum of history – who would they be?
It’s a wierd mix but they are all women who have had the courage and the imagination to go against the established role expected of them and break new ground. Eleanor Roosevelt, Hilary Clinton, Simone De Beauvoir, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Mae West.
11. Nominate a woman who inspires you and why.
Meryl Streep inspires me because she refuses to let her age (63) stop her from doing what she loves. When she was 40, she thought her career was over as the only roles she was getting were witches and disturbed women. When she was offered the leading role in Mamma Mia, people were appalled. She said she took it because she wanted to be the oldest woman to snog 007. And most importantly, it would be fun. Let’s never forget fun. It was a huge box office success.
12. What’s next for Susan Mitchell?
I think that age discrimination, particularly for women is the next battle we have to fight. We are all terrified of aging because of how we are treated. I am just finishing a book and the title is “Invisible…. Screw you.”
Susan Mitchell is an Australian journalist, commentator and author. She has published 14 books including Tall Poppies, Margaret Whitlam: A Biography and her latest, Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man. After ten years working in Sydney on radio, in Melbourne on television and in Brisbane presenting the morning program on ABC Radio, Susan is now a columnist for Adelaide online newspaper In Daily and reviews films on top-rating radio station 5AA. She has also written articles for The Australian. Visit her website @ susanmitchell.com.au.