Writing about true stories can often be a rewarding experience, because these are the most relatable and intriguing ones for the reader. However, on the flip-side there are also ethical questions involved in this particular game and one needs to ensure that a subject is properly represented. This tug-of-war act between the journalist and the interviewee is something that is addressed in Stella Prize long-listed author and seasoned journalist, Sonya Voumard’s new book: Skin In The Game: The Pleasure & Pain Of Telling True Stories. Voumard offers us a forthright and critical analysis of the good, bad and ugly aspects involved in telling other people’s tales as well as an account of her own role in playing that particular game.
Voumard previously tackled a similar subject matter in 2016 release The Media & The Massacre. In that book, she examined how journalists covered the Port Arthur Massacre and its aftermath, including their treatment of Carleen Bryant, the mother of perpetrator, Martin Bryant. Voumard touches again on this story in Skin In The Game, in the context of questioning the morality, ethics and journalistic integrity involved in overall reportage and specifically with respect to this chapter of Australian history.
To understand Voumard’s experiences with journalism we need first to go back to the beginning and appreciate her family history. Her mother was a refugee from war-torn Estonia and her father a well-respected journalist. As a teen, Voumard was interviewed by then The Age reporter Jennifer Byrne for a general piece about different perspectives on life in suburban Melbourne. Voumard remembers being charmed by Byrne and revealing more in this interview then she initially felt she would. This was also Voumard’s first experience with seeing how one doesn’t always let the truth get in the way of a good story. In fact, a quote about her career aspirations was fabricated and attributed to her in order to add extra colour and spice to the piece.
Despite this initial questionable experience Voumard went on to study journalism at university. For one of her assignments she decided to interview author Helen Garner. The results were disastrous. When Voumard sent the final article to Garner, the latter was unimpressed. In the book Voumard describes this formative experience, and addresses potential issues like her being star-struck and that in 1980 she quite new to interviewing. But, Voumard also highlights that some of the results were also due to Garner having found the experience distressing upon realising how she was perceived by a third party, and that she may have revealed too much of herself during the course of this informal and friendly chat. Three decades later, in Skin In The Game Voumard revisits this experience with Garner and examines it in the context of how one chases the story and the difficulties associated with drawing blood from the subject but also having to reconcile and uphold ethics and morals. It is fascinating stuff.
Voumard’s has enjoyed an impressive career, having worked for the Melbourne Herald and The Age before turning her talents toward freelance journalism and corporate writing, and she shows no signs of slowing down. This book gives the reader unprecedented access to the journalistic process, and is a must read for anyone interested in the craft of the true story, especially writers and interviewers. Voumard’s commentary is incredibly insightful and also draws upon and cites other writers such as Gideon Haigh and Janet Malcolm here.
Skin In The Game is an insider’s account into the wonderful world of journalism. It is part memoir and part analysis of journalism and the way in which other people’s stories are utilised. Voumard is an expert voice on this topic and her commentary is insightful, clever and thought-provoking. After reading this, you won’t look at a true story in the same way ever again.
Skin In The Game is available now through Transit Lounge Publishing