Former political speechwriter and journalist, Martin McKenzie-Murray can now add “author” to his ever-growing list of occupations, with the publication of his first book A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle. I caught up with him to discuss the writing process.
A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle examines the murder of a teenager in your local area in 2004. What’s been the response to the book so far?
The response has been great, so far. Sales have been good, reviews flattering, and the Ryle family have been respected. I’ve also heard from a lot of people for whom my descriptions of high school and suburban masculinity have resonated deeply.
One point of this book was to repudiate the glib exploitation that defines much of the true crime genre – and it’s heartening to see this project accepted publicly.
You wrote the book not only because of your interest in the case and how Rebecca’s death impacted on her family and friends, but also because your brother knew the killer. How did this affect your approach to writing the book?
It affected how I approached the story itself. At least initially. My brother knew the killer well – they were social rivals or antagonists – and I shared with the killer, if only partially, a certain culture. So for my brother and myself, the murder was an occasional portal of reflection upon our adolescence. But that was far from my only interest in the story – that was merely the opening of the window into it.
What was the hardest thing you found about writing a book on such a controversial topic?
I’m not sure if I can isolate one thing. Mostly it was a pleasure – I enjoy writing, and I had a lot of sensational material to work with. It was also a privilege to meet the Ryle family, and to be the subject of their candour and trust. As it was a privilege to be signed to write a book in the first place. But naturally, spending so much time vicariously absorbing trauma, years of meditating on murder, can cost you. It’s awkward mentioning this – I don’t mean to elevate my anxieties to anything even approaching the victim’s family – but there’s a psychic tax to pay when you wade deeply into squalor.
How much research went into writing the book?
In short: a lot. Court transcripts and newspaper archives gave me the basis. They also gave me the names of people involved – from families to witnesses to police. So I started tracking them down. And I spent a lot of time with Rebecca’s family – they’re the soul of this book – as well as various experts who lent their opinion on all sorts of matters, from homicide investigation to Freudian analysis. I also spent time with police interview tapes and there were many hours in the library.
I don’t think it has mattered all that much. I mean, having been an Age columnist may have bolstered my credentials in the eyes of some people I was seeking interviews with. Perhaps. Probably the biggest contribution my newspaper work has made to the book is improving my writing. Just yesterday, The Saturday Paper had its second birthday.
In those two years I’ve filed over 200,000 words. Week in, week out. And there’s no substitute for that kind of demand. I never would’ve enforced those deadlines and that quantity of work upon myself – say, if I were freelancing. That had to come externally. And it’s been incredibly useful. It’s improved my writing a lot.
What are some of the most interesting stories you’ve worked on in your career as a journalist?
One of the highlights is meeting the Ryle family. They are truly exceptional people. I was charmed by them, impressed by them. I admire them a lot. But to look at my newspaper work, I remember a piece I did on an alleged dealer of counterfeit art. I got an exclusive interview with him, via a go-between. We all drank together, and he was this strange, charming, intelligent and utterly untrustworthy character. The art world is filled with eccentrics and dilettantes, and everyone seems to be furiously studying each other. Not to mention that by some estimates the art market is soaked in fakes.
Tell me about your time as a political speechwriter.
Allow me to quote from an article I wrote on my time in Canberra that I published about five years ago: “If you believe, as I do, that the best sentences of Nabokov or Forster or Didion have a crystal effect — a structural gorgeousness which both captures and reflects light — then, well, I do the opposite.
“I perform the linguistic equivalent of filling a brown paper bag with dog scat, lighting it, dumping it on a doorstep, ringing the doorbell and hot stepping it down the street…
“My role was simple. On command I would assort key-lines into a vaguely coherent whole. Regardless of the topic, the formula was the same: copy and paste established words, artlessly affix an “interesting” intro and then liberally pepper with dollar figures.
“There are probably few people who consider political communications noble, but if there are any let me tell you this: it is where subtlety, eloquence and thoughtfulness go to die.”
What inspires you to write?
It’s a very deep, unmoving desire. I can’t explain it more fully than that. I can’t not do it, and it’s very rarely a chore.
Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, what’s your cure?
You can’t file a 2,500 story every single week if you believe in writer’s block. If you’re finding that you have nothing to write, then maybe consider another career.
How has the world of journalism changed during your time in the industry?
Well, obviously the industry’s changing a lot. For the worse. It is – in most places – an atrophying industry. But you said in your time. Well, that brackets this discussion pretty tightly. I only started writing for newspapers about four years ago. My first proper reporting gig was only two years ago. And so if we’re just speaking about that time, well happily I can say that the positive decision to launch The Saturday Paper was taken. It was remarkable that for all the contracting profits and staff force, here was the first national paper being launched in over 20 years.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I always offer this very simple advice to students: read and write. A lot. And read broadly – then you’ll begin to internalise the rhythms of good writing. And if you’re not reading and writing a lot, consider doing something else.
Do you plan to write any more books in the future?
If you could invite three people from history to dinner, who would you invite and why?
Look, off the top of my head:
Bill Murray – charmer and raconteur. Would put all the guests at ease.
Abraham Lincoln – Perhaps the finest writer of all American presidents? A melancholic, though, so Murray will have to be on.
Norman Mailer – Frequently despicable, wickedly egotistical and completely unpredictable, but I’d take the risk.
I think I want to include Rebecca West in there, too. Or maybe Thatcher.
A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle is out now through Scribe Publications.
[Editor/Author Note: This interview was originally published by The Australia Times Books Magazine. To view it in its original capacity, click here.]