Andrew Belk is a writer, filmmaker who has contributed to Griffith REVIEW since its first edition. His creative work has been broadcast on ABC Radio National and SBS, and he works extensively in the developing world for campaigns advocating child welfare and social justice. In this interview, he speaks about his background in film and journalism, his motivations as a writer, and his story 'Flying in. Flying out,' which describes the lives of a couple affected by the culture of fly in, fly out (FIFO) workplaces, is published of Griffith REVIEW 41: Now We Are Ten.
You're a filmmaker and trained in journalism as well as being a writer, and I wonder whether that background has an impact on the way in which you write?
I think so. Filmmaking teaches you restraint. Every extra character or location you put in a script adds to the cost of a film, so you are forced to question the role and value of everything – what it really brings to the story. I think journalism helped me hone my sense of what a story is. How to look and see what is happening around you. It also teaches you about packing as much story into as few words as possible, to edit your work. I do a lot of drafts. I do so many drafts. I just won't let anything go until it's not shit. I really labour over every story.
How many drafts would you do for one particular story?
Well, it's hard to say what you call a draft, because I've spent a day re-writing a paragraph. I could easily spend six hours on one paragraph – something like the intro, or last line, or where I am trying to move from one location to another without interrupting the flow. So I would call that a draft. I save stories by date, so I can keep track, but they're not full drafts. I'm a slow writer. That's probably why I haven't written a lot. It doesn't come naturally to me. Finding stories comes naturally to me, but putting them to paper is harder.
I would agree with that. Writing is hard. It's one of those things that can be difficult to explain to people when you're presenting yourself to the world as a writer.
It is hard. It helps when you remember that if it were easy, everyone would do it. The difference I think between good writing and bad writing is putting the time in. It takes time.
Given that you write many drafts, does that mean there's quite a lot of ideas you eventually discard?
I think most ideas hang about waiting for some way to express themselves down the track, and some just wont let go. I'll start writing when a story when I keep thinking about it. You'll get that seed of an idea, and once that seed's there you start to subconsciously pick up things that link to it. You find other parts of the story. And then it has to be written. It won't leave you alone.
What was it that drew you to writing this particular piece about fly in fly out workers?
I've got a lot of family and friends who over the years have worked FIFO or worked in the mining industry. So I've been in those towns, those remote communities. The idea came from a government report released in February this year. It was called Cancer of the Bush or Salvation for Our Cities: Fly In, Fly Out and Drive In, Drive Out Workforce Practices in Regional Australia. Suddenly FIFO was in the news. There was a lot of talk on the television and there were a lot of opinion pieces written in the newspapers. At that same time, I was sharing a car ride to Canberra Airport with someone I hadn't met before, and it turned out he was a FIFO worker. We were just chatting about FIFO and he said, 'They keep putting the prices up, because they think we're loaded. I paid $22 for a Red Bull, fries and a burger the other day.' Then he said, 'I don't give a fuck, I've got a per diem.' When he said that I thought, I have to write a story about this. And try to make it personal, try and get behind the newspaper articles and the chat of all the experts and try and ground it in realty.
I was interested in the way you described the environmental impact of mining and the destruction it can wreck on the landscape.
The people who work in the mining industry aren't clueless. A lot of them are portrayed as dumb bogans who don't give a shit. But these people know what's going on. You know, most mining industry is really good, and they don't want to deliberately cause chemical spills. That's the last thing they want. But that stuff does happen. Then people are faced with these choices, like 'what do I do? Do I not work in the refinery because it's polluting the bay and I know about it? Or do I not have a job and can't pay my mortgage?' It's complicated. It's easy for people to say 'I'd never work in mining.' But when it comes to reality, when you have to send your kids to school and pay a mortgage, you don't always have the luxury of choice. That's what I wanted to explore. We're all so pious and the idea, say, of having slaves would horrify us. We'd all love to think that if we lived in America a couple of hundred years ago, that we would have never have owned slaves. But we kind of do today. It's just that they're out of sight. I'm talking about children in Africa who pick the cocoa for our chocolate and garment workers in Bangladesh and India. Who are we kidding? The whole idea of letting other people do the dirty work is what I was trying to explore. Someone like Tom does the dirty work for people, but then he gets slammed for it as well.
There's certainly a sense of things being hidden, and of distance and fragmentation in the piece. Was it a deliberate decision to create structural fragmentation as well?
Tom's world is fragmented. He lives neither here nor there. The same for Alice. One minute she is a wife. The next she is a single mother. So it is deliberate. I try and get extra value out of the structure where I can. Maybe this comes from filmmaking, but any one event can have more than one purpose and inform two or three aspects of the story. In filmmaking, you might have a scene where two characters are talking, but in the structure or art direction, you'll have something else that informs the story. I think in writing you can do that as well, with the car someone drives or the house they live in.
Those material things did seem to speak to the circumstances of Alice and Tom's lives. There's a vein in Australian literature, an uneasiness about the Australian suburban dream. It seems to be something that people strive for which doesn't necessarily make them happy.
Well that's true. It isn't most people's dream to live in suburbia in a brick shitbox. But it is, in as far as we know that's as much as most of us are ever going to achieve. We know that the price of it is often being stuck in jobs that people hate. A lot of FIFO people are making a deliberate decision to try and break out of that. It's a gamble to work FIFO. The idea is 'let's get in for five years, ten years, pay down our mortgage, and get out.' It's a way of trying to break free of from being trapped in suburbia.
The last line of the piece, 'They will be okay…They can set up some tourist cabins, or put in some vines, or run some alpacas,' was wonderful because it seems to reiterate that looking for something better beyond what you have is a never-ending cycle.
Everyone who has read the story has had different interpretations. The end of the story has her leaving him, heading south. So by the time he realises he's going to stop working FIFO, it's too late. At the stage of life that I'm at now, with my friends who are raising families, what tends to happen – you just see it – is that people are never happy. Even if you do get the house and you pay it off, then you want the next thing. We seem to have a culture where people are never happy to just stop. And then you turn around, and you're old, and you've worked your whole life. I think most people have a dream of living a simple life on a couple of acres. People fantasise about things like escaping the rat race - building pizza ovens, having two dogs, making preserves. It doesn't happen for most people.
Is that the sense you got from speaking to FIFO workers and their families?
I didn't use the term in the story, but there's a term that FIFO workers use called 'the golden handcuffs.' The thing that fascinated me initially was that a lot of guys who go FIFO don't have a true sense of belonging anywhere. They don't belong in the communities they work in. But because they're not at home most of the time, they don't get to do things like coach football or become ingrained in the community. There's a sense that these men aren't able to put down roots and form good relationships. But when I started researching, I discovered the price that the women, pay. The sense of being alone, of having to raise their kids and missing out on family moments, the men being depressed. The thing with the golden handcuffs is once you start making that kind of money, the idea of quitting and moving back to say, Rockingham, and getting a job at the local council for maybe $50,000 a year is impossible. You don't know how to do it. That's what people say to each other. 'Beware the golden handcuffs, you'll get trapped.' You trap yourself into having a certain income. Then you get a lot of blokes who are miserable, because they hate their jobs, but there's no out for them. And a lot of the time there's a relationship breakup.
The story definitely balances the kind of issues you read in newspaper commentary with the detail of personal experience.
Yes, that's exactly why I wanted to write about it. I wanted to write about an issue that's big, and bring it back to something real. The other thing is, I often work overseas and do film shoots in places like Africa for NGOs, and that was another reason I wrote the story. I relate, in a way. When that guy in the back of the car said, 'I don't give a fuck, I've got a per diem.' I thought, I know what that feels like. Not that I don't give a fuck when I'm in a developing country, but I'm distanced from it. I don't live there. I can relate to being away from home and missing my family and feeling displaced, and then coming back and my family looking strange to me. That gave me the confidence to think: 'I can write this story honestly because I know what it's like to be away from home, because I know what it feels like.'